The One Best Habit


One of Hemingway's early notebooks

One of Hemingway's early notebooks

I love looking into the private daily routines of great performers, from da Vinci to Dickens to Dave Matthews. Part of it is pure voyeurism (they eat what for breakfast every day?), but a larger part is to treat their lives as a detective story. What are they doing that helps them perform so well? What clues can we detect?

Most of us instinctively look for Big Clues. Are they tightly disciplined, or do they work only when the spirit moves them? Are they from happy families, or tragic ones?  Are they hermits or do they fly around in a social whirlwind?

And it usually turns out (surprise!) there’s really not much of a pattern. Some top performers are super-disciplined, some famously not. Some are from happy families; some sad; some are hermits, some social. Judging by this, it would seem that top performers are pretty much like the rest of us (except, you know, better).

However, there’s one small clue; one tiny, almost unnoticeable habit a striking number of top performers share. They keep a pocket notebook.

I’m not talking about a journal or a diary filled with reflections or dreams – this is a messy, working notebook that is with them all the time, like an appendage. (In da Vinci’s case, the attachment was literal – he tied it to his belt.)

The question is, why is a pocket notebook so apparently useful when it comes to developing talent?

Let’s count the ways:

  • It’s a handy net, to capture and organize ideas and facts that memory won’t hold.
  • It’s an organizing tool, to track their progress in various key areas. Ben Franklin famously graded each of his days according to his performance in 13 areas of virtue. At 79, Franklin wrote, “I am indebted to my notebook for the happiness of my whole life.”
  • It’s a testing ground for ideas – a safe, private place to try, fail, and try again. Mark Twain is a nice example of this. Look below how he uses his notebook to build one of his famous bon mots – failing twice before nailing it with “Modesty died when false modesty was born. (Which of ctwain_modestyourse, he would later toss off as if he’d just thought of it.)

That these top performers (along with so many others) avidly used pocket notebooks is not a coincidence. Their scribble-filled notebooks are the best example of their minds doing the regular, habitual gymnastics that build skill – reaching, testing, making mistakes, gradually improving. The notebooks are X-rays of brains that are improving themselves day by day.

All of this, of course, makes me wonder why in the world I don’t carry a pocket notebook. I sometimes jot notes on 3×5 cards or on my phone, but it’s not quite the same, since both lack the deep, layered feel of a real notebook.

What do you think?

(If you want to check out pages from 20 famous notebooks – go here )

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13 Responses to “The One Best Habit”

  1. Jason says:

    Hi, I really enjoy your posts, but cannot add your feed to my blog reader. Is there any way you can make it easier to possible to subscribe to your blog? Thanks! Keep up the good work!

  2. djcoyle says:

    Thanks a lot for the word — not sure what the issue is, but we’ll get cracking on that right away.

  3. I think that no matter the size of the notebook, because the ideas are the most important. Writing is a great habit.

  4. Thanks for this post and the link to the 20 famous notebooks. It’s fascinating to delve into working minds. I’d love to see what Richard Branson’s notebooks look like.

    Thoughts that aren’t captured immediately have a nasty way of disappearing forever. So I have paper with me whenever possible. I carry a notebook with 8″x5″ pages in my bag and scan the paper into PDFs with sensible names for future retrieval. When viewed on a 10″ or 12″ computer screen, the full page is readable. Try that with 8.5×11″ paper!

    In my suit jacket pocket, I carry a smaller notepad and spare pen to capture thoughts from people I meet. Electronic tools me take too long to use. However a smartphone is usually nearby as “Plan B”.

  5. Erik Long says:

    See for a variety of notebooks with waterproof writing paper. Match it up with a Space Pen, and you can take notes anywhere.

  6. djcoyle says:

    I like your system, Promod — especially the built-in redundancy. Thanks for all the great detail.

  7. Coach Dawn says:

    I used to think that I carried a notebook because I am forgetful and potentially disorganized, but now I’ve found that I’m a top performer. Huzzah!!

  8. Scott says:

    I like a couple of dozen index cards in a binder clip in my pocket, and stacks of them on my desk. Mindmapping to a higher power; not only can I draw connections between cards but A) I can actually move them around looking for connections and B) I can make piles, the third dimension. Also, if a list doesn’t fit on an index card, then it’s too big and/or too detailed.

  9. juan2thepaab says:

    Definitely agree. Although – to your last point – today the format may vary. There are currently many parallels to the physical paper notebooks traditionally used, e.g. on your Blackberry/iPhone you could write notes, record voicenotes, take pictures, video, etc.

    I, personally, prefer to write on physical paper, although now it is not always the most convenient option (who wants more stuff to carry around?)

  10. harish bhatia says:


    after years of toying with small note books settled with A7 size notebooks (real pocket size note books). and pencil to write. works all the time.


  11. Nick Crosby says:

    My productivity and creativity doubled when I began keeping notebooks. Everything you say in this post (thanks again for this fabulous resource) rings true: notebooks are a source for memorising facts, generating ideas, linking stuff, trying out and failing and recording outcomes. And capturing doodling/goofing/daydreaming stuff… 🙂

  12. Kristiaan says:

    Agreed. I cary a small daily notebook for things I need to buy at the grocery store to major life ahas that come to mind throughout my day. There is something about being able to check of or scratch out these items once completed that imparts satisfaction. As an exercise of pure creativity for my photography I will sit with a Moleskine flip notebook and do a free association exercise on one page and then decipher the free association into definable and actionable attributes of a photo-shoot. This allows me to not let the mechanics of a photo-shoot to get in the way of what should be a creative process and then at some point in time when I am able to follow through with the shoot I have a very detailed description of how it should be done. Sometimes several years will pass before I am able to act on one of these exercises. I do believe there is something about the creative process of handwriting these thoughts as opposed to typing them out. The handwriting for me becomes a creative process in and of itself.

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