HOW TO USE YOUR SPARK NOTEBOOK AND/OR PLANNER

The Spark Notebook is a place for you to store your most important notes, goals, and big ideas so you’re always at the top of your game. It achieves what no other notebook has before: combining the stunning design of sleek, professional notebooks with the functionality of big life-planners and organization guides. All of the great organizational tools without fuss or frills.

The Spark Planner has all the best productivity layouts and tools from the Spark Notebook, and packages them together in a streamlined, organized package meant to last you for a full year of seeing your goals from start to finish. 

The Spark Notebook and Spark Planner are designed to conform to your goals and your life.

However, if you'd like some of our best tips for how to use these proven planning tools and page layouts, we've put together a guide to help you get started quickly! Use this guide for inspiration, but feel free to get creative in your own notebook! This is just how I use it. :)

And if you've got a tip or strategy to share, send it to us! Share it on Instagram, Twitter, or send me an email at kate@sparknotebook.com. I LOVE seeing pictures and reading about how you make amazing things happen with your Spark books.

For an FAQ on the Spark Notebook and Spark Planner, scroll all the way to the bottom.

 

THE YEARLY PLANNING PAGES

Once a year (usually in January), I sit down and think about my life goals. I reflect on the past year and make some decisions about all the great things I want in the year ahead.

What is a yearly theme? A yearly theme can be a word or a phrase that you choose to define what the next year of your life is going to be. It is an idea that should speak to you and guide you to make more of the choices you think will lead you where you want to go in life and in your career.

Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? Your yearly theme will be the little voice in your head reminding you, every day, where you want to go and helping you get there.

HOW TO CREATE A YEARLY THEME

  1. Set aside a block of time to think. Reflect on the past year. What do you want to leave behind from last year? What went incredibly well? What do you want more of in the year ahead?

    Think about the person you aspire to be. Imagine meeting the perfect version of yourself in 5 years. What does that person know that you don’t know yet? What do they do? Who do they know? How do they spend their time?

    Write out lots of ideas. I will be the first one to tell you, mine took forever! It will probably take you a while to work through your ideas and come up with a word or phrase that resonates with you, so don’t try to force it if it doesn’t happen right away.

  2. Jot down your favorites and then come back later. You’ll probably have a few top choices for your yearly theme by the end of your brainstorming session. Let them simmer for a while, and revisit the exercise in a few days to see how each of your possible themes feels later on. You may find that one stands out clearly above the rest, or that you want to tweak your top choice to better match your hopes for the year.

  3. Write it down and keep it somewhere you can see it. Your theme is only as powerful as you make it! The more often you check in with your theme, the better you’ll be able to judge your own performance and course-correct to make sure you’re still moving in the right direction throughout the year.

 

THE ACHIEVEMENTS TRACKER

What is the point of filling up a busy calendar if it doesn’t help you further your career?

In addition to tracking future goals and assignments, I think it’s important to recognize your past accomplishments. Like the yearly theme, tracking and reflecting past achievements will either reinforce your yearly progress or highlight a pattern of stagnancy.

HOW TO USE THE ACCOMPLISHMENT PAGE

  1. Write down your victories. It’s important to give yourself credit where credit is due. Write down daily, monthly, or yearly accomplishments. These can be anything from “Learned how to add an entry in our data system despite my technology illiteracy” to “Closed the books on fiscal-year budget”. You’re not only building confidence but quantifying and assessing your strengths.

  2. Make it a habit. When you’ve got so much on your plate, it’s easy to forget to document your accomplishments. Until it becomes second nature, set reminders for yourself to do this. There are lots of spaces in the Spark Notebook where you can do this. I use the “Reflect + Celebrate” box on the Weekly Goals page. This box reminds me to reflect on what went right and why. Those achievements that I’m particularly excited about make it to my Accomplishments page.

  3. Reflect on your work. As you track your accomplishments, look for patterns. The accomplishments you write down are the ones that you are most proud of. What type of projects make you happy? Do you find yourself in the same kind of roles? This kind of self-awareness can help give you a clear picture of the kind of work you’re doing and where it’s leading your career. If you are repeating an inefficient process, go back to your yearly theme and consider what steps you can take to get back on track.

  4. Showcase your progress. The Accomplishments page can be really useful when you want to articulate your successes. Whether it’s in a team meeting, a progress report, or an annual review, you now have a detailed record of what you’ve been working on and how you’ve succeeded. The more detailed, the better.

    Being able to articulate your accomplishments at any moment will give you the competitive edge that could lead to landing that dream job, securing new clients, or receiving a well-deserved bonus.

 

THE MONTHLY PLANNING PAGES

The Monthly Planning Page offers a big-picture layout of how you’re spending your time. After filling in the month and corresponding dates in their respective boxes, I think about big events that I will need to plan my schedule around. Perhaps I am planning a vacation or attending a three-day conference. In both of these instances, I will block out whole days or weeks on my calendar.

The column down the side of this page is for you to jot down any notes that may be relevant for the whole month. For instance, you might add a personal note reminding you to schedule a roofing contractor. You haven’t set a date for this yet, but this note will help remind you that it needs to be done this month.  

HOW TO USE THE MONTHLY GOALS PAGE

The Monthly Goals Page helps you organize tangible projects that will move the mill in your life. These are larger goals that may not be accomplished in a single day or week. I think about the big things I want to accomplish for work, for my personal life, and for my goals for the year. A monthly goal could be finding a new job or creating an online platform for your services. These goals are time-sensitive. They may not have a specific end-date, but you are striving to complete them within the month. Write your goals at the top of the page.

If you don’t accomplish your goal within the month, or you have a goal that spans multiple months, use the space in the box below to reflect on your progress. How much have you gotten done? Has your goal changed? This reflection will help you decide whether to include it in next month’s goal section.

I also use the bottom box to write my affirmation for the month. You can use this box for anything - journaling about your perfect month, laying out a big goal into smaller more actionable steps, crafting an action plan to change a habit, or pasting a quote or picture that is your theme for the month. Make it yours!

Finally, when you’ve completed your monthly goal, check it off! Personally, I love ticking off the boxes because it gives me a gratifying sense of accomplishment.

 

THE 30-DAY CHALLENGE PAGE

This is one of my favorite layouts. When it comes to the things I want to do, they typically fall into two buckets: concrete goals (like projects), and habits I want to stop or start (like working out, eating healthy, and being present). The Monthly Goals and Weekly Goals work great for those tangible, specific things I want to do, but they don’t fit well for the habits. This is where the 30 day challenge comes into play.

It is important to pick something that you can do every day no matter what. That means you can do it if you are sick, or tired, or if there is a blizzard on your doorstep. Think small—something that can fit into 10-15 minutes.

There are lots of great examples of small habits that can help you lead a better life. If you need some fodder for inspiration, I have included a few of my favorites:

  • Read 10 pages in a good book. Ten pages may not seem like much, but it can add up to 3520 pages or about 12 books over the course of a year! And I have no doubt reading that much information will make you smarter and more capable in your line of work.

  • Use one commute per week. Make one of your commutes each week productive whether it is listening to an audiobook in your car, reading industry-related articles on the bus, or walking a little further to squeeze in some extra exercise. Each of these small things will add up week over week.

  • Figure out your to-do list ahead of time. Without thoughtful planning, most people end up working on whatever is in front of them (like email or social media). When you get deliberate about your days and your priorities, you will be amazed at how much more progress you can make on the things that matter.

  • Write down all your TV time. You probably don’t want to stop watching TV cold turkey, but it can suck up a lot of your time. Try tracking your TV time. Write down the amount of time you spend in front of the TV every day. Anyone I know who has done this started watching a lot less television and (most importantly) hasn’t missed it!

  • Eat breakfast. Even if you just grab string cheese, a hard boiled egg, or a lara bar, put something in your stomach. There are all kinds of studies that show that people who eat breakfast weigh less than those who don’t. Plus your brain burns up a lot of energy, so if you want to tackle your important tasks in the morning, make sure it has fuel to burn.

  • Send one praise email a week. Most of us don’t say thank you enough. Whether it is people on our team or people in our life (like our spouse and parents), we don’t tell them how much we appreciate the things they do for us. Put an appointment on your calendar to send one praise email each week.

  • Keep a happiness journal. Write down one thing every day that made you happy. It can be a flower you saw on the way to work or the fact you had a good hair day— just write one little thing down each day. I did this for a year and I swear it turned me from a pessimist to an optimist.

Change doesn’t usually happen in big waves; it’s really, really unlikely that one thing you do today will be the difference between success and failure in the long run. Instead, success and failure usually happen little by little, over time, when you consistently do the small things that add up to big results in the long run.

I’ve listed a few healthy habits. However, the number of habit-forming challenges is endless, and I am sure you can come up with lots of ideas on your own.

HOW TO USE THE 30-DAY CHALLENGE PAGE

Once you come up with a challenge, the next step is putting it into practice. There are two parts to this - the why and the how.

Having a clear set of reasons why you want to do something is motivating, but it also helps to have them front and center when your willpower starts to wane.

Creating your action plan is the next step. Remember to keep it small. It can also help to identify potential obstacles before you hit them.

*Challenge Tip: The 30 days don’t have to be consecutive. Sure, if you can do something everyday that is great, but don’t let that deter you. Do something for 30 days and be proud of what you accomplished! Consistency is the real key to success.

 

THE WEEKLY PLANNING PAGES

The Weekly Planning page is designed to organize daily assignments in a way that will help you do your job better.

I start every week with a planning session. I block out a full hour on my calendar to devote to planning and thinking—I call it my Ninja Planning Session.

You can do your planning Sunday night, or first thing Monday morning (that is when I do my planning session), or even on Fridays if that works better for you. The key is to pick a time that you can commit to every week. In order for this system to work, you have to be disciplined about keeping appointments with yourself.

HOW TO USE THE WEEKLY PLANNING PAGES

  1. Each week start your planning with the Weekly Goals page. Start by listing your top priorities at the top of the page. These are the things you really have to get done this week.

  2. Look back on your previous week and see what you accomplished and what was left over. If you didn’t get to something, go ahead and move it to this week’s list.

  3. Think about the good things that happened last week. Did you have any big ah-ha moments? How about any hiccups or mistakes? What can you learn from last week to help you be more effective/productive/happier/etc. this week? I typically try to jot down at least 2-3 of these things in the “Reflect + Celebrate” section of the page. If you need more space, that is one great use for the Inspiration page (directly opposite the Weekly Goals page).

  4. Now flip to the start of your notebook. Are you living and acting in harmony with your Yearly Theme? Is there something you can do this week to move forward on your Yearly Goals? This is also a great time to add an achievement on the Accomplishment Page. Make sure you are moving forward on the things you established as really important for your year.

  5. Do the same thing with your Monthly Goals and 30 Day Challenge. Have you been consistent in making progress? It is okay if you haven’t, but make note of your progress and process.

  6. If it’s the start of a month, this is a good time to take a step back and think about the month ahead. That is when I work on populating my Monthly Goals.

  7. Then using my weekly goals, I lay out the time blocks in my schedule in the Weekly Outlook. Working alongside my Google calendar (which is where all my work meetings go), I plan my time. I put all my personal and professional appointments in my Spark Notebook. This includes time for workouts, cooking dinner and work that requires deep, focused attention.

*Planning Tip: If something comes up and you can’t get it done this week, go ahead and put it on your goals for next week. That way you can jump start your planning and won’t forget everything you need to do.

Here is my schedule for last week. Notice how I draw little boxes next to my items so I get to check them off? It makes me feel accomplished :)

weekly schedule

Of course, you can also make these your own!  For example, in the first image one designer used it for the daily doodles.  You can write bits of inspiration, ideas, or even affirmations if you want.  This whole notebook has been designed for you to make it your own. :)

THE INSPIRATION PAGES

Every week in the Spark Notebook, you’ll uncover a journaling page called Weekly Inspiration. At the top of this page, there is a question or a quote to get you thinking about how you’re doing, how you’re working, and what you want for your future.

I started writing on these pages just to try out every page in the notebook, but suddenly I found myself spending 30-60 minutes working through the ideas and exercises inspired by the weekly prompt. I would write lists, brainstorm ideas, and even sometimes just end up writing about something that had been bothering me all week.

This has become my ritual. And it’s amazing.

It’s almost like seeing a therapist: once a week, I sit down and really think. I go inside my head, and I put down on paper the things that have been spinning around in my mind. Having put the problem down on paper, I release it from the round-and-round track it had been running in my mind. And by clearing it off the track, it creates space for a solution to come in.

Even when I don’t realize a solution right away, journaling my problems, questions, or thoughts helps me see opportunities that may not have been apparent at first glance. In other words, writing regularly can help you learn to break down complex experiences into relevant, useful bits of information.

While I recommend using the prompt to brainstorm new ideas and perspectives that may be floating around your consciousness, you can use this space for whatever suits your process and work style, with a little inspiration thrown in! Below, I’ve listed a few other ideas to get you started.

HOW TO USE THE INSPIRATION PAGE

  • Annotate team meeting notes

  • Brainstorm weekly mastermind group

  • Reflect on your life and progress

  • Note accomplishments or struggles from the previous week

  • Use the thought at the top to journal and reflect

  • Doodle pictures that inspire and motivate you

  • Log whatever made you happy

  • List 5 things you learned in the past week

 

THE NOTE PAGES

I take my notes seriously, and in return, they help me be taken more seriously. Good notes make me more successful, more organized and more amazing at my job.

Research has shown that people who take notes and set goals—and who review those notes and goals regularly—have better retention and more success than those that don't.

Which is why I wanted just to create a place where both note-taking and reviewing your notes was a streamlined, beautiful process you actually wanted to return to again and again.

HOW TO USE THE NOTE PAGES

If you already have a system of note taking that works for you, great! If you want to get better at taking notes, it helps to get back to basics.

Specifically, I want to talk about how to take notes for meetings because I’m guessing that most of us do this. If not, you probably should. Why take notes in meetings?

  • to record key details you need to know (dates, names, deadlines, resources, etc)

  • to organize your thoughts on a big idea after getting more information

  • to formulate good questions about things you didn’t understand from the meeting

The reasons for taking notes are fairly simple when it comes down to it, and your note-taking strategy should be the same way. You don’t need to write everything down to be good at taking notes; you just need to teach yourself to write the right things down.

Here are some tips for making your notes super lightweight and efficient:

  • Try writing down just one point per dialogue. If one person is speaking, then, you only get to write one sentence to summarize what they said. This forces you to process the information they shared (as opposed to just robotically writing it down) and simplify it into a format that is meaningful to you.

  • Turn each point into one word. You can streamline your notes even more if you try to distill each person’s point into just one word. Often, a person is really only trying to express one main point—even if they use a lot of words to get there—and, again, this helps you clue into the key information only.

  • Only write down your questions. This helps you listen critically to the conversation (if you’re looking for things to ask about, you’ll be more likely to be listening closely). When you get the answer, write that down. That way, you have a record of everything you thought was important enough to ask about.

  • Wait until the end of the meeting to take notes. Ask yourself a short list of questions to distill what you heard into useful notes. What did you learn? What do you need to take action on? If you had to get someone else up to speed on this meeting, what would you tell them? This will help you write down only what was important, since that’s what you’ll remember after the meeting.

These strategies work best for meetings where you’re talking through big ideas but not hashing out a ton of technical or logistical details. If you’re in a meeting where lots of key information is being shared (dates, deadlines, etc), then you can try one of these note-taking strategies to help bring your meeting notes to the next level.

Here are two of the best note-taking formats to help you create organized, streamlined notes:

  • List. If you’re processing a lot of critical information, writing the key details in a logical order is one of the best ways to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. Focus on things like action items, to-do’s, resources, key decisions made, and any issues you need to follow up on. A short, simple list can help you put your most important details in one easy-to-reference place.

  • Mind map. This is great for brainstorming meetings where you’re hearing a lot of ideas on different topics. It’s also great if you’re a visual learner. Put the topic of the meeting at the center of the page, then draw branches off that center topic as new sub-topics come up. Around those branches, write down key pieces of information (the same stuff you’d write in a list) so that each detail is clumped around the appropriate sub-topic. This visual format can make details easy to find and grasp at a glance later on.

More tips for keeping awesomely useful, organized notes:

  • Put the date and meeting topic at the top of each page. You don’t need to use a page per day, just write a new date and draw a box around it. It’ll be easy to scan. Why keep your notes in one consistent place? Whether they are in this Spark Notebook or in separate notepads you carry for separate projects, the more simplified your system, the more likely you are to actually revisit and get value from the notes you take.

  • Always be prepared to take notes. Whenever you’re meeting with someone, even if it’s just for a coffee meeting, bring something to take notes with. The more consistent you are in developing this habit, the better you’ll get at note-taking, and the more likely you are to be ready to record a great idea when you hear one.

  • If your notes always end up sloppy, type them up afterwards. I hate it when I have tons of cross-outs and arrows pointing all over my notes from a meeting. If you feel this way too, then you should plan to type up or re-write your meetings notes after each meeting. This way, you are free to take as many notes needed (however sloppy) since you know they’ll get fixed up and pretty later. Plus, it’s a great way to cement the information by revisiting it after the meeting.

  • Find your place quickly. Locate some stickers (like those dots they used to use in school) and wrap them around the page at the start of the section (like the project planner section). If you use different colors, it is easy to flip to the start of the section just by finding the right sticker.

 

FAQ

What's the difference between the Spark Notebook and the Spark Planner?

The big differences between the new Spark Planner and the 2016 Spark Notebook are these:

  • The Spark Planner is dated for 2016, whereas the Spark Notebook is still undated so you can start and stop using it anytime without wasting a week/month of pages.

  • The Spark Planner has planning pages for 12 months instead of 6 months.

  • The Spark Planner has no note-taking pages, while the Spark Notebook has lots of lined, unlined and perforated pages to take notes.

Other than that, the page layouts are very similar. Both planners have yearly, monthly, and weekly goal pages as well as calendars and the Weekly Outlook section for time blocking.

Why are there only 6 months of planning in the Spark Notebook?

This was intentional. We wanted it to be a notebook and a planner. Something you could take to meetings and take notes in, but also a place to track your daily life.

Our original prototypes had a full year of planner tools, but once we added the notes pages, the book topped out at over 400 pages (the actual notebook is 212 pages), and that version would be really heavy and hard to carry around.

UPDATE: Due to popular request, we are experimenting with a Spark Notebook format that nestles the weekly planning pages between the monthly calendar views. This change will be reflected in the March 2016 Spark Notebook. Using the same number of planning pages as before, the weekly outlook sections will be equally distributed over 5 months. As before, the second half of the notebook will be dedicated to note taking pages.

If you would like a year's worth of planning tools, check out the Spark Planner. While it doesn't have the note-taking pages of the Spark Notebook, it has all of the same planning tools and layouts for 12 months of use.

Why aren’t the weeks inside the months in the Spark Notebook?

This was done for several reasons:

  1. Without dates on the calendar, putting the weeks inside the months would mean that month breaks would be off, as not all months have the same amount of weeks, and that would be a weird experience.

  2. One of our goals was to make every page usable. I was tired of planners and notebooks with a bunch of pages and layouts I didn’t utilize. So this way, if you skip a week (like you go on vacation, or you get so caught up in tactical stuff at work you don’t get a chance to plan) then you can just pick up where you left off—no unused pages!

  3. When people plan their days, very few people look at their monthly view every day. The weekly outlook is designed to sit open at your desk, so you can see at-a-glance your priorities and plans, and then just flip back a page to revisit your goals for the week. The monthly view, on the other hand, is looked at less often when you’re planning/prioritizing big picture.

If you prefer to have the months line up with the weeks, the Spark Planner is laid out in this way to aid in efficient planning week-to-week.

UPDATE: Due to popular request, we are experimenting with a Spark Notebook format that nestles the weekly planning pages between the monthly calendar views. This change will be reflected in the March 2016 Spark Notebook. Using the same number of planning pages as before, the weekly outlook sections will be equally distributed over 5 months. As before, the second half of the notebook will be dedicated to note taking pages.

How do you use the 2 bookmarks?

We put in two bookmarks to make it easy to flip back and forth between your most-used pages. For everyone, the pages they use the most are different.

Here's how I use the bookmarks in my Spark Notebook: I keep one in the “planner” part of the notebook on my current weekly outlook, which is the page I look at most often. The second bookmark I keep in the note pages section of the notebook, on whatever page I was most recently taking notes on so that I can reference it easily.