Care and Feeding of an Engineering Notebook, Part Three

Once more, with feeling!

This is the last of my posts about engineering notebooks, and so far I’ve had a blast! At this point, you should actually know everything you need to start using your own notebook. The rest is up to you. Your own workflow will differ from everyone else, and there’s no way I could tell you how to go about taking information from your strange and unique brain and putting down on paper.

That said, I would like to show you some of the tools that I personally find useful for my notebooks. There are no hard and fast rules for any of these, really, and they can (and should) be adapted for your own style.

Mind Mapping

Mind Mapping Example

I cannot tell you how much I love mindmapping. For me, it takes my crazy, easily distracted mental process, and not only records what I’m thinking and why, it slows it down so I can really grab a hold of those thoughts and pick them apart. Here’s how it works:

Start by writing out what you want to think about, usually a problem you want to solve. Try to keep it brief. You just want a cursory description here, no details.

  • Solution 1: Write your first idea or soluion as the first bullet point. don’t worry about how good your idea is, this system will help you refine it.
    • You can indent again to list additional thoughts you may have about your first idea.
    • Problem 1.1: Come up with problems with your solution and give them a number relative to your solution so you can reference them later.
    • Problem 1.2: If you think of more problems, don’t worry. Just list them all. You can always get back to them later and you don’t want to forget them now.
      • Solution 1.1.1: Once all your problems are listed, you can re-reference them using the number system.
      • Solution 1.2.1: Try to find solutions to any problems you came up with.
        • Problem Sometimes you’ll come up with even more problems. This is okay. By writing everything down, you’ll be able to keep track of your problems and solutions. Once you have a solution to all your problems, you know you’ve got a good idea!
    • If you have another thought about something previous (in this case, Solution 1) you can always go back to that level to write about it.
  • Solution 2: Once you’re finished with your first idea, you can start again with the next.
    • Problem 2.1: And so on…

Idea Spamming

Idea Spam

Idea spamming is a useful way of taking notes that is very closely related to mind mapping. When you think of something or hear it, write it down. If there are any additional notes or thoughts about it, indent and write them down as well. Above is an example of my notes from a conversation that randomly started up between my boss, my co-workers and me. These were written after the fact, so my focus was on getting the ideas down, and not on organization or clarity.

Go with the Flow (Chart)


Flowcharts are useful! They’re a great way to visualize interconnecting systems, and make plans. Nuff said.

This particular flowchart actually told me that my plan was too complicated, and I would have to find a way to linearize my plan for this particular project.

To-Do: Make a To-Do List

To-Do List Example

I was a little surprised when several of the engineering notebook guides I found encouraged using a notebook to keep to-do lists. Usually, I throw away my to-do lists once I’m done with them, but I realized that they’re actually an important part of my work’s history.

A Picture AND a Thousand Words

Cartoons and Descriptions

Sometimes the best way to explain something is just to show it. This works especially well with very visual projects, like the maze generator I was working on above. The trick with this method of writing out your ideas is to keep the illustration simple and the description short. If you’re trying to write more than two or three sentences (about a paragraph), or if you’re making the illustration more complex than a small doodle, you probably should break your idea up into more parts.

Additional Resources

That wraps up my guide to keeping an engineering notebook. I hope you enjoyed it!

Obviously what works for me won’t necessarily work for someone else, so I’ve tried to keep things as general as possible, so you can wrap your own workstyle around the framework I’ve laid out. But mine isn’t the only guide out there on the web. Here are some of the resources I found useful when I was doing my original research. You’ll find some different perspectives on good habits to keep, and a few things I left out of this guide.

Mark Henderson, ASU, “Using Your Notebook”

This provides a quick summary of best practices, as well as several examples of what your notebook should look like.

David Caprette, Rice University, “Guidelines for Keeping a Laboratory Record”

This is an extremely thorough guide on how to keep a laboratory notebook, which is (to my mind) a subset of engineering notebooks. It covers not only good practices for notebooks in general, but some practices specific to keeping notes on tests and test results.

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