Levenger CEO Steve Leveen's desk.

Steve Leveen: A Tabula Rasa Is Peace of Mind

Great innovations often spring from “hacks.” So, too, did Behance’s latest Action Method paper product. When a customer took our Action Sheets and retrofitted them for a Levenger Circa notebook, we took note, and a great collaboration was born: The Action Circa, a new fully customizable notebook from Behance and Levenger.

To coincide with the Action Circa launch, I sat down with Levenger CEO Steve Leveen to talk about what he’s learned about organization and productivity in 24 years of business, the genesis of the original Circa idea, the writing habits of great authors, and, of course, what he’s reading.

Where did the inspiration to start Levenger come from?

My wife and I started the business in our townhouse in Boston, just outside in Belmont. We catered to readers. And as far as I know, we were the first company to cater to readers with products other than publications, with gear. We started with lighting for reading. We expanded from that into furniture, then leather goods, and paper products and pens.

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Steve at his desk.

How did you identify the need to move into organizational products?

From the very beginning, what we noticed in our own home was it was hard to find a really nice place to sit and read. Lighting was an issue back then. What we discovered when we looked for lamps in the lighting stores was that no one really paid any attention to the functionality of lighting, only to the aesthetics – what color is the shade, and does it fit in your décor. That sort of thing.Being serious about our reading and our work, we were looking for more than that. So that’s how we started in business. I had to go out and research lighting and learn about the geometry of lighting and light bulbs and color temperature and veiling glare – the technical aspects of lighting for working. Consumers didn’t have much access to this information. If they were lucky, they worked in an office that was well-designed from a lighting point of view, but most homes were not.

So we started with lighting and then we realized that there were other aspects of reading and writing and working with ideas where the tools mattered. The quality of the paper, the design of the paper, the quality of the writing implements. Your chair, your footrest, the desk you’re using.

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Detail of the Action Circa Notebook disc technology.

Where did the idea for the Circa notebooks come from?

The basic idea of a disc-bound notebook has been around since just after WWII. The first patents were, I think, in Belgium around the late 1940s. The notebooks have been around in Europe and in Asia, South America, and the United States. As far as I know, Levenger is the first company to take the disc-bound notebooks and show the real potential of what could be done – because it’s not something that leaps off the shelf and people understand the benefits.

We realized that there were other aspects of reading and writing and working with ideas where the tools mattered.

It was only once we combined it – the disc-bound concept – with really high-quality paper and materials, and what we call “action figures sold separately” – all the tabs and the folders, etc – did we realized how cool it could be. And, what’s really most important, how individualized it could be. We’ve sold hundreds of thousands of Circa notebooks now, and I know that no two are alike in the way that they’re actually used by our customers. So it’s really kind of exciting to see how paper notebooks can get better and better, and dance with digital technology.It’s funny how we’re starting to use our notebooks a little bit more like computers, moving things around with fluidity. For instance, Tom Kelley at IDEO uses Circa notebooks to write his books. I mean, here’s a guy who lives design, and can have any technology that he wants, and he likes the combination of advanced paper technology with computers.

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The Action Circa Notebook.

Do you know specifically what his process is?

He uses the junior size notebooks in the grid format. And he tells stories, one idea per page, in as many different notebooks as he needs for different chapters. He wrote The Ten Faces of Innovation using a bunch of Circa notebooks – one for each chapter.

I still do most of my writing in longhand, too. There’s something nice about not being tied to a computer.

I’m glad to hear it. So does Stacy Schiff. And so does Pat Conroy – I just read his book, My Reading Life, and he writes on yellow legal pads. And let’s not forget David McCullough, who writes on his 1940s Royal typewriter. People told him he could write faster on a computer, and he said, “I don’t want to write any faster.” You may know we reproduced that typewriter as a bookend and to my surprise and delight it sells really well.

What’s your system on a personal level for tracking your to-dos?

I use a Circa notebook. I use many of them, but my main one is a letter size with a prototype cover on. My first tab division is called “Capture,” where I write down anything I have to do, most of which I can do in two minutes. And then I have a tab with just plain paper, so all I have to do is open up the tab and I have a blank sheet ready at a moment’s notice. Then I have my “Projects,” that are small enough to keep in my main notebook. Once they morph into something bigger then they go elsewhere, and I have separate notebooks for important projects. I have “References” in the back, and it’s a beautiful thing.

What do you think are the keys to staying organized and productive?

I think that it’s important to have one drawer that’s totally organized with all the tools you use all the time. And also to have at least one drawer that’s a complete mess – that you put all your stuff that you don’t want to see on your desk.

At home and at work, I have a drawer that’s organized exactly the same way. You know, sort of like a paramedic might organize surgical tools. And I can open this drawer right now, and I know exactly where everything is.

It’s important to have one drawer that’s totally organized with all the tools you use all the time.

I also like what we call tabula rasa, which is just a big, open desk. You know, people can fall into the trap where you start using working surfaces for storage. And you get these stacks all over the place, and that can kind of wear on you. I think it’s important to have one table that has nothing on it at all, so when you decide to work on a task, you can put it there, and have a clean slate, or tabula rasa.

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Steve’s organized essentials drawer.

Do you have any best practices on time management?

I do get up early, and my morning time is really sacrosanct with me. If I have any writing to do, that’s when I do it. I try never to write after 5 o’clock, and certainly not after 9pm. The evening hours for me are a great time to watch movies, or just hang out with people. The most intense mental activity, writing or creating, I reserve for the morning, and I work at home for a few hours before I go to work.

When do you get up?

Usually by 5am. I enjoy my first cup of coffee, and it’s just me and the dog and the house is quiet. That’s a real special time in my day. I also exercise most everyday, which is kind of an important thing. I find that I try never to think about work or ideas when I exercise, but frequently good ideas occur to me despite that.I am a believer in an early morning schedule. Though I don’t think it’s an ironclad rule that works for everyone. There are nightowls and there are larks, and I just happen to be a lark.

You’re obviously a big reader. What have you been reading lately?

I’m more a wannabe reader than an actual reader. I did finish Super Sad True Love Story [by Gary Shteyngart] – it’s scary but good – especially for a New Yorker. I would recommend it. That’s a great one on the fiction side.

On non-fiction, I read Collapse by Jared Diamond, which is a sobering but incredibly important book. And on the history side I read The First Tycoon: The epic life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. A great epic history.

–> Shop the Action Circa Notebook

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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