Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

The David Allen Notetaker Wallet: My Favorite Productivity Tool

by Andre · 12 Comments

I like to rave about the David Allen Notetaker Wallet the same way David Allen himself likes to rave about Brother labelers. I can’t think of any “gadget” for GTD that’s been anywhere near as useful.

Once you’re used to capturing anything that has your attention immediately, not having anything to capture with is panic-inducing. Many writers and thinkers are diligent enough to carry a notebook in hand wherever they go, but for most of the population that’s unrealistic.

Phones with QWERTY keyboards can obviate the need for carrying additional writing gear, especially if you’re already using one anyway. When I started GTD I used the Palm Treo 600, but that got messy. First, I had a tendency to simultaneously capture and process, so I had to navigate to the specific list or application before making the entry. The overhead of having to think before jotting something down made me unconsciously resist maintaining the process, so I would only enter “important” things. But things that don’t seem important in the moment can turn out to be very important. Capturing everything now allows for more contemplative triage later.

Then I heard about the Notetaker Wallet, a normal-size wallet with a notepad, a retractable pen, and a silo for the pen. It didn’t sound innovative, but it did sound useful. At $99.95, it also sounded expensive, so I looked for alternatives and found one: the Wenger Mini Folio Pad and Pen Set (update: no longer in production), which was $29.95 at the time. I was instantly hooked. I didn’t realize how much I was resisting taking notes on the Treo until I notice how much more notetaking I did when I got the Wenger.

The difference between writing on a notepad and typing on a PDA, for me at least, is substantial. Handwritten notetaking is a more natural reflex motion, and the unformatted nature of paper eliminates the need to select a list or application prior to writing.

That’s not to say that capturing on paper is more efficient if the notes are going to be processed into an electronic organizer eventually. You do have to reenter what you’ve written, but processing and organizing are less stressful when done at your discretion rather than having to be done on the fly. Collecting on paper exclusively makes it easy to identify what still needs processing. I’ll either process these notes during windows of idle time into my Centro or throw them into my in-basket for processing with the rest of its contents.

After a couple of years, the stitching on the Wenger started to give, and I had trouble finding a replacement (they seem to be out of production), so I bit the bullet and sprung for the Davidco model. The price may be steep, but the construction quality is noticeably higher, so I didn’t regret it in the least. On the contrary, the minute the trifold version became available, I upgraded from the bifold version without hesitation. In addition to bifold and trifold models, a women’s version is also available.

In daily use

Like many other users, one of the first things I did was replace the included Rotring retractable pen with a better one — in this case a Fisher Bullet Space Pen. With the Rotrings I’ve tried in both Notetaker Wallets, the ink flow is uneven. I would frequently have to scribble on the pad before the ink would register, which breaks the spontanaeity of jotting things down. The Space Pen, which fits snugly in to the wallet’s silo, has a pressurized cartridge, making ink flow consistency a non-issue.

Having a pen and notepad in the same space isn’t much different that carrying a pen in your front pocket and a notepad in your back pocket, but there’s something about having them together that encourages more frequent use: there’s less drag to the process of taking them out.

In addition to the usual notes-to-self, I find that tearing off notes for other people is a great way to remind them to take action on something. Instead of asking someone to email you the information about XYZ, you can jot down your email address along with the action reminder: “Email me about XYZ at frank@yadayada.com.”

Here’s the trick: If you include your contact information, even if you know they already have it, they won’t react negatively to being given a written reminder. It looks like the point of the note is the contact information, when in fact it’s the action reminder that you’ve slipped in. Strictly verbal requests are almost always forgotten.

I’ve grown fond of outlining posts and articles using the Notetaker Wallet. The small size of the notepad is less intimidating that a legal pad or an electronic document, and it forces me to put down the essential points without veering off into rabbit holes. If I get the occasional urge to free associate, my handwriting is small enough to make thumbnail mind maps on the notepad, at three or four levels of hierarchy.

Whenever I get confused about a project, one of my first reactions is to pull out the wallet and make a checklist to dump all the major considerations out in front of me. The informal nature of such a small tool makes it more spontaneous than firing up MindManager, which I use for more deliberate brainstorming sessions.

Right now I’m looking at a few alternative capture tools to play with, from inking software for my smartphone (Pennovate Notes) to the low-tech PicoPad wallet insert. When it comes to raw collection, the simpler the tool, the better. I care less about features than utility: the best tool is the one you use the most.

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Tags: GTD

Comments

  • RaplhNo Gravatar // Nov 26, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    My favorite productivity tool: http://wipeelist.com :D

  • Mary JakschNo Gravatar // Nov 27, 2008 at 3:50 am

    Lovely article!
    I always carry an “Everything book” with me (it’s a notebook that had all sorts of things in it). Because my ideas come at odd moments. The problem with loose-leaf notebooks is that I tend to lose the notes.

    Keep on writing! I like your work!

  • timNo Gravatar // Dec 1, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    I’ve been using a Moleskin as a wallet for some time now. The pocket at the back usually gives out after a few weeks, but is easily fixed with some gaffer/surgical tape. It is accompanied by a fisher space pen and a coin holder – stops my phone from being destroyed.

  • BrianNo Gravatar // Dec 2, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    What is the thickness like on the tri-fold wallet? I’m sensitive thick wallets and want to avoid having a George Costanza like book in my back pocket.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Dec 2, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    @Brian: It’s about an inch thick through the center — that’s with cash and cards inserted. I don’t think it has a pronounced bulge, but if you’re used to very thin wallets, you might think differently.

  • JimNo Gravatar // Dec 5, 2008 at 9:22 am

    You might also look at the International Pocket Briefcases from Levenger (levenger.com). I use one of these. It’s too big for a back pocket, but in a jacket pocket or front pants pocket, it works great.

  • ivyNo Gravatar // Dec 12, 2008 at 3:59 am

    … can’t you just text your self to your own phone or to your own email address? I do both on my G1 which keeps the whole tread going untill you delete it, or delete individual messages …
    How do you separate your self into a thinker and a doer rolle when obviously you’re thinking about B while doing A? Still aren’t you a thinking doer even when you’re just doing the A and thinking only about A? Perhaps this boils it down to focus and attention, and interest in just really doing the A…

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Dec 12, 2008 at 11:13 am

    @Ivy: I can write a note by hand in half the time that I can text it, and I can process what I’ve captured during whatever windows of time come up — like a few minutes before a movie starts, waiting for a train, etc. More importantly, if I’m writing something down in front of the person who just mentioned something I need to capture, doing it with pen and paper creates a less awkward impression than texting it.

    We can control the conditions for focusing on a single task by eliminating distractions, but internally, there’s a limit to how much we can control our stream of consciousness by an act of will. Certain thoughts will enter regardless of where attention is consciously directed. Suddenly remembering an unrelated task that needs to be done, thinking about an argument from an hour ago, interruptions from phone calls and coworkers — none of these things were intentional thoughts, but they can persist despite our attempts to focus on a task unless we capture them. Intentionally trying not to think about something is thinking about it. Capturing a stray thought into an external system is one way to close the loop, but it does require the having the established habit of processing what’s been collected, otherwise it’s not a trusted system.

  • hkm09No Gravatar // Sep 26, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    can’t find the linked overstock product. although quite like the idea proposed here. any alternative you know of that is as inexpensive?

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Sep 26, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    @htm09: The Wenger wallet was already poorly stocked when I wrote the post, but it’s virtually impossible to find now. Instead of getting a whole new wallet, you can get those nifty Pico Pad wallet inserts.
    .

  • Chris C. DuckerNo Gravatar // Jan 29, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I swear, this is probably one of the coolest product reviews I have sumbled across online over the last year or so.

    Even though I class myself as a pretty good ‘tech’ guy, I still love and I mean LOVE taking notes by hand. I carry around a Moleskin most of the time, but that also means I have to bring a pen with me, too.

    Having this is awesome. I agree, however, that the $100 price tag is a little rich for what it is. Saying that, I am definitely going to get a Wenger. After going through the site, I am very happy to say it will be easier than usual to get stuff to the Philippines – they just started shipping here.

    Thanks for the awesome content as always Andre.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jan 29, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    @Chris: You probably won’t be able to find the Wenger model anymore. It was hard enough finding an outlet for it when I originally write the post. Check out the Pico Pad linked to above.