Home :: Of Filofaxes and Other Things

Much like Nan recently, I have had a wobble. Not physically wobbling – I do plenty of that every day. I stopped using my A5 Filofax for a while.

The way I’d been using it had one little hole in my system. I made notes, mixing in ideas, bits of writing, doodles, and tasks, all at random. I just worked forwards through a stack of pages. The idea was to then process those pages, into my GTD system, and archive pages off as they’d been processed.

I’d forgotten one thing, though – pages that had a big chunk of notes or mind maps on them. They couldn’t be archived, because before I could do the thing they were about, I’d need to refer to them. Stick them in the archive, and I had no way of finding them again. Until recently, I’d just been keeping things like that in the ‘current’ section, but it was starting to get a bit big, beginning with lots of notes for an article that I probably wasn’t going to have time to get to for a while.

This was reasonably liveable-with, until I got started in a new job, and noting things down then not getting around to looking at them again for a month wasn’t really going to cut it.

For a while, I’ve been using an A4 pad for the notes, and feeding from that into MonkeyGTD for the GTD stuff. Working with paper is nice, but the actual task management seems quicker on computer.

All of this lead to me spending far too much time pondering the relative merits of my Filofax against A4 pads, A5 pads, and A5 (or thereabouts) notebooks, like a large Moleskine. So, after all that time, I shall now pour out some thoughts here, in case they’re useful to anyone.

Or just achieve a whole new level of tediousness.


Good Points

  • Flexible: Pages can be added and removed at will. Not needed for my form of note-taking, but means that extra pages, like lists and reference stuff, can be added easily.
  • No need to carry archived stuff: Once a page has been done with, it can be removed and archived elsewhere, so you’re not carrying around a lot of ‘dead’ paper.
  • Carries extra bits: My Filofax can hold plenty of paper, but still has space for two pens or pencils, an assortment of cards, receipts, index cards, etc.
  • Nice to hold and use: It’s one of the reasonably expensive soft leather models (the Lyndhurst), and is wonderfully tactile. It’s an enjoyable thing to touch and to use.
  • Neat and safe to carry: The pages are all zipped away safely inside, so nothing can come loose. If it’s raining, the paper is protected. If I drop it, it won’t bounce open and spread my notes in the mud.
  • Free: If you’re thinking through a similar choice, you probably don’t have this advantage, but because I already have the A5 Filofax, for me, it’s free. A pad of A4 paper actually costs more to start using than the Filofax. If you don’t have one already, they most definitely aren’t free 😉

Bad Points

  • Big for the size of pages: An A5 Filofax isn’t all that far off A4 size (the zip-around ones are bigger than the others), and because I can only write comfortably on one side of the paper, it’s a big thing to carry around for a bit less than A5 (allowing for the rings) writing area.
  • Difficult to reference pages later: Because the pages can be removed and moved, it’s not easy to reference a page from another page, or from elsewhere. If I copy a task to the computer, I can’t include a page number for where the notes about the task are.
  • Punch is crap: We don’t have the money to replace the Filofax hole punch we have with anything better, and Filofax’s own is a bit crappy. It can punch up to about five sheets at once, and it’s a bit fiddly even then. Add to that the fact that our printer seems to always feed A5 a bit skewed, and printing new sheets is a bit of a chore. On the plus side, though, at least I can use my own designed sheets.

A4 Pads

I spent a while using a Clairefontaine A4+ pad (A4 sheets when torn off at the perforations, so the full book is a bit wider than A4). I never quite decided if I was going to tear the sheets out as they were used and move them to a folder, or archive them, or just keep the book whole, and number the pages for easier reference from elsewhere. The paper itself is wonderful, though. When I first tried Clairefontaine, it felt a bit too shiny and smooth, but the more I got used to it, the more I liked it. We happened to get lucky and pick up some of these books at half price, but even at full price they’re not too bad.

For the Americans among you, A4 is our standard paper size over here in Europe, much like your ‘letter’ paper. It’s quite similar to letter, actually, just a bit taller and narrower.

Good Points

  • Lots of space: With A4, you get loads of space for your notes and doodles. When you’re used to A5, you really feel like you can spread out.
  • Choice of pads: Even deciding that I wanted A4+, and that it had to be wire bound, and have hard covers, not floppy ones (so I don’t have to be sitting at a desk all the time), there are still a few options.
  • Quality of paper: Depends on your choice of pads, obviously, but plenty of the options available have nice quality paper. The Clairefontaine I used was probably as good as it gets, but I’ve been impressed with Oxford, Black n’ Red and Pukka Pads too. Pukka even do a Vellum pad now, with slightly creamy-coloured paper, and still fairly cheap.
  • Choice of binders and accessories: Because all UK offices run on almost entirely A4 paper there are just no end of choices for binders, clipboards, folders, filing systems, conference portfolios, and whatever other bits you could want.
  • Cheap: You can choose to pay more, but there are plenty of decent enough pads available for very little money. If you don’t insist on wire bound and hard-back, you can go very cheap.

Bad Points

  • Looks cheap: Compared with a nice leather Filofax, an A4 pad just doesn’t look or feel as nice.
  • Big to carry: Even next to the A5 Filofax, an A4 pad seems big.
  • Nowhere for bits: I’d have to find another way of carrying pens and cards and such like.
  • Not easy to integrate lists: Although I’d moved my GTD stuff into the computer, I could still do with having some reference stuff travelling with me, and a couple of the lists really need to be portable. The shopping list is no good to me on a computer at home. Even if the computer is in my bag, I’m sure I’d get some odd looks in Tesco with my laptop out to check my shopping list.

A5-ish Notebook

Mainly, I was thinking of a large Moleskine. I happened to have one available – still hadn’t started on the squared Moleskine that Gary kindly bought us as a wedding gift. Since I decided against it, Sam has found a use for it, so we’re finally getting something out of it – thanks, Gary 😀

Good Points

  • Compact: A notebook is no bigger than the paper area you want, and if you are happy to use both sides of the paper, you can even get almost A4 space for notes by carrying an A5 notebook. Bargain.
  • Pocket for bits: It’s not much, but with a Moleskine, you get a pocket in the back to store a few bits – maybe a bit of paper for shopping lists, or some quick reference stuff.
  • Easy to reference later: Number the pages, and you can reference notes you made in you computer-based task. If you get through a few books, you may need to give a book number and page number, but it’s still pretty easy.
  • Nice for archiving: a line of neat little black notebooks looks good on the bookshelf. Maybe even better when marked up with numbers and dates.

Bad Points

  • Not easy to integrate lists: Even with the pocket in the back, it’s not ideal. You could use pages in the book for your lists, but then you either need post-it tabs or similar, to mark the pages (which I find a bit messy), or a list of page numbers somewhere you keep updating when the lists move.
  • Carrying completed paper: When you’re getting towards the end of a book, you still have to carry the whole thing – you can’t remove parts you’ve finished with.
  • Sometimes carrying two: when you’re getting to the end of a book, you’ll probably need to take a spare with you ready. When you’ve just started a new book, you might need to keep the previous one around until you’re reasonably sure you’re done with the notes in it.


As I’ve already said, my conclusion was to go back to my A5 Filofax. It just seems to fit my needs better. I’ve simplified it somewhat, because MonkeyGTD has take over a lot of what it used to do, and it’s back to working well for me.

One change I’ve made, though – I’ve started dating and numbering pages within the date. So, today’s first page is marked 2007-02-16/1, and if I get to a second page later, it will be 2007-02-16/2. That way, I can reference pages, even when they’ve been archived.

I don’t need to worry about keeping the archived pages accessible from work as well as home, because one of my first projects was setting up some collaborative and task management software for us all to use, so anything relating to work would be there anyway. Most work-related notes during the day go on a pad on my desk. Working with customer’s names, addresses and credit card details means being very careful about where your notes go – many of my quick jotted notes now have to be shredded after use.

All it really needed in the end was a couple of minor tweaks, but jumping to a completely different system for a while helped bring a bit of clarity to the question of what I actually did need.

I’ll try to write a bit more soon about MonkeyGTD. Not 100% sure I’ll stick with it, but it’s the most enjoyably smooth way of doing GTD that I’ve tried yet.