Thoughts On Notebooks

I’ve been using Moleskine notebooks since 2004, when I bought my first at the MIT bookstore. As I discuss in Digital Minimalism, high quality paper notebooks like Moleskines have historically played an important role in self-development because they provide a method to structure your interior life.

Thoughts, concerns, ideas, aspirations: these flow constantly through our consciousness. Ink on paper puts a stake in the ground that you can cling to amidst this turmoil, enabling you to build some scaffolding on which to organize these musings, while the persistent nature of the medium allows you to witness an evolution of this structure as you fill more pages over time.

This hard work of self-reflection is slow. It generates no “likes” and it doesn’t instantaneously banish boredom. No one else will read your notes and applaud your virtue or wit, and your future self will likely cringe at what you record now.

But without these efforts you’re adrift: pushed by whims, manipulated by attention economy contraptions, taking one step backwards for each step forward in your attempts to build a deep life.

I was prompted to write this post after someone pointed me toward the distressing fact that Moleskine started a social network called myMoleskine. It allows people to publicly share their notes and follow other Moleskine users. A development for which I have only one official reaction: Sigh.

35 thoughts on “Thoughts On Notebooks”

  1. I love notebooks too, particularly journalling to clear out my head (I listen to a lot of difficult stories in my work and a lot of invisible admin at home). However I am not good at organising my thoughts on the fly, which makes it hard to find things later.
    I recently invested in a reMarkable, a digital notebook which uses technology similar to Kindle to provide a realistic writing experience with digital storage advantages, but they have deliberately not added any connectivity besides cloud backup and email sending of notebook files. This device seems to be a truly helpful invention that supports deep work and screens out distractions.

  2. You summarized it perfectly. “The hard work of self-reflection is slow…..without these efforts you’re adrift: pushed by whims, manipulated by attention”

    My concern with “transparency” “vulnerability” or “authenticity” via social media is the susceptibility to unhealthy influence. Regardless of whether sharing is consciously or subconsciously for attention.

    Sharing and reflecting online doesn’t allow you to discover and understand who you truly are. When you don’t know who you are then you can be easily manipulated. There is a time and place to share, but a public social forum most of the time isn’t it.

    Small intimate conversations > Large public broadcasts.

    • > My concern with “transparency” “vulnerability” or “authenticity” via social media is the susceptibility to unhealthy influence. Regardless of whether sharing is consciously or subconsciously for attention.

      And that really is the rub these days: Am I sharing things on social media because I think this is something others would want to be aware of, or is this just another elaborate ruse of the ego as a means of getting attention, self-distraction, etc.

    • 1. For anxiety or depression: Check our Dr Burns’ Daily mood log. Throughout the day you capture negative thoughts or specific situations in a sentence that made you feel uncomfortable and later on at a set time you fill out a daily mood log.

      2. Daily or weekly highlights. Things you are grateful for and the listens or patterns you have learned.

      3. For big questions like what to do what to focus on etc: when ever I feel like I am overthinking and stuck, I re write down my focus. Currently it’s getting my course work done. And I write down my why. This helps me pull away from the greed of wanting to do everything but never doing anything.(I also use Google Keep as a GTD sort of thing where I have a SomeDay Maybe category for projects I wanna do but don’t want to feel like I have to accomplish them)

      4. This I have not done on a journal but I use Keep to capture my thoughts and reflections. And then sometime during the week, I revisit and discard whatever I no longer want to keep.

      Just have clarity like is this a journal of reflection or daily highlights or do you want to do a scrapbook? I ruined so many of my journal after watching YouTube journaling videos where they do lots of artistic details etc. For me I noticed I cannot stick to that.

      For me just regular entries whether a sentence today and 10 tomorrow etc works better than sitting down once in a while and gluing photos and drawing designs.

      Also put a time limit. When I don’t do time limit I end up going into an endless planning rut. You don’t want the journal to become a distraction from the present.

      To get started with journaling, you could make it a habit.

      Something like this, after I floss and brush, I will set the timer for 15 minutes and take out my journal.”

      If you just get that done, give a check. And eventually you will start doing that automatically.

  3. Moleskine is… not a company I would’ve expected to start a social networking site. I wonder what they were hoping to gain from it.

    • It makes some sense. I have a now-defunct bookmark for a website where people would discuss planner templates. These were for anything from project management to weekly dinner menus to writing to prayer journals. I use one to track daily/weekly/monthly submittals at a jobsite (it was originally intended for tracking chores at home).

      The site is, as I said, now defunct. In an ideal world Moleskin would fill that role. Folks like to discuss their organizational strategies. And as they do so, Moleskin will sell more product. Win-win.

  4. I love pens and notebooks, so I really want to believe that writing by hand delivers the salves that Cal suggests. But it is really hard to argue with digital formats of journaling and writing in general. The convenience of writing when you have the time and the ability to search, make electronic formats superior to handwritten notebooks…for many people.

    • I can see how the digital formats make working with the words as an output easier. I wonder though, if the goal is internal transformation, if the paper and pen method does not offer a better result. Here the goal is not words as an output, but a rewiring of the brain that is the goal.

  5. “Ink on paper puts a stake in the ground!”….brilliant, flowery description of your thoughts! Further, what I like about the comment section here is that there are no “likes!” If you like a comment, and want to respond to it, then you are actually forced to write out your thoughts.

  6. Hi!

    I am currently finishing reading your book “Deep Work”. I am definetely loving it and I am learning an infinite amount of stuff with all the hard-to-swallow-pills the book contains! Truly looking forward to reading “How to Become a Straight-A Student”!

    Thank you very much

  7. Hi Cal,

    I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful posts during this bizarre and unsettling time. As an early career researcher/PhD candidate with an anxiety disorder it is really tough keeping all of the noise out and trying to focus, but your posts are helping re-balance things. I have read both Deep Work and Digital Minimalism and loved them, but haven’t quite managed to leave social media behind as yet, as it is often my crutch during difficult times. It is also a trigger for my anxiety, so I am now focussing on staying in touch with people that I need to and using my notebooks instead of social media for a more meaningful crutch.
    So yeah, just a big thanks really!

  8. I cannot help but think I would be rampantly bashing my “like” button if this were a social media site. But just to quickly say, this post came at the very right time for me. I’m often torn between my use of paper for organisation and reflection (surely digital HAS to better right?) and this post has grounded me again. thank you

  9. I’m curious why you think that nitevoojs must be “high-quality.” I find that the blank pages in notebooks from the Dollar Store are infinitely less intimidating than expensive notebooks. Fancy journals become a “thing” in my head, and preventative the free flow on consciousness. If it’s just a dollar jorbsl, I can write my to-do list, ideas, goals from tiny to life-changing, doodles, therapy notes, and everything in between. It’s just a way to get it all out of my head.

    • I agree that nice notebooks can be too intimidating to use! I am a fan of basic legal pads, from which I tear off the pages and file them in relevant folders. These include “In my brain,” which has the times I work through regular life stuff on paper.

  10. Hi Cal,

    I wanted your opinion on Marijuana use. Lot of teens and young adults (including myself) smoke pot on a regular basis. As a professor and a believer in the deep life, what is your take on the effects of Marijuana usage on the ability to focus?

    In Deep Work, you have mentioned that there are active and passive things we must do to cultivate Depth in our lives. Do you reckon that abstaining from Marijuana, similar to how people quit social media or addictive video games, would lead to greater depth and ability to focus?

    I am at a stage in life now that I think I am reconsidering my Marijuana use, so your thoughts about this would be very valuable.

    • Marijuana does more lasting damage on the teenage brain than alcohol. I can’t imagine Cal would recommend it. If you must, wait until adulthood.

      That said, one can experience wonder and awe at the universe, open one’s mind, and pursue a deep life without weed. I think weed is more of a crutch than a tool.

    • Drop marijuana, it has long term effects that are not nice at all (plus it makes you mild; at your age you should be trying the opposite of mild). I recommend to do meditation, it’s way more effective, and much healthier. Is marijuana the end of the world? No, but let’s face it: it’s the latest legalized fad, and a huge business that is growing.

    • All good notebooks offer similar value. Moleskines were just very well marketed back then, and paved a way for notebook renaissance of sorts. I find Leuchtturm1917 to be of better value to me and I also like very much all the artisanal/local small brand hardcover notebooks. It is just paper with sturdy covers, after all.

  11. Hi Cal,

    Long time follower of your blog and books. Thank you for sharing your wisdom of practical sense in the senseless world!

    How do you feel about electronic notebooks that you still physically write on? Taking written notes on an iPad with the Apple Pencil. Is the ‘ink’ to ‘paper’ benefit lost?

  12. I like using Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks–the ones Bullet Journal uses–and Field Notes brand pocket notebooks to walk around with rather than use my phone for those moments of private reflection.

    Austin Kleon has this saying about his use of notebooks — that he regularly shares on social media — they’re a good place to have bad ideas.

  13. So … would you disapprove of my publishing in blog posts a journal I kept in the mid-1990s that I had no intention of publishing anywhere, even though that journal chronicles a very real problem that people deciding whether to change careers confronts? This told from the POV of a lawyer deciding whether to quit practicing law, because she wanted more passionately to write for a living.

    Because I have been doing exactly that. I’ll leave the blog URL, FWIW. 🙂

  14. Funny you should post this, because I’m in the “paper” chapter (all about Moleskines) of my re-read of “The Revenge of Analog.” For the last two days, I’ve minimized my social media time, which had bumped up substantially with all the worry and social distancing, and yesterday I spent time with a pencil (a Blackwing, for any pencil lovers out there) and paper to work though some brainstorming toward a conference that has been bumped to 2021. I’ve found that paper is the only way I can get those kinds of thoughts percolating. I don’t keep ongoing notebooks, but I write by hand and file the pages.

    Many thanks for your frequent, non-corona posts.

  15. I have moved on to other better made notebooks, and less pricey: Leuchtturm is one, Rhodia another. I use fountain pens and these do not bleed through. But the brand of notebook is less important than the act of keeping notes. I particularly like the Bullet Journal concept of Ryder Carroll. Analog methods are so helpful. It is just good mental cleansing and tidying up to write down things in the judgement free zone of pen and paper. Thank you, Cal. I would say that as much as I love your message of being free from social media, isolating times like now, especially for me being a single extrovert who lives alone, really benefit from it. I would be totally cut off without it.

  16. I’ve tried different notebooks the last few years. Each time I fill one up I choose another. My favorite, so far, is the one I’m using now – a Clairefontaine My Essential. Next favorite would be a Midori MD. Both work very well with fountain pens.

  17. I have been using a Bullet Journal for a couple years and it’s a game changer. By being able to use a dot style grid for – organizing tasks, random thoughts, goals, and notes on everything from website passwords to filing for various services due to COVID-19 circumstances – I have been able to create purpose and gain clarity on what’s most important.

    I find using the Bullet Journal (or whatever works like a regular Moleskin or even notebook) to be a needed compliment to my computer use because I don’t have to keep going back and forth between windows/pages online or on screen. Instead I can implement what I need from the journal to internet pages without having to get lost in various programs. The journal *enhances* my computer use, rather than takes away from it.

    A tool for reflection along with better productivity in multiple areas is worth the time it takes to establish journal use. It’s also a great opportunity to see how my mind processes information, which only makes my life even more meaningful and time more utilized.

  18. Unfortunately, I am an attorney dealing with intellectual property so I am forbidden from sharing with anyone other than other attorneys. Can you set up an app for just lawyers who agree to keep their communication private?
    When I worked for the government, it was the same problem in that I could not share with anyone but those with the appropriate clearance.

  19. Hi Cal,

    I am not sure if you already know about this. There is a paper tablet developed based on the main premise to appreciate the deep life while working on a device that mimics the feeling of writing on real paper with the benefit of digital storage. Here is the link to their website:

  20. I prefer Rhodia, Clairefontaine, (they are both the same company anyway), or Leuchtturm notebooks, since they take fountain pen ink much better than Moleskine.

    And folks, if you’re not into writing with fountain pens, give them a try. A Lamy Safari is a good pen to start with.

  21. Moleskine is a legendary brand. As a stationery addict, I can’t stop buying them in amounts I don’t even need. Surprisingly, I missed this news. Sounds weird for now, but I’ll go and do some research.


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