My 2021 Journaling & Notebook System

Every year, in the week between Christmas and the New Year, I schedule several days off to take a sort of personal retreat. I’ll usually turn on my auto-responder and go dark for 4-5 days to focus on planning, self-reflection, and getting ready for the year ahead. Part of this retreat is assessing and revising the various systems and processes I have for my personal, professional, and creative lives. This year, a big topic of consideration for me was to solidify how I capture and organize information across all of my various interests and needs as I pull back more from being tethered to my phone to manage my day-to-day life. Throughout the year, I’ll check in with these processes and decide if things need to be revised or evolved to keep me operating smoothly – and I just did that with my notebook/journaling system.

Below, I’ll share a breakdown of what I’m using, why, and how. Simplification was a guiding factor in the decisions I’ve made about this system lately. I’m happy to say that I can now fit all of my notebooks into a tiny bag if I have to — though I’m glad those instances are few and far between, and I tend to carry no more than two or three of these on any given day.

Traveler’s Notebooks

Aside from the Theme System Journal below, these two Traveler’s Notebooks are the most commonly used items in my revised notebook system. I have two; the first is a larger green A5 cover from Galen Leather. The second is a blue classic tall and narrow Traveler’s Company notebook. Each of them contains something a little different.

The Galen Leather Notebook

One of my go-everywhere books. This cover usually contains at least two items — A Taroko Enigma dot grid journal that serves as my main diary and one or more of my single topic notebooks depending on the day. I recently switched to the Taroka after deciding that I was going through smaller notebooks more quickly than I would like and felt I needed a larger but still portable option for free-writing. The Taroko meets that need well at 384 pages of 68 GSM Tomoe River paper. I know I’ve been a little doubtful about Tomoe River for longer format writing in the past — but since I’ve been using the heavier version of this paper stock, I’ve come to appreciate it for its lightness and surface. It has far fewer issues with fragility and ghosting than the gossamer-thin 52 GSM version.

Usually, my notebook dedicated to my photography/business lives in this cover full time. I like to keep it on hand to jot shoot ideas down as I have them; I also keep a pencil board handy to give a more stable writing surface to the Tomoe River paper in my diary.

The Traveler’s Company Notebook

My other go everywhere book. This is where I capture information as it comes in from meetings and calls and write down quick lists, doodling, remembering quotes, appointments, and more. I also have a few stick-on pockets and a zipper pouch in this one for keeping things like polaroids or train/plane tickets secure and easy to access. I primarily use 68 GSM Tomoe River inserts from Goulet Pens in this cover. 

Theme System Journal and My Ink Journal

Theme System Journal

I could write a lot about the Theme System Journal from Cortex (and I will in an upcoming post), but let me just say that this was a game-changer for me. This journal was the catalyst that completely changed my journaling habits and kicked off the overhaul of my notebook system that I’m diving into in this post. 

My journaling has long been focused on free-form writing, and while I still plan to keep an ongoing diary in a longer text form, I needed something to give me some day-to-day focus and self-accountability. I kept a sort of half-formulated daily log in a Midori MD notebook for a while — but it seemed like I was starting to record without goal or purpose. Creating an endless litany of what seemed little more than if I judged it to be a good day or a bad day.

What I like about the Theme System is that it is both structured and flexible. It allows me to track daily habits and goals for accountability, which is super helpful on a micro level and lets me structure the rest of the journal under the overarching organizing macro-principal of a yearly theme. My journal’s theme for 2021 is “The Year of Recovery.” It is focused on what I need to do to bounce back from the lost year of 2020 in terms of personal health, business, relationships, self-fulfillment, creativity, and managing anxiety. The yearly theme and habit tracking elements also contain an adaptable journaling system that lets me customize what I’m tracking as the journal evolves. Right now, I follow these topics daily.

A Single Daily Goal: One and only one thing that I will do each day. If I get this one thing done, I can consider this day successful. I usually use this to promote deep work so as not to get bogged down in confusing being busy for being productive. But I will often use it to remind myself to take breaks and step away from work to focus on my other hobbies or take personal time — an issue that was really problematic for me pre-pandemic.

A Change To Make: What did today teach me, and how can I grow from it? This could be as simple as budgeting better to curb spending or something as important as reminding myself to be a better advocate for my own time and mental well-being.

Prouds: What did I do that I was proud of today personally, professionally, and creatively?

Thinking: What’s been on my mind today (usually when I wake up)? This will often provide the seed for a more extended journaling session later in the day. Ranges from the rely seriously to the entirely frivolous depending on the day and how I feel when I wake up.

The topics can change week to week to address issues as they come up and help me work through things with my yearly theme in mind.

Ink Journal

Kept in a Galen Leather Everyday Blank Notebook. This journal that features Tomoe River Paper is where I keep all of my ink swatches and comparisons. Until the end of 2020, I was using a Col-O-Ring from the Well Appointed desk, but I ultimately decided to move back to something more self-contained, and that gave me a little more real-estate to create large swatches.

Single Topic Notebooks

Possibly the most numerous item in the current evolution of my system are these topical notebooks. Each one is dedicated to a single subject/hobby/task. Most of these are kept in Clairfontaine Neo-Deco notebooks. I love the paper for taking quick notes, and the variety of covers available makes it easy to differentiate which book I am grabbing at a glance. They are slim, easy to slip into a bag, and can live in whatever work area I need them to, from the kitchen, to my office, to my painting/hobby area in the basement.

Currently I use these books for the following topics:

Bread Baking

This is where I keep my recipes, results, ideas, and notes from my various baking projects. If you follow either of my Instagram accounts, you know that I’ve been baking anywhere from 2-6 loaves of bread a week (I had a lot of time on my hands during the lockdown). This flour encrusted notebook lives in my kitchen and contains the sum total of my short but growing experience baking bread for my family every week. Keeping a notebook like this has helped me test iterative versions of recipes and honing my skills through a combination of scholarly research and embracing my many, many mistakes.

This may eventually grow to encompass pizza making as well now that the weather is turning and I plan to start firing up the Ooni as well.

Business and Creative Notes

Anything related to my photography business that isn’t notes related to an assignment goes here. This is where I write about my constantly evolving creative philosophy, growing my business post-pandemic, brainstorming ideas for personal projects, and more. It’s a catch-all for creative ideation, planning, and fighting the constant war against the always lingering pangs of imposter syndrome. Assignment notes tend to go into the smaller of my two traveler’s notebooks for the sake of portability. Those pages will then get transcribed or scanned into the various records of assignments and client communications so that I’m not shuttling them back and forth between my home office and studio all the time.

Pen Collection / Ace of Pens Blog

All of my thoughts on the pen collecting hobby and the rough outlines of blog and Instagram posts live in this notebook. It’s mostly filled with my thoughts on various pens I’ve bought/owned, as well as numerous revisions of my wish lists to plan out future purchases.

I currently have two other single topics books in my rotation right now, but these deviate from my norm of keeping them in Clairefontaine books.

Quotes and Handwriting Practice

I’ve really decided to deviate myself to improving my handwriting in 2021. To that end, I started a new book where I’ve been keeping all of the book passages, quotes, and lyrics that I use as copy exercises. I’ve been using a Life Noble Note notebook for this purpose. Life has quickly become one of my favorite paper brands, and I just love how pens feel writing on this paper surface.


All of my miniature painting notes and plans are kept in a Hobinichi Plain Notebook. The gridded paper lets you jump really quickly from writing to sketching to making lists to taping in reference material, making this a more versatile option that won’t be used solely for text.


I seem to always have a variety of pocket notebooks floating around in various bags and pen cases. Still, I’m really walking the line between keeping them or liquidating everything in favor of the smaller of my two traveler’s notebooks as a hybrid catch-all/commonplace book. I find that small notebooks tucked in various places are very convenient for capturing information but inconvenient for retrieving it. For instance, I just reorganized my camera bag. I found two pocket notebooks with important notes from various shoots that I never utilized because once they got tucked back in the bag, I forgot about them until the next time I needed to write something in them. On the other hand, I will act on things I write in my catch-all since I refer to and review it often.

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