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The work notebook

In a previous post I wrote about how I structure my work log notebook. That's my daily driver and it helps me keep on track for the day. I use it to look back on things I've accomplished, tasks that have fallen through the cracks, and whether there are any themes that keep arising. There are other kinds of notebooks that I use for different purposes and here I describe how I use work notebooks or "workbooks".

Project Workbooks

I usually have at least one ongoing project at work at any given time, where there are well-defined goals and tasks. In my software engineering practice, it would include things like diagrams, formulae, calculations, various kinds of set notation, and all sorts of insights and notes. For projects that have enough complexity that it will span multiple days, I'd place those in the same notebook for short projects. If a project will take multiple months/years, then I'd have a dedicated workbook for that. It can sometimes get wasteful if I dedicate one project notebook per short project.

So what do I put in a project notebook? Here's an example outline for the "front matter":

  • Project [NAME]
  • Problem Statement
  • Objectives
    • Goals
    • Non-goals
  • Start date: <DATE>

This gives me a start page which details the important parts of a project, answering the important question "what problem are we trying to solve". It also gives me a beginning and reminder of when the project has started.

What follows this front matter are the interesting bits. I use different "bullets" for different kinds of content I write in free-form on the notebooks. For instance, I'll use square bullets for tasks that need accomplishing, an exclamation mark for important things to remember, a circle for a thought/note, and a dash for questions that need resolving.

I will usually spend some time on a fortnightly or monthly basis to review the project notebook to see whether the progress I and the team are making are being captured in my notes. It's been always helpful for me to revisit the initial state and how the project has evolved -- whether we made decisions to change course, to identify new opportunities, whether we under- or over-estimated the work required, etc. This is also usually where I'll note down insights, surprising findings, and potential ideas for solutions that haven't made it into formal documentation. Some ideas, even though they're mine, are sometimes not good enough to be shared with the team.

This brings me to the point which is that these project workbooks are scratch spaces too. I'll use this to note down my understanding of relationships between things, structures that I'm discovering, and explorations for ways to reorganise things. Sometimes I'll develop a better understanding of the solution space this way and refine my thought process "offline" and be able to critique the work myself first before sharing it with the wider team. At the very least when delegating, I'll have the questions I'm asking be in the notebook.

Material-wise, I use an A4 sized recycled pages notebook for this purpose -- so that by the end of the project I can transfer the important notes into a digital version of a "report", then archive the notebooks in case I ever need to look back at those. My current project workbooks are ruled but the next ones will be dot-grid notebooks with enough pages to support more content.

Team workbooks

I also keep a team workbook where I put thoughts about what my observations are of the team's overall progress, velocity, challenges we're facing, and how we fit in the wider organisation. I use this workbook to inform planning on a quarterly and annual basis which helps me understand how we can serve our customers/users better, understanding what we're capable of delivering, and whether there are projects we should be executing on to achieve our objectives.

This is largely unstructured (it could contain anything) and I treat it like a journal. I'll intersperse notes and observations with essays, tables, graphs (the kind with vertices and edges), charts, and doodles. I use a spiral ruled A4 notebook for these with slightly better quality paper for the fountain pen, but I'm looking to transition to plain or dot-grid notebooks when I've exhausted my current one.

Scratch notebook

The key notebook I have always handy is an A4 sized ruled notebook which I will use to augment the daily work log. This is where thoughts, observations, a scratch space for some idea exploration, a draft of tasks, scribbles of design ideas, interview notes, meeting notes, and all manner of notes will be captured. I go through scratch notebooks very quickly so I also use recycled paper notebooks for this purpose. If it's an idea that's occupying brain cycles when I really should be doing something else, then I spend a few seconds bringing those into the scratch notebook so it doesn't stay in my brain.

I would like to be using a plain notebook or a dot-grid notebook to allow for more freeform note-taking but I've yet to find sustainably sourced or recycled paper notebooks for this purpose. I'll keep looking though because this has been a very useful thing to keep around.

The workflow

Just like with the daily work log, I have a workflow which is integrated with the work week like so:

  • At the start of the week I plan out the rest of the week on the scratch notebook noting the projects that we need to make progress on.
  • Everyday I keep the scratch notebook handy to use for any note taking I'm doing.
  • Every end of the week I look back in the work log notebook and distill the tasks, accomplishments, meetings, and interesting daily pick-ups into the scratch notebook.
  • I also look back on the scratch notebook to extract project-specific and team-specific thoughts, findings, unfinished work, lessons, feedback, etc. and distill those into the appropriate workbooks.

This regular practice helps me see how things are going not just on the tasks I need to stay on top of but also the projects that I'm involved in. It gives me a good larger-picture view and a way to compartmentalise the notes and a way to look up important information.

I still haven't gone 100% into indexing which should be an interesting approach to enhance the weekly summary, but it's already work-intensive to do the distilling and transfer that I haven't quite integrated it yet. I'm sure to share how I manage to do it (if I do) next time.

End note

Doing this since 2018 has allowed me to keep on track of complex projects that I've been running myself, those that require cross-team coordination, and more recent ones where I'm a technical lead. I'm sure there's other ways to do this but I've found this workflow seems to be the one I've settled into a rhythm with that's comfortable and conforms to my work style.

I'd love to hear what you think and whether you do something similar!

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