Do you take notes?

When I want to remember something, I very rarely take notes.

I think my stance has always been, when in meetings, during presentations, conferences etc, that if it’s worth remembering, I will. No need to have a filled note block with illegible scribbled notes, which I won’t be able to grasp anyway.

Another part of me, probably in vain, believes that it’s good mental training. Like, if I have to remember a lot of things, it keeps my mind in shape, as opposed to just writing everything down and then let it go.

One could argue, though, that if you drive to a place with your car, bike (or vehicle of your choosing), you remember the way there better, than if you had been just a passenger. And maybe the same goes for taking notes: if you write things down, it’s printed in the back of your skull forever. Or something.

There’s an exception to the rule, though. Ideas for blog posts, things to test and develop and inspiration for upcoming presentations I will give – basically all things that are pretty far in the future – I occasionally take very light notes, as inspiration. And when I do, I use the excellent service Evernote. It’s free, their desktop app is very good and I can also use it on my iPhone.

The key thing, though, with Evernote, is that my notes are automatically synchronized between locations and devices. Other people are completely dependent on writing notes with pen and paper, and have developed truly elaborate systems to do that.

Do you take notes? Why or why not? And if you do, how do you do it?

Posted in General |

25 Comments

  • Martin S. says:

    I do take notes when it's necessary. To remember important stuff.

    I try do take notes on my laptop and nothing else. Digital for the win. Probably more environmental friendly too?

    Haven't found a good program for notes tho.

  • I use Tiddly Wiki and I keep it in my dropbox so it's available on all my computers/OS. I really like it; I never have to leave my browser.
    http://www.tiddlywiki.com/

  • For conferences, presentations, lectures, etc. I rarely take notes … and if I do, they're usually short term notes, about looking up stuff or asking for clarification on stuff I might have misunderstood.

    For some activities, I do take notes. When working on implementing specific features, I break the task into much smaller pieces and just keep track of them on a piece of paper that gets discarded upon completion of the task.

    For long term task planning, I sometime attach notes to tasks, even days after creating the task.

    I create shopping lists with everything I need to get from the shop, and end up leaving the list at home about 50% of the time ;)

    Electronic notes might be an idea for my shopping lists, as I rarely leave the house without my phone :-)

    I do sometimes write down a lot of details about ideas, to be able to clear my head of the idea, and get back to what I was focused on, when the idea popped into my head.

  • I've spent a great deal of time at lectures and seminars the last few years, and I find that it's the the notetaking in itself that help me remember. The act of processing what's being said, identifying the important parts, reformulating them and writing them down forces you to work much more actively with the content of the presentation, as compared to passively listening.

    The primary use of note taking is not to be able to read your notes later (although I occasionally need to do that as well, at what point I'm really happy that I bothered to write them).

    I used to do notetaking with a Moleskine and a Pilot G1 gel ink pen, but for the last two years I almost always use a tablet PC, either in laptop mode (for larger lectures) or tablet mode (smaller seminars with more interactivity). I collect everything in Evernote, and have occasionally scanned in paper notes just to have everything in the same place.

  • Andreas says:

    At presentations and conferences I use a sketch book where I combine short texts with drawings. I got this idea from Paul Downey. Works really well for me and its nice to look at later when I want to refresh my memory about what was discussed.

  • Den Odell says:

    Hey Robert,

    Interesting post. I'm with you – I try to take as few notes as possible, trusting the power of the brain instead. As long as I properly understand what is being discussed, it'll stick.

    When I'm in some meetings I know will be boring, or if I'm feeling tired but still need to take something from it, I fire up Google Docs and just make some notes in a new document there. If I have my iPhone along, I'll use the notes app on there. Either case, I see the notes as being temporary things, that can be disposed of later once I've re-read them and properly grasped what it was I was writing about at the time.

    Glad I'm not the only one who doesn't feel the need to document everything in a notebook.

    Good post.

    Den

  • Remy Sharp says:

    I use Yojimbo for computer note taking – though I want to move across to Evernote.

    However, for meetings or on the train, or general brainstorming list stuff I use a real life notepad and pen (I know – old school, right!?). This is definitely my preferred method – plus there's no syncing issue, because my notepad goes where I go :-)

    There's two advantages to this for me:

    1. Simplicity

    Not having the distracting of a machine and the interface means I focus on just that note. i.e. I know many people who test out loads of note taking apps and instead of taking the note, then end up trailing a ton of apps resulting in the lost note and still no perfect system.

    2. Deferred Memory

    I started reading the GTD book, but didn't finish, but I did read the first few chapters. In there they talk about how when you try to remember something, you're repeating the memory over and over in your head to try and create a long term memory (or longer term than short).

    By committing something to paper (or computer) it releases that process from your real memory, to focus on other things. By committing to paper, it helps me see what tasks I have, and what the real priority list is.

  • mdmadph says:

    Nope — never been able to. Can't do two things at once. :P

    If I'm listening, I can't write notes. If I'm writing notes, I can't be listening at the same time.

  • Magnus says:

    The idea of keeping the mind sharp by having to remember things may very well be in vain. If you read Getting Things Done there is much talk about freeing your mind from having to remember things, even subconsciously.

    The difference between staying sharp and staying effective is a very important one I believe. For example, if you read a book and there's an example you want to try, do you copy this example from the files that came with, or do you type it out to 'keep your typing skills'? (I know, I know, you'll probably learn more by typing it in, bad example perhaps :))

    For myself, I try to use systems such as GTD from times to times. I'd love to stick to one for a longer period because I believe I would free up my mind to more important stuff, but alas so far I've failed.

    Maybe a comparison with a framework is in place here? You'd use a framework to be rid of the boring day-to-day stuff and focus on new and exciting development. Could the same be said about GTD, would it free up your mind to be more creative?

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Thanks for sharing, guys! Good to see that we are all different. :-)

    Martin S,

    Try Evernote, you might be pleasantly surprised. :-)

    Pär,

    Nice. I haven't tried TiddlyWiki.

    Morgan,

    Interesting about notes for specific work tasks – I've never really tried that.

    Staffan,

    Yes, I can imagine that for some people, the note-taking process greatly enhances the learning part.

    Andreas,

    Nice!

    Den,

    Thank you! And yes, when I thought about the idea for the post, it seemed different from my regular ramblings, and I'm all about desperately trying to stay versatile in my blogging. :-)

    Personally, and it's probably just me, but my typing on the iPhone is far too slow to be useful for taking notes.

    Remy,

    I think it's a very good point on getting stuck on technology, trying apps, checking other stuff etc with a computer available. Only downside is if you were to lose your notepad.

    It might release the process to take notes, but without the notes I know nothing. I like being as little dependent as possible.

    mdmadph,

    Ha ha! :-)

    Magnus,

    Those are intriguing questions! And I agree, if I occupy my mind with remembering things, I might not be able to give all my power to other thoughts.

    But then, for the sake of argument, let's say it makes me more sharp than effective. But, in turn, wouldn't me staying sharp/getting sharper in turn make me smarter and more effective that way? :-)

    I think frameworks are an interesting comparison: frameworks are great, but if you have never bothered to learn the actual basics (the equivalent: remembering stuff properly), you are not much good without the framework.

  • Maaike says:

    I have got a little notebook I take everywhere. I've been doing this for years – I use it for keeping notes in meetings with clients, for writing down things I know I'd otherwise forget and for sketching. I'm a big fan of the A6 Muji notebooks :-)

    Like Staffan (above) I believe it's the writing itself that helps me remember.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Maaike,

    Thanks for the tip about the notebooks. :-)

  • Richard Fink says:

    This is a really good question Robert. Are you ready?

    I learn by reading and writing. Not by listening. I hate formal classes. I almost never take notes when listening to a talk. However, I do recall it all quite well without written notes. But that's not learning, just remembrance.

    I do a lot of testing and researching and I literally forget where I put things. Folders and such.

    So, I have a diary program that's available in my Windows taskbar and I'm constantly cutting and pasting URIs and file/folder names with short notes as I work. Kind of like breadcrumbs so I can go back and pick up where I left something off a couple of weeks ago.

    At the same time I have some named text files that I also keep handy, and I jot down notes and observations as I go. For example, I keep a book list- books.txt.

    It's all very improvisatory, it flows, and it suits my work style.

    What I find also, is that stopping to take a note, helps me remember the thing without ever having to refer to the note, like Maaike.

  • Richard Fink says:

    Oh yeah, one more thing. I don't know if it counts as taking notes or not!

    Ever lose a post you spent a lot of time writing because the page refreshed or some other weirdness happened?

    I use a program called AceText that keeps a log of everything that ends up in the Windows clipboard. I've gotten into the habit of doing a quick Ctrl+A/Ctrl+C so I know that certain stuff will be available to me in AceText if something goes wrong. It's saved my ass on more than one occasion. (It's got some other nifty features, too. But I never had a chance to really integrate them into my day-to-day.)

  • Sarah Saunders says:

    I do. I have a black 8 x 10 sketchbook that where I keep my to do lists, notes, and sketches. I started my life with fine art so I like the line free blank page. In the 6 years at my job, I am about 20 pages into my 3rd one. Its funny to look at old ones and see what i was working on and what clients we still have or dont have. Actually I guess I keep a work diary. Hmmm. Never thought of it like that before.

    Either way. Im old school. Pen and paper = )

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Richard,

    Glad you like the question, I'm glad I got so much feedback!

    Also, I hear that a lot from the people, that the note-taking is their actual learning process.

    With regards to losing content, I almost always write my comments, messages etc in another program, just in case. :-)

    Sarah,

    I can imagine you like that, with such a background! Work diary sounds cool, though mine would be filled with bad words, I think… :-)

  • Holger says:

    Hi Robert,

    I usually take a "best of both worlds" approach. When I need digital notes, e.g. when it's about programming and I find good hints or code samples for special occasions I archive them using evernote. I can just copy the website and all links and code into evernote and have it handy wherever I go, or whenever I need it.

    But I also like to scribble and write small notes on things to do in certain projects. Things that might not be important enough for a calender entry but which I have to do eventually. And after writing them down I can forget about them. I just remember, that I needed to do something and then I can take a look into my notebook (moleskine, classic ;)) and find out what it was about.

    So it's a two-way approach.

    best,

    Holger

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Holger,

    If you are going to take notes, that's probably the best approach. Most people get stuck on one way, and never try different approaches to find the optimal way.

    However, some people have developed it to perfection, though, so there's no need for them to try anything else. :-)

  • Dan says:

    I use Google Notebook, although its developement stopped.

    And for my projects and tasks, I use the GTD application: http://www.gtdagenda.com

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Dan,

    Nice, thanks for sharing!

  • LaTasha Durden, RMA says:

    Very good question about Taking Notes!!!

  • Karen Lee says:

    Reading your blog post and everyone else's comments are really insightful to me. As a marketing manager at Livescribe (full disclaimer), I was looking for a wide variety of reasons why people take notes, the role of taking notes, and how it helps us remember information. There are so many different methods for taking notes or remembering information out there and it really boils down to personal preference.

    I use the Pulse smartpen for certain situations like meetings, conference calls and/or webinars. I find it most useful when I am going back through my notes (a day, week or month later) and need to remember a certain number, a particular idea, or what someone said exactly.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Karen,

    Interesting, thanks for the input!

  • Russian says:

    I also use evernote.

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