The Highfive Notebook

How to organize your notebooks with this amazingly simple system straight out of Japan

These days computers make organizing and finding information really simple. Yet despite that, I still often find myself using the humble notebook to jot down valuable ideas, especially when I’m on the go.

But keeping notebooks organized is hard work.

You either split your notebook into several sections for each ‘category’ and end up wasting valuable pages in the quieter sections or you just write your ideas as they appear making them hard to find later on.

If this sounds familiar then you are going to love this little trick I was taught here in Japan by a friendly salariman.

Introducing the Highfive notebook

Step 1

The back of your notebook will act like a tag list or index. Every time you create a new entry at the front of the book you’re going to “tag” it.

Step 2

For example, let’s imagine you’re keeping a notebook for recipes and you just wrote down a Chinese recipe on the first page.

Step 3

On the back page, your index, you will create a tag called 'Chinese'.

Step 4

Then you’d go back to the first page where the recipe is and on the exact same line as the ‘Chinese’ label you just wrote you’d make a little mark on the right edge.

You’d make this mark so that even when the notepad was closed the mark would be visible.

Step 5

Now after repeating this for various recipes you’d have various tags visible on the notebooks edge.

If you ever wanted to find a Chinese recipe you’d simply look at the index, locate the Chinese recipes label and look along the visible edge to find every single page which has been tagged as Chinese. Then it’s simply a case of flicking to each page.

Getting setup

Because flicking pages is important for the system to work you need a notebook which

  • is bound tight (glued, stapled, string bound) and not a spiral type
  • has 50 pages or more
  • is either lined, dotted or gridded to make lining up tabs easy

My favourite notebooks from good to best

Quite a few people have asked me what notebooks I use and the correct answer is – it depends on the situation. But here are my favourites listed from good to best.

Good - Muji

For less important stuff, stuff which is likely to get messy such as recipes, I love using the Muji notebooks which are shown in the pictures above. They are not built to endure rough treatment but for everyday use are great.

They are smooth to write on and hold ink well with only a little show through with my fountain pen. I buy them in packs of five so I always have a notebook to hand.

Better - Moleskine

For more important things such as my journal or sketching I turn to either Moleskine or Leuchtturn notebooks.

Moleskines have long been the king of notebooks and it's easy to see why. The two I own have lasted ages and are still a pleasure to write on.

My particular favourite Moleskine is the softback gridded book which is perfect for the Highfive system. Its softer cover over its harder backed version really lets you flex and flick the pages.

Recently however I and many others have discovered the Leuchtturm 1917 Notebooks. And these may be the Moleskine killer of notebooks. There slightly cheaper but surprisingly have better paper quality. They can handle ink i.e. fountain pens a lot better with no bleed and little show through.

Every Leuchtturm notebook’s page is numbered and they come with an index at the front so you can double the Highfive system up with the old school way of organizing notes.

Both Leuchtturm and Moleskine notebooks have a pouch in the rear where you can keep things like loose notes or a spare piece of card you can use as a rest when tabbing pages. That way you won’t dirty the page below.

2 other ways to use the Highfive notebook

Spotting Trends

Instead of using tags as category markers you can use them to as a kind of tally or bar chart.

For instance, if you used the Highfive notebook as your diary you could monitor how you felt over the course of a month by tagging each entry happy, sad, motivated, tired etc. Then after several weeks, you could look at the edge and all the accumulated tags and get a rough snapshot of how you felt.

Or use it to determine why you often get headaches. Tag your journal entries with “headache” and look back to find the common cause.

Tracking progress

Alternatively, you could track progress such as your weight over time by creating a scale in the index and simply tagging each journal entry with your weight. Do that daily and your tags will produce a line chart on your books edge.

You could track your progress towards:

  • gradually quitting smoking
  • saving for that big purchase
  • reaching your ideal weight