How Richard Branson Lives Life By Making Lists

Guest Post

I am proud to say that this guest post is from Erik Calonius, an author, former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and a writer for Fortune. His latest book is “Ten Steps Ahead“.

In one of your recent posts, Marlon, you advised your readers to keep a notebook with them at all times. I noticed, in fact, that you even advocated a particular kind of notebook, one with three sturdy staples holding the pages firmly together.

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Branson In A Houseboat

That rang a bell with me, and I’ll tell you why. Several years ago I spent quite a bit of time with Richard Branson. He wasn’t Sir Richard at the time, he was a still-struggling entrepreneur (of course he was worth about $100 million even then.) Branson lived in a houseboat on a canal in the London suburb of Maida Vale.  I spent a fair amount of time there one summer, on the houseboat with Branson, drinking wine and enjoying the long twilight of the English summers.

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Branson was certainly an easy-going guy. He had a big smile, and the same merry blue eyes that he has today. Sometimes I’d find him working at a round patio table atop the houseboat. When the weather was warm, he’d be stripped to the waist with his sneakers kicked off. Branson was definitely the  essence of nonchalance. But I noticed one thing about him. He always had a notebook around. And he was always jotting things down.

Branson and His Notebooks

This memory rose to the surface of my mind while I was reading your post about the importance of carrying a notebook. It made me go to my library and pull Branson’s autobiography off the shelf. I found this passage on page 407 of the paperback. So listen to what Branson has to say:

I have always lived my life by making lists: Lists of people to call, lists of ideas, lists of companies to set up, lists of people who can make things happen. Each day I work through these lists, and it is that sequence of calls that propels me forward.”

He continues, “As anyone in my office knows when I’ve misplaced it, my most essential possession is a standard sized school notebook, which can be bought at any stationery shop on any high street across the country. I carry those everywhere and write down all the comments that are made to me by Virgin staff and anyone I meet.

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I make notes of all my telephone conversations and all meetings, and I draft out letter and lists of telephone calls to make.” And how many of these notebooks has Branson employed? “I have worked my way through a bookcase of them,” he says.

Over the years I’ve spent time with many successful business visionaries, and they range from Branson to Steve Jobs. They are all driven, all passionate, and despite outward appearances, extremely performance oriented. I’ll bet that Branson isn’t the only one among them who has a long line of notebooks on the library shelf. Sounds like a good habit to keep!

Note: If you’re interested in Richard Branson’s story, grab his autobiography book from Amazon. – Marlon :-)

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28 Thoughts.

  1. Richard Branson has already influence a lot of people and help them by reading his way of life and how he deals with it. And two thumbs up to you Marlon because you never failed to reply every comment of your readers.

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  3. Like Justin says – if Richard is doing it, I must be doing something right. I have notebooks all over the place but I don’t have his money ;) Unfortunately no moleskin, although I’m proud of my orange Penguin one…

  4. The one thing that stood out from the article was his comment about losing his notebooks. What a tragedy. The house can be rebuilt, but not the notes. I also carry or have several notebooks handy for jotting down important insights and ideas. Thank you.

  5. Hi Everyone,

    I am new here but Richard Branson is my role model. For those of you familiar with the ennegram, he is the type 7 kind – fun loving, daring, enthusiatic and team player. When I first read about him I thought I was reading my own character story.

    Anyway, back to the note book habits. I have tried both – electronic and hand written note books. I think there is value to have both in use. The thing about note book and it’s valuable content is that it is only valuable if you plough through it frequently. More often than not, when you revisit your notes those initially captured ideas expand. That is the value I guess. But if you have not regulay reviewed it than the ideas will lapse.

    One other thing I find difficult about keep notes is the challenge of keeping it organized. I m often taking notes and ideas on many topics on end. There is no coherent reviewing structure. But I guess that is also the beauty of the note book.

    Jimmy/Life Architects recently posted…Hope and Dreams Fulfilled – Two Inspiring Stories that Will Make You CryMy Profile

  6. Upon reading about the recent total destruction of Richard Branson’s home, the one thing that stood out from the article was his comment about losing his notebooks. What a tragedy. The house can be rebuilt, but not the notes. I do the same thing – shelves of binders – and perhaps it is better to have them done on a computer / hard drive, but creativity can’t wait for a computer. When a thought comes to mind it must be captured immediately with pen and paper. Too many great ideas are lost when those tools are not readily available.

  7. Hi there to everyone. I love your site Marion, you have here such a good ,Value Content. And Guests, too. I like Richard, too. He is some kind of funny, but nice guy. On first place, smart !

    Alex recently posted…1st Step to Manifesting LifeMy Profile

  8. Oh loved this post Eric… I have a pocket size notebook that I carry with me as well. You know, I’m the woman who ALWAYS has a pen and paper handy. And I find that funny Brandon that you don’t have an iPad or and iPhone. Now I don’t feel so behind the times!

    Great take away hearing that Branson is that kind of guy as well. Wow, thanks for this post. Just helped me realize that I’m on the right track. Not too geeky in that way or annoying either. Always whipping that thing out and writing something down. Boy, I sure feel better.

    Thanks Erik for sharing this and glad Brandon invited you to write a post. Really enjoyed the read.

    Adrienne recently posted…Change Can Be A Good ThingMy Profile

  9. Oooh, 2 things that inspire me in one post – Richard Branson and notebooks!

    I am totally fascinated by Richard Branson and I like that he uses notebooks too. I have a purse-sized notebook that is always in my purse and ready to capture ideas, thoughts, things to do, the beginnings of blog posts, etc, anywhere I am. At home I have a different notebook upstairs in my bedroom, and otherwise at home I use my computer to capture my notes.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Peggy Baron recently posted…Having Your Own Product Reviewed is Like Walking On a Bed of NailsMy Profile

    • Peggy,

      I am a notebook lover, too! I am a geek guy but I toned downed my capturing tools into their analog counterpart. I am more at peace with my notebook + pen than, say, iPhone or iPad (I don’t own either of them).

      I only have 2 notebooks – 1. Pocket Moleskine for personal/important notes (everyday carry); 2. Medium notebook that I use for note-taking at the church (Calvary Chapel).
      Marlon Ribunal recently posted…Organisemee – Task Management With A Collaborative TouchMy Profile

  10. This is a really interesting article. It really resonated with me. I bought a notebook a few months back, with this very idea in mind. Somehow it got misplaced, and I keep thinking I should get another one. I often get ideas in really inconvenient moments, and I always think that I should have the book so I can write my ideas down.
    Jennifer recently posted…Tax Time 2011- The Wrap-UpMy Profile

  11. Fantastic thoughts here. Thanks for bringing the notebook idea to our attention. There’s a lot to learn from Branson. I’m certainly going to check out his book.

    For the past few years I’ve been keeping a notebook. It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s where I keep blog post ideas, places I want to change, and much more. Apart from the notebook, I also keep a journal for “personal” things I’d like to work through and remember. I tend to write in it each night.

    Thanks for the reminder. I can always do better at writing more.
    Christian Hollingsworth recently posted…If Walt Disney had a blog…My Profile

    • Christian,

      I keep a notebook to not forget the things that are important to me – things that I need to remember for their importance. I don’t know why but a notebook feels more “personal” than its digital counterpart.

      • Hi Marlon
        In the above comments you have almost always emphasized on keeping paper notebook and I understand that you prefer them over digital notebooks.I would like to share my thoughts about it.Personally I’m an avid reader but I like only books on paper.Although I read a lot of material on my computer such as different blogs and ebooks but if given a choice i will only prefer old style books in paperback or hardcover.But I think differently about notebooks .Most of my notes I make using evernoteon my android smartphone and then they are synced with my desktop application.I prefer it this way because it’s more easier than carrying a notebook with me everywhere and the data is safe.A notebook can be destroyed or burned but the data stored in digital format is safe forever.Thanks for this post.I didn’t knew that Richard Branson also uses notebooks.

  12. The importance of not forgetting things all the time, the answer to this usual problem is have notebook to list down things that are significant to you. :) I always carry a list of things to be done when I get out of the house so that nothing will be forgotten to be done. :) Maybe a notebook indeed is a secret for these successful people who have worked themselves on the way up!

    • Grace,

      Successful people are busy. They need to have their capture tool ready all the time. I understand why they prefer old-school notebook and pen (or pencil) over smart gadgets. If an idea suddenly strikes the mind, you have to capture that idea in an instant, or it might be gone.

    • Thanh,

      Some people, like me, prefer the old-school way of capturing lists and ideas – the pocket notebook. I prefer not just any other notebook. I always carry my hardcover Moleskine pocket notebook with a Quiver pen-holder.

      Some people have their digital capturing tool.

      I guess the tool does not matter. It’s a matter of personal preference.


  13. A definite must have! I also make use of a small notebook that can fit the back pocket of my pants, in that way, I can bring it anywhere and write down ideas every time it pops up.

    Just writing it down, the idea need not to be complete or certain. It just needs to be brought out to the world so that the idea may one day mature. Listing them down is a good way to start them.
    Marco Lee recently posted…Write a Guest Post and Get Featured for Free!My Profile

    • Marco,

      Creative people have their own way of capturing ideas. Majority of them use the old-school notebook. I am not wondering why Moleskine and Field Notes notebooks are becoming so popular that they are now becoming a subculture.

      Taking notes is an art, so they say. It is. You don’t have to write paragraphs to capture an idea. You only need the gist.


  14. I’m always taking notes, esp. on conf. call I use notepad and then back out what all we decided, open, action items, etc. I also use Outlook tasks to remind me when to follow up on items, on my Smartphone and on Outlook, great help.

    • Tom,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, taking notes and using them as reference later really work with everything. I understand why successful people like Richard Branson use non-tech “gadget” such as a simple notebook. It’s because they want to focus on the idea that they are capturing and not to get distracted by the technology they use. It’s cool to be simple.


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  16. Marlon/Erik,

    I’m a big fan of Richard Branson and his nonchalance ways. I also carry or have several notebooks handy for jotting down important insights and ideas. If Richard Branson is doing it I must be doing something right as well. Thanks…
    Justin | Mazzastick recently posted…Truth Is KnowingMy Profile

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