From the outside looking in, I imagine many people would describe me as a highly disorganised person. My desk is always very messy. I don’t make lists. I don’t have a diary. I don’t use any sort of formal system for organising my time or my activities. I dislike categorising and hate filing. When I worked as an academic, I was never able to use a filing cabinet for its allotted purpose (though I did find them useful for storing tea, mugs and knitting projects). I’ve never enjoyed keeping a formal diary for any purpose: the space assigned to each day is too small, or too big, and I am either stressed out just by looking at a day or week with loads of stuff squashed in or feel rebuked by the blank spaces of weeks in which nothing has been recorded or occurred. For a year or so as a young academic I tried managing myself with a filofax and absolutely hated it. It just felt over-organised to me: I would record a ‘to-do’ item in the ‘notes’ section and later discover I couldn’t find what I had been trying to remember because I didn’t know where I’d put it. Using a diary, or a filofax, or any sort of organisational system, I’ve always experienced the system’s need to categorise information as a very particular kind of pressure. What if I record something in one category, then find it has been incorrectly classified? Should I record the thing in three or four separate places to ensure it can be found? What if the categories under which a thing has been recorded spawn new sub-categories? What if the categories themselves become redundant? Such attempts to organise information – or organise myself – always remind me of the problem the great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges raised in his often-cited story The Analytical Language of John Wilkins which, as he puts it is “that there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and full of conjecture.” To illustrate his point, Borges cites a fantastical, absurd, and completely pointless taxonomy of animals from a (fictitious) “certain Chinese encyclopedia”

*Those that belong to the emperor
*Embalmed ones
*Those that are trained
*Suckling pigs
*Mermaids (or Sirens)
*Fabulous ones
*Stray dogs
*Those that are included in this classification
*Those that tremble as if they were mad
*Innumerable ones
*Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
*Et cetera
*Those that have just broken the flower vase
*Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

So how do I – a constitutionally messy person who is also a genuine advocate of the journal as a useful organisational tool – organise myself at all?

At the top of this post, you’ll see a small selection of the many different journals I’ve kept from my teenage years to the present. These journals have been used to make notes in classes and lectures, write terrible poetry, keep a record of my mental health, remind myself of things I have to do, copy quotations, explore ideas, store information, sketch a design, form calculations about a sleeve cap while I’m knitting it, develop a solution for inserting a pocket, save a thought or turn of phrase, or (as in the example above), record a random and never-pursued idea for a child’s cardigan involving an anteater and some ants (I have no idea how the anteater was to be rendered, and you can see I moved on pretty rapidly to making another cardigan, Mini Manu)


(sleeve cap calculations)

My journals contain many different kinds of material. But looking back over them, their (simple) organisational principles are the same.

1) Put everything in one place
2) Find a way through the material retrospectively
3) Decorate for fun (and visual cues)

So my first principle is to just put everything in one place. That is, when you have a new idea, or a new thing that you need to record, don’t worry about where it needs to go, or how it should be categorised – just start on a new page, or draw a line under the last item in the journal and record it. It doesn’t matter at all if this thing is of a different kind (or category) to the last thing that you wrote or drew . . . just write it down, in its new place, and record what you need to about it.

Thus in one journal from about 6 years ago you’ll find my first thoughts for the design that became Betty Mouat (which I’d first envisaged in a herringbone pattern)

. . . and turning the page, there are lots of notes about the history of Shetland lace, which I was researching for a piece I was writing for the Rowan Magazine.

“knitters in Unst just keep on knitting through it all” indeed!

So how on earth would I find my notes about the history of lace if I wanted to consult them later? Well, I simply left the first four pages of this journal blank, and used it to record a table of contents. With the table of contents, I always know Betty Mouat’s beginnings are on page 30 and the lace thoughts begin on page 34. All of my journals have a table of contents and they are the key way that I’m able to find my way through my material retrospectively . And my second method of finding what I need to quickly is just as simple: mark the relevant pages in a way that makes sense to you.

I used to use post-it notes for doing this, but they’d often fall out and get lost. Now I use washi tape.

Washi tape has the advantage of being colourful and decorative – and with a couple of pieces you can quickly code and categorise different kinds of information that might be spread throughout the journal in a way that makes things easy to locate. And as well as being an organisational tool, washi tape is also one means of decorating for fun (and visual cues)

The changing styles of decoration of my journals really amuse me. Here, for example, is the journal of a fifteen year old CND member and a seventeen-year old who liked cartoon cats as much as she did Robertson Davies. By the 1990s I’d moved on to William Morris . . .

And then I started to use Moleskine notebooks . . . and most recently, Leuchtturm dot-grid notebooks, like our Knitting Season one.

The decoration of these journals is mostly on the inside!

My put-everything-in-one-place principle has also been at work here on this blog, over the eleven years that I’ve kept it. Thus I’ve never kept a separate blog for (say) health matters and another for design. I just write what I want to when I want to and then the blog has its own ways – rather similar to my journal’s tables of contents and washi-tape flags – of organising and locating the material retrospectively. So, if you were so inclined, you might find all of my posts by date, by tag, or by a simple keyword search, and if there’s a post you aren’t interested in reading, you can just leave it and move on. I suppose what I’m saying is that I’ve never found it particularly useful to categorise and sub-divide my thoughts while I’m actually having them (and perhaps too, that I experience any attempt to categorise and re-categorise as an active impediment to creative thought. That said, it is useful to be able to find things again, and as long as there is a table of contents, a keyword search function, or a tell-tale piece of washi tape, I will be absolutely fine.

I’m not suggesting by any means that you should regard my three organisational maxims (such as they are) as any kind of ‘system’ or path to follow. Rather, I share my basic principles as just one example of how it is possible to be constitutionally messy; to operate in ways that many other people find curiously disorganised and yet to be able to use a journal as an effective organisational tool.

Yours, in productive mess . . .

53 thoughts on “journal organisation (for the disorganised)

  1. What an interesting piece – and for me, so relatable. Setting aside the first four pages of your journal to turn into a Table of Contents is genius! And the washi tape, I must be living under a rock as I’ve never heard of it (mind you it looks familiar); I’m off to get some ASAP. Kate, you are a reader after my own heart. I studied Canadian literature at the University of Toronto. Davies was de rigueur. And Irving, oh! A Prayer for Owen Meany…The Cider House Rules…The World According to Garp. I think it’s time for an Irving read-a-thon! Thank you. Your posts continuously fill me with interest. Is it any wonder that I return to your blog again and again and again?!

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  2. Reading this post was like seeing my own life in print. Except of course that I’m nothing nearly as articulate as you Kate, nor as gifted. Nor, finally, as organised with the washi tape. But after the dismay of many blank pages in bought diaries, versus overcrowded, crammed ones where equally important things, for want of space, were omitted, I also have ended up putting everything in one place. In one hardcover manuscript book. Even my lists go in that same book (being Virgo I AM a list person) and this works for me. It takes a variable number of seconds or minutes to find that book under everything on my desk……

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  3. I ordered few Christmas presents from UK company because the order was over £50 I got free journal great, few days later I also ordered something for myself and got a free gift a journal. I’m over the moon I have two journals! Thank you so much for telling about the washi tape excellent idea! I can start the new year with my two journals my head is full of ideas!

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  4. I’ve found the table of contents feature irreplaceable, although I tend to be disorganized even in this; as an idea builds and develops, it ends up having entries on page 1, 8, 32-35, etc. I can only imagine how muddled my note collections would be if not for this table of contents.

    One issue I’ve found myself running into is that a particular notebook will begin to have a certain identity to it, especially for my long form projects, which results in a trepidation when I have a random thought or quote or idea to record, but I it doesn’t quite fit in the newly developed personality of the notebook I’ve been carrying, and thus spills over into a backup notebook that I have no emotional attachment to.

    This new notebook becomes a haphazard chaotic mess (I clearly have a separate tab open right now referencing “disorganized synonyms”) free of a table of context. The creation of this overflow notebook is quickly followed by it gaining some dearly beloved entry, and now possessing an identity of its own.

    As a result, I inevitably end with up to half a dozen different notebooks, journals (and the occasional collection of loose sheets of paper and sticky notes) each with their own evolving identities and classifications within my mind.

    I’m curious if this is a struggle you’ve found. Even my attempts at small moments of organization and classification are ultimately thrown into a bigger universe of jumbled turmoil (more synonyms), as if I’ve entered a meta-physical stage of disorganization.

    I really like your take on not treating this disorganization as a problem that needs to be fully solved and forced into a perfect file system (my disorganization is also often times the source of my creativity and inspiration), but what do I do when I have too many concurrent journals to fit in my backpack? I know you said draw a line and keep writing in the same book, but that becomes difficult when working on a longer more complex project.

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    1. It doesn’t bother me that lots of stuff is jumbled up together – my knitting next to my research etc – but I do know exactly the feeling you describe. I generally get it when I am trying to sort out my thoughts about a big writing project – and when it occurs I know that the moment has arrived in which I have to stop taking notes and recording thoughts and to actually make the work / pursue the project. It’s the point I actually sit down and write.

      There’s always a pile – 3 or 4 – journals by my desk – full of ideas and jottings – that I refer back to.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I find it comforting to know that I am not the only one. Gad. Washi tape. Who knew?!!! I have tried using sticky notes and that just doesn’t work. Now I know why. I feel like I practically break out in hives even looking at a new journal. With the best of intentions. Aggghhhh . . .

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  6. You had me at “Table of Contents”. I am likewise productively disorganized, but never quite figured out how to jot and dream and record without feeling more disorganized and frustrated. Now I am plunging forward with a table of contents. Bravo and thank you.

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  7. I use a Time Manager system or rather, I try to use it. It has spaces for only 8 key areas and I have more than that! I use the diary sections but have never managed to confine my life in the rest of it. My head is also full of everything at once from knitting ideas to embroidery projects to theological thinking to a new folk song, to a new guitar or a wish to do any number of things. It has never fitted in one place but it might now with the ever expandable index. Putting everything in new place has always been an ambition ……it might even be possible with the bullet journal thing! thanks Kate and a happy new year when it comes.

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  8. YES! I started doing this a few years ago with Moleskines. I liked the ‘commonplace book’ idea when I came across it in a 30s detective novel and started doing it for myself. It works incredibly well for me – whether it’s Swedish vocabulary, things I want to plant in the garden, tube maps (I always photocopy the Tube map in colour and put it in the current book), recipes I’m working on, paint colours or lists of what-the-children-got-for-Christmas – it all goes in. I’ve done the index thing but the Washi tape idea is a step above – totally going to start doing that!

    Also, after reading Tom’s story about going down the bookbinding rabbit-hole, I got a bookbinding kit for Christmas and have decided to start making my own journals. :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wonderful to read of someone else who is an obsessive notetaker, although I will be buying some Washi tape to help mark important bits (means I can keep my special – locally-purchased – page markers for books being read). I already have unlined, art-books for clothes design stuff, but for years I kept separate notebooks for different subjects, eg: academic notes ‘n’ refs; ‘books read’ notes; ‘Writing Group’ scribbles; Diary-ish stuff; plus Reading Group minutes/notes. When I realised – 10s of barely scribbled-in notebooks later – that this wasn’t working, I gradually began using Paperchase, A5, spiral-bound, hole-punched notebooks, which have gridded paper in 6 different colours … so I keep a colour each for the separate subject areas. 18 months on … and, so far, this has been perfect, and there’s only ever one notebook to carry around. I also use W.H.Smith A5 plastic ring-files to put the notes into separate subject files as the notebooks fill up. However, I’m now having qualms about my plastic use, and fashioning my own A5 ‘lever-arch’ files, from old Academic-note lever-arch files. Obsessive … me?!
    Whatever, so far it works, and my study is noticeably tidier.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Washi tape is the best! I use it to decorate my letters :) also, your story made me laugh. my filing cabinets at work are hollow because everything I need is online. nevertheless, note taking is a good excuse to use colored pens and stickers!

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  11. I have been using a journal for life organization for a couple of years now. I have found that dividing the index page into 3 columns helps me find things very quickly. 1. Date – the first page of a month is listed 2. Self/Craft-knitting, quilting, health, cooking, movies. 3. House/Church/Vacation – Lists for travel, church projects, house projects. Another place to learn very simple journal techniques is BulletJournal.com

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  12. I like this ..,, I buy notebooks, journals because I have an obsession with stationery. I take them home with the intention that I will put all my knitting in one, mindfulness practices in another, ideas for my life in another etc. Then I only use parts, can’t remember which is which and so on. I vow now to use them for everything and move on to the next! I love your way of thinking.

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  13. Dear Kate,
    Thank you for sharing your method! It is a little more organized than mine, but the basic principle is the same: everything in one place. Unlike another commenter, I always put the the date and year on every page, and I find things by remembering when an event took place, and work my way through the journals until I find it. I’ve been doing this for 36 years, and so far, I haven’t lost any ideas . . . or telephone numbers.
    Cam

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Sometimes I think of getting better organized, cleaning, clearing off my desk, but then a squirrel dashes by and that thought is gone, until next time. I love the suggestion of keeping the first couple pages blank, that is just brilliant and I will incorporate it moving forward. Tape, post its, paperclips, just something for a parrot to mess about with.
    Good to hear that there are so many of us oddly organized people on the planet. :)
    Merry Christmas and here’s to an amazing 2019.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I received my Knitting Journal today and can’t wait to start writing in it this evening for my Christmas Eve cast ons. Thank you!

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  16. I’m a disorganised note taker who fills page after page in notebooks, only not to find the things I’ve noted down. Your three simple rules are perfect for me!

    Thank you and MERRY CHRISTMAS!

    Cornelia

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  17. God I love you!!!
    Thank you for sharing your post. I feel released from internal judgement about my journaling process. And my mess. I know there are many that may share similar “messy” traits, but I have never read/heard anyone who has created their own system within that sort of context that really works. The tape idea is brilliant. It all gives me permission to own whatever I do as “okay”! It also gives me permission to find my own creative process.
    What a great gift :) Thanks!
    A very happy holiday to you and yours!

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Mess?? Really? A woman came into my studio and immediately said……….”How do you find anything in here?” I had to inform here that I did indeed know where Everything IS! We are all different………thank you for your thoughts.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Hi Kate. Merry Christmas.
    I totally identify with your stack of journals and your haphazard way of using them. I have about twenty moleskines’s of different sorts, many with lots of blank pages, and then a series of journals that are more visually individual. If the house caught fire, rescuing all my journals would be right at the top of my priorities. As an artist, traveler, wife, mother, cook, knitter, piano student, and scrabble player nearly all of these disorganized journals deal with at least five of these aspects of my life. Scrabble scores are always recorded at the back few pages of any of them.

    I embrace your idea of leaving four pages blank at the beginning for a table of contents. Maybe I can insert some in all of them. I have enjoyed re-reading many entries. I certainly have not gotten to all the ideas for pots that are sketched or otherwise noted in these journals.

    I have one huge regret about this mess of ideas and thoughts. I consistently dated each entry with day and month. Journals can bounce through the decades as I attempt to fill them up. Why didn’t I think to record the YEAR? Lordy!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. This is a great post! It feels so familiar to me. I have been keeping journals of one sort or another, off and on, for almost my entire life. I have kept notebooks full of my favorite quotes, gleaned from my reading; notebooks of my doodles, cut out and pasted to the pages; notebooks of ideas to do this & that; notebooks of great complaints about various jobs; and notebooks of my knitting, with yarn samples, yarn bands, and comments about the yarn & project. If I stacked all those notebooks together, they would most likely be taller than my 60.5 inches. Lists, of course, I have a zillion of those all the time, all over the place. I am so looking forward to this club — so many ideas from you, Kate, and all the folks chiming in. Especially, I like the idea of a table of contents.Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Thank you for sharing your system! I have been burdened by multiple journals, one or more of which tends to get abandoned or forgotten, for some years! I am going to see if your approach might be a way out.

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  22. Thank you….Again….You might just have put in to words what I have been looking for…..Time is precious….To others I appear disorganized (at work most of the Trustees despaired of my office – but I knew where to find things!!!), Many would say “in a tiny house you need to be organised”….. Here you have the solution for my “jottings book”….And so obvious, but then, maybe I am so busy being disorganized I hadn’t got round to findjng a solution …..Now I can carry on as is, just applying your ideas along the way. Happy chaos (oh, and Christmas as well=

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  23. A post with Borges and Richardson Davies and Shetland lace in it *at the same time*! Yes, your observations slot right into my own quirks. For years I had to organize files so that others could find things in them, and I managed to compartmentalize that part of my brain and do it well. But NOW…. So glad to be able to run free through the back alleys of my brain and bring up whatever I find there. I’ve not done a journal index before, and will give that a try per your suggestion. I find I prefer using book darts to mark pages… they hug the page securely and can be moved around as projects shift.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. I really like the idea of finding your way through the material retrospectively. I’m looking forward to going through my notebooks from the past few years and creating a kind of table of contents.

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  25. Oh, thank goodness there are at least two of us! I’ve been trying to get my head around bulleting, have several Filofax (academic, academic -social, life), tried several blogs, and have come full circle to just writing stuff down and using page markers (fab way to use paper bought in Japan).

    As for desks….

    Keep doing what you find is right for you. So far, you’ve done a good job!

    Merry Christmas!

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  26. This is how I journal as well. Everything all mixed up together… My main problem is I find it hard to keep a single journal as I am often misplacing them🤪 So keeping track of things is still a struggle as I’m not sure which book I’ve put it in. Thanks so much for sharing as I’ve often felt my approach to be inferior. Glad to know others do it this way too. Happy Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Thank you for permission to allow myself to continue to be messy. (Nothing I’ve tried to organize myself has
    ever actually worked.)
    But, I do love your idea about leaving some pages blank at the beginning of a journal to later create a Table of
    Contents with page numbers. That’s a perfect way to corral sparks of creativity that begin with random ideas, quotes, drawings, etc.
    I love it and will give it a try!

    Liked by 1 person

  28. I really really like the table of contents idea and will institute it going forward. Plus numbering the pages, and I think the Washi tape idea will be helpful for coming to terms with past journals which are big conglomerations of good ideas and disturbing emotional events. Looking back at them, I’m grateful to have discovered early on, the solace of writing. Thank you! (and my third Whigmaleerie is under way!)

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  29. I use the “put everything in one place” for my work notebook – a Rhodia meeting book. I am an academic and buy a new one each Academic Year. It helps me to just have to keep track of a single notebook. My knitting notes will be going into my new Knitting Season journal from you. The (huge) package arrived yesterday and it’s under the tree. Delayed gratification )

    Liked by 1 person

  30. My system is scarily similar. I just have one big notebook going at all times and find things retrospectively largely by knowing what other thoughts they were sandwiched between and approximate dates. I think there is something about this “system” that helps ideas to fertilize each other. That is my excuse for the mess that tends to arrive on my office desk, too. Fun post!

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Thank you so much for this post. I have just recently come to this out everything in the same place approach. What a relief!!!!! I am going to try your index idea and try some Wasabi tape, too. I am much appreciative!!!

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  32. I particularly loved this post, knowing that your ‘Season One’ notebook is on its way to me. I am already fretting – but for a different reason. From a long ago life as a research scientist, I am still obsessed with neatness/tidiness. How to start a journal; how to keep it organized? I have begun to collect washi tape (It is my husband’s); I have some coloured pens (not just fine black). I plan to start my 75th year with abandon. I plan to look at this post often for reminders.
    An email there there is a new post from you always makes my day too. Helen

    Liked by 8 people

  33. I never kept a journal or diary when I was young, though I wish now I had. I have had period of keeping a calendar or planner as a graduate student and as a professional person, although it was a struggle finding the ideal format. My current professional life doesn’t require the use of a planner. About fifteen years ago I read a book, “How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day,” in which the “keep everything in one place” method was recommended patterned after Leonardo’s notebooks. I saw that Leonardo’s notebooks were jumbled and disorganized, very much stream-of-consciousness. This I could do. So ever since I have kept some sort of A5 notebook as a journal. This method works and can be as organized and structured or as creative and unstructured as suits each individual. You have added some ideas and have made me feel more free to reflect the real me in its pages. Thank you for this series of posts.

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  34. Don’t sell yourself short Kate! I think those ideas are just perfect. I have always been much to anally retentive about journals. That’s why I have so many with a few pages done and then I “make a mistake” and feel I have to abandon the whole thing. Nw I am going to stick plain sheets over those first few pages, make them for my Table of Contents and let myself loosen up a bit!! Thank you for the inspiration – again!!!

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  35. That certainly makes sense to me! The whole point is to record the thoughts you’re having, not fill someone else’s categories (or even ones own categories; mine are changing all the time). The record is to serve the creative process, not the other way round.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. I am a list maker. Then I forget about them, or ignore them. I have lists all over the house. I seem to want to make lists on blank paper. I also like piles of things—papers, books, yarn, projects in bags. I also like bags. I really like bags…..
    Your journaling style makes good sense to me. I will use your table of contents idea! Thanks for your thoughts and approach to creativity. It helps.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. This is quite an interesting insight into how a different mind works! I have always been a rather organised type of person who uses a diary and makes lots of to-do lists but your description of your journals reminds me a lot of my “ship log books” (as I call them) — journals I keep when I work on a very large project demanding a lot of organizational skills. Every morning I write the date and then just whatever happened during the day: what I planned, what I decided and why, who told me what, what was done and by whom, what remains to be done, what I learned from more experienced colleagues, but also the jokes we exchanged, weather observations, various thoughts etc. I learned this is the most efficient way (for me) to not forget anything important and that any efforts to structure the notes according to their content (as opposed to structuring by dates only) just lead to more fruitless searching and mistakes happening. I treasure and keep these journals even when I don’t need them anymore, they are really incredible time capsules!

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