Notebookology: The Client Project Notebook

Why Blog Notebooks?

I am a notebook nut, a fact confirmed by the regular photos I post in this space showing the pristine, shrink-wrapped, acid-free bundles of joy that arrive on my doorstep with obsessive-compulsive regularity.

But I have come to realize that those posts are not that helpful to people who, like myself, stopped using (or never used) notebooks in their lives, and are just starting to discover the joys of, shall we say, “archiving data in an analogue medium.” Notebooks are nice, many (including my family) have said to me, but how do you use them? (And “why do you need so many?”)

So I am going to start showing how I use notebooks, and talk a bit about how I fit them into my routine as a writer, a researcher, a consultant, a Scouter, and a family man. Hopefully, these will offer some useful insight.

The Project Client Notebook

The first example is the Project Client Notebook. A “project client” is a client who hires me or my firm for a limited time with a clear, concrete final deliverable aimed at a specific purpose, as opposed to a retainer client or client-of-record, who requires help over an extended period of time within a specific scope. We’ll talk about those later.

The Case

I kept client notes online in different applications for a long time. I used Word for a while, and I have tried Microsoft OneNote and Apple’s Notes app, but used Evernote the longest and still do use Evernote as my digital tool of choice. (I’ll talk about that more in a later post.)

I changed that habit when I had Micron as a client. My primary client contact insisted on everyone putting away all electronic devices at meetings. She regarded them a major distraction, and after a while we found she was right: you are appreciably more present in a meeting when the only things you can lay eyes on are the people in the room, the walls, the roof of the fab out the window, and the lined pages of the notebook before you.

Now I find that having everything about a client in chronological order in a single space is no less convenient than having it stored digitally, and in some cases is superior. I can reach up, pull the notebook down, flip through it, and be reminded of ideas or actions that I would have missed if I went straight to the page of notes.

The “Hardware”

The notebooks I choose for these are usually large enough that I can insert or append pictures, text, stickies, or other media without being so large as to be unwieldy. Experience has shown me that an 8-1/2 x 5-1/2 or A5 size notebook works best for this purpose. For this notebook, I chose a Denik Classic Layflat softcover. These are lightweight, nice looking, professional, and ideal for the job.

I go with lined paper because I do a limited amount of freehand drawing. I’ll also confess that my handwriting is miserable, so lined always works out best for legibility. I have friends, clients, and colleagues who prefer blank paper, and one former biology major who absolutely loves using using grid paper.

I start by putting a permanent sticker on the top of the spline which allows me to pick it out right away. In this case, the client had a name that started with “V” and was the only client I have had for a while with that letter, so the single letter sufficed. If you only have one notebook, you don’t need this, but once you have two of similar size and color, this will save you.

The Internals

I use the first page as a title page, with the name of the client and the project. On the inside of the front cover I put a sticker with my name and address, and put my phone number and a reward offer below. More on this in another post as well.

I will then start a contents page, but I will do it from the BACK of the notebook and work forward. That ensures that I don’t have to worry about how many pages to leave blank up front to enable me to list all of the pages in the notebook if I want. A complete TOC is MUCH more important for a client-of-record, when I may have to dig through several notebooks to find something, but it is hugely helpful for a project client as well, and a good habit to develop.

Page two is usually a listing of contacts: the client contacts with emails and/or phone numbers on top, and the contacts of my team members below. Should I already know my team contacts? Naturally. But I frequently work with outside consultants and contractors, so I often don’t have their information readily available, and I want to be ready if they ask me for the contacts of other team members.

Page three is a listing of key project milestones and dates, all the better to have in one place. The milestones don’t change that often, but the due dates will, so I’ll often do the dates in pencil.

Next is a client glossary. Nearly every client I work with has a semi-proprietary vocabulary of specialized terms, in-house abbreviations, and unique phraseology. These are essential to capture, not just for my own sanity, but to help onboard new team members if the need arises.

Beyond that lies the core of the book. Pages will include:

  • Meeting Agendas
  • Meeting Notes
  • Mind maps of different issues
  • Photos (instant or printed) of whiteboards from meetings
  • Workback summaries (actual plans themselves in Excel or
  • Notes to myself with random thoughts and ideas about the project
  • Brainstorms, both individual and group.
  • Snippets and paragraphs that need to go into a deliverable or critical correspondence with the client
  • Draft outlines of reports or other deliverables
  • Time-tallies to help with timesheets or billings
  • Work assignments
  • Post-its – sometimes I do grab a random idea on a post-it. The key is not to lose it, but also, at some point, to transcribe it into the notebook.
  • A parking lot with check-boxes next to ideas and a postit flag so I know to come back and capture the ideas for later action
  • Whatever else I want to make sure I don’t lose

I started this system fairly recently – about a year ago – and I continue to refine it, but it has proven a blessing. The more I put into these notebooks, the more useful they become.

If this approach looks good, I suggest you start simple, and refine into your own system. If this seems overly complex for your projects, don’t start with a notebook of this size – maybe a 48-60 page softcover or even a Field Notes-type pocket notebook instead. You won’t waste as much paper, and you’ll be able to keep the system intact. Remember: half the value is keeping notes for a client project separate and easily referenced rather than dumping them into a computer filing system or including them as a part of your regular notebook.

Above all, have fun, be productive, and share your learnings.

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