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Getting/Staying Organized: my Moleskine PDA


Organization comes unnaturally to me. I've experimented with almost everything, both electronic (Palm Pilot, various software apps), and plain old paper. So far, the one that's helped me the most is my low-tech, high-use Moleskine PDA. Supplies include a pen, a notebook, post-it tabs, and some (optional) 3 x 5 cards.

I won't go into many details, because this is all explained much more thoroughly on the site where I got the idea: the PigPogPDA Moleskine hack. So, what I have here is just one more example, modified to fit my (utter lack of) organizational skills. Obviously my version is based completely around my life- and work-style needs, but part of the beauty of such a DIY system is that it can be customized for just about anything.

One Moleskine notebook, with color-coded tabs for the five sections I care about:

1) Next Actions
2) Projects
3) Travel/Calendar
4) Notes
5) Health/Horses

6) Back Pocket

I prefer the top-binding reporter's style, but other styles might work better for you. At the end of this post I'll explain why a Moleskine and not some other less expensive notebook.

When I start a "fresh" PDA, I number the pages and pick a page for where each section will start. For example, I start Next Actions at the beginning of the book, and Projects on page 61, so I've reserved about 60 pages for future to-do items, and won't use those pages for anything else.

Each area is outlined below:

60 pages reserved, starts on page 1 or 2. (The inside front cover is the color-coded legend/TOC, and I often page 1 for crucial bits like emergency numbers and contact info.)

Picture of inside front cover/legend:

Picture of a Next Action page:

Next Actions is a concept from GTD, David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system. For me, it's mostly just a to-do list. When I've completed everything from a page, I move the yellow tab to the first page where I have unfinished items. That means the tab might be on, say, page 6--where I have an unfinished item--even though I have more to-do items on page 7 and 8. If I have one nagging outstanding thing while everything else for the next two pages is complete, I'll just re-enter that outstanding thing to the end of my latest entries so that the tab is always a little closer to my most current open to-dos.

Note: in the real GTD system, Next Actions usually have a 'context'--a way of grouping items around situations where you're likely to do them. For example, you might have a Next Actions context for "Phone Calls I need to make", so that when you're in front of the phone, you can be efficient about making more calls since all the phone call to-dos are in one place. Or you might have a Next Actions context (list) for "When I'm Out Running Errands". That stops you from having to search through your entire outstanding list of actions to find, say, the things you need to buy when you're out.

The context thing would be harder to implement in this system, because then you'd have to allocate pages for each different context list, although I suppose you could have one list with color-coded post-its on each item to match a category... for example, a 'red' item would be a phone call to make, a 'green' item things to talk to my doctor about, etc. But that seems like overkill, and I don't have enough of these things to make it a problem to scan them.

30 pages reserved, starts on page 61.

Picture of Project Overview List Page:

Picture of a page for a specific project:

The Projects section has two parts: an overview list of all my current projects, and then separate sections for each project where I can add more details including mind maps. Most of my big, ongoing projects have their own separate notebooks, so this part of the PDA is for summaries of some of the key ideas, milestones, mind-maps, etc. related to a project.

10 pages reserved, starts on page 90.

Picture of a Travel page:

I have very few appointments since I don't have an actual job (no meetings to go to... YAY). But I do have a ton of work-related travel, much of it out of the US, so most of my calendar is about that. I also keep an electronic version of my calendar in iCal, but I don't bother putting many details in iCal.

You can see how sloppy I am with this, and it doesn't look anything like a calendar. It's just a place to store travel-related notes including hotel and airline confirmation numbers, check-in/check-out dates, conference information, etc.

15-20 pages reserved, starts on page 100.

Picture of a Notes page:

The Notes are for just about anything other than first-pass, rough brainstorming or project-specific notes that go in the Projects section. I use a lot of paper for mind-mapping, so I usually do the rough stuff in a separate notebook and then transfer a more complete one into the Notes. But sometimes this book is the only thing I have on me, so I do use it for raw brainstorming when I need to.

Mostly, I use it to write down things people tell me that I want to remember, fun things I saw, blog ideas, random thoughts, etc. If I'm working on a book, I have one or two separate notebooks just for that book.

5) HEALTH (mine, and the horses)
5 pages reserved, starts at page 120.
I use this instead of a "tickler" (although I do keep a physical tickler file where I put things like concert tickets, hotel reservation confirmations, etc. for physical things that I'll need on a specific date in the future) for things that come up for maintenance like check-ups, immunizations, etc.--things I haven't made a specific appointment for, but will need to schedule in the future.

I look at this regularly, and if something is getting closer to the present, it'll go on my Next Action list to "make appointment for..." and eventually end up in my calendar.

The back pocket on this notebook is awesome. Inside I store 3 x 5 cards (regular and the post-it kind), which I use for things that I want to use outside of the book like notes I want to post on the refrigerator or my physical cork board. But it's also the place to put things you collect: receipts, business cards, something I want to hang on to that I ripped out of a magazine, etc.

Picture of back pocket:

Issues and problems for me

1) No easy back-up system. Yikes.
I try to make electronic or at least duplicate copies, but it's difficult, and I have so little natural discipline for this sort of thing.

2) Not flexible once a new PDA has been started (in other words, once I've set the page sections for a fresh Moleskine, I'm stuck with it).
I'm always making a rough guess on how many pages I'll need for each section, and it's possible that I'll run out of Next Action or Notes space while there's still a lot of empty pages in another area, so it can be wasteful. The more of these books I complete, the better feel I'll have for how many pages I should allocate for each section.

3) There's no part of this that tracks any financial information. I really need a mini Quicken-like section or something. That's the one thing I miss the most about not having a "real" PDA.

I REALLY encourage you to follow the links to the two sites that set me on this path:
43 folders and PigPog: creativity anywhere.

Oh yes, so why the pricey Moleskine rather than a cheaper alternative? Two reasons:

1) It's a bit like the Mac/iPod vs. PC/non-iPod question, where Mac users will defend their more expensive choice by explaining the ways in which the qualities they care about are superior. You can choose to believe that the extra price for Moleskine notebooks is justified by the higher quality/durability, or you can choose to believe Moleskine users have drunk too much koolaid or are just showing off. (The higher quality isn't really open for debate, it's the whether that quality is justified that sparks the arguments between the Moleskinites and the... lesser beings.)

The extra-sturdy aspect of Moleskines makes them better suited for archiving the physical books. They wear well when in use, and they keep well when you're done.

2) There's a theory that says you'll place a higher value on something you've spent more money on, and this is a big part of it for me. I'm forever losing pens and cheap notepads, but this thing I treat a little more like my cell phone or--when I used one--my Palm PDA. This second reason might seem silly or trivial, but I believe it matters. Think about the fact that most people treat the things they've invested in with more care than cheaper disposable items.

Side note: my friend Tara Hunt recently started a mini firestorm when she called a Moleskine a "bloomin' pad of paper". Tara, Moleskines are an acquired taste and... you obviously Just Don't Get It. ; )

Given that I began this post by saying that organization does not come naturally to me, I'd really REALLY love to hear comments, suggestions, ideas on anything related to organizational systems and strategies including paper and paperless. I can use all the help I can get!

Posted by Kathy on January 31, 2007 | Permalink


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Wow! What a useful post. I received a Moleskine note-book (just like the one you use and describe) for Christmas, but I hadn't yet cracked it open. You've motivated me to make some tabs and get going. I'm traveling to Egypt on Friday, so that gives me a deadline to get it prepared. I especially like your praise and use of the back pocket (I can think of a lot of things to stick there).

Posted by: Roger von Oech | Jan 31, 2007 6:27:58 PM

This is great.

My only method for getting better at organising myself is to do less stuff. I wish I could do this more often ;)

Posted by: DonnaM | Jan 31, 2007 6:31:28 PM

I've fussed w/ paper-computer-rock, and still can't settle. I love my moleskine, and use it as a disjointed capture (in box) and then try to enter into Yojimbo-Backpack-ComputerAppX to set context and next actions. The non-sortable and inflexible linear nature of the moleskine keeps me from using it.

Of course a recent post on the DIY planner on the Circa system is making me consider switching from the moleskine...


..anyone else using it?

Posted by: Jason | Jan 31, 2007 6:44:13 PM

There's something compelling (and redeeming?) in this high-tech world about free form things like Moleskine note-books or hand-drawn mind maps.

Things become too regimented when you have to do it all through a computer or some other device. That's why I could never get inspired to use a mind-mapping app -- it stifled the free flow of ideas.

Posted by: John Windsor | Jan 31, 2007 7:46:42 PM

I just love the analog option. I am a huge Palm user, but I can't seem to be able to manage my tasks, projects, etc. as well on the palm as I can with a single stack of multi-coloured index cards (also using GTD).

Perhaps I will try to find one of these Moleskine notebooks that everyone is ranting about...

Posted by: Charles Rivet | Jan 31, 2007 8:36:30 PM

My local Borders now has a limited selection of Moleskeins and also BookDarts so just look around at your local bookstores and stationary stores. They have gotten popular enough for the big boys to notice and carry them.

Posted by: Stephan Fassmann | Jan 31, 2007 8:51:39 PM

One suggestion for things to put in the back pocket. I have several one page documents on my computer that I periodically update, print, and fold-up to put in my small daytimer. One has phone numbers, directions, important information (hand encoded if appropriate). Over the years my family has come to call this document "The Brain"--its memory is lots better than mine. The other page lists books, music, resturants, and movies that I want to find or remember. It's easy to mark up the paper copies and when they get sufficiently messy I update the computer version and print out a fresh copy. Using both sides and a small font you can store a lot information.

Posted by: Vance Harwood | Jan 31, 2007 10:55:42 PM

After all these years I'm half electronic and half paper. On the electronic side I use the labeling function in Thunderbird to mark important items. I create a inbox folder for each year and quickly move all the read items I want to keep, but don't require action into those. Then I put action items into my Daytimer. At the start of a project I use Evernote (www.evernote.com) and create a category for the project. All the research gets dumped into here and I can quickly find it. It's a snap to grab web pages and emails.

I get the monthly tabs for the Daytimer and record all trips coming up (including flight numbers) and meetings. In the back, projects are in tabs. In the front I have multiple pages for business cards relevant to what I'm working on. It's a lot faster than going through a PDA.

Lastly, all pages older than 2 months go into a small box, so anything can be found.

In essence the Daytimer is short term memory which is needed the most, and Thunderbird and Evernote are long term memory.

Posted by: Bruce Fryer | Jan 31, 2007 11:15:06 PM

I actually had the exact same problem and I also turned to using a moleskin. Actually, I started using a "dataday memo pad" - which was small enough to fit in my pocket.

But I work at a computer all day, so it seemed silly that my notes were not digital.

So I wrote my own Task List program called JetTask (www.jettask.com). It is still not as polished as I would like. I was planning to "go public" in another week, but this seems like as good a place as any to announce it.

Kathy, using your example above, all of your categories would be primary tasks in JetTask and all of your tasks would be subtasks of your primary task. Your travel arrangements could be kept in the Calendar that is built into JetTask. For portability, you can always print your task list out.

...plus you get reporting, backups, reminders, sorting, and all the other stuff you would expect with "going digital." The disadvantage of course is that it is not as retro cool as a moleskin. :-)

Anyway, please do give it a try. I would LOVE any feedback!

Posted by: Toby Patke | Feb 1, 2007 3:13:41 AM

Me too! Whee! It's great to see someone else writing sensibly about the joys of a real live notebook.

Of course, I don't use a moleskine. :) I try and find large, 200pages or so, A5, tape bound exercise books. My old company kept this in the stationary cupboard. My new one doesn't.

I also don't bother with the categories. When I come in for the day, I write down the date, and use different parts of the page for different tasks. Personal items (phone calls, dentist, shopping errands) go in one corner, TODO planning goes up the top of the page, and notes on the day get written down until I leave.

Like your tasks, any todo that doesn't get done will get moved forwards. At the end of the day I review the last couple of pages, and writedown my "todo" list for the next day. When a book get's full it goes on the shelf.

Things that are of use to other people get stuck into the bug tracker or wiki.

The "context" thing sounds nice, but sounds like too much effort, unless I had a hell of a lot more individual tasks, in wide ranging task areas.

On the moleskine side, all you really want is a truly bound book. Anything looseleaf, or perforated is out. After that it's just the shiny factor. (Or I just don't get it)

Posted by: Karl P | Feb 1, 2007 4:27:08 AM

Kathy, just when I thought you couldn't get any cooler, you pull this! Another moleskine addict! I personally carry around two--my little squared notebook that I use very similarly to the way you do, and a larger lined notebook for writing, notes, journaling, etc. I actually have a reporter-style like you, but I found it almost impossible to deal with not writing on the "back" of the pages--the ones you flip up. I do use it, for performance art stuff and notes in my writing group, but I tend to turn it "landscape" fashion so that I can write comfortably on those pages as well.

Thanks for the great post, and the great pictures. I feel so much better about my handwriting now...

Posted by: Gray Miller | Feb 1, 2007 7:05:20 AM

Your point #6, Back Pocket, is the primary motivating factor for my PDA selection. Now, I'm not talking about the back pocket of the moleskin PDA that you use. I'm talking about the back pocket of my pants.

I'm not a girl, so I can't carry around a pocket book without people looking at me funny. And I'm rather shy, so I don't like anything that draws attention to myself. But if I can't carry it, then I won't use it regularly. And I despise having devices hanging off my belt. So, my primary requirement for cell phones, wallets and PDAs is that I have to be able to sit on them.

I have an All-Ett wallet (http://www.all-ett.com), which is great for putting in my back pocket and sitting on. I have the smallest flip-phone I can find, nicely contoured so it doesn't poke at my butt when I sit. And I use the hipster PDA, as featured on 43folders (http://www.43folders.com/2004/09/03/introducing-the-hipster-pda).

I can sit on all of it, which means I always have these items with me, and it is the only system I have found that works. The only thing I have been missing is a small pen, but I recently ordered a Fisher Space Pen (http://www.spacepen.com) and can't wait till it comes so I can try sitting on it.

Posted by: Jason Kerchner | Feb 1, 2007 7:10:50 AM

Kathy, thank you supplying my new favorite rationalization for buying the expensive stuff--that you are more likely to take care of it. Brilliant! ;-)

I tried the moleskine reporter notebook as my portable inbox, but found it too bulky. The glory that is the Hipster PDA (filecards clipped together) is their modularity: when one card is filled with scribbles, it goes into my desktop inbox for transcription. Also, in the above vein, losing a stack of cards (only 4 or so that may have scribbling on them) is a bad day; losing a 3/4 filled moleskine is a tragedy.

Getting Things Done in Academia
advice for graduate students in the sciences

Posted by: Mike Kaspari | Feb 1, 2007 7:27:35 AM

I think I have a couple ideas to solve(?) your "leftover pages" problem ...

First, you could set up "opposing categories". This means that your action items would work from back to front and another section (adjacent in the book) would work front to back. This way they would eventually meet and the book would be full.

Of course, this only works 100% if you have two sections. With multiple sections you would have to figure out how to work one into the other. It might also be a bit confusing when you start ... at least until you got used to it.

The second idea is similar, but different. You could segregate the sections by the side of the page that is used. For example, you could start one section from the front (normal) using just the pages that face up and then flip the book over and start another section on the pages that face down.

Again, with multiple sections it could be a challenge, but from your pictures it appears (?) that the back sides are not used. (Actually it is hard to tell since most of the backs were not shown.)

I hope this is helpful or at least gets you or your readers thinking of a better solution.

Oh... one more thing... you might want to try a Pocketmod. You can create them from PDF files, print them out and stick them in your book. They also have templates for tracking expenses! www..pocketmod.com

Thanks for writing this post... I needed it!

A discipline-challenged and organization-challenged reader,


Posted by: Dave Wheeler | Feb 1, 2007 7:41:03 AM

For those who are part-electronic and part-paper, you might check out to-do list tracking Next Action. It's based on the David Allen GTD concepts. It was under pretty lively development for a while, although I think the developer has turned his attention to other things. It's a nifty little SPADE application that you can use with Firefox (on either major OS).

Posted by: Jacque | Feb 1, 2007 7:43:12 AM

i also think that it is great a idea to use a moleskine for someone who uses a computer. real handwriting puts you in a different mindset, forces you to think on a different level.
i do however has a different system. i use the front pages for the next actions list. i try to restrict it to 2 pages and whenever there is a nagging to-do item, i rewrite it back at the end and increase the counter, so i know this to-do item has a problem with it.
i then use the back pages for projects and as note-taker. when i read books for examples, i write there quotes. when i have meetings or brainstorming too.
i find the system excellent because i can take as much 'front pages' or back as much as i want. dividing the moleskine into 3 or 4 sections doesnt work for me. i would never know in advance how many pages to allocate for a section. my work and projects change everyday and this system is much more flexible for me.

Posted by: heri | Feb 1, 2007 8:12:27 AM

Moleskine notebooks are terrific! I've used one (Pocket Ruled http://www.moleskineus.com/ruledpocket.html) for years to record my personal (and sometimes inflammatory) thoughts wherever I am since it's a small enough to fit in a pocket. I like the elastic band that goes around it too.

Generally I don't do organisation - writing "To Do" lists is about as organised as I get - but I do quite like the idea of the coloured tabs. I wonder if our stationery cupboard has some :-)

Posted by: Jonathan | Feb 1, 2007 8:41:24 AM

The concept of a Moleskine sounds terrific, but too high tech. I think you just need a more traditional Palm.

Posted by: Mark | Feb 1, 2007 9:22:48 AM

This just may have been the post I have been looking for. Being a big techno-weenie yet finding that managing my spiraling problem with productivity is not being solved by my PC has led me to Moleskine as well...and get this...I have a brand-new, empty reporter style Moleskine sitting in the car right now. I bought it because I have a thing for journals of all types, whether I use them or not. I have a pile of various empty journals simple because they inspire me. So there it sits, awaiting it's purpose in life. I think I just found it.

Thanks for the great post.

Posted by: Ken | Feb 1, 2007 9:37:00 AM

I just got this cool, "does it all" PDA. I still haven't found a way to stay organized (tried web calendars, actual plain old paper calendars, whatever) but I just can't do it. My sister is a Moleskine addict and I like it's looks, but how can I carry it around? I 'm a guy and I don't carry a handbag, I occasionaly carry my laptop bag. Solve me this and I 'll give it a try :-)

Posted by: YoP | Feb 1, 2007 9:39:41 AM

Forgot to include a thought in my last post...

This little Moleskine is actually thinner than my wallet. With the back pocket in the Moleskine, I wonder if I (being a guy not carrying a handbag like YoP) could substitute it for my wallet and carry it in my backpocket. I might be able to reduce my world to nothing but my keys and the Moleskine. Hmm.

Posted by: Ken | Feb 1, 2007 9:48:06 AM

Unfortunately I resort to carrying around a large folder with a school notebook as my portable white board idea got to difficult to fit through doors. I've never really found scratching away at a PDA (Palm or PocketPC) very useful, especially when wanting to share my scribbles with others at the table. I'd be interested in hearing thoughts and experiences with slate tablet PCs or ultra mobile PCs being promoted by Microsoft but never actually seen in the stores. I'll admit I'd have trouble fitting one of those into my back pocket but it would take care of a number of the drawbacks with the non-electronic organization tools while introducing a few drawbacks of it's own.

Posted by: will | Feb 1, 2007 10:32:58 AM

Great post!

An interesting application to the moleskin. I currently use one of similar size to jot down my random thoughts, however, I never tabbed it much because of the problem you described- worried about not setting the right amount of space.

I usually use it to jot down ideas that come to mind so I can elaborate on them later, or so I don't forget, so I can focus on coming up with more as opposed to worry about forgeting the one I did come up with.

At any rate, David Seah has a lot of posts like this, and does a lot in terms of design involving getting things done, or schedules. His site is fantastic, and i've used a lot of his methods happily!

Thanks again for the good post :)
Nice pictures, too!

Posted by: Nathan | Feb 1, 2007 11:23:19 AM

I finally gave up on the always on, always reachable lifestyle, what a joke it is. I gave up my pda after bickering w/ my doctor about it for a while. He's a pen and paper guy and kept ridiculing me on how long it takes to just jot something down w/ a pda. He really made me question why I used a pda and if it benefited me to spread my day out from sun up to sundown, which a pda tends to foster. I eventually agreed w/ his way of thinking and eschewed my tmobile pda phone for a razr w/o voice mail :-) and a moleskin datebook. I became obsessive about checking email at all ours of the night for a while but eventually stopped.

It's almost comforting writing in the notebook, and I think I get a lot more done because I'm more relaxed during the off hours that I know have. That gives me much more energy and a sense of get-to-it-ness during the day.

In the end it comes down to balance and the moleskin pda does the trick.

Posted by: Jason Liebe | Feb 1, 2007 11:59:07 AM

I use 3x5s and the cheapest index card file I could find; I think I found it at Target, where it was tagged as a "recipe file." It's essentially a miniature fanfold filing box. I keep unlined 3x5s and 3x5 stickie notes. Absolutely wonderful.

Posted by: regeya | Feb 1, 2007 12:20:31 PM

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