Moleskines vs. PDAs

Last year I treated myself to a PDA: a Dell Axim PocketPC. Why not a Blackberry? That's a whole 'nother story. Basically, I'm anti-cellphone... but I needed something for taking notes, and I wanted a new toy to hack.

The Axim had all the bells and whistles... a 300 MHZ chip (yowsa), bluetooth, WiFi, expansion card, the works. I installed a Python compiler, a C# compiler, an MP3 player, RSS reader, and waited for my productivity to soar.

Then it crashed. I was sad.

Restoring from a backup was easy, but the dang thing would crash and lose my data if I left it unplugged for as little as a day! Talk about high maintenance...

Okay, I guess I could work around this with an external memory card and some synching software... or so they claim. I have three Macs at home (one running Linux), and a bunch of PCs at work. I would like to synch data between all environments, but that's nearly impossible. Moving iCal files around just gobbles the bandwidth. Plus none of them can synch nicely with my favorite wiki-ish note taking software (VooDooPad simply rocks), despite a handy export-to-html feature. They all required manual steps.

I needed a web-based system that I could script... like Yahoo's synching feature for their calendar, notes, and mail. I tried it briefly, despite my security concerns, and I was again sad. I quickly learned that the whole thing was ultimately pointless until Microsoft gets off their butt and fixes Outlook and Exchange. Productivity? Ha! That monster is just a pedantic time vampire that forces you to jump through hoops to get anything done. If you refuse? It will get mad and book you in meetings until 2009.


So this year, I got back in touch with my Luddite roots and bought a Moleskine. The PDA has been gathering dust ever since.

When I was writing my book on Stellent last summer, I read a lot of sites about writing techniques. Lifehacker and Headrush were especially useful. One of the tips that cropped up everywhere was this: always carry a sketchbook.

The reasons were varied. Some said that you never know when inspiration will strike, so always be ready when it does. Another was more psychological: your brain can only hold so much information. If you juggle your ideas in your head, it's more difficult to have new ones. You may be subconsciously blocking new ideas, because you're afraid they will be lost. You need a system that you trust to hold your ideas outside of your brain, so you are free to have new thoughts. This is similar to the productivity tricks in Getting Things Done, for those who are familiar.

My friend Andy also operates on this principle, in a twisted sort of way. He claims his brain is like an automatic prioritizer. Since it can only hold so much info, if he forgets something, then it probably was not very important.

But what about synching your data with your computer? Well, technically PDAs don't do that either... so I don't think I need to defend my Moleskine there. Besides, it's a sketchbook for ideas. They are not in their finished form. Therefore, you would have to retype most of it anyway on your computer before its finished. Plus, most of what I write down is someday / maybe material that I may never act upon, or I might not get around to it for 10 years. Therefore, its nice to have those ideas in a format that will last for 2000 years.

But what about frequently changing data? Like phone numbers, and todo lists? Its a bit of a waste to write them all in the book. That's why the Moleskine has a sturdy pocket built in the back. I print out phone numbers, email addresses, etc., in very small font onto index cards. I update them as needed, which isn't that often. Index cards are great for todo lists, as well as general notes, and they slide right in.

And anyway, I really like index cards. I feel its much easier to see patterns of information if you view the data on index cards instead of a computer monitor.

What about price? Those Moleskins are $5-$10, depending on the store. Isn't that an awful lot for a notebook? Walgreens sells little lined books two for a dollar! Yes, there is a bit of hipster snob appeal with these... although not as much as the hipster PDA. But then again, its a psychological trick. If you spend fifty cents on a book, you're not going to treat it with much respect. If you spend ten dollars, you feel an obligation to use it. You'll take notes, and get your juices flowing. Sooner or later you'll have a great idea, and be glad you have a great notebook to write it in.

Either way, you could buy 30 Moleskins for the price of one Blackberry, and at least 60 Moleskines for the price of a year's service contract.

And Moleskines work seamlessly in both Europe and Asia, with no roaming charges.

Additional Links:
Moleskine Hacks (43Folders)
Moleskine Wiki
Moleskine Blog

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