The One Best Habit

One of Hemingway's early notebooks
One of Hemingway's early notebooks

I love looking into the private daily routines of great performers, from da Vinci to Dickens to Dave Matthews. Part of it is pure voyeurism (they eat what for breakfast every day?), but a larger part is to treat their lives as a detective story. What are they doing that helps them perform so well? What clues can we detect?

Most of us instinctively look for Big Clues. Are they tightly disciplined, or do they work only when the spirit moves them? Are they from happy families, or tragic ones?  Are they hermits or do they fly around in a social whirlwind?

And it usually turns out (surprise!) there’s really not much of a pattern. Some top performers are super-disciplined, some famously not. Some are from happy families; some sad; some are hermits, some social. Judging by this, it would seem that top performers are pretty much like the rest of us (except, you know, better).

However, there’s one small clue; one tiny, almost unnoticeable habit a striking number of top performers share. They keep a pocket notebook.

I’m not talking about a journal or a diary filled with reflections or dreams – this is a messy, working notebook that is with them all the time, like an appendage. (In da Vinci’s case, the attachment was literal – he tied it to his belt.)

The question is, why is a pocket notebook so apparently useful when it comes to developing talent?

Let’s count the ways:

  • It’s a handy net, to capture and organize ideas and facts that memory won’t hold.
  • It’s an organizing tool, to track their progress in various key areas. Ben Franklin famously graded each of his days according to his performance in 13 areas of virtue. At 79, Franklin wrote, “I am indebted to my notebook for the happiness of my whole life.”
  • It’s a testing ground for ideas – a safe, private place to try, fail, and try again. Mark Twain is a nice example of this. Look below how he uses his notebook to build one of his famous bon mots – failing twice before nailing it with “Modesty died when false modesty was born. (Which of ctwain_modestyourse, he would later toss off as if he’d just thought of it.)

That these top performers (along with so many others) avidly used pocket notebooks is not a coincidence. Their scribble-filled notebooks are the best example of their minds doing the regular, habitual gymnastics that build skill – reaching, testing, making mistakes, gradually improving. The notebooks are X-rays of brains that are improving themselves day by day.

All of this, of course, makes me wonder why in the world I don’t carry a pocket notebook. I sometimes jot notes on 3×5 cards or on my phone, but it’s not quite the same, since both lack the deep, layered feel of a real notebook.

What do you think?

(If you want to check out pages from 20 famous notebooks – go here )