My Extraordinary Messy Analog Note-Taking System

I tried bullet journaling, but I was discouraged by the ugliness of my notebook compared to what other people post online. I tried gratitude journaling, but I always felt awkward about sharing what I’m grateful for. I know, how ungrateful! After years of getting luxurious notebooks, and turning them into hideous paintings because of my bad handwriting – and then not using them – I settled for a simple analog note-taking system. Here’s the story…

I’ve bought dozens of journals through the years. And every time, the same thing happened:

I get super excited in the beginning. I schedule time with myself to fill in the pages with research-supported prompts – at least that’s what is written on the label of the notebook – but after just a few days, I stop adding entries.

What the hell?

For years, I thought that the problem was me.

“Probably I’m not the journaling type person,” I thought.

But then, I remembered, “Hey, I write all the time!” – on paper, online, on my note-taking app, sometimes on my hands. “There has to be an inner journaling, glass-wearing, gratitude-sharing geek sitting inside you man. You just need to find it…”

So, I tried a couple of other methods. All of them “proven” to fix my inability to sit quietly with myself. All of them advertised as bestsellers. All of them supposedly easy to implement.

And all of them didn’t work for me.

Finally, I quit. I was tired of searching for the ultimate note-taking technique.

Strangely, I kept writing on whatever I could get my hands on.

It all started years ago…

At the age of 23, I carried a pocked-size notebook with me all the time where I wrote my daily expenses. Plus, quotes and ideas from books.

The notebook I got from… I don’t remember. It wasn’t important. It was simply paper. The design wasn’t important, either. What I wrote inside was. I actually still keep this small though-catalog – 10 years later. And I always laugh, and feel embarrassed, when I go through the pages.

Now I’m 30+ and I’m still obsessed with notebooks. Especially those with minimalistic design and expensive-looking paper. You know, when the quality of the paper looks and feels so good that you don’t want to ruin it with your unattractive handwriting. You just want to have the journal and stare at it.

But after years of experimenting with different styles and journaling methods, I have three things to report:

  1. The journal is not that important – expensive or not, it doesn’t matter.
  2. It’s probably a good idea to stop watching how others journal because you’ll feel discouraged by their perfect handwriting and their insanely hard to emulate coloring scheme.
  3. Before stop watching and reading about how other people journal, steal as many ideas as possible from their journaling methods. This will help you create your own system.

Based on the above realizations, I created my own analog note-taking system – consisting of 3 different methods.

My 3 Analog Note-taking Systems – Explained

My-three-notebooks
My three notebooks.

I like to keep things separate. Especially in my notebooks.

I don’t want to add ideas about new articles inside my finances notebook because it will eventually become chaotic.

And also, I always try to fit the advice I’m finding in books, articles, etc., based on my personal experiences. The last is partly the reason I always neglected the prompts inside the notebooks I previously purchased – and also the reason I created my own note-taking systems.

You see, when you read about the bullet journaling method, for example, everything makes sense. There is logic in every step the author is sharing about how to report your life on a piece of paper.

Yet, that’s ultimately his method of documenting. Not yours. That’s why probably a lot of people cease journaling – they can’t adopt a concept that’s not ultimately theirs.

My solution?

I have 3 different note-taking systems that are extremely simple but highly effective. At least for me. And all of them currently exist in my life after failing to implement other popular methods.

I’m not saying that they will work for you – probably they won’t.

But you can at least steal something and implement it in your own note-taking practice – or start one if you are still not journaling.

1. Daily Notes

My most recent daily journaling practice – taking notes daily.

I have to thank James Clear and the guys from Baronfig.

Remember when I shared above that you don’t need an expensive journal to write your ideas?

Well, you don’t, but The Clear Habit Journal is superb.

It’s kind of like the swiss pocket knife of journaling.

There are different sections that can help you express your thoughts and document your daily activities. It’s especially good for people who have struggled with making journaling a habit.

Currently, I only use 2 sections of the notebook – The One Line Per Day section and The Habit Tracker section.

I’m still “afraid” of using the main section – the notebook part with the empty pages.

I’m always continuous about this when I get a fancy notebook. I save the pages for something special. A new idea or new project, and I always strive to write prettier on my fancy notebooks. Eventually, my bad handwriting starts to dominate and it all becomes messy. But enough about how bad I write…

Here’s how and why I use the Clear Habit Journal:

One Line Per Day Section

One Line Per Day Section
The One Line Per Day section finally made me a daily journaling geek.

I always wanted to be more consistent with my daily journaling practice. To keep a log where I note down the little things that happened to me every day. A place full of memories and short stories. Sadly, I always failed to make this a habit.

An empty sheet of paper is often a disadvantage, not an opportunity.

You sit on your desk, and you feel that you need to write about everything.

Like the notebook is demanding from you to put down a 500-word essay about what happened yesterday.

But once you can’t figure what to write about, you feel like your life sucks. That you suck!

This is not the case with The One Line Per Day section.

As the name of the practice suggests, you simply have to write one line per day. That’s it.

It can be one word or one sentence. Or simply a smiling face. Or even a sun emoji.

I find this low-friction method liberating.

I mean, everyone can write at least one sentence.

Sometimes I write things like, “Yesterday was sunny. I went out with my son.” Or, “today I feel unmotivated.” That’s it.

There is zero pressure to manipulate my writing and make it sound like I’m doing something outrageously good. Or to exaggerate about what happened to make it sound like gratefulness.

If it was a bad day, I will write that it was a bad day.

Surprisingly, I feel better when I admit that not everything is going according to plan. “Yesterday was bad, but who knows, tomorrow will probably be better.”

The Habit Tracker Section

The Habit Tracker section
Here’s how I use the Habit Tracker Section on my Clear Habit Journal.

This is even simpler than the above.

The best thing about premium journals is that they give you the structure.

You can surely copy the table from the Clear Journal in an unexpensive notebook – and I’m actually planning to do it in the future. But when everything is ready, there is no reason not to start.

So what’s the Habit Tracker section?

Plainly, it’s a way to track your progress daily for the habits you want. You write down the habits you want to implement in your life on the left. After that, you simply add a checkmark every time you practice the habit – or you don’t add one and you feel like a loser.

I currently track these things:

  • Write: Did I write today?
  • Train: Did I train today?
  • Calm: Did I feel calm or busy?
  • Publish: Did I publish an article?
  • Eat good: Did I eat healthily?
  • Sleep: Did I sleep well?
  • Wedding: This was just for fun. Yes, I recently got married (20.09.2021) and I don’t plan to have this section again anytime in the future – never ever:D

2. Financial Tracker

When you watch people share their financial trackers on YouTube they all seem so flawless.

Straight lines. Color-coded budgeting and expense graphs. Thoughtful categories that are carefully organized. Probably custom-made sticky notes with superheroes that I want so bad for myself. Piecharts that even the most advanced Google sheet expert can’t emulate. Slick handwriting, as if a person practices calligraphy since 1st grade.

These people are not simply creating financial trackers. They are making art!

Me?

My financial tracker is an ugly mess.

Sometimes I’m so lazy that I don’t even add lines.

Other times my son grabs my notebook without me noticing and decides to doodle inside and the end result looks like this:

Financial Tracker
My Financial Tracker. I bet you can’t understand anything.

Still, it works for me.

And actually, I’m using this particular notebook since 2017 – and I have room for at least 4 more years.

Let me give you an overview because I’m positive that you can’t figure it out based on the picture above.

The way I use my expense tracker is super simple:

Financial-Tracker-explained

Each month, on the top of the page, and on the left, I write down the current bank balance – everything in my bank account.

On the left page again, I track daily the following 4 things:

  • Amount: Whether I’m spending money or getting money. Respectively, I’ll use the + or the – sign.
  • Reason: Obviously, the reason money is going out or in.
  • Date: The date.
  • Left: How my bank balance is changing based on the previous.

On the right page, I have the following things:

  • Salary: Monthly salary on the top.
  • Expenses: I write down again all of my expenses but this time without a reason.
  • Members: The income from my membership.
  • Invested: The money I invest.

What’s the grand goal?

  • On the left: I want to make sure I’m fully aware of what’s going on with my bank balance. That’s why I keep track of all my expenses on a daily basis. If I see a discrepancy, I can check if something fraudulent is happing – for example, my CC info being stolen (this actually happened once).

On the right:

At the end of the month, I want to quickly calculate these four things:

  • The expenses only.
  • All income from my members.
  • The amount that was invested for this month.
  • And finally, calculate what’s left at the end of the month – positive or negative.

There is one more thing I do after the above. I transfer my expenses in a Google sheet.

The reason here is simple: When I add the numbers inside a table, I have formulas that calculate my average spendings, income, and investments. This is a great way to see what’s happening over a long period of time. When I see how my average spendings are changing I can make adjustments.

I don’t track my daily spendings in a Google sheet nor use an extra tool for that. I’m mindful by default about where I pour money.

3. My Idea Journal

My Idea Journal
A page of my Idea Journal where I’m looking for the best way to present visually a concept I’m writing about.

My favorite journal.

My companion.

The Idea Journal is like my faithful sidekick.

Always by my side to support me and to give me hope.

I follow only one rule when my pen touches the paper of my Idea Journal – there are no rules.

Yes, savage!

The idea behind my Idea Journal is to go crazy.

If I want to doodle, I doodle. If I want to design a page on my site, I do it here. If I need a to-do list for the day, I create one inside.

Actually, this exact article started first as a draft in my idea journal – as most of my articles.

I sketch a few ideas without worrying about order, grammar, style, or any big goal. I simply express myself.

This third journal is messy. Unorganized. Raw. Personal. I often write so bad, that after a day or two I can’t even recognize my own handwriting.

Despite all of these flaws, it’s my favorite notebook.

How not to love it, it’s full of ideas. My ideas.

Full of half-written posts that will eventually take shape and become full-fleshed articles.

Or I can use one word: This journal is my workshop.

Probably I need to rename it “My Workshop” instead of my Idea Journal.

Yes, this is where I forge stuff.

The notebook is my way to plan my site and my life.

I ask myself questions and I answer them.

Sometimes I plan the next month. Other times I don’t.

Sometimes I write daily. Other times I don’t open it for days.

As mentioned, there are no rules.

But it’s more than just sharing and creating ideas, it’s therapy.

Writing by hand, I found for me, it’s the most therapeutic activity. And having the stage all for myself is my way to handle the daily difficulties that try to hammer my progress.

Some Closing Thoughts

The goal of this post is to show you that you can, too, journal even if you don’t do it regularly. Even if you’re not a master penman.

I know that having a slick notebook is sexy. We love neat stuff. But life is too short to worry about your handwriting when you’re journaling.

And journaling does help.

It helps you think. It helps you plan. But most importantly, it helps you fail. Fail on paper.

This means that you can sketch something and see what can potentially happen. Think about why a project or an idea won’t work. From there, make adjustments to avoid failing in real life.

Happy journaling!

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