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4 Materials

Some topics for ``Materials'':

And associated issues:

So lets start with the materials- what you need to have with you.


You need a pen. Actually, you need three. And they need to have little four color clippies- Red, Green, Blue, and Black.

Theoretically, you can do this all with a black pen, but TRUST ME, you don't want it. Your ability to very rapidly switch colors will way more than make up for the nicer line that the G2 gel pens give you. Really.

You need one to carry with you, you need one for backup, placed in a trusted place, and you need one to be a backup to the backup. YES, you really need this. If you are wasting time looking for a pen that you lost, you are just wasting time. The pen will come back. In the mean time, you need to write, so you've got to fetch your backup. You have a backup to the backup. If you have ready access to a store, you need to buy another pen, should you not find your first pen by then.

These 4-color pens are expensive. Remember: Buy 3. Your pen is your life - don't lose it. But when you do, don't hesitate to start in with the backup.

Next: You want to have a list in your notes of the locations to search for your pen. Mine looked like this:

  1. Jacket
  2. Pockets
  3. Pants
  4. Pockets
  5. Buried
  6. Inside Notebooks.

Re: the last: ``Buried Inside Notebooks.'' IF YOU DO THIS SYSTEM, that will actually be a VERY common occurrence. Because you'll have 2-3 inches of paper. Those 4-color pens are BIIIIG and FAT. But they aren't so big that they can't get completely lost amidst a big fat chunk of paper. Trust me. So actually open up the book and flip through sections,looking for your pen.

I'm not going to talk about this much; This is just something you'll find with experience.

So that's the deal with the pen. I'll talk more about what the colors are for in the ``General Principles'' section.



You want lots of it. Always have at least 2 reams unopened, of about 150 sheets each.

Get COLLEGE RULE. You want as many lines on these as you can, because information density is the name of the game. 3 holes, of course, so it'll go in your binder.

8 1/2" x 11", or the new 8" x 10 1/2"?

Don't laugh- it's a serious question.

There are trade offs to both.

I used 8``x10 1/2'' for most of my notes. It was good because they fit within the larger tab dividers. Yeah. 8x10.5 is also a lot cheaper. With the volume of paper that you will purchase, price can become an issue.

But if I were to do this again (and I intend to- I intend to do this once, for three months, once every 3-5 years, to gain a ``situation awareness'' I would use full 8.5x11".

Why? It's not really the ``extra bit of page'' that is important (it isn't- having a better rule is far more important), but rather that your paper conforms to the global standard for paper.

You are invariably going to want to include leafs from outside your notebook system. And you should eventually make your own templated papers: You'll make standard form sheets, print them onto printer paper, and include it in your notebook.

Printer paper doesn't come in 8.5``x11''. So you have some big pages and some little pages. Yuck! When it comes to quickly flipping through pages to find a particular page number- yuck! It gets difficult.

So get 8.5x11" college ruled 3-hole-punch paper.


Major important.

First, let me dispel notebooks: Don't use them. I'm talking about spiral bound notebooks.

I used to use them. I have a huge collection of spiral bound notebooks in my closet. I love them, they are so cute and self-contained. And partitioning them is kind of fun, even.

But the binder system just so completely blows them out of the water, that I will just never go back to those things.

This isn't to say that notebooks don't have a place- THEY DO! Just not in this system.

Notebooks are great when you are doing a straight chronology. Or you are keeping JUST RECORDS. Not a big fat intricate total-thought-keeping system that I am describing here, but rather, I'm talking about- you have a business, and you are keeping records for it, and so you buy a notebook because it's nice and self contained and stuff like that. Another nice thing is that you know the pages aren't going anywhere. There are times where that's not what you want. And you can turn pages easier. It's just easier.

But this system that I am describing:

Impossible. You cannot do it like that.

In this system I am describing, you MUST be able to insert pages between pages. And it's so incredibly useful to be able to lift 50 sheets and put them in another binder entirely.

Okay, so, please don't use notebooks. You will die. Quickly.

Now, on to Binders.

What you want to look for:

So, let me start with the last one. I forget what they call the ``non-durable'' ones. They cost less. Maybe ``Economy'' or something like that. DON'T GET THEM! YES, they are CHEAPER. BUT, even on the budget that I'm on, you do NOT want them. Because they are going to snap open when they shouldn't. Believe me, there's nothing worse than being on the bus, hitting the notebook the wrong way, and suddenly WHAM- 100 pages on the floor. Luckily they are numbered and you can put them all back in the original order, but-

Trust me- Go with Durable.

You'll have to unchink both sides to open the ring, but you'll do so with the knowledge that it's keeping your data safe!

DURABLE! All the way!

Okay, next, we'll talk about width/size and the ring type.

If you are getting, say, a 1``-1.5'' notebook (my carry-about notebook is somewhere in there), then just get the normal rings. They are three loops, bound to a metal binding, blah blah blah.

But if you are getting anything larger (and you should have at least one of these, for your common store- it's going to be BIG), then you want to get what I call a ``half-loop''. I'm sure there's formal names for this stuff, but I don't care. These things look like one half is a loop (as normal), but the other half is straight, and has a 90 degree crook at the end. ALSO, it's not attached to the binding of the binder..! It's attached to THE BACK SIDE of the binder.

These things are SO great. It costs more, but GET IT.

What it does is it keeps your papers from flying out all over the place when you open your deeply packed notebook. That little 90 degree crook stops the pages. It's great. You'll have to see it to believe it, but do. It's wonderful.

So: Big Notebook, get the half-loop. Small notebook, I think they are all just normal full-loops. Never seen a small notebook with a half loop.

Sheet lifters. If your binder has a sheet lifter, Awesome. I like these. I'm not sure why. They just seem to help. This is more of a spiritual belief on my part; I'm not really sure. But I leave them there and they seem to be useful.

Now I'll talk about inside and outside pockets, and then the possible obstructions on the outer spine. Then we'll be done talking about binders. (It's a fetish thing, I guess.)

The inside pockets are really useful. I use them to store tabs in when they aren't in use.

Oh- REMEMBER that you (if you could) bought those pockets, right? Stick one at the front of every binder. Store donut holes and stickies in them. That's just the place to do it. And you'll store the tabs' ``guts'' in there too. You know, these long sheets of 1" wide paper, perforated at about 1/6" in height. You write whatever the tab's name is on them, tear them off, and put them in the tab page, right? And then you put the tab page into your notes, and you can quickly flip to them. Tab page guts- you know what I'm talking about, right?

Good. (One day, I may, or someone may, put pictures in this description. Then those of you who don't get ``tab guts'' can see what I mean.)

In the inside pockets, you'll store larger things like your tab pages themselves. And when people give you stuff, and of course they didn't triple hole punch it, you'll put it in there until you get home and punch it yourself.

Outside pockets. This is really important.

You're going to identify your notebooks quickly by the outside pockets. You can get away with not doing this, but it's a pain in the butt. Pay the extra money (this is becoming a theme, is it not? trust me, I'm not rich, if you haven't picked up by reading this yet- [HEY, I'm a PROGRAMMER, and it's the year 2003] but pay the extra money nonetheless) and get the pockets.

Here's what I do with them:

For archive notebooks, I put the letters that are archived. For example, ``A-M'' and ``N-Z''.

My common-access notebook (a big fat one) doesn't have covers. I think that's because I got it for free at a college giveaway, and wasn't being picky. No matter, it is jet black, and none of the others are, so I can easily identify it.

My carry-about notebook has, ``default'', two pictures of Lions on it. My name is Lion, so I put Lions in there, and people are able to put it together that it's mine. The Lions are smiling, and it communicates something of my nature to people. I think.

But usually the ``default'' isn't there. I keep a variant of the GTD system running (``Getting Things Done'' by David Allen), and so I generally have my day's alerts, options, and chores on the very front. (Not that this is strictly defined in GTD, but I've adapted it a bit.)

And I usually have on the back cover, covering a Lion, a general plan for how my day will go out and bus trips ( for the day. It is very, very useful.

Finally, you want to look at the spine, if you have outside pockets, and make sure it is not obstructed. Frequently there are three ``bolts'' on the outer spine, and they sometimes pass it through the transparent pocket on the spine. NOOOOOOOO! We don't want that!

That means you can't stick an identifying paper back there! Or if you can, you can only dig it in half an inch. No, that's not for you! You want to be able to put a paper in there that has the name of the binder on it, so you can quickly ID it when a bunch of binders are stacked in a row.

There. I am done dissecting binders. If I omitted something, mail me at

3-hole punch

Again- you're going to want to print out sheets, and then include them. Or you're going to want to include things that people give you. Very well then, you're going to need to x3 hole punch it. It's a wonderful tool to have, and it will go a long way. I absolutely adore mine.

Lets go through these small items quickly:

So in recap, your shopping list is:

Now we talk about transport issues:

Storage, Carrying, and Archival will be one big topic here. It's all intermingled.


You are keeping notes. You have papers. Here is a sort of scale of your papers:

  1. scrawled notes on fortune cookie papers, backs of napkins, etc.,.
  2. scrawled notes on blank paper.
  3. notes collected onto pan-subject speed lists.
  4. notes collected in your carry-about binder.
  5. notes collected in your common-store binder.
  6. notes in the archive.

There is another category, hovering around 5.5: special purpose collections. For example, I have a binder for ``Computers''. In it, it has subjects such as ``Networking'', ``Debian'', ``Programming'', ``Software'', ``XSLT'', etc., etc.,.

I should mention there is also item ZERO:

0) stored in your mind on a peg list.

I'll talk about that later. If I forget to, mail me, and let me know that I forgot: Yes, I know that I could keep a list of promises to keep here in my Emacs buffer. But to be frank, after having been keeping so many lists for so many months, that I really just don't feel like making one. Pardon my rudeness, but if you actually DO what I am describing here, you'll understand what I'm talking about. Back to the subject at hand.

So let me describe each of these sources.


Some times, you just flat out DON'T have your carry-about binder with you. And you don't have your pan-subject speeds paper. And you don't even have a blank paper. And your peg list is full, or you don't feel like cycling it.

So you just have to make do with what you have.

You put a note on the back of the envelope and stuff it in your pocket. Or you take that fortune cookie slip out and write on it. Or whatever.


I mean, it sucks. But at least you got that thought! Good for you.


Or maybe you have a blank piece of paper in reach. Write the thought of it, and put it in your pocket.


But if you can, be prepared in the morning, and put a pan-subject speeds page in your pocket.

I'll talk much more about speeds in my exposition on ``Intra-Subject Architecture'', but a little bit should appear here.

The Pan-subjects speeds page is optimized to have graduate-student rule. This is beyond College rule. You want 40+ lines on a pan-subjects speed page to cram thoughts into. Again: DENSITY is the name of the game.

Furthermore, the pan-subject speeds is partitioned. It has:

You can put whatever you want in there. Mine also has a place for a ``Psi'' marker. That's where you list what type of thought it is, in terms of ``Principle'' or ``Observation'' or ``Warning'' or ``Possible Action'' or ``Goal'' or ``Problem'' or ``Starting Point'' or a host of other glyphs. I'm not going to talk about these because they are beyond the scope of Notebooks. They go more into mental techniques; Has to do with mental structure and the anatomy of thought. While related and quite fascinating, I'm just not going to go there. Whole 'nother discussion for a whole 'nother day.

The point is, the format is malleable. Include whatever you want. I also have a date marker at the top of the page, for the Chrono archives. Whatever you want.

DO NOT PUT THOUGHT NUMBERS on the Pan-Subject Speeds page though. Bad idea. The purpose of the Pan-Subj speeds is to be a TEMPORARY placeholder for ideas.

So what are these four things:

Transcription Check-off: You check the box after you have moved the idea OUT to where it needs to go. Don't check it when you first put the thought in.

Subject: This will tell what subject the thought will go into. Remember: The subjects are the big things divided by the tab delimiters that have their whole own infrastructure on their own, that I will describe later.

Hint: Now, this is a quick 1-2 word, maybe 3 word, description of how this thought fits into things.

Something I learned late, but that is very important, and very essential to this whole process, is that:


Words to the wise.

So the ``hint'' describes the context. This is VERY IMPORTANT!

The context is fresh in your mind when you get the thought! It would take a while to recognize the thought, and then identify the context, if you didn't.

I used to try to think of every context a thought could fit in, and then try to place it in as many places as I could. WHILE THIS IS THE STRATEGY TO PURSUE WHEN USING A COMPUTER SYSTEM6, this is NOT the strategy to pursue in the paper system!

Besides, the thought is MOST useful in the ORIGINAL context, 95the time.

And your hint- that's going to be USED. In some respects, it's EVEN MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE THOUGHT ITSELF! Because, as you will see if you do this for a while, it is STRUCTURE and INTEGRATION that is important- the actual contents of the thoughts are far less meaningful. Once you have the structure in front of you, the content because almost obvious..! We'll use that fact in a bit, as we shorten titles to just Speed Numbers. Don't worry about that now, though.

And then there's the content of the thought itself.

Now, say you're in a hurry- right? You just want to jot down a thought. You're running medical records, and you can't carry your carry-binder with you as you do so. Hey, there are limitations in life. But you were good, and folded up a pan-subj speeds with you to carry around. You unfold it, and write down the content of the thought, greatly abbreviated, into an open ``content'' slot.

Do you have to fill in the hint as well? And the subject?


Just wait for break. In break, you can flesh out the content if you like, and you can also fill in the subject and the hint. It won't be hard. Just don't wait a whole day to get to it- do it SOON.

Now focus your thoughts on the very next work step, because you want to STOP thinking ASAP.

Note that the pan-subj speeds paper is FAR better than a blank piece of paper, because it provides order and space to fill in. Believe me: When you start transcribing off the pan-subject speeds to the speed pages, you'll understand how useful this is.



Your carry-about binder will be YOUR BEST FRIEND.

That's right: You are going to carry this EVERY PLACE THAT YOU CAN. Going to the movies? Riding the bus?

Wherever you go, your carry-about binder is going with you.

Thus you will want to be very particular, even religious, about your carry-about binder.

(Note: As mentioned, there will be times where you will be ripped apart from your carry-about binder by force of circumstance. If you can, bring a pan-subject speed with you. Always keep your carry-about well stocked with pan-subj speeds so that when you depart, you can carry a catch away with you.)

A ``Catch'': ``Catch'' is a word I use to describe any device that is used to keep thoughts as they come.

There are two basic types of thinking: Intentional and Incidental. Intentional is you sitting down, thinking some issue out. You'll be doing that, mostly amidst POI's (``Point-of-Interest Pages''). But most of your thoughts will come while you are out-and-about. So you'll have to catch them. There are various traps, called ``catches'', that do this. The speed lists are the first good line of defense. You have some poor ones to: the aforementioned napkins and fortune cookie slips and envelopes, and blank pages. You also have the peg's7 But those require a lot of processing and rotation and can get pretty funky when overused.

Back to topic.

Your carry-about binder. It shouldn't be too thick- not more than 1.5". But it shouldn't be one of those thin things either- you're going to be carrying A LOT of STUFF in there.

What kind of stuff is going to be in there?

You're going to have:

Blank Paper
Say, 30-50 sheets.
Blank form paper
such as pan-subj speeds, blank speeds, map pages, and whatever other templated form paper you invent.
A Zillion Speeds and References
Speed lists for your myriad subjects. Some will be accompanied by references lists.
Other Stuff
(I personally keep a lot of GTD related materials in there.)
Perhaps a Subject
Sometimes you carry a subject around from the common store, because you are processing it, or adding new content to it.

You won't be carrying ALL of your subject speeds in there- only the speeds that you are still filling out. For example, if you have 140 speeds in a subject, and the last page of speeds starts with S127, then the last page, with S127-S140, is the only speed page that will be in your carry-about binder. The rest are back wherever the subject is presently residing (probably the common-store binder, or maybe in the archives).

All of your references go there, however, because you want to be able to give people references quickly. When you talk with people about a subject, show them your list of references, so that you can recommend good references to them.


Particularly, the notes will be organized into subjects. You'll also have a place called ``CHAOS'' (which will be quickly dumped to archive, because it is nearly the most useless thing you will have, though very occasionally used), and a place called ``UNPLACED'', for pages that are important but haven't been placed, and for pages that would be placed, but that they aren't numerous enough to warrant a full-on subject. (You'll indicate the subject that they WOULD belong to at the top. Organize A-Z by would-be subject. When reach about 5-10 pages, make a full-on subject for them, with all that entails.)

But mostly, the common-store is just the subjects you have been using lately- say the last 20-40 days.

Occasionally, you'll go through the common-store, and take subjects out that you haven't touched lately, and put them into...


These are big binder that store old subjects that you won't be putting anything into for a while. Start with A-Z, split into A-M/N-Z, and further as you fill them up. Make sure they have transparent covers and transparent spines that you can put papers into in order to declare their letter ranges quickly.

The ``Chaose'' subject- a non-subject, should go under ``C''. Dump chaos into the archives frequently.

The archives have a second use as well: In addition to storing subjects that aren't being used, it is also used as an archival space for subjects that ARE in use, but have archival content.

Some subjects have old junk in them, but old junk that you still want to be able to follow up links to. You mark old junk with a red mark at the bottom of the page (I use the Japanese/Chinese mark for ``Old''), and then you store it at the end of the subject space. (We'll talk about this later, in the Intra-Subject pages, discussing page layout.) The archival content is at the back. When you decide to get around to it, you can take the archival content and throw it into the Archive subject. Even though you are still using the majority of the content in the common-store binder, or perhaps even carrying it temporarily in your carry-about binder.

So. We're about done discussing Materials; The last topic is handling optimizations. That is, tricks for dealing with papers.

I'll talk about papers you are going to throw away, and then I'm going to talk about handling speed lists.

Paper you will throw away.

Put a gigantic big ``X'' over any paper you are throwing away. You don't want to keep running back and forth to the trash. Just start a stack of pages you are throwing out. Put a big X on them as you decide to throw them out. In RED, if you can.

If you have a page that you are GOING to throw away, but are still using, temporarily, put a DASHED X on the page. That signifies to you that the page is on its way out, but still in use. THEN, when you are done with it, put a solid X over the dashed X.

Speed lists.

It is always best to put a speed onto the subject page's speed that the speed is going to.

Let me make this clearer: You do NOT want to use the pan-subject speeds list! Yeah! You don't! Even though we made them! Because it's another transcription step, and we want to minimize transcriptions. What you want to do is put it on the destination speed list first.

The only reason we have the pan-subject speeds lists is because we don't always have access to the carry-around binder, where we are storing the latest speed list for every subject.

But when you CAN, when you have access to the carry-around, put the thought directly into the carry-around.

NOW: Frequently, you'll be thinking about some subject, but thoughts about another subject are also coming to you. What you want to do is to TAKE OUT those speed lists that thoughts are going to frequently, and you want them close by your side. That way you don't have to go rifling through dozens of speeds. You just have 3-7 by your side, and work through those. Much quicker.

Next: When you have a big pan-subject speed list, with multiple entrees to a single subject, you want to use that to your advantage. You want to check them all off onto the one subject speed list while you are there. Yes, seems like common sense, but I had to figure out a lot of this stuff over time, so I'm telling it to you, even though you may already know. Just in case you don't.

But remember: Avoid using the pan-subject speeds.

And now, having just told you that, I am going to give you another case where you should use pan-subject speeds. Some times, you are trying very hard to work on one thing, but thoughts just keep coming at you from all angles. But you are trying so hard to stay on one topic, and don't want to deal with all of the maintenance promises. In this case, use the pan-subject speeds. Yes, it means more work for you later, but, at least, you get to concentrate on your task at hand, and trust that everything is caught into your pan-subject speeds.

There you are.

That is what I have to say here about handling optimizations:

So in recap:

We talked about:

So you know what I have to say about the materials that the notebook system rests on.

Next, I'll talk about general principles that apply across the entire notebook system.

Then, we'll go into the intra-subject architecture, followed by the extra-subject architecture.

Then I'll talk about the Theory of how this all works together.

Finally, for those techno-philes out there (and you are many), I'll write about the Question of Computers. Why they suck for what we are trying to do, why it doesn't HAVE to be that way, describe a simple program, that, if written, could alleviate 50-90% of the burden of this system (albeit at a cost...), and I'll describe my notion of the ultimate note-keeping computer system.

I will also talk in that last section about the versioning problem, a problem that plagues even the existing notebook system, as I have described it, though it is a bit more manageable on paper. Maybe Ted Nelson has solved it. Maybe he hasn't. I don't know. He's not telling us. I do not believe it can be solved. Not in a way that we really like.

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