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Choosing a dayplanner is like playing rock, paper, scissors.

If you're inclined to manage your appointments and tasks with pen and paper, then you've got a huge selection of "hardware." Your choices break down into three main types: hardbound, discbound, and ringbound. But choosing one type can be much harder than you might think. It's like playing rock, paper, scissors: no matter what you choose, one of the others is better. Formally, this is an example of called Arrow's Paradox, but that doesn't make it any less real. Here's some thoughts on the matter.

The first, classic choice is a binder, like those offered by Filofax, DayRunner, or Succes. You can get these at many office supply stores and there are many vendors of preprinted pages that give you all kinds of variations on the notion of the agenda. And if you prefer something more particular, you can go to specialty shops (like the fantastic Laywine's in Toronto) and find some really cool stuff that is either functional, or atrociously expensive, or both. Over the years I've bought more than a dozen binder-type dayplanners of various sizes, but I have yet to find the perfect one.

There are two main benefits of a binder. First, you can rearrange pages in whatever way suits your personal style. You can buy filler pages from diverse vendors - again depending on which style best turns your crank; you can even print your own pages if you're so inclined. Second, you can refill it whenever you need, which also means you can archive old pages of information that you may need someday but don't want to lug around with you every day.

However, binders can be hard to handle, especially if you don't have much of a work surface on which to write. Writing in a binder when, say, riding on a subway or airplane, can be a real challenge because you can't fold the binder back on itself (as you can with, say, a simple spiral bound notebook). Also, binders aren't as rugged as fully bound books, because the metal parts can't handle being bent. All that metal can also make binders heavier than the alternatives.

The second popular choice is a fully-bound / hardbound notebook. Perhaps the most famous brand here is Moleskine, though there are other interesting alternatives like Rhodia and Leuchtturm1917. Most of these kinds of notebooks come with pockets in the back cover for collecting receipts and other bits of paper - a very useful feature. These books are usually very rugged and carry with them a certain emotional weight. As a colleague once said of his Moleskine, you feel like you should only write important things in it - no frivolities allowed. I don't know why that is, but I have several such notebooks myself, of various brands and sizes, and I know exactly what he means.

Still, fully bound notebooks have problems. They can be even harder to use than binders because you can't flatten them out as much as binders; you certainly can't fold them over. And you can't rearrange pages or refill them. Some brands, like Leuchtturm1917, try to get around this by printing page numbers on every page and providing a section at the front that you can use as a table of contents of sorts, but it pales in comparison to binders on this point.

A variation of the fully bound notebook is a spiral-bound notebook. The principal advantages of spiral notebooks are their cost (they're quite cheap) and their ability to be folded back on themselves, which increases convenience and usability tremendously.

However, they tend to have crappy paper. The spiral notebooks that have good paper (classic example: Clairefontaine) are often nearly as expensive as fully bound books. And of course, like fully bound books, you can't refill them or reorganize the pages.

The third option is a discbound planner, and I have quite a few of these. They are comparatively rare. The binding mechanism is just a series of loose discs (as shown at left) with a wide rim and relatively thin hubs. Paper is punched to have mushroom-shaped cutouts that wrap around the discs in cross-section. Perhaps the best known product of this type in North America is the Circa notebook, but there are other brands available, including Atoma and Myndology; even Clairefontaine has a line of these products. The disc idea has been around for a very long time; it would appear that it was invented by Atoma in 1948.

Because of their unique design, discbound notebooks combine several of the advantages of other kinds of notebooks. They do fold over on themselves like spiral notebooks, making them quite convenient and usable, even in tight situations. You can also rearrange pages, archive them, and buy or DIY your own pages, as with binders. And since the discs are usually made of plastic, discbound notebooks are typically lighter than binders. Since the discs are always equally spaced, regardless of the size of the paper, you can always store smaller pages in bigger notebooks. This is a nice feature because you can have a small notebook in your pocket and still archive its pages safely in a larger notebook at home.

But discbound notebooks aren't as robust as fully bound books, nor do they have the emotional girth of fully bound books like Moleskines. If you need a rugged book, or if you prefer the gut-level significance of a fully bound notebook, the disc system will leave you dissatisfied.

What Now?
So. The perfect notebook, it seems, just doesn't exist. No matter where you start, you can easily work your way into a vicious circle that will never end. Even though I have an assortment of every kind of notebook mentioned here, I never manage to stick to any one of them for very long.

So I tried applying AHP to this decision. I've already written about AHP, which is a way of breaking down a decision into elements that are easier to think about because they are smaller cognitive tasks.

The top three notebooks according to the AHP analysis were, in order, a pocket slimline Filofax, a "compact" Succes binder (larger than the Filofax), and a pocket-sized flip Moleskine. These three notebooks beat the reference item, which is a 3"x5" Circa flip notebook.

While this result wasn't especially surprising to me, it still troubled me. One of the key tasks in executing a AHP analysis is rating the importance of the criteria used to make the decision at hand. This is done using a simple and robust method called pairwise comparison. While all the other steps were quite straightforward, this one remains problematic for me, because the passage of time causes me to alter the relative importance of the criteria in the pairwise comparison. That is, in one instance I may rank page size (the bigger, the better) as slightly more important than, say, robustness; but in another instance, a few days later, I may rank page size as slightly less important than robustness. This, of course, throws the analysis off completely.

On the one hand, this doesn't really help me decide what notebook to use.

On the other hand, it does help identify the root cause of my indecision: I can't come up with a consistent ranking of criteria; that is, I don't (yet) know what's really important to me.  Everything else about this decision is pretty straightforward, except for this one thing.

Notice that this is a meta-level problem; it's not about choosing a notebook; it's about how I make choices. Sometimes, when you get stuck on a problem, it makes sense to step back from the problem itself and spend some time thinking about how you're trying to solve the problem.

That's where I'm at now: I keep trying different notebooks, hoping to find the right one; and every so often, I step back and think again about my underlying problem - what are the things that really matter to me, and which things are more important than others.

For those of you keeping score, I've decided to take the AHP analysis at face value and am trying the pocket Filofax. Wish me luck.


  1. FYI Staples have the Arc system which is much cheaper than Levenger's Circa system.
    That said I'm with you on the Filofax. A5 and Pocket for my needs (high school teacher in the UK).
    Have a great w/e.

  2. Ray, thanks for the update. Arc wasn't available in Canada in 2010 when I wrote the original post. I have examined Arc at Staples and it seems quite comparable in quality to Circa, albeit the selection of covers, etc seems better for Circa. I also got a sense that there was a difference in paper quality, but I have not studied it closely.


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