The Notebook Purge

Stack of notebooks

They sit there in wait: on a shelf, on your desk, or hidden away at the bottom of a drawer. You know you really should do something about their presence, yet every time the urge overtakes you to shred them, to dump them, to get them out of your home or office, you tremble because you just can't do it, because what they contain could be valuable, or sensitive, or even sentimental, and you won't know unless you open up the binding. 'They' are paper notebooks, a longtime hazard of creators, thinkers, corporate executives, researchers, students, and homemakers everywhere.

While technology has grown leaps and bounds, particularly in portability, there's something about that pressure of pen to paper for quickly getting ideas out of mind and into the world. Nothing beats a notebook when it comes to working out problems, mapping out solutions, or simply noting reminders, contact details, and little bits of daily data you simply don't want to forget. For years, I carried a small notebook wherever I went, able to jot an idea or thought at a moment's notice. Actually, I still do it: while advances to technology have me more inclined to whip out a phone with Evernote for quick thoughts, a notebook goes with me to every coffee meeting, just in case I need to draw out diagrams or work out more complex issues. The downside of the notebook habit however, is as I discovered, one headache every information management professional has had to deal with at some point or other: a pile of notebooks with not nearly enough indexing as to what they actually held. Worse, the longer you’ve been using notebooks as information repositories, the more downsides: years of notebooks not only mean more pages to sort through to find what you need, but results in significant shelf space being used to keep everything together.

Cleanup then, is a must: particularly if you want to decrease your print holdings and shift as many records as you can into an an electronic workspace. The big problem however, is where to start. How long will it take? How much work will it require, and do you have the time? Looking at my own pile during an exercise in spring cleaning, more than once I wondered why I did't just toss them all to the shredder and be done with it. Every time I thought about it however, doubts creeped in: what was really in there? What if, in tossing the book, I also tossed that phone number I'll be searching for later? How safe would it be to toss them in the recycling bin; had a written down any passwords inside? Not the best practice I know, but all of us are human, and the thought of writing down an access code on the fly is exactly the sort of poor practice but unquestionably human thing to do. In the end, the choice is up to you: continue to keep writing in notebooks, going through pages during search exercise and stacking them away on shelves, or take control of the valuable information they contain and get organized.

If you're a business ready to ditch the piles here's a basic, but effective how-to:

Step 1:

Pick a day, any day. Set it in your calendar. This is not a job you'd like to see done, it is a job you will do, and set it as a priority. If time is a factor, book just one hour to start with: that will get things going, and give you an idea of how long this project will take.

Step 2:

Gather as many of the books you intend to clean as you can. Odds are, because a notebook purge isn't a regular activity, you have more than a few to go through; this is fine. Don’t be overwhelmed by the numbers: just take it one book at a time, and know that the more books you handle now, the less in the future you’ll have to deal with.

Step 3:

Go through each book, and classify the information within. For the basic purge, there are three good categories to use: Save it, Shred it, and Trash it.

  • Save it: These notes are the keepers: the bits and pieces of information that you know you'll want access to again, and cannot find elsewhere. This can include important memos that are still relevant, instructions or directions you regularly access, contact details or even sentimental writings, like that poem drafted waiting for a friend to arrive or food to cool. Saving this information will require work however, so be brutal: do you really need to keep it? Can the information be found elsewhere? Does it support proof of past actions?
  • Shred it: these are the notes you want to remove, but with more caution: account numbers, personal details, contact details for others not in your save it pile. Health, banking and social security data should definitely be in this pile, along with any information on customers that is not being saved, and not public knowledge. Play it safe here: if you know you want to get rid of the information, but aren’t sure if it is confidential or not, place it in the shred it pile.
  • Trash it/ To be recycled: slash the page with a pen, and plan for dumping. These are the notes that shall enter the recycling chain, the information never to be read again, yet not sensitive enough to worry about if a page slips on the sidewalk. Yesterday's grocery list, a reminder to make a phone call a week ago, and plans for your last trip away go here.

Step 4:

If you have a shredder on hand, grab the Shred it pile and dispose of your notes safely. If not, make plans for disposal: use an information security service, such as Shred Guard, or consider packing up the notes and getting them destroyed at a local service centre. Many print and paper shops, including FedEx Kinkos and Staples Business Depot, offer this service, and the costs reasonable for keeping information out of the wrong hands.

Step 5:

Select your Save it pile, and decide the best way to preserve those details. For some information, such as contact details, an update to your address book may be in order. For other pages, consider scanning to PDFs and saving as electronic files. For my own 'save it', top of the list were journal entries from my time in Kyoto: something I wanted to hold on to. Scanners are not hard to come by: at the office, the public library, or check apps for your phone. Advisable however, not to scan all into a single document, unless all of the save it information is related. Remember, this is your chance to get organized: if two pages would normally be saved in different folders, treat the scanned pages the same.

Step 6:

Dump the Trash it into the recycling bin: it's time for those pages to become something else.

Step 7:

Breath. The notebooks are gone; no longer can they fall into the wrong hands. The information contained is in a better place: anything you may need or use is now in a format and location you can easily find. Plus, the clutter is gone, and your information strategy is in better shape.

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