When I was in high school, I carried around binders full of paper to take notes for every class. By the time I made it to college, binders had been replaced with laptops, and professors who banned laptops from their classrooms seemed like curmudgeons who had been paid off by the paper industry.
But there have actually been a ton of studies that show taking notes by hand can make you a better student, and many of the same principles apply in adulthood. What makes writing on paper so good? Taking what you’re hearing, processing it in your brain, and translating it into written notes helps you understand and remember material better, whether it’s a college lecture or your boss laying out Q2 goals. Typing is faster, and you can to capture more of the material verbatim, but that may not help long-term comprehension.
Notebooks aren’t just for work either. They can help you organize your personal life, record your memories or dreams, doodle and capture random thoughts or all of the above. Unlike your phone, which silos various tasks into apps, paper notebooks and planners can do anything pen and paper can do in one package.
That doesn’t mean every notebook is a blank canvas, however. There’s a wide world of sizes, shapes, prints and systems designed to fit different needs and workflows. Take the planner, for example. The most basic version is a paper calendar, but there are dozens of variations out there. If you’re the type of person who enjoys playing around with different productivity apps on your phone, you might also love checking out different notebooks and testing their place in your life.
There are more types of notebooks out there than I can count, and I can’t claim to have tried even a small percentage of them. Below, I’ve collected just a small sample of some of the notebook brands I’ve tried and loved as a starting point for your journey.
I used Muji notebooks throughout college, as they are incredibly cheap. A five-set of 30-page notebooks comes in at $3.00. For people who are just dipping their toes into integrating a paper notebook into their lives, Muji notebooks are a cheap way to experiment. If they work well for you, they’re high quality enough to keep using – people who like Muji notebooks won’t feel the need to upgrade to a more expensive brand.
Field Notes is one of my favorite paper products brands. While most of their notebooks are pocket-sized and ready for any use, they also make a few products designed for very specific purposes, such as “Front Page” for reporters or “Flight Log” for drone pilots. They also make quarterly special editions, and notebook lovers can get a $97 yearly subscription to grab all four special editions as they come out.
Panobook bills itself as a “panoramic notebook for your desk,” which basically just means it’s very wide, about as wide as a desktop keyboard. It’s a unique size and shape for a notebook, and useful for a wide variety of tasks. Every page features a dot grid, which works well for writing text, making checklists, or drawing quick designs. I can fit notes from my entire day on one page, helping me keep track of different tasks and ideas. Each Panobook (around $20 each, though you can get them for a few dollars cheaper when you buy in sets) comes with a keepsake slip case, making completed notebooks easy to catalogue.
The Storyclock Notebook is designed specifically for screenwriters to help them break down and outline stories, but it’s also useful for anyone who wants to tell a story. The first half of the notebook ($14.99 each, but available at a small discount in bulk) is dedicated to research pages – watch a movie, start tracking when specific plot events happen in the runtime, and learn how your favorite stories are constructed. Then use the second half to outline your own stories. The same company also makes a Storyboard Notebook for sketching out ideas.
Can’t live with the idea that your thoughts will be trapped on paper? Moleskine, the venerable notebook maker, has partnered with Evernote to create “smart notebooks.” Using the Evernote app, take a picture of these special pages to get a digital version of your notes automatically optimized and even categorized using “smart stickers.” These notebooks ($29.95 each) ended up being too much for me, but if you’re already in the Evernote system or appreciate a more complex organizational structure, they might be your new best friends.
If you’re looking for more notebooks to try out, I suggest checking out this excellent list by Supergrail. And, if you’re looking for digital ways to boost your workflow, check out our roundup of the best apps for freelancers.
Get essential money news & money moves with the Easy Money newsletter.
Free in your inbox each Friday.