journal organisation (for the disorganised)

From the outside looking in, I imagine many people would describe me as a highly disorganised person. My desk is always very messy. I don’t make lists. I don’t have a diary. I don’t use any sort of formal system for organising my time or my activities. I dislike categorising and hate filing. When I worked as an academic, I was never able to use a filing cabinet for its allotted purpose (though I did find them useful for storing tea, mugs and knitting projects). I’ve never enjoyed keeping a formal diary for any purpose: the space assigned to each day is too small, or too big, and I am either stressed out just by looking at a day or week with loads of stuff squashed in or feel rebuked by the blank spaces of weeks in which nothing has been recorded or occurred. For a year or so as a young academic I tried managing myself with a filofax and absolutely hated it. It just felt over-organised to me: I would record a ‘to-do’ item in the ‘notes’ section and later discover I couldn’t find what I had been trying to remember because I didn’t know where I’d put it. Using a diary, or a filofax, or any sort of organisational system, I’ve always experienced the system’s need to categorise information as a very particular kind of pressure. What if I record something in one category, then find it has been incorrectly classified? Should I record the thing in three or four separate places to ensure it can be found? What if the categories under which a thing has been recorded spawn new sub-categories? What if the categories themselves become redundant? Such attempts to organise information – or organise myself – always remind me of the problem the great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges raised in his often-cited story The Analytical Language of John Wilkins which, as he puts it is “that there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and full of conjecture.” To illustrate his point, Borges cites a fantastical, absurd, and completely pointless taxonomy of animals from a (fictitious) “certain Chinese encyclopedia”

*Those that belong to the emperor
*Embalmed ones
*Those that are trained
*Suckling pigs
*Mermaids (or Sirens)
*Fabulous ones
*Stray dogs
*Those that are included in this classification
*Those that tremble as if they were mad
*Innumerable ones
*Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
*Et cetera
*Those that have just broken the flower vase
*Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

So how do I – a constitutionally messy person who is also a genuine advocate of the journal as a useful organisational tool – organise myself at all?

At the top of this post, you’ll see a small selection of the many different journals I’ve kept from my teenage years to the present. These journals have been used to make notes in classes and lectures, write terrible poetry, keep a record of my mental health, remind myself of things I have to do, copy quotations, explore ideas, store information, sketch a design, form calculations about a sleeve cap while I’m knitting it, develop a solution for inserting a pocket, save a thought or turn of phrase, or (as in the example above), record a random and never-pursued idea for a child’s cardigan involving an anteater and some ants (I have no idea how the anteater was to be rendered, and you can see I moved on pretty rapidly to making another cardigan, Mini Manu)

(sleeve cap calculations)

My journals contain many different kinds of material. But looking back over them, their (simple) organisational principles are the same.

1) Put everything in one place
2) Find a way through the material retrospectively
3) Decorate for fun (and visual cues)

So my first principle is to just put everything in one place. That is, when you have a new idea, or a new thing that you need to record, don’t worry about where it needs to go, or how it should be categorised – just start on a new page, or draw a line under the last item in the journal and record it. It doesn’t matter at all if this thing is of a different kind (or category) to the last thing that you wrote or drew . . . just write it down, in its new place, and record what you need to about it.

Thus in one journal from about 6 years ago you’ll find my first thoughts for the design that became Betty Mouat (which I’d first envisaged in a herringbone pattern)

. . . and turning the page, there are lots of notes about the history of Shetland lace, which I was researching for a piece I was writing for the Rowan Magazine.

“knitters in Unst just keep on knitting through it all” indeed!

So how on earth would I find my notes about the history of lace if I wanted to consult them later? Well, I simply left the first four pages of this journal blank, and used it to record a table of contents. With the table of contents, I always know Betty Mouat’s beginnings are on page 30 and the lace thoughts begin on page 34. All of my journals have a table of contents and they are the key way that I’m able to find my way through my material retrospectively . And my second method of finding what I need to quickly is just as simple: mark the relevant pages in a way that makes sense to you.

I used to use post-it notes for doing this, but they’d often fall out and get lost. Now I use washi tape.

Washi tape has the advantage of being colourful and decorative – and with a couple of pieces you can quickly code and categorise different kinds of information that might be spread throughout the journal in a way that makes things easy to locate. And as well as being an organisational tool, washi tape is also one means of decorating for fun (and visual cues)

The changing styles of decoration of my journals really amuse me. Here, for example, is the journal of a fifteen year old CND member and a seventeen-year old who liked cartoon cats as much as she did Robertson Davies. By the 1990s I’d moved on to William Morris . . .

And then I started to use Moleskine notebooks . . . and most recently, Leuchtturm dot-grid notebooks, like our Knitting Season one.

The decoration of these journals is mostly on the inside!

My put-everything-in-one-place principle has also been at work here on this blog, over the eleven years that I’ve kept it. Thus I’ve never kept a separate blog for (say) health matters and another for design. I just write what I want to when I want to and then the blog has its own ways – rather similar to my journal’s tables of contents and washi-tape flags – of organising and locating the material retrospectively. So, if you were so inclined, you might find all of my posts by date, by tag, or by a simple keyword search, and if there’s a post you aren’t interested in reading, you can just leave it and move on. I suppose what I’m saying is that I’ve never found it particularly useful to categorise and sub-divide my thoughts while I’m actually having them (and perhaps too, that I experience any attempt to categorise and re-categorise as an active impediment to creative thought. That said, it is useful to be able to find things again, and as long as there is a table of contents, a keyword search function, or a tell-tale piece of washi tape, I will be absolutely fine.

I’m not suggesting by any means that you should regard my three organisational maxims (such as they are) as any kind of ‘system’ or path to follow. Rather, I share my basic principles as just one example of how it is possible to be constitutionally messy; to operate in ways that many other people find curiously disorganised and yet to be able to use a journal as an effective organisational tool.

Yours, in productive mess . . .