The One Where I Gush about Notebooks / by Will Ringland

You are only as good at a thing if you practice. And practice only happens if you make it as easy and simple as possible to do it. It took me a number of attempts before I landed on the best way for me to keep on my Virtue Project. Hopefully I can offer some wisdom to save you some time.

Keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you.


Purpose-built journal

I started with a custom bulid journal created by The Art of Manliness in 2014, a christmas gift from my amazing wife. The book is exceedingly well made. The book itself is memo style dimensions - tall and skinny so it can fit in a pocket -with perfect bound, heavy-weight paper that takes any kind of ink very well. The pages are lightly textured and sport a off-white tone rather pleasing to the eye. They also offer a beautiful leather cover to keep the notebook in tip-top shape over daily use. I have a review of it on my person blog at if you'd like to read more.

The immediate benefits are clear, especially if you're choosing to follow Franklin's virtues wholesale. You can pick this up and jump right in on any day of the week. You have your grids, your virtues, and even a structure for revolving review, discussed in a later article, so you don't need to think about it. The journal also offers the extended daily questions that Franklin asked himself which you can also take up if you want to take this to the next level.

Overall, it's a tidy, beautiful package for those of you not wanting a hassle.

The biggest drawback is a lack of flexibility (both literally and figuratively if you read my review above) and the price. The books are solid and well built and come with a commensurate price (note you can get just the notebooks without the leather cover to reduce the cost). Quality built materials should reflect the care and craft put into them and I absolutely beliueve they are worthy the cost. If ray them, I think you'll agree.


(This is part 4 in a multipart series. See the other posts here!)

Pocket notebook

The second-easiest and the most flexible, and much more plentiful these days, a simple pocket notebook can work to track your virtues. I am a personal fan of Field Notes Brand note books. They are well made,simple, and durable. The basic notebooks come in many rulings, are inexpensive, and will stand up to moderate use.

They even have a version designed for arctic explorers. If you're going to use the hell out of your notebook, you may want to spring for the Expedition edition. I think you'd have a hard time destroying one of those.

This was the second method I tried in my project. Having the freedom to use any virtues and design any tracking method in an open notebook can be invigorating for some. Death for others. I, for one, cannot draw a straight line to save my life, let alone having to draw a 13x7 grid every week.

My personal solution to my terrible drawing abilities was to print and cut itty bitty virtue grids to place in the smaller notebooks. Pictured here was a planner notebook I used in 2015 in an attempt to add some Order to my life. It, too, did not stick despite being more plug-and-play.

If this looks useful, you can download the spreadsheet (.xlsx)  here . 

If this looks useful, you can download the spreadsheet (.xlsx) here

Personality type drives adherence to this open a method. While I am a fan of nice stationary - I use paper and fountain pens to take notes at work and have a small (hah) collection of inks sitting on my desk. As much as I like writing with paper and pen, having to recreate the grid by hand or even in a printer every week was just enough friction in the process that I did not stay with it.

That may be exactly the sort of thing you love, however, and drawing out your grids may bring you that much closer to the project. Me? Not so much

Digital Notebook

The proliferation of technology has given many people in the world access to inexpensive, useful smartphones, tablets, and other portable technology. Smartphones and tablets in particular offer great flexibility and easier, unbiquitous capture for your daily virtue grids as most of us always have a phone.

We’re all so accustomed to taking them in and out of our pockets that marking up a virtue grid should provide little friction. From my own attempts, any application you use needs to meet the following criteria or, I assure you, it won’t work in the long run. There are a few key things to consider in any application, any method really, you choose

Nice to use

Usability is the most important. If the application isn’t simple, obvious, pretty and fun to use, you simply won’t. An application can be as powerful as you like it but if you can’t recall how to add new data or spend all your time tweaking your build, you’re avoiding the real work. This is a Virtue Project not an admin build project.

But yes, prettiness and fun matter. Maybe not as much to you as to me, but if an app is ugly to look at, I’m not going to bother. Even if it is easy to use.

You have to want to use your tracking tool. Otherwise you just won’t

Ubiquitous access

What ever you use needs to be available on all the tools you have be it iOS, Android, Linux, Windows, or what have you. The more readily available your tool, the more likely you’ll do the work wherever you are. Do not underestimate how hard it is to go get your phone when you're at your desk and working.

There are, of course, many options for aspplications you can use both first and third party for any operating system. I'll focus on the ones that I've used because I'm familiar with.

Evernote: This is the single most flexible note-taking application I think I have ever used. It’s probably reductive to call it simply a “note taking” application as it has greater capability as a general organizational database. You can throw any file type at it and it will allow for easy future retreival.

And Evernote is everywhere. Evernote has a web portal, desktop macOS and Windows applications, iOS and Android applications that work across form factors. For Android, Evernote is available on most of the recent Android operating systems as well. And with both online and offline access options, your notes can be with you all the time. It is the most ubiquitos of all the options.

Day One: I like a nice notebook and pen, I prefer a nice writing environment and have been using Day One by Bloom to track my virtues for the longest. It is available as a web application, desktop macOS and iOS application. So if you're using primarily the Apple ecosystem, you're covered.

It offers an expandable journaling structure and tagging system that makes entry as well as recall simple. Plus, it can integrate with other applications to import or auto-generate entries with a consistent template. That is, it can talk to other scripting applications like IFTTT so you can join it with other things to: Pull in Instagram photos Log your tweets Or remind you to fill it out on your phone or buy email or pretty much anything you can think of.

Supernerdy options for Day One.

For example, a workflow/automation application called Workflow on iOS allows me to launch a questionnaire from my iPhone’s home screen that asks me about my virtues. These answers are dropped into a Day One entry within my Virtue journal book which then synchronizes to all my devices. Enter once, available everywhere.

Apple Notes: The simple notetaking application Apple released with the iPhone has expanded to other Apple devices and opertating system. It is extraordinarily simple to use and can synchronize to all your Apple devices as well.

Task Managers

One thing I found useful was integrating my Virtue reminder/review structure into my daily task management application. Using a task manager was a direct result of improvements in Order and Industry efforts to be more productive at work. This quickly spread to manage all aspects of my life, including long term., persistent goals like my Virtue Project. What better way to remind me to be virtuous than the soiftware keeping me on task?

My usage started simply. I the morning when I opened my task manager, I'd add that week's Focus Virtue as a task to the day's To Do list. Every time I opened it, there it was, staring me in the face. It's hard to spend money when you have at the top of your To Do FRUGALITY in bold, block letters. (Maybe I don't need another latte....)

A point of caution for those of you wary about this project and who use a task manager: don't hate your system. The undertone for this article has been use things you like. Your tracking tool should be something you want to use. If you struggle with your task manager or, worse, start hating your task manager because it shouts MODERATION, pick a different system. Once you get the swing, maybe you can integrate them later.

Self-improvement isn't an easy task but you shouldn't hate yourself or your tools while doing it. You're trying to be a better you.

Neither hate nor self-loathing are welcome here.

In the next article, we'll talk about cycles and how to focus on your virtues.