From org-mode back to pen and paper

When I first heard about org-mode it was like discovering fire. If you are unfamiliar, org-mode is a text-based notes, todo list, and planner for organizing your life. For those of us that spend most of their time in a text editor, org-mode is still, by far, the most efficient tool for capturing work and organizing it exactly how you want it. However, for over a year now I've moved back to a pen and paper system. Here's why.

1. Taking notes during in-person meetings

I can't help shaking the feeling that having laptops open during a meeting is distracting and inhibits the meeting. As the size of the attendee list shrinks, I find it gets worse. I always make a point to tell people that, if I have my laptop open, it's to take notes, but I don't find that very satisfying. Some may think it's no big deal, but imagine we are in a 1:1 and instead of taking notes on my laptop I take notes on my phone—it would be off-putting!

A notebook and a pen, I've noticed, has the opposite effect—I'm present and appear more competent. I'm paying attention, but also taking notes here and there to help organize the conversation, follow-up on important topics, and record tasks for later so I don't forget. If the goal were to most accurately capture the conversation, I would much rather type it, but that's usually not the goal (or at least it shouldn't be).

2. Doesn't work for teams

Besides notes, I also use org-mode for managing projects and todo lists. This keeps me very organized, but in a more single-player way. At some point built a tool to allow multiple people collaboratively edit the same org-mode file together using emacs, but it's not really as good as tools built for team project management.

3. Reflection and Insights

Most of my time these days is spent in and out of meetings. When I used org-mode I would dutifuly clock in and out of each task. Adding more and more is easy (it's just typing) so you end up with a lot of content. However, a very verbose document is not especially useful (now you need to rely on search) and timesheet at the end of the week is not especially insightful.

Looking at my calendar is a far better indicator of how I spent my time for the week/month. I still recommend people do it if they are feeling extrememly stressed as it has a way of revealing patterns and habits you don't realize.

Pen and paper can be delightful

These days, I spend a lot of time in meetings and working closely with others on projects. While org-mode worked great for me to stay on top of my individual technical work, I don't have quite the same needs anymore which means my tools can focus more on management tasks such as 1:1s, overall objectives, and being present and actively listening in meetings. For that, I've found switching back to pen and paper to be significantly better—despite much less recorded information I actually find myself more organized as a manager.

A manager's notebook system

Over time I gravitated towards a simple system that keeps me on track. Each week starts with a new page with the week starting date, objectives (up to three), and a todo list (up to one page). Throughout the week I reference and update that page, ticking the box when a task is complete.

Week 9/23

Objectives
1.
2.
3.

[ ] A todo list task
[ ] ...

I record each meeting and take brief notes. I try to be present in the meeting and, to help me engage, I'll record an important point by adding a star to it so I can come back to it in the conversation or reflect on later. If there is a follow-up task, I draw a box with the ask and note if it's for me or someone else that's accountable (a good reminder to always assign action items in meetings).

9/24 Prioritization meeting
(name of participants...)
- Meeting note points
* Important item I want to come back to
[ ] A follow up task

To reflect and keep track of the big picture, I spend ~30 minutes on Monday morning (before the deluge of interruptions) and review the week prior. I add a summary of the previous week—key things I learned, what went well/poorly, and how I felt about it. I go through each of the meetings and notes I took, look over notes I've starred as important, and copy over any todos I didn't get to or I explicitely decide not to do them and strike out the tick box.

Results

I've been running the manager notebook system for over a year now and I've found it to be essential to my day-to-day. Others have joked about it as 'notebook driven development', but it certainly does drive my productivity and learning. During meetings I'm more approachable and a better listener.

There's some small improvements that I'd like to make. For example, I'd like to be more disciplined about ending the week by writing a summary while it's still fresh in my mind. I also think there's more to do to track items/goals that others are accountable such as a goal that an engineer on my team has or a task I've delegated. Finally, the cadence in which you organize has an impact on how you think—it might be a good idea to also set up monthly objectives and do more strategic planning.

I'd love to hear from other managers about how they set up their day to day (especially their notebooks!) so please reach out over twitter @alexkehayias!