Make Your Paper Notebooks Useful: Track Random Information with the Quadrant System

The Quadrant system allows you to set up a paper notebook so that you can record random-ish bits of unrelated information, and find it quickly, later.

This is useful for notebooks where you’re keeping a lot of small, unconnected jots that you want to be able to look up again, fast.

I do this for two kinds of notebooks:

  • meeting and appointment notes - who was at X meeting? What was decided? What do I have to do, what have other people agreed to do? …that kind of thing. More about useful meeting notes here. After meetings I process the meeting notes into my productivity system, but sometimes questions come up in later meetings and it’s good to be able to go back to the notes and see what was decided several months ago.
  • my personal “tips and tricks” books (I always forget stuff like how to roast red peppers in our cranky old oven; I wrote that down in my cooking tips and tricks notebook.)

It’s a little work beforehand to set up this system, but wow, it’s so easy to find stuff later.

Here’s how to do this:

Set aside 8-10 pages for an index section (or table of contents, whatever you want to call it). I usually set mine up in the back, but some people like to use the first few pages for this. Whatever floats your boat.

For the rest of the pages, just number each two-page spread. In other words, if you have your notebook open, with a blank page on the left and another blank page on the right, put a number in the upper left corner of the left page. Every two-page spread gets one number.

If you skip a number, don’t worry - it’s not important that the numbers be in perfect sequence, it IS important that you don’t have two of the same number. (It’s fine to have 35 followed by 37; it will be confusing to have two spreads numbered 35.)

We’re not book publishers here — we just want to find our stuff quickly later on.

Once you’ve numbered each spread, draw a horizontal line across the middle. Then label each quadrant with letters: A, B, C, D.

handwritten notebook, divided into labeled quadrants, with a brief note written in one quadrant

Sheesh! That was a lot of work. Here’s the pay-off: After you write one of these random bits of information in your notebook, go to the index and list it.

handwritten index page with a tab labeled index, and entries listed next to their quadrant

For a meetings and appointments book, it might look something like this:

  • “Parks and Rec meeting, March 2022” - 1A - 3C.
  • “Eye exam, July 2022” - 14D (To list appointments and meetings, I usually put the month and year in, to keep them straight.)

For a tips and tricks book:

The first time I set up a notebook like this, I wondered if it was a waste of time. Au contraire, mon frère!

This has saved me a ton of time. I do not have to rely on my memory for what happened at meetings, or which of our dozens of cookbooks has the best note about roasting red peppers.

And I sure don’t have to jump on the distraction machine that is my phone.

I hope this quadrant system is useful for others as well.

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