Sunday, July 22, 2012

My Life in Small Notebooks

I live my life in small notebooks.  At work and at home, equipped with a small notebook, I make things happen.  Last week, I filled up my notebook at work, so I had to buy a new one.  I have two favorite places to buy small notebooks: Michaels and Target.  At Michaels, they usually have small notebooks for a dollar each, and I picked up three this time.  (They were so cute that I couldn’t resist!)

Three Small Notebooks

These notebooks will become my to-do lists at work.  I find that writing a to-do list is both pleasurable and useful.  I like putting pen to paper.  So much of my life takes place on a computer that the novelty of writing stuff down is fun.  I also find that having notes from most of my workdays is a handy record—phone numbers and random notes are not lost if I write them down in my small notebook.

I hate to confess this, but I bet it’s true for many of you, so here goes: I have trouble staying focused at work.  My work is very repetitive.  In science, often the goal is to get really good at something, then do it ten thousand times.  It can be difficult to stay excited about something when it’s no longer a challenging novelty, when your goal is to do it as efficiently as possible because you still have a ton of data to generate and analyze.  I use my notebook as a tool to stay focused, set goals, and keep track of how much truly useful work I’m getting done.  I can also use it as a record to gauge where my productivity is falling short or where my goals are just too ambitious for a given day.  For example, I’ve been trying to get at least six behavior sets analyzed over the last two days, but I’m averaging 2-3.  That number tells me that I should expect this set of experiments to require more time for analysis, regardless of my goal number.

At home, I use a small notebook to keep track of my spending.  I started doing this at the beginning of graduate school, and I’ve kept it up since then.  I learned to be anxious about money from my parents, and I can assure you, it is not pleasant.  But I’ve also learned that money is just numbers—numbers coming in and going out, income and spending.  By approaching my finances from an empirical perspective, I’ve been able to let go of some of that anxiety.  This is useful on all sorts of levels—it keeps me calm about unexpected bills, it allows me to be more generous with my loved ones, and it gives me a good idea of what my spending looks like when I’m simply going about my business.  I’m not really pinching pennies these days, but I may be in the near future due to funding issues with my job. 

Budget Notebook

I think my budget notebook is so pretty, and it is no exaggeration to say that I love writing in it.  In life, I will take all the motivation I can get.  If a beautiful notebook is all it takes to maintain my financial discipline, then it is an investment worth making—all $3-4 of it.

July 2012 Weekly

My budget itself is not very elaborate.  I’ve written about it before, and the take-home message is that a simply structured approach to spending works well for me.  Basically, I have a weekly allowance and a monthly allowance, and I’m happy as long as that total is $1600-1700.  I spend most of my allowance on food—seriously!  Between groceries and eating out, food is the adjustable category in which most of my spending takes place.  And I have no regrets about that either.  Food is pleasure, health, hobby, and sustenance to me.  I eat to live and I live to eat.  Somehow, by not being too frugal about food, it makes it easier for me to be disciplined about other spending.  For example, I’m being careful not to spend much money on clothing, in part because I don’t need much (except for a running skirt!) and because new clothes will still be there when I’m ready for them.  There’s no reason to buy stuff right now, and I’m making good use of the clothing I already own.

My small notebooks are my way of taking control of the things I can (sort of) control: my time and my money.  Control is a tricky concept, and I’m well aware of the fact that much of the world is beyond my control.  But in these small but crucial ways, I stake my claim to my own life, and it feels good.

Do you use small notebooks for anything?  To-do lists, journals, poetry, your budget?  Do tell—I’d love to hear!

PS  Another great small notebook:  I love this little blog!

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