Make Your Paper Notebooks Useful: Set the Table

Way back in the 1900s, I did survey research. A major principle in designing a questionnaire is to make it as easy as possible for a person to respond to your survey.

No one wants to respond to surveys, so the easier you make it, the higher your response rate will be. Every detail — from the design of the survey, to the wording of the questions, to the mechanics of responding — boosts your response rate. (I know this because we tested those things.)

But the devil is in the details. It takes a surprising amount of thought and experimentation to make something easy for someone else to do.

In other words, it’s about table setting; the practice and the principle of making sure, ahead of time, before the food comes to the table, that everyone has a clear place to eat, with all the plates and glasses and utensils on hand. It’s annoying when you sit down to eat to have to jump up and get a fork.

Table setting works for yourself, too; especially with things like habit formation.

If you want to start a habit, a common hack is to lay out the things you will need, ahead of time, so it is easy to go for that walk, or — yes — write in that notebook.

I wanted to form the habit of carrying around a pocket notebook with me. I knew it would be endlessly useful; I just couldn’t seem to get into the habit.

Then one day it occurred to me. Was this like designing a survey? Was this a table setting problem?

So I asked myself: “Hey, Self. Wake up. Why is it SO HARD to use a pocket notebook?”

And then a response formed from deep within my soul: “Because… I keep having to look for a pen… they fall out of my pocket…”

And that was all there was to it. Once I set the table, once I made sure it was easy to have a pen on hand, I started using notebooks much more.

Now, any notebook I use regularly has a pen loop. I insert some notebooks into journal covers with pen loops. I buy other notebooks with pen loops built in. Sometimes I use these nifty little stickers with elastic pen loops attached.

two pocket notebooks with different pen loops attached, and a free-standing pen loop with a sticky backing

If you want to get in the habit of using notebooks, make sure you have ALL the things you need right there.

Set the table for yourself. Make it as easy as possible to write a note.

a travel notebook cover that zips shut, with pockets for pens on the outside

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