What do you use a notebook for?

Those of you who might use Obsidian or apps for things like journaling, in whatever life category, do you also use a physical notebook?

If so, what do you use it for? How does it complement / differ from / integrate with your digital system?

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I don’t. If I find myself wanting to write something down but somehow don’t have any of my computers handy, I may write something on paper to put in Obsidian later.

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It’s like fleeting notes as Ahrens calls them. I keep a notebook for stray ideas, meeting notes, etc, and copy them into obsidian if they’re still valuable later. Usually they’re not, so it’s a good filter.

I usually find I think through things better on paper. I also take most notes on books and academic articles on paper first.


A notebook and pen by the side of the bed for dreams and random inspiration. Otherwise, I dictate into Google Note on my phone. It gets transcribed and appears on my desktop ready for adding to Obsidian later. After 35 years in software development, my use of paper is minimal, but my friends prefer paper to typing.

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Because of fine motor control issues I rarely, if ever, write anything with pen/pencil and paper instead I type everything which includes the weekly shopping list but that isn’t too onerous as it is stored in spreadsheet and all I need to do it change a pop-up menu against each line item from No to Yes. There are some other values in that pop-up but basically if I set it to Yes then I plan to purchase the item during my next supermarket visit. Similarly other refinements which make the shopping list spreadsheet very useful.

I have never journaled. DUring my last degree study read an academic paper promoting journalling/reflection in which the authors basically admitted that even those who were regular journallers/reflectors were rubbish at it in reality. I’m also a fan of Saul Bellow and his comment that

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. But the over-examined life makes you wish you were dead.

My closest activity is to keep common place “books” (either Apple Notes, Scrivener entries or more recently Obsidian notes) although I take to heart a comment from Winifred Holtby (writing in the 1920s/1930s and friend of Vera Brittain) that items written in a common place book were erased from one’s memory. USed more as a collection of quotes and ideas than any formal journal.

Everything I type is readily available on all my devices be those be the Mac mini I’m using to type this, the MacBookPro I’m likely to read further comments in this thread, my iPad, or the iPhone that accompanies me everywhere I go. My scribblings are saved up to cloud storage and can be accessed there from whatever device I currently have under my finger tips.

I always have a folded white sheet of paper

& one of these pens

in my pocket :slight_smile: … and use my phone’s camera to digitize important bits with Google Keep(new note with image|grab image text) → obsidian OR Avery clear pockets & folder

for viewing / storage.

UPDATE: usage explanation …
The picture shows the 8.5"x11" paper with 8 sections unfolded.
In practice however it is always folded(and held together by the pen’s clip when in my pocket) into a section size

generally …
4.25"x5.5" → Left & Right 2x2 = 4 writing areas(8 incl. back of paper)

[similar to Index Cards 4"x6" OR Boox Nova Air 2 7.8" e-ink writing area 4.64"x6.24"]

sometimes smaller …
4.25"x2.75" → Left & Right 4x2 = 8 writing areas(16 incl. back of paper)[shown in original picture above]

rarely even smaller …
2.125"x2.75-> Left & Right 8x2 = 16 writing areas(32 incl. back of paper)

mini mind maps … DO, BUY, RESEARCH,VIDEO, AUDIO, READ, etc.
sometimes (held longwise like portrait):
indented list
vocabulary language practice

black: normal, regular use, (or to black out)
blue: to distinguish, emphasize, a heading or to group
green: todo, act
red: important, attention, wrong


Ooh, top tips.
What are your six sections for and what are your pen colour codes?

Ah, nice.
I read books in bed and, last year, I took some book notes on Post-It notes in bed, sticking them to the book pages. I’m also mostly moving to ebooks (despite the note-taking on Kindle being so much worse than pen and paper).
But that was just for the book.
I really don’t want to consider bed a note-making space, but having a general note pad might be useful and cleansing for getting worries/ideas out of the head before sleep.


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A Leuchtterm 1917 notebook by the bed for journaling, gratitude and worry writing. I shut down screens an hour before bed so Obsidian isn’t a good fit for these things. Everything else is in Obsidian, with a few lingering bits of Craft where sharing with my partner is useful (itineraries, grocery lists etc.)

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That’s the notebook I just bought! Dotted version, softcover, with a stick-on pen holder. It’s lovely.

But I also now find myself considering digital “journaling” and, if I do, I am wondering what exactly I should use the notebook for!

As a life-long anxiety sufferer and brain-whirrer, one of the uses it gets is to write down the crap that my brain pushes in front of me at 3am. Once written down it tends to move into the background. I also try to get in front of the worries by writing them down at bedtime. Anything that’s in my head goes into the book. Ditto everything I’m grateful for. Sort of clears the decks, ready for sleep and tomorrow. YMMV

“What are your six sections for and what are your pen colour codes?”
I updated my post with the info

I don’t, and see little reason why a physical journal is necessary. However two reasons you might want to:

  • If you journal before bed and don’t want to take a phone or laptop to bed
  • If you enjoy writing with a pen

The issue is getting it into your vault

I use a physical notebook to keep various notes – work, personal, todo’s, lists, random bits, scratch pad, etc) – as well as using Obsidian, often in the form of a Daily note that serves as an inbox… though, not so much daily. I also create topic or source notes in ZK fashion ( [[20230102.1350 Obsidian forum post about how notebooks are used]] ).

While my intent is to transcribe my paper notes into .md notes, reality is this happens sporadically, in waves or as needed. My desire to be disciplined and to type in notes each day does not usually match my actual behavior, but I do not beat myself up about it.

So, I have two parallel systems – paper and digital – that I gradually integrate. Here is the trick though…

  1. I only use one notebook at a time
  2. Each notebook is labeled with a 4-character code… DDYY.
    DD=descriptor; YY=year … the current one is LT22.
    The first 2 alpha characters describe the book (this one is a Leuchtturm, so LT), each book being unique. The last 2 digits are always the year I started that notebook (2022 in this instance).
  3. Each page is dated; some pages may have entries from several dates.
  4. Each page has a number (PPP), starting with the inside front cover is 0. The current notebook comes with numbered pages, but they usually do not; for those, I put the page number in the top right of each right-sided page (the odd ones) leaving the even ones blank to ease this chore.

Thus, each page can be uniquely referred to as: DDYY-PPP.
Yesterday’s page is LT22-157.

  1. I am pretty good at consistently creating an index (TOC) at the front of the book (first few pages) describing what is on each page. I always create an .md file for each notebook (eg, LT22.md) containing some metadata about the notebook:
  • start/end dates
  • physical description
  • number of pages
  • main tags for that timeframe
  • a key to indicate how much has been transcribed into digital)
  1. This method of keeping the TOC for each notebook in a file [[LT22]] helps me find stuff later.

    Over time, I transcribe each page to a file, eg, [[20221112 LT22-058]].

This system has evolved over time, and this is what it is today, sort of zettelkasten-like. My tools have evolved from Notational Velocity >> nvAlt >> nvUltra >> Obsidian, about 4000 notes. The combination of digital and paper is def my second brain, both for knowledge management, task management, and content creation.

I almost wrote a longer reply, but +1 this. Fleeting scratches. 90 - 95% of what I write doesn’t need to be stored or linked or managed.

I have index cards, notebooks, sketchbooks, Remarkable, sticky notes, whiteboard, and some backs of envelopes occasionally. Why? Who knows. I guess I like exploring stationery as much as I do apps and workflows. The sketchbook is great. I use a brush pen, pencils, and watercolor for drawing/painting often just to relax. (But I use computers for this too.)

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I keep a notebook apart from Obsidian. I have a paper notebook, but for the last few months I’ve been experimenting with using an e-ink tablet as my notebook. So far I like it very much.

For me, I find that Obsidian and my notebook serve different purposes:

Obsidian works best as a place to store, organize, search, and remix information. It makes a great project manager, reference warehouse, CRM, gameworld encyclopedia, and more. It’s perfect for showing me views and overviews of my data and helping me quickly find what I’m looking for. It’s also good for publishing information, such as producing PDFs to send to friends or coworkers.

My notebook is a creative space, where I can think visually without the distraction of a screen and keyboard, or the pressure to pre-organize my thoughts. It’s great for:

  • Brainstorming ideas and mind maps
  • Capturing thoughts, ideas, and to-dos
  • Maps, sketches, and other creative work
  • Managing to-do lists for simple projects
  • Capturing notes from group meetings
  • Private study and journaling
  • Annotating PDFs

For the most part, the way I integrate is by using Obsidian’s built-in PDF support. I copy a PDF of my notes into the vault and then refer to it by page number. Occasionally I’ll retype my notes into Obsidian if I need to index it or use with with Dataview, but that’s fairly rare.

I hope this helps! I’ve linked my particular tablet below in case anyone’s curious.

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Wow, this is fascinating - thanks for sharing.
I recently bought a Leuchtturm 1917 soft-cover, dotted, but was curious about how it might integrate with whatever I do digitally.

What I find most interesting is that, in your case, it’s one book that spans multiple life areas and even functions (“work, personal, todo’s, lists, random bits, scratch pad, etc”) - there’s nothing that ties it together. You could have multiple books - whether for area, like work/hobby/family, or for function, like to-dos/habits/thoughts/full-fledged notes. Why did you decide on one for everything - so that it becomes your single capture surface?

So, am I right… I think what you’re describing is, you have an ambition that everything ends up in digital, in their appropriately differentiated containers, but you often start in paper… effectively you have a workflow to move from print notebook capture to digital organisation, usage and storage, and an organisational system alongside that, designed to move that process?

So you don’t necessarily view the notebook as an artefact in its own right to look back on (eg it’s not a habit tracker, a journal, a thematic log of anything specifically) but, rather, the input surface? By the end, it will have played its part and will be exhausted.

Is it the case that you use the book only when paper’s most appropriate, eg you’re away from the keyboard, or do you make a point of starting all kinds of capture in the notebook?

This week, I find myself thinking about the value of having a capture tool in all environments and, accepting that this will sometimes be non-electronic, the strengths/weaknesses of that being a single tool for everything versus having multiple books or notepads in different contexts - eg the bedside, the kitchen, the rucksack. Multiple tools would be as opposed to moving the book around from room to room, remembering to take it out and about. On the other hand, having multiple notebooks/scraps in different rooms/contexts would seem to involve extra burden of consolidating and processing bits of paper.

For me in a working context, notebooks work well for general scratch paper and “idea vomit” when it comes to solving problems. My daily work involves a lot of thinking and problem solving, and I really like keeping the “unpolished” and “back of the envelope” calculations in a physical space (since that’s where my flow state in that context is regularly achieved). I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do these as well in Obsidian at first, but I find that if the calculation proves useful or is one I might need to re-derive, then I’d include it in its own note. The notebook work itself is consistently dated and initialed so that I can verify when I made the work.

The notebook itself is often actually a pad of engineering paper or something more gridded than dotted or lined. It’s not always just whatever paper I have on hand, but sometimes that’ll have to suffice. And again, if it’s not really relevant to the future beyond the present problem I have, then I’m less likely to include it into my vault and don’t mind necessarily losing it if I happen to remove it from a binder or something. Like some others in this thread, I view the notebook as a good first stage for idea development and a pseudo-filter for scratch work.

It is also worth noting that the notebook is used almost exclusively for when I’m in my regular work environment (the lab) or doing specifically technical work, and is rarely used when I’m at home and am considering more hobby-based thinking. For hobby-based work (game reviews, movie reviews, general reading, bit ideas, etc.), I just make a new bare-bones note via mobile and then return to it later and clean it up when I’m on the desktop, much like many other PKM fanatics.

As for personal journaling, I keep a dotted notebook with mostly daily entries on opinions, feelings, and comments, that I actively choose to not integrate verbatim into my vault. My daily note in my vault is exclusively for tasks that I would like to accomplish, which frees up a lot of space in my physical journal for raw brain dumps. This raw data is something that I specifically want to keep physical only for personal matters, but the ideas and epiphanies I may get from journaling can go into the vault with an appropriate “#musing” tag. I don’t want to biographical and repetitive thoughts on daily life in the vault, and would rather keep those to paper (and what can I say? I really like writing with pens.). I think with this personal journal, my “ideas brain” is turned off in the time I spend dumping my brain thoughts onto the paper. I often return to my entries at a later date to read and consider them with the power of hindsight and that’s mainly where I develop a lot of interesting observations and ideas. But again, my vault very rarely will have notes that match my physical journal identically.

I definitely wrote a lot more than I had anticipated, but hopefully this helps a little bit. Obviously, everyone’s PKM skills and flow are different, but perhaps this can be of use to someone :]


My physical notebook habit started many years ago…35+ when I left the street life. Yes, my younger years were very messed up and started to write down notes in a spiral binder. Personal info. aside though I have just started using Obsidian for these purposes. Learning this program, and computer coding in general, is very new to me. So far, so good! Learning new things is good for my brain that is plagued by MS…multiple sclerosis. Enough said :slight_smile:

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Why did you decide on one for everything - so that it becomes your single capture surface?

Yes, though it evolved that way. Previously, I had a work notebook and a non-work notebook. But, I would sometimes have one or the other available when needed, but it was the wrong one.

I then tried “flipping it” for non-work notes, using the same book for work when used right-side up, then flipping it upside down – with the back cover facing up – for non-work. That way, I could fill it up from both directions, eventually meeting in the middle somewhere (and thus not wasting blank pages). That worked okay, but it clashed with my page numbering system.

Now it is a one-for-all notebook, which works quite well. I have about 4 dozen now.

I have one file, q-notebooks.md, that indexes them all, in roughly chronological order, with [[links]] to each and with relevant metadata.

effectively you have a workflow to move from print notebook capture to digital organisation, usage and storage, and an organisational system alongside that, designed to move that process?

You got it. Input surface. It’s not perfect, but it works. I can find things. And, as I move info from paper to digital, it becomes even more searchable, with #tags and [[links]]. I do keep the notebooks handy, though once fully transcribed, they become unnecessary physical artifacts to store away. I have tried out the notion of scanning one of them (cut off the spine and scanned in my ScanSnap to pdf), then having digital access to the original. But then the pages are loose and I did not like it. I do take a phone image of the front cover of each, which becomes a visual reminder of what it looks like if I cannot recall by the text description.

I tried something like a ReMarkable, like 20 years ago or so (fatter, heavy, awkward) but it did not work out between us. “It’s not you, it’s me.” I am tempted to try out ReMarkable or Boox, but not until it’s lower $ (say <$150). But I am concerned about future-proof and interoperability (which is why I like paper and markdown).

Is it the case that you use the book only when paper’s most appropriate , eg you’re away from the keyboard, or do you make a point of starting all kinds of capture in the notebook?

Oh, no. When I am on a roll, I’ll have nearly a full week in .md. When I get back to paper, I just indicate ===SEE .MD===. Since my goal is digital, I cut out the middleman when I can. But, I find that I feel more constrained in my note-taking when typing, while on paper there is more creativity (line, arrows, spacing) and flexibility. More flow. And, I am quicker on paper. Capturing live lecture notes on paper is much easier for me. The portability+freedom of a paper notebook makes it hard to let go of. And, when even that is too much, I have old Levenger index cards (grid) I keep in my shirt/jacket pocket… I always have 3-4 with me. For these, I transfer to digital quickly (same week)… except for when I don’t. I always write a date stamp on these (YYYYMMDD).

I’d like to find the time to try ML+NLP on scanned notes to teach the machine how to read my doctor chicken scratch and abbreviations… one day LOL.

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