From the Green Notebook

Lead with the best version of yourself.

How to Organize Your Notebook For Success

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By: Jeremiah Hurley

I grew up in an Army where pen and paper were as important uniform items as your pants. In the right hands, a pen and paper are powerful tools. As great as you think your memory may be, it’s not perfect – you need to take notes. The most successful people I know have highly developed systems on how they organize those notes. There is no right or wrong answer on how to do this; however, there are best practices that have made me more effective over time.

Here are some tips that I provide to every new member of my team on how I approach this:

Use a notebook. You will lose the notecards, post-it notes, and random pieces of paper. The pocket organizer / journal / notebook market has exploded with tons of options to help people do this. All you really need is a durable cover and paper, the rest is just marketing and a huge price markup.

Segregate by purpose. I maintain three notebooks at any given time, each with a specific purpose.  The first is my reading notebook. I use it to capture notes  or thoughts from whatever I’m reading. I found that that there was no easy way for me to go back and review highlights and margin notes from the previous books that I’ve read. So keeping them all in a single notebook helps me go back and reference them more easily. The second notebook is dedicated to leadership observations and thoughts. I used to have these spread throughout various notebooks, and as I prepared for battalion command, I found that it was nearly impossible to find them. I now capture them in a single notebook. The third and final notebook is my ‘uniform item.’ This is the notebook I take everywhere – on vacation, the grocery store etc. I use this book to capture notes from meetings, to do lists, random thoughts or ideas.

Key things first.

Inside front cover. I write the start and end date for the notebook and what position I’m in. Under the dates, I keep all the key contact information for those I regularly communicate or the key leaders that I would need to call in the event of an emergency.

First few pages. I make a table of contents and number the pages in the notebook as I go. You can buy a notebook with pre-numbered pages but all the ones I’ve seen usually cost an extra $5. Not a lot of money, but it’s wasted money.

Last couple pages of the notebook. I keep track of every key event that happened while using the notebook.  This could be a key training event, commander’s critical information requirements, action brief etc. I’ve found this really helpful when writing awards and evaluations for subordinates, my evaluation support form, and more importantly, it serves as a quick reference to find things in my email inbox (don’t forget to add the date to the event ex. PLT LFX 7 JUL [platoon live fire exercise 7 JUL]).

Inside back cover. Every book recommendation I get I put here until I can add them to the app on my phone.

Organizing the notebook. I use sticky tabs to divide the rest of the notebook into a few sections. What sections you use depends on your job. Here are a few suggestions that have worked for me in the past:

Requests for Information (RFIs) – This is pretty self-explanatory, but anything I couldn’t answer immediately when asked goes here so I remember to follow up with an answer later. As I started doing jobs where I wasn’t a subject matter expert in the things I was being asked, I broke this into two sections: RFIs to my unit and RFIs from my unit. This helped me avoid multiple phone calls to people when I found another RFI a few pages later in my notebook.

Tasks – Things I have been asked to do or have tasked someone else to do. This also had the key information who gave the task, their suspense and who is responsible for answering.

Notes – Every meeting, video teleconference, chance encounter or random thought / suggestion. You won’t remember it all, write it down. That is why you have a notebook.

Before I figured out the tabs, I tried using different color pens. I wasn’t quick enough to change pens in meetings and ended up using up lots of paper by rewriting in the correct color later (and looked like a weirdo trying). I’ve tried using highlighters at the end of the day to do the same thing. That just made the ink smear and made it really hard to read. I found tabs to be pretty easy and you can move them around the notebook if you miscalculate the number of pages you need in a section (this is why the table of contents is important).

This is a pretty structured technique and will seem awkward when you first start. Most of the incremental changes I made came from awkward moments where I’m flipping through pages in a notebook to answer a question for my boss (or his boss). The structured system lets me navigate right to the information I need. Play around with different techniques to find what works for you. Don’t be afraid to change up your system if it’s not working – they are your notes.

LTC Jeremiah Hurley is an Infantry officer with multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations.  He has experience from the platoon to 3-star joint headquarters level.  

13 thoughts on “How to Organize Your Notebook For Success”

  1. This is great and I love the methodology. The other thing I started doing with my notebooks was every month (or quarter) taking a picture of all the pages and uploading those to Evernote. With OCR technology, now all my notes are not only backed up but searchable. A great way to amplify the utility of years of notebooks.

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  2. I love this kind of information,useful. I am x-LE from a long time ago and I used to have 4×6 loose leaf notebook with rings across the top. I used scotch tape and small bits of paper to make my dividers. Unfortunately these kinds of notebooks are no longer available, don’t know why as they were very useful. I am going to try the temporary dividers you mentioned and see how they work. Again great article, more like it if you can!

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  3. What a great post! Sure wish I had known those tips back when I was still in the military. My productivity probably would have increased because of the positive increase in organization.

    Now that I am out of the military, I have transitioned to more of the school-year college-ruled composition notebooks. Since my short time in the corporate world, I haven’t had much need to take many notes on stuff. My hopes are that as I grow and establish longevity, I will earn more responsibility and tougher assignments in which note-taking and organization will become more important.

    The author was certainly enlightening on a subject that most probably find insignificant. 100% agree with Steven F Franks…more like it if you can!

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  4. I have 137 Army Green Notebooks that chronicle my career for the last 40 years. It is often illuminating to go back and read what I was thinking as a young Captain or Major. And as warfare changes it iften comes back around, so hang on to your old notebooks. I even have a note where a young LT Joe Byerly asked me a tough question!

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  5. Nice article! I stopped using a notebook this year and kept everything you mention above in a notes app on my phone, you might have convinced me to return to form. Thanks!

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  6. On a similar subject, are pens or pencils recommended for note taking? If pen, do you recommend a gel pen or a ballpoint pen?

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    • I always use a pen. I like the permanence- almost a call to action. Type is up to you, whatever doesn’t smear is where I lean. (But I’m a pen snob!)

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  7. Great article that I’ve spent years trying to find. I retired from the Navy in 2005 and with all the leadership training we had to take, not once did they mention note-taking, only writing evaluations, fitness reports, counselings, and report chits. The Naval Institute Press publishes an Officers Guide and Chief Petty Officers Guide that mentioned having a little 4×6 binder with your personnel’s personal and professional information in it but that was it. Unfortunately the Navy didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a Petty Officers Guide that had leadership information like the officers and chiefs had with keeping a notebook. The last leadership course I took in 2000, the Navy finally started talking about having E6’s submit point papers, before then it was only desired for chiefs and officers to submit point papers. From my understanding from a master chief who was frustrated with the Navy’s lack of leadership training at the lower levels, he told me the Army desires point papers from all NCOs not just senior NCOs and officers.

    I noticed when working with the Marines, some of them would have the Green Book but I never thought to ask about it. Years later I noticed the Army at Fort Eustis also carried the Green Books so I thought there must be something in common. I had an ex-Marine supervisor after I retired and he carried a 4×6 RITR wire notebook but I never saw him write in it and the few times I saw it open I never saw anything written in it other than a large yellow Post-It Note with bullets.

    So I spent several years searching the internet every now and then trying to find out what the Green Book was used for. I assumed it was some sort of day planner but since I never saw what was written in one I could only guess. I found the Ranger’s Guide but it only mentioned the Leader Book but no details of what went in it. Finally tonight I found an article that had some insight on the Green Book.

    I still don’t know how the Marines or Army folks used the Green Book before the Bullet Journal became hot although I know the bullet journal concept is much older than Ryder Carroll’s version because I knew people back in the ’80s who used a bullet journal method. Mr. Carroll’s version of cross-referencing and indexing is very similar to Hyrum Smith’s Franklin Planner that he created in 1984 that he himself said he modeled after Benjamin Franklin’s planning system.

    I’m just curious to what kind of information the Green Book had in it. Was it the personal and professional information of the subordinates or a diary, journal, task list of things to do.

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