The Ramblings of a (Dis)Organzied Writer


My coffee shop subset

I am disorganized.

Not true. In my mind I am organized—and by this I mean that by nature I’m very organized and can keep everything I need to do in my mind. I’ve never missed an appointment (okay, there was that Easter party my son almost missed when he was four—he’s in med school now). I never almost never forget anything. I always almost always get everything done that needs doing. I always (I think) remember everything I want to make a note of. I don’t remember if I do. For instance, I had this great next sentence… but I just forgot it. (I’m only partly joking.)

But in my mind I’m disorganized. And by this I mean that I feel disorganized.

When I got an iPhone four years ago, I thought it would be better. With all the apps and calendars and organizational systems available, I decided that would be my salvation. I’d keep notes and calendar only on my iPhone. Then somehow all my notes got wiped out. Months of notes on my iPhone. Literally months. Luckily I was disorganized (or organized) enough that I didn’t miss them.

That’s when I started the notebooks.

Let me back up. For a year or so I’ve wanted to write a post about how organized I am. How I have this great notebook system that helps me be incredibly organized. But that was when I was developing this great notebook system, one that involves six seven eight I’m not sure how many notebooks of different shapes and sizes.

Movies to watch. Books to read & books read (yes I consolidated these into one notebook a few years ago, thank goodness). Future writing project ideas. Blog notes—for my blog and for Writer Unboxed. Household tasks and future posts. Things that needed to be done right away. Daily writing journal. Current WIP notebook. Quotes. Agents. The small notebook I keep in my wallet for when I’m not at home.

One notebook for each.

Now that the system is (pretty) developed, I’m not so sure.

When I’m at home, it’s not an issue. I have the whole of the house at my fingertips. But when I work outside the house, at a coffee shop for instance (where I am right now), I scoop up an entire pile of things (and by things, I mean notebooks) I might possibly need (thank goodness it’s only a subset since I leave “home task notebooks” at home) and load them into my bag along with my laptop.

The other problem is this. I’m not consistent. I don’t (necessarily) write things down in the right notebook, and the catch-all becomes the small spiral notebook next to my computer (if it happens I’m working at my desk)… or the pad of paper on the kitchen table (if I’m working there). And the phrase “you can’t take it with you” takes on a whole new meaning with the notebook system. When I’m working at a coffee shop, any old scrap of paper will do.

Don’t even get me started on my calendar. Kitchen wall? iPhone? Post it stuck to the back door. Yes, all systems apply.

And the other problem is that once I write something down—using the notebook system—I may or may not ever look at it again.

So that leaves me with…why? Why do I do it?

  • An act of passive resistance to being controlled by paper? Or phone?
  • Too much to do?
  • Not enough of a system?/Too much of a system?
  • A love of notebooks? (Can a writer ever have too many notebooks?)
  • The fear of putting everything on my iPhone/computer for fear “out of sight is out of mind”? And/or losing notes again?
  • Busy with writing so I don’t want to bother with the act of getting organized (that’s my favorite, by the way).

The truth is I’m not sure why. This post has helped me to identify the overarching possibilities. Sometimes I wonder if the mere act of writing something down in one of the notebooks (or a scrap of paper) will help me remember, and maybe that’s enough. (I’ve actually read that for some kinds of learners this is true.) Sometimes the mere act of writing a blog post (like this) will help me figure things out. Or start me thinking about it and help me solve it.

Maybe my system is too complicated.

Maybe the real problem is the feeling that things are slipping through my fingers. Not that I’d be more productive if I remembered everything necessarily (whatever everything is), but that I would be happier and less stressed if I didn’t have to worry about it.

Maybe I don’t really have a problem.

Or maybe I can think about this tomorrow and for today it’s more of an attitude adjustment I need.

Because maybe I am disorganized, but maybe I’m as organized as I need to be. For today. But tomorrow? Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be organized enough to figure out how to be even more organized.

What about you? Are you an organized person? Any tips, ideas, apps, or suggestions you have for me?




  1. Chris says:

    Jeez, Julia, don’t get me started. I’m a notebook geek too, and use a combination of notebooks, phone apps (Evernote being my app of choice for such things), texts to myself (often of screenshots of Instagram things where links I want to follow up on are referenced), and actual photographs — usually books I take pictures of to remember later that I want (as if ever finding books I want is such a problem I’d have to reference a stupid LIST!).

    My notebook of choice anymore is Field Notes ( A buddy of mine is one of the founders of them, and I have stacks. Their catch phrase is “I’m not writing it down to remember later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” That is pretty much how it works, right? I tend to fill one, then go back through it before I “archive” it and either look up or add to my Evernote file stuff I do need to save.

    I also use them for my day job, and they’re dated. Which makes it helpful when some project calls and can’t remember a setting on their network that I kept track of for reference while I was there. You’d be surprised how often that happens.

    As for books I’ve read, I have a few years worth in a spreadsheet I’ve been keeping.

    It’s all a kind of sickness. . . .

    • Great first comment to receive… you made me feel not quite as (dis)organized, Chris. Thank you. And you totally reminded me that I too take Instagram screenshots of things that I want to remember, either links or things that will inspire me in my current WIP, and often will take pics of books, places, people, etc., to jog my memory. The spreadsheet is a great idea, too. As is the field notes link. I’ve seen those notebooks in stores, and it’s very cool to know you know one of the guys who founded it. I think that I’ve come to really like the idea (that you use) of one notebook for everything… YES to writing itdown to remember it now. Perfect. But also, then to look through it later and decide what (in)action I need for a given thing. You’ve given me lots of great ideas. Thank you. For that and for helping me feel like I’m not alone in my sickness…

  2. Have you been spying on me and stealing my secrets? As I sit here I have three small (4×6) notebooks stacked beside me on my desk. To my left I have a Self-Publishing notebook standing beside a Grote Ink notebook beside a medium sized spiral–all for my author and book business (such as it is). They each had a particular purpose at their initiation, but I couldn’t tell you what it is today. On the desk directly in front of me is a spiral bound book I created about my mother’s genealogy. It belongs on the shelf behind me with three other similar books. I am updating this one and moving it to a three-ringed binder where I can move things in and out and around. On the book shelf in front of me are a couple of small photograph albums of my grandchildrens’ photos that I need to update, and a large incomplete photo album of some random year, perhaps 1994, where I was moving photos from old magnetic photo albums into better archival ones. Dust has been collecting on this project since we moved here 4-1/2 years ago. When I get it finished, it will join it many mates dating from 1980 to 1993 on the shelf in my closet, along with the remaining magnetic ones yet to be updated.

    I have sticky notes on my physical descktop, on my computer keyboard, and on my computer desk top. Don’t you love those?

    I do have many notes on my iPhone, and so far have not lost any, although from time to time I do scan through them and delete some.

    You do not want to have to work in my office. I don’t want to have to work in my office.

    I can’t decide whether to work harder and faster or to throw everything out and buy some yarn and knitting needles.

    • Let’s not get started on photos or photo albums, Christine… I am woefully behind on the old-school kind (from when my kids were younger…) and I just had to figure out how to back up my iPhone pics because I had OVER 6000 PHOTOS and I couldn’t take anymore. Like I said… best not to include photos.

      The sticky notes are the best, yes. As for the office, no, it’s shared with MEH so we both have our own clutter and then there’s the household stuff… thank goodness MY knitting needles, yarn, etc., are upstairs out of sight, but there is always the option to buy more (since I’m not sure precisely where they are).

      So in short, in answer to your question: YES. Yes, I have been spying on you and stealing your secrets.

  3. And I didn’t even mention the notebooks, haphazard stacks of papers and file folders for my WIP. They are all sitting on the credenza beside me. I’m in denial about all of that. I’ve been ignoring them. But the three binders and one spiral notebook devoted to photography are stacked rather neatly beside them.

    • Ah, the WIP… yes, there are the many folders, binders, and notebooks that go along with those, by their very nature. Again, luckily I saw those (and the neatly stacked binders & notebook) when I was spying 😉

  4. Julia – This humorous post is responsible for a face-splitting grin! I have two spots (and two spots only) for notes:

    1 — if I’m at my laptop (MacBook Pro), I type my thought/note in a TextEdit document titled “Ongoing.” It’s probably a mile long. The cool thing is, when I need to find something, I simply use the search function and Voila, it’s right there at my fingertips. And everything is backed up with “TimeCapsule” (an external backup drive) so I know it won’t get lost.

    2 — my composition (yes, the old-fashioned black and white kind) is where I write notes when I’m not at my laptop. It has its own spot in the outside flap of my (Baggallini) purse. Known for it’s thoughtful organization (designed by flight attendants), the flap has a magnetic closure so it’s not going to get lost either.

    By keeping it simple, I know for certain that if the note I’m looking for isn’t in one place, it HAS to be in the other.

    • Laurie!!! I love the laptop idea for the text edit doc. I may adopt that (or with a sticky) because I use Time Machine so I know it will be backed up. Such a great idea! Thank you for that and for saying I made you smile… always a huge compliment!

  5. Yikes! This makes my obsessively organized self want to break out in hives. I could never deal with that many different places for things. I love notebooks too, but I limit mine to fictional things. I enjoy drafting poems by hand, for example, rather than typing. And I like to brainstorm by hand too, so each new novel gets its own notebook and binder (I like physical research as well; you can’t beat highlighting photocopies). But organizational notes — calendars, to-do lists, submission charts, etc. — all go on my computer. I use Dropbox so I can view any of my documents on my phone from anywhere at any time. And I use Evernote so I can keep one to-do list where everything is always in one place. Evernote syncs between my phone and computer, so I always have the most recent version no matter which device I’m using. If I have a story idea or thought to look up while I’m not at home, I make a note of it in my master list in Evernote, and then, if necessary, I transfer it to another document the next time I’m on my computer. I’ve also jotted down poems and blog topics using Evernote. I like Dropbox and Evernote not just because they consolidate my info so I don’t double-note or lose things, but also because they save paper, space, and time. You can get a basic version of both for free; I highly recommend them!

    • See!?!? This is why I wrote this post! I need to hear from people like you who (despite almost breaking out in hives) are able to give me sensible and complete methods of dealing with the whole life shebang. BTW, I didn’t mention that I do keep submission charts and calendars on my phone/laptop, so I’m wondering if part of my problem is I’m a hybrid between paper and technology. I’ve not figured out the seamless interaction (like you have) so I’m going to read and reread your comment to see what makes sense for me to implement. One question that immediately pops out to me… what do you do when you’re driving? Another… if you have a longish thing to keep a note about, but you only have your iphone with you, do you use Evernote? I’m definitely going to check out both Evernote and Dropbox, which may well solve my “too many notebooks” problem. Too bad you aren’t closer at hand, Annie, I’d love an in person lesson! Thanks for all the tips! (But sorry for the hives)

      • Hehe, no worries. An obsessively organized person like myself is pretty used to living in a chaotic world. 😉 I can try to answer your questions, though! If I’m driving, I use voice command on my phone to open my Evernote app, then I dictate my note. It’s not always perfect (voice to text rarely is), but it’s usually close enough for me to transcribe later. Similarly, if it’s a longer note I want to make, I’ll just open a new note in Evernote instead of putting it within my master list. You can make many different “notes” in that program, and they all sync, so it’s no problem to make separate “files,” if you will. I like to keep things in one note simply because it’s easier to keep track of what’s new and what’s to-do, but if I have a particularly long note I’ll still start a new one sometimes (and then transfer it to a Word document when I’m back at my computer). I’d be happy to give you lessons if we lived closer! As is, if you run into anything I can answer through email I’m always happy to!

        • I’m getting closer to a simpler system — and your help and notes have been great. I will definitely be checking out and trying Evernote. I will definitely be honing the system and asking questions as I go. I think a huge part of the issue is that I’m kind of halfway between paper and digital and that creates issues. Thanks for the help!!

  6. Whew, I thought I was at least a little organized until I read this. Now, I’m chaos in a wind tunnel. I do keep small notebooks everywhere and even carry one when I walk, but they’re for writing purposes, especially poetry. For the world I’ve created for my series there are six large notebooks, but they’re desperately in need of updating. The number of loose papers shoved into them is exceeded only by the notes I’ve written in the margins. There also folders dedicated to various books. Folders also abound on my computer.

    The big difference, though, is in our daily lives. I make notes here and there, but otherwise there are birthday reminders and a calendar hanging on the wall. I do have a few lists going (music, books, authors, hashtags, etc.), but I keep them limited or they lose their effectiveness. It’s a thin line that separates organization that saves time and organization that becomes its own job and therefore a distraction.

    • >>>>”I do have a few lists going (music, books, authors, hashtags, etc.), but I keep them limited or they lose their effectiveness. It’s a thin line that separates organization that saves time and organization that becomes its own job and therefore a distraction.”<<< And this exactly hits the nail on the head. I am looking for that seamless organization that organizes me invisibly. Each of us has to come up with that on our own. Great comment, Christina!! Thanks for the POV!

  7. Chris says:

    Remember too, if not for notebooks there’d be no reason to obsess over cool pens.

  8. It sounds like too many places for things to rest. I kind of did the same thing — I’d get composition books and try to divvy it up between critiques, research, workshops, etc, and it was just too much work to figure out what was what. The notebooks always ended up stuck in a desk drawer and forgotten about, in favor of a handy Post-It or list pad.

    But it took asking exactly what I wanted to do with it, and what is a standard recommendation for the rest of the world wasn’t what I needed them for. I did need a place to jot things down, if nothing else simply so I didn’t end up with 20 Post-Its for some research notes scattered around. I also needed one place where I could find ideas, and not in a notebook that wandered around on its own. But I also needed an official record, because I want to start my own self-publishing business. That means a whole lot of documentation for the IRS.

    The result was two Moleskin notebooks. One is a weekly planner — left side calendar pages, right side notes page. Where other people are using the calendar pages for to-dos, I’m marking down the start date of each lesson on my writing workshop, writing word counts, and if I go anywhere for research. On the right side, notes for the writing workshop associated with that week (documenting that I took the workshop). I figure once I’m done with the workshop, I can either write ideas down in there as well, or add research notes if I go anywhere like to the historic distillery.

    The second notebook is a hardback one. I went with Moleskine because most of the notebooks available are 1) Too corporate, 2) Too high school, or 3) Too frilly/silly. I wanted something that looked professional and creative at the same time. Everything else went in there, like when I was researching clown history or waterfalls and trail heads of Hawaii. I didn’t need a lot, but I wanted to be able to refer to it as I was writing. If I didn’t have it with me but did have another piece of paper and an idea, I write it on the paper, then tape it inside the notebook. The book is labeled 2014-#(whatever number) so I can reference it in the planner (for the IRS man again) if I need to. I keep a general index in the back, mostly when I get around to it, in case I have to refer back to it. It’s actually made things simpler because it’s one notebook, not a bunch. I don’t have to think about which one I need; I just grab the only one.

    • I LOVE Moleskines! You’ve given me some great ideas, Linda — thank you so much! I especially like your indexing idea, I really need that, too. And I am experimenting with one master notebook myself right now… wish me luck! Thanks for the comment, suggestions, and for your visit to my blog!

  9. I’m with Annie on this one. I’m getting a little twitchy and nervous for you. 🙂

    As for me, I forgot what I ate for breakfast this morning so I would surely forget where all of those notebooks are and what each one is for. One notebook, one pen — with me all the time. When that notebook is full, I start a new notebook. The only note in my phone is my (ever-growing) TBR list. That way, I don’t run out of pages and can add to my heart’s content!

    • Haha, sorry for the twitches all around! I’ve started experimenting with one notebook this week… it’s working so far. Although I still need to figure out the misc. notebooks that I’ll only refer to once in a while. I love the “one notebook, one pen” slogan, and I’m pretty sure we can take that far — I sense a business opportunity 🙂 And the iphone list for TBRs is a good one. MEH suggests a list I keep in the cloud so I can find it on whatever device I’m near. Thanks for the great ideas, Jackie!