Composition Book Hacks

composition books

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As much as I love my electronic tools, for a lot of things I still prefer paper. There’s something about writing, rather than typing, and being able to doodle and draw diagrams. There’s something about having a tangible object to handle and manipulate. Sometimes paper is just more convenient; if I need to write down information quickly and my laptop’s not booted up and I don’t feel like thumbing it into my phone, a notebook or 3×5 card is just handy. I also like to be able to easily see more than one thing, either by flipping between pages or laying out paper on the table. Maybe I’m old fashioned. I don’t care.

Composition Book Hacks

After messing about with various day planners and appointment calendars, I finally settled in on using ordinary composition books. They’re not as nice looking as fancy planners, but there’s not as expensive either. They’re smaller than 3-ring binders, which I used for a while, and that’s handy when space in my messenger bag is at a premium. They’re also highly customizable. Here are the small composition book hacks that I use.

1. Add a business card

I tape one of my business cards right on the cover. That identifies who it belongs to, and if I somehow lose it in a public place there’s a chance it could come back to me. Katie also insists that I decorate it with stickers; I prefer to keep those to a minimum. Because I’ve been spending a lot of time at the church, the example shown here ended up with some cross stickers. A comp book of mine is just as likely to have pirates, dragons, or word balloon stickers. I do try to keep it to a minimum, because I’ll haul this book with me through a variety of social and business situations and want to look at least moderately professional.

2. Mark the spine with a gel pen

If you use a comp book for a specific purpose, such as a journal, diary, recipe book, or taking notes for a particular class, writing on the spine with a gel pen allows you to easily put them on a bookshelf and tell them apart. As they fill the role of calendar/planner for me, I write the date on them.

I used to have a mental hangup where I thought I should have one book per month. It was wasteful and inefficient, because I would usually either have a lot of space left over, or not enough room. Because my needs varied from month to month, I switched to 3 ring binders for a while, but they were cumbersome, and if I wanted to keep my notes that solution got expensive and took up a lot more space. I finally figured out that I could simply write the start and end dates on the book, and begin a new book as needed. The example shown was begin on September 1st, so it just says “September 2011”. If I fill the book on October 15th, I’ll add that date so it reads “September 2011 – October 15 2011”. The next book will be labelled “October 16 2011” to whenever it’s filled.

3. Leave contents pages blank

The first 4 pages of my composition books are left blank, for use as a table of contents. I number pages as I fill them, and add to the table of contents. If I have to go back and find my notes for my Economics class, I can locate the entry labelled “Econ class 10/3/2011 — 17” and know they’re on page 17. This also allows me to use one notebook at a time, rather than separate notebooks for each class, project, or activity, which would require me at this point to carry about 10 notebooks.

4. Leave a page for upcoming appointments and deadlines

Because this isn’t a static page-a-day calendar, I can’t anticipate what page a certain day of the month will land on.  After the contents page, I leave a page for known events, such as birthdays holidays, deadlines, and events. This page usually gets tabbed, and in the example is the page with the visible tab. As things come up, I make a note there. When that day comes up, I make note of it on the page I create for my day plan.

If the book crosses over into another month, I may make a new page for that month and tab it for easy reference. In this example, I actually wrote all appointments and deadlines for September, October and November into the book, so I would have visibility farther out, and didn’t need to create a new page when October came.

5. Use folded 3×5 cards as bookmarks

This is something I’ve just started doing. If I’ve taken notes for a project but haven’t filled a page, or know I will have a meeting on the project soon and want to get back to it easily, I fold a 3×5 card in half and hang it on the page. If I have multiple pages marked like this, I may color them with marker or colored pencil so I can tell them apart. I used to use sticky notes or tabs, and sometimes still do, but those get expensive; I can buy 100 index cards for about 44 cents, and have other uses for them.

When I get back to a project with more notes, I start on the partially-empty page. At the bottom I write “continued on page xx”, whatever the next empty page is, and on that page I write “continued from page xx”, whatever the page for that project was. Then I update my table of contents. No wasted space, and it’s easy to move about in the notebook and find the notes that go together.

6. Create a pocket for 3×5 cards

I just tape a 3×5 card to the inside cover and use it as a pocket for more 3×5 cards. I’ve considered doing it sideways, so the open end faces the fold of the book, in order to get two pockets in there, one for blank cards and one for used cards. Most of the used cards get copied into the book, or entered into some other took like Evernote, so I don’t tend to keep them, which is why I continue to use only one pocket.

7. Make a pocket for assorted papers

In this example I taped some 3×5 cards together to make a sort of folder, with the opening toward the spine so the papers don’t fall out. In other books, I’ve cut old manila file folders to size and used them. Whatever is handy whatever will hold. I fold the 8.5×11 paper in half, and write what it is in the upper left so I can thumb through them to find what I need. A lot of these are class handouts, copies, and other things that end up getting filed later. If they’re supporting documentation for a project in the book, they likely stay in the book when it gets filed on the shelf.

If you use a 43 Folders-style system, you can write the date the paper needs to be dealt with on it, and place them in order.

7. Use a binder clip to mark the current page

Because I use the book as a calendar (among other things), I clip everything from the front cover to the current page together. You could just as easily clip the back cover to the current page, so you’re blocking blank pages and have access to previous notes. The reason I use the front cover is up next.

8. Clip the day’s documents to the front cover

If I have paperwork to give to someone, a bill I need to pay, outgoing mail that I don’t want to forget, I clip it to the front cover so it’s visible and, frankly, in my way. I don’t want to fumble with it, so it gets dealt with quickly.

9. Use it as a day planner

It’s not a structured appointment book, so I can’t flip to a particular day of the month. The upside is, I can take as many pages for a day as I need, and sometimes get multiple days on a page (I usually fit Saturday and Sunday together). As I write this, it’s evening. I know what I need to do tomorrow, so I started on an empty page, wrote down my appointments and required tasks. On subsequent pages I will write class notes, project notes, personal notes, lists, and so on, and the day after tomorrow may be several pages later. I love that ability. It’s so much better, for me, than only getting a page a day.

10. Use it as a focus list

I’ve talked about focus lists before. On the day planner-type page, I will also write my focus list for the day. These are the projects I want to do something with. It usually starts with a single word or phrase: “econ class” or “game prep”. As I touch each project, I make a note on the line behind it about what I’ve done to move the ball forward. Nothing detailed, as I may have more notes later.

Do you have any other ideas? Questions? Feel free to add to the conversation in the comments section.

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