When the Spark Notebook got announced on Kickstarter I was first a bit hesitant as I have struggled before balancing digital and paper notes. But nonetheless I still always felt something was missing from the way I was currently going about planning my day and taking notes. My todos are all neatly organized in OmniFocus and I did most of my note taking in VIM as text files in a folder structure. This works quite well and I even can sync them with my phone. However I always felt too restricted when taking notes without being able to scribble. There are things that just somehow feel better when written by hand. I have tried to bring a Moleskine notebook with me all the thing but somehow I rarely actually take notes. So when I saw the Spark Notebook I was somewhat sceptical but the whole structure and design seemed really thought through and as if it could actually fit into my setup and fill the gaps I was having. So I decided to back the campaign and early February I got my 2 spark notebooks for 2015 and started using them.
How I use it
The arrival of the notebooks coincided with the first Monday of February for me. So that Monday morning I sat down to start to fill out my yearly, monthly and weekly goals. The notebooks had actually arrived on the weekend already. However other than looking at them quickly I didn't touch them but spent the weekend researching the intended use of the notebooks on the popforms site. I read about how to set the yearly theme, create goals for the month and how to plan your week. This first review probably took a whole hour or so for me because I had to do the whole thing. But it was actually a pretty good exercise and a great way to reflect a bit more about the things I have on my todo list. Since I've written my original blog post about OmniFocus, I've added a couple of useful perspectives and one of them is for planning my weeks and days. It's basically modeled after this blog post and shows all not on-hold or blocked projects from which I then pick things to work on every day. This perspective was the basis for my monthly and weekly planning with the spark notebooks. It reflects all my duties and obligations. For this first review after I set my yearly goals, planned my month to be in line with those goals (in an ideal world your work projects align with your yearly goals but in reality it's a healthy mix of things you have to do and things that bring you closer to your long term goals) and then planned my weekly tasks according to my montly plan I went on to time blocking. I grabbed my calendar and put all the meetings in the time blocking view of the spark notebook. I then went ahead and filled all slots (or most of them) where I didn't have meetings with blocks for things I wanted to get done from my weekly goals. And after this hour or two of planning I went into my week. The following weekly and monthly reviews were much quicker as I didn't have to do everything from scratch again. To the point where my weekly reviews take me between 15 and 30 minutes right now.
A somewhat big surprise was however that it turns out I can't plan my whole week with time blocks in advance. I did that for the first two and every time interruptions and unplanned work and meetings destroyed my carefully layed out plan. So now I timeblock the first 2 or 3 days of the week on Monday and then do it again on Wednesday for the rest of the week. And while doing that I literally put those blocks into my calendar as well so people see that I'm working on something during that time and that no meetings should go there if possible. I also stopped putting meetings in the spark notebook outline as it was somewhat a double maintenance of the same thing. So the calendar for me holds the daily outline of meetings and blocks of time where I wanna do work. And the notebook tells me how I have planned to spend those time blocks. This has worked pretty well for me so far and I definitely have more structured time than I used to.
Another great tool in the notebook are the meeting notes templates. They give you a structured form in which to write your notes down. Although I have some problems with this feature (see below) I've really come to like them for facilitating PostMortems. They are great for taking notes during the reconstruction of the timeline and the "Follow Up/Nest Steps" box is perfect for jotting down remediation items before transferring them to Jira. I don't use the "Main points" box as it doesn't make a ton of sense for PostMortems and I still rarely take notes in other meetings (something I definitely want to get better at).
Balancing it with OmniFocus
A point I was curious about when I ordered the notebook was how this could be balanced with my OmniFocus setup. I rely heavily on OmniFocus and everything that needs to get done has a place in there. And I really didn't want to end doing duplicate work. So for the first week or two it felt kinda weird. I was a bit confused about where to look for what to work on next and which things to track where and in which granularity. I started out with a pretty detailed time blocking setup in the notebook and followed that one closely. But that turned out to be too much. I found my natural balance there to put the higher level tasks/projects in the time blocks and then have the break down of those in OmniFocus. This means I can have the overview of what I am supposed to work on in a given time slot in the notebook and then just open OmniFocus to see what the next important part is for that project. Thus I still do my weekly review in OmniFocus and then go on to plan the week in the spark notebook picking things from the OmniFocus "Plan" perspective.
The natural balance there is that the spark notebook gives me the higher level overview of my plans that I was always missing in OmniFocus. It's a really great software for structuring lists, todos and break projects down into smaller things. But I have never figured out a great way to plan the higher level in there. And that's where the spark notebook fits in perfectly for me. So when I start to work in a time blocked slot, I check the notebook what I have noted down to work on during that time and then check OmniFocus for the next action on that project. This sounds a bit more tedious than it really is, often enough I remember what I allocated the time block for and don't need to open the notebook and even if I do, it's not a ton of overhead.
Short comings and things that don't work for me (so far)
After using the spark notebook for a couple of weeks now I have found a couple of things that unfortunately didn't work that well for me or that I was missing. None of them are a dealbreaker and I wasn't expecting everything to make perfect sense, since it's probably impossibly to make something work for so many people with different work and life styles.
The first thing that I was missing was more bookmarks. The spark notebook comes with 2 bookmarks to quickly find pages. I'm using one to mark my weekly time block table and the other one to mark the position of where I left off with meeting notes. However I would love to have at least two more to be able to quickly find the monthly overview and the project pages. Maybe even three to also quickly find the scribble pages at the end. And I would love it if the spark notebook also had a Moleskine style pocket in the back to put smaller cards and notes in.
Speaking of the meeting notes, I'm really enjoying the layout and it's extremely good for taking structured meeting notes. However the fact that there is only a limited number of them means that I'm constantly trying to decide if a meeting is important enough to "waste" a meeting page if there is a chance that I'm not taking notes at all (did I mention that I'm a poor notetaker?). Especially with the anxiety to run out of meetings notes in my spark notebook and then having to bring a second notebook to meetings. I don't think this is something that can be fixed within the spark notebook but I have to be ok with.
I have also yet to find a use case for the project planning pages and the scribble/free use pages at the end. My problem with the project planning notes is that it's easier for me to keep that part in OmniFocus (at least the task breakdown, I could definitely benefit from doing a more formal write up of the goals and notes write up) and easier to find as I don't have a bookmark left over to use for the project pages. Kind of the same goes for the free use pages at the end for me. I haven't really used them yet as I can't bookmark them and I'm afraid of running out.
The 30 day challenge is something I'm really torn on. I love the idea but it's been really hard for me to follow. I'm not sure if it's because it's a bit out of sight in the weekly plan (maybe I should account time for it in the time blocking more) or something else. But something I want to try there is to always mention the challenge as another weekly goal in the plan and see if that helps.
As I mentioned above, I also had to adapt my time blocking routine to do it twice a week as planning all time blocks for the week in advance doesn't work for me. I have so far also written down 6-7 goals per week as this seems to be the number of things I can actually find the time to work on. I don't always finish all of them and I might try to break them down more in the future.
While I haven't yet fully come to use all the features the spark notebook provides, it's really been a great addition to my planning tools. Especially since I've always missed a higher level planning overview with OmniFocus, this is where the notebook fits in great for me. It gives me a good sense of the higher level things I need to do and whether or not I have allocated time for it appropriately on a weekly level. I use both tools to plan work and non-work related things and the combination of the spark notebook and OmniFocus has definitely become crucial to my productivity.