Engineer’s Notebook

Engineer’s Notebook

I record daily activities, notes, thoughts, diagrams, ideas, some reference material and special insights in their own paper notebooks.  If you were going to jot something down on a scratchpad, put it in here.  Document who you were collaborating with.  Why?  When I am in stand up meetings or talking with customers I go the paper route because I can simply open up the journal and write.  Also, it is less intimidating and error prone than having a computer between you and the people you’re talking with.

Use a pen.  Erasing and re-writing is too much work and will slow you down.  Simply, draw a line through the erroneous material and continue on.

When it comes to choosing a paper journal it is a very personal decision.  Many people like the Moleskine line of journals.  Ecosystem makes similar more colorful journals of the same format.  The things to consider when choosing a journal are:
  • Size.  Will I have it with me when I need it?
  • Do I want one that lays flat?
  • Does it utilize a closure of some kind?  Will it be a pain to open and close?
  • Does it have a pocket in the back for small papers?  Do I care about that?
  • Do I want plain, ruled or grid paper?
  • Do I want a few pages or lots of pages?
Personally, I use a journal that is made by Miquelrius.  It is about 6 inches wide by 8 inches tall and about an inch thick.  It has rounded corners and the pages are grid ruled.  Having the grid rule makes it easy to sketch out design ideas.  Another nice thing about this page size is that you can easily “scrapbook” in index cards or ever so slightly trimmed down print outs.
Create a margin on the outside of every page.  Put a date in the margin when you start a new entry.  You may want to add the time as well.  Some days there isn’t much to note and I’ll continue on the page with the next day.  In that case I draw a horizontal line between days to make it more visible.  The margin can be used for icon style call outs, indicating action/todo items, work partners, work times and post activity summaries or thoughts.

It is my experience that page flags get caught on things and torn up.  Bookmarks fall out and get lost.  Therefore, I recommend using Book Darts—small metal pieces that can be used to mark your page and point to a specific line.
With so many thoughts and notes recorded in your journal you’ll want to add your contact information inside the front cover with an offer of reward if returned.

I’ve experience quite a few benefits from keeping this journal.  For example:
  • Meeting action items and decisions documented and easily formally distributed.
  • Look at back at project notes from years ago and see what was done and why.
  • Able to reproduce work flow for prior infrequent work.
  • Able to identify collaborators for project work.
  • Identify when software was installed on a machine and what versions.
For long term, shared electronic notes I utilize OneNote.  It is available on a wide variety of platforms now.  Notebooks can be local only on some platforms or synced to the cloud.  It lets you bring together your project notes into a portfolio style view.
OneNote provides numerous ways for getting information into it:
  • Typed and handwritten notes (it supports inking!)
  • Custom screen capture feature
  • Insert a picture from a file or camera!  (Use the camera to bring in notes from your journal.)
  • On Windows OneNote can OCR your inked writing, handwriting or print inside of images for search.
  • Print to OneNote
  • Drop in documents
  • Link to web pages
  • Voice notes
  • Drawings by hand and assisted
I would also suggest that you not use a single journal for all your needs.  Use one for work, one for the research you do outside of work.  In addition, consider a free form journal for capturing personal thoughts, events and accomplishments.

There are many good reasons to start and maintain an Engineer's Notebook.  Get a journal today and start the habit!