Note-taking and people, and paellas


Barajas airport people

The other day at a barbecue, or rather, a “paella-cue” (we are here in Spain, and it is almost summer), the topic of quantified self came up, as well as journals, diaries and log books. There seemed to be three kinds of reactions among our small group, those just not interested, others somewhat interested (they don’t move away) and some against the whole idea, as if quantifying sounded like a mixture of big brother and loss of freedom with a dose of cod liver oil.

Freedom is a bit over rated however. Even artistic freedom, say literary freedom, depends on a structure of words, developed by the imagination. It feels counter-intuitive, but being “free in life” or thinking that you should/can do what ever you want to do at different moments, also depends on a kind of structure (e.g., daylight, digestive metabolism, other people’s activities). I thought for many years that freedom involved unstructured time, just letting things happen, but the more I analysed it, that usually did not provide enough time for the things I wanted to do.

But in any case, my notebook activities came up (over the paella), and some people wondered why I bother to write all this stuff down. I gave my usual answer, that it helps me to organize myself, to be more efficient, and to see patterns so that I can try to prioritize things that make me feel good or are important for me. I also pointed out that without a record, we have a tenuous link with the past, which, for better or for worse, we often end up inventing.

That reminded me of a chapter on notebooks, in “Slouching towards Bethelehem” by Joan Didion, which I read last January. She says that “notetakers” are either 1) lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, 2) anxious malcontents, or 3) people who as children developed a presentiment of loss. These are people who would like to have a factual record, hold onto time, preserve what is observed, with the romantic idea of using it someday on a “bankrupt morning”, with space and time and nothing better to do. Didion insists that her notes are all about her, personal, less in the private-secret sense, and more in the sense that she’s the only one who can put them into context, the only one who can really understand them. So, in order to give a better answer to paella people, and find my slot with Didion, I analysed the notebooks some more.

What did I do?

I decided to analyse my notebooks since Jan 1st of this year, to see how much was about me and how much about others. That is pertinent to the paella, since those people who don’t see the point of taking notes, may be curious about what I’m writing about them, if I do write about them at all. I also wanted to know if it helps me to preserve the past.

How did I do it?

As I’ve described in a previous blog, I keep an index of each log book in Excel, which ends up being a bunch of words that can be analysed. I copied each index for each log book (n=13) into Word (Office), then simply counted the words, including the days covered and the total number of events. Then I put that data back into excel, and that gives me Figure 1. Its important to point out that the number of words does not reflect the number of words actually written down in the log book, its only the number of words in the index (i.e., the titles on each of the 60 pages of each notebook). So, the baseline is 60 words, there can be no fewer.


To analyse a bit more the words, I did some word clouding, placing the index from each notebook into and jotting down the word frequencies. That however became tediuos and so I found another web page which provides the frequency of phrases in any text ( As a lot of my index entries are one or two words, I counted the frequency of 1 and 2 word phrases.

By the way, I also did a narrative camera time-lapse of paella making, see

What did I learn?

I have an average of 114 events per notebook, each notebook lasts about 10 days, which makes for 11.85 events per day and about 214 words per index. Some days have more than others, but overall its fairly consistent.

As far as the phrases, if I look at the three most common entries in the indices, the three most frequent words or phrases enter into four categories: “agenda”, “books”, “classes” and “meetings/conferences”. By books I mean, me writing down reviews of notes from reading books. So, for example, I used between 8 and 17 pages in several notebooks just to take notes about books. Similarly, about 7-11 pages per notebook to write down my agenda for the day (about one per day).

So the paella people can relax about me writing about them, or big brother, my log books are mostly about how I organize my time and summaries of information I read about. I was right to say that I use the log books to organize my time, but I can add that they also serve as a reference for what I read. There is actually quite little information about other people, friends or colleagues.

To Didion I would say that yes, I could be a rearranger of things, anxious about time (but not necessarily malcontent!) and maybe, as an immigrant and son of an immigrant, have a heightened presentiment of loss. However, not much of my notes help to freeze time, or preserve the past. They’re mostly about organizing and jotting down interesting stuff, later quantifying them and bringing them closer to the present, and maybe even establishing an agreeable conversation with my past, present and future selves. And trying to do it all on a bankrupt Sunday morning.


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