For Your Eyes Only

Scientists and Inventors keep written journals called laboratory notebooks, or just lab books. They meticulously record experimental data, procedures, processes and the results of such of their experiments. Such journals are the canonical source for validating the research data in formal papers or claims for patents.

I argue here that keeping a journal is not just for researchers and inventors. Whatever it is you’re doing, you should keep a record of it. If you come up with an idea for anything–a product, a song, a new business process–write it down. You should have a notebook for that purpose and you should carry it with you always.

Some say they don’t need to take notes because they’re good at keeping keeping track of details in their heads. Others claim they just don’t have the time. In some cases you’re just not allowed to; group-awareness or self-actualisation seminars are the worst for this when they ask you not to take notes–they want you to feel; not think.

Writing things down is not just an essential part of fleshing out business models, processes and products but it is an integral part of the creative process itself. If you are not keeping at least one journal then you are not taking advantage of how your brain processes and stores information, and how it solves problems. Consider that:

  • Most of us think in abstracts until it comes to explaining our thoughts to someone else. Writing things down forces us to articulate what we’re doing to the same level.
  • When we frame a question or problem by writing it down, our subconscious is already working on solutions. Even if you never read what you’ve written, this is a major benefit.
  • Writing something down doesn’t necessarily put our brains in logic mode, so it doesn’t preclude feeling or experiencing something on an emotional level. What it does do is activate our unconscious mind to go to work for us.
  • Some people find they just need to slow their brains down. Writing helps with that.

The last point applies particularly in my case. My brain rushing ahead with so many ideas—all the time—that I forget most if not all of them. Writing them down doesn’t just preserve them; It gives me focus, slowing my mind to the speed of a dialogue. That dialogue may begin with stating a goal, a problem, then exploring the options and possible outcomes. If I get stuck, I even write down that I’m stuck and what I’m stuck about. Once down on paper, I take a break and just allow my subconscious mind to percolate. Before long I’m furiously writing again, this time with whole bunch of new ideas and possible solutions.

Multiple Journals for a Multi-tasked Lifestyle

I actually have several journals. I write on so many topics and projects that it makes sense to segregate them. Some are hand-written and some are computer-based. For me, both are necessary but today I’ll only talk about good old hand-written journals.

I have a catch-all, journal called “random notes” and any number of more specialised journals or lab books, including ones for classes I teach, clients I take on for coaching, an projects I’m involved with.

My random notes journal is where I “go naked”. I pretty much write whatever comes to mind, no matter how crazy. There is a kind of freedom that comes from knowing that the words I write are only for me. If it is “sensitive” information, I am free to leave out the context or other details, which is okay because at least I know what I’m writing about.

For my photography I keep a separate lab book and that is, in fact, what I call it: a Lab Book. It is more rigorous because, as with scientific research, you want enough detail that you can repeat the steps to get the same results. Mine contains detailed records of every commercial shoot and many personal ones. I record everything including the details of any client discussions, time spent, how much I charged, the lighting set up, distance and angle, type and intensity of each light source, to the camera lenses and angles, etc., etc. In the days of film photography, I recorded film type/speed, development chemicals used, times, temperatures and the calculations I used for those times. I even attached test prints.
Why such detail? For one thing, a lot of technical problems crop up. Problems and solutions: they all go into the lab book. This make the lab book a valuable reference. For another, I might get a call from the same client asking me to take more shots. Typically, this would be a request for a catalogue or restaurant menu update. I record in such detail that I’d be able to produce results visually and stylistically consistent with the previous shoots, even down to the billing.

Any project big enough gets its own journal. Right now I’m architecting a software product which I happen to be very passionate about. The project has its own journal and whenever I start writing in it I get lost down a rabbit hole for hours. I am meticulous here not just because what I write will probably find its way into the product specification, but that’s what being passionate does to me. I’m on my fifth notebook (over 250 pages in total) on this one.

Ceremonious, Yet Intimate

If you’ve never kept a journal, I would like to say something in support of the good old-fashioned, hand-written notebook. I personally favour standard 50-page, ruled, B5-sized school notebooks. I only eschew hard-bound books because of their weight. The more ceremonious writers swear by Moleskin®.

Whatever works, go for it, but don’t let ceremony get in the way of free expression. The creative power comes in part from a lack of formal rules. Assuming you are not erasing or otherwise correcting your writing, you’ll probably adopt a style similar to mine, which is to write about whatever comes into your consciousness. It takes on more of a narrative quality. It’s for your eyes only so don’t get bogged down with making it presentable to others.

If you’ve used to using a computer for all your writing, switching to hand writing is a fun experience. You’ll begin to notice a different flow or rhythm developing as ideas come out of your head and onto the page. I’m not saying that using a computer is bad; it has it’s place too but I’ll leave that for another post.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!