Why Richard Branson Always Carries a Notebook

Since founding Virgin in 1970, entrepreneur Richard Branson has built multiple companies in eight sectors with a multi-billion dollar valuation. Interviewing for CNN in 2006, Branson was requested to record his top five business travel tools and activities. “It might sound ridiculous but my most important [tool] is to always carry a little notebook. I could never have built the Virgin Group into the size it is without those few bits of paper“ he reported back. Notebooks may at first-glance appear antiquated, but the blank page offered can be a distinguishing factor on your journey to becoming a creative leader.

Cognitive Retention

Branson’s habit of carrying a pocket notebook developed growing up with dyslexia. Branson reminisced that the only chance he had remembering anything was writing it down; otherwise, “by the next morning it may be gone forever.” For many of us, we like to believe our memories are excellent, that we’ll be able to recall the great ideas that come our way. But reality is, our minds are incredibly fallible. By relying on memory alone, our chances of losing important information, memories and ideas increases exponentially.

Physical notebooks can support your memory further by serving as a periodic break from the noise created by our screens and barrage of notifications. It’s one reason Brandon opts for pen to paper over using digital tools during meetings. The research paper, ‘The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard’, by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer demonstrated how laptops offered a shallower process to note taking and recall than handwriting. In three studies, students who were asked to take notes digitally performed worse than students using analogue tools when faced with conceptual questions. Mueller and Oppenheimer concluded this was because the students using digital devices tended to transcribe lecture verbatim. In contrast, handwriting notes forced students to actively process and reframe information into their own words, enhancing their learning.

Nurture Ideas

Should you decide to carry a notebook, you can take confidence in how you’ll be following the footsteps of histories greatest creatives. Beethoven was reported to never go anywhere without a notebook in case an idea came to him at an inopportune moment. Mark Twain travelled with notebooks to record observations and story ideas. Leonardo da Vinci left behind 6,000 surviving sheets of notes and drawings which present much of what we know about the Italian Renaissance polymath. Creative processes have been aided by physical notebooks for centuries. And yet, in today’s environment, the notebook is remarkably under-utilised. In a blog post, Branson observed that “99 percent of people in leadership roles don’t take notes.” This was frustrating for him during meetings with politicians where dozens of ideas would get discussed of how to improve things, but nothing would be noted or actioned.

Ideas are like plants. They come to us as little seeds and time is required to nurture and grow them into something more complete. And if ideas are not nurtured, they will wither away. Your best ideas aren’t likely to arrive when you’re sitting at a desk ready to action them. More than likely, they arrive at moments when you least expect them. By carrying a notebook with you, you have the fertile soil to plant those ideas, ready to take measurable action when the timing is correct.

Better Organisation

And when that time comes, you’ll know the exact location to reference your best ideas and make smart creative decisions from them. “Some of Virgin's most successful companies have been born from random moments--if we hadn't opened our notebooks, they would never have happened" Branson has highlighted. Reports indicate his strategy involves making lists based on observation, no matter how big or small. This has allowed the vision for the Virgin Group to take shape on multiple occasions.

One of my favourite examples is in the book “The Virgin Way” where Branson writes as Virgin chairman he enjoys being his own customer. He recounts a story of how his notes helped him find a better solution for those travelling on Virgin America. On a hot day, Branson took a flight out of Las Vegas and was able to observe how customers did not use the hot towel the flight attendant handed to them. He made a list in his notebook around the observation he’d made, ready to action when his flight had ended. Communicating his insight to those in his company who would be able to implement the change, future flights on Virgin America would change the hot towels in favour of cold ones. Improving the experience for all Virgin customers.

Treasure Trove of Memories

Handwritten notes have supported Branson throughout his tenure of building the Virgin Group into a multi-billion dollar empire. On occasion, his notes have protected him in legal situations where he’s submitted them as evidence. As a business leader, it’s helps him keep others accountable to their word.

Finally, Branson mused his notebooks had taken the shape of a memory palace. Holding a treasure trove of irreplaceable moments through the years. When his daughter Holly was little, he’d note all the funny things she would say. One day, little Holly ran into the room shouting “Daddy, Daddy, I know what sex is! And you and Mummy have done it twice.” You can bet those notebooks came in handy on his daughter’s wedding day.

How might carrying a notebook not only improve your creativity, but enhance your life?

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