Types of Notetaking
Earlier this week, my pair and I struck upon something interesting, and I stopped to take notes.
Every time I see you taking notes, you’re using a new method!
She’s not wrong. Over the past several years, I’ve tried many different ways of capturing my thoughts: yellow legal pads, Basecamp, Notion, Vimwiki, Org Mode, Tyke, index cards, Gitbook, blogging with Jekyll and Medium, Slack/Emails to self, Notability, and voice notes. I didn’t switch note taking styles because I liked to try new things, I switched because I hadn’t found a note-taking tool that fit all of my needs. I’ve researched and tried different note taking systems like Getting Things Done and Building a Second Brain, but as soon as a system or tool caused me to think more about note taking and less about what I was taking notes on, I struggled to keep focused and motivated.
I realized that I should drop all of that and let my intuition guide how I record information best. It turns out that trying to force everything I wanted to write down into one system caused me to feel frustrated and confused. For some things, Vimwiki was perfect! For others, it felt clunky and difficult. A pocketbook was awesome for a while, then suddenly I felt like I could never keep things straight.
Once I stopped fighting this battle, I found that there were three types of notes that I was taking and therefore there were three different tools/methods I could use to take them.
I check my phone. It’s a text from my husband:
If you stop by the grocery store, I just used the last few onions. Can you grab some?
TODOs and short-term tasks come at me from all directions and at any time. Old me would just try to remember everything, but I’ve realized just how much bandwidth and brain cycles that takes up, so I’ve taken to writing these things down. I write down things that are “actionable,” and are “obvious when they’re done,” like “take out trash,” or “fill out form DL-80.”
My criteria for a TODO tool:
- Readily available — I need access to my TODO list at all times. I don’t know when I’ll have the opportunity to check something off my list and I don’t know where I’ll be when I need to add a new task.
- Low friction — Capturing a TODO needs to be a quick activity so that I can continue on with my day. Having to also schedule a reminder, add a category, a priority value, and a description, before I could “save” a task limited my willingness to commit to writing down my TODOs
- Non-ceremoneous — similar to being low friction, I don’t want any other features tied to my TODO notes besides creating a task and marking as task a finished. For example, one TODO tool generated a weekly chart displaying how many tasks I completed compared to last week. I started re-structuring my TODOs to effect these outcomes and meant that I was no longer focusing on the tasks themselves.
My solution: a passport-sized notebook and pen
I can carry this notebook and pen most places with me, and I’m un-apologetic about what I write in it. I mix work-related things with personal task, and I scribble quick “…can you write down this number…” notes, too. Even though it’s for “tasks,” I occasionally find myself taking temporal notes like, “finished reading Convenience Store Woman” and ideas like “write blog post about note taking.”
A pocketbook is an always-charged smartphone.
In Situ Documentation
Do you remember what we ended up deciding on Friday?
In a world of synchrounous-first communication, after an hours long meeting, the last thing I want to do it write down everything we just talked about. More than that, after an hours long meeting, the last last thing I want to do is feel like we forgot everything we talked about.
Sometimes the meetings I’m in are a bit chaotic and cover a lot of ground. (Often more like mob programming than a meeting). In these cases, I’ve found that rapid-fire note taking has allowed me to both 1) keep a reference of what we may have decided and 2) free up my brain to keep listening.
Contemporaneous Work Notes look like this for me:
- Draft-zero — I think of these notes as casting a very wide net. I scribe almost continuously and more often than not, half of it is garbage. With that said, I need a tool that can help me create private unedited drafts that allow me to hone the 50% later.
- Adaptable — I might be taking notes during a meeting, while pairing, during code review, etc. I need a system that adapts to however my brain feels like organizing information in the moment. Besides a date, these notes can end up looking very different: a doddle here, a line reference there, a TODO might sneak in—who knows?!
- Disposible — These notes depreciate in value over time. Ideally, I reference these notes shortly after taking them in order to formalize something that may need to be shared. When I’m done, the in situ notes shouldn’t contain any important information that isn’t captured in a different form elsewhere.
My solution: yellow legal pad and mechanical pencil*
Yellow legal pads are beloved (and hated) by many for their accessibility and ease of use, see: The Illustrious History of the Yellow Legal Pad. I fell in love with them because they feel limitless. I found that when taking notes in beautiful leather-bound $40 notebook, I became a bit too precious about what I would write in it and began to edit my notes before I put pencil to paper! On the contratry, yellow legal pads are cheap, thin, and always open. I prefer a mechanical pencil because I feel as though I can write cleaner lines with a 0.5mm lead than I can with an equally fine pen. Also, I do erase things sometimes, especially if I’m trying to capture a concept in an illustration.
A yellow legal pad is a private portable whiteboard.
*In an effort to minimize my impact on the environment, I’ve moved to using Notability on the iPad with an Apple Pencil or folding yellow legal pad pages into four—using one section per day and both sides of the page.
CUT TO: Thomas is, yet again, digging through the pages of Building Git by James Coglan to remember how Ruby’s
open3 module exposes child processes to IO streams.
I love diving deep into different topics, often topics that I may not directly visit or use again in my day-to-day work. Take machine learning for example. When I first studied it, I learned quite a lot! But, just a few months later, when I revisited data science, I felt as though I was back to square one. Not only can I have notes to come back to, I’ve noticed that my comprehension increases when I’m able to write new information down in my own words.
My solution to avoid this type of thing is to take long-form reference notes:
- Reference-able — As you might be able to guess, these notes have to be notes that I can come back to and understand. That means that these aren’t draft-zero notes, they’re well crafted and continuously editable as I learn and discover new things. They’re written with the reader in mind, even on the first pass.
- Structured — These notes should be both hierarchical and linkable. If I taking notes on material that is related to notes I’ve taken in the past, I want to connect them somehow. This helps with referencing things later, but also helps as I’m editing.
- Pleasurable — It’s important to me that these notes be enjoyable to write and to read. This means the ergonomics have to be comfortable and familiar and help me to focus on the content, rather than the styling.
My solution: Gitbook/personal wiki
This is a new venture for me, but you can find the beginnings of this journey at research.thomascountz.com. Gitbook has switch from self-hosted to a SAAS offering in the past few years, but still offer free services for individuals. I enjoy Gitbook because the online editor is intuitive and comfortable, and all of my notes are backed by git/Github, which means exportability. Also, I like that these notes are public. They’re not quite a blog post, but being able to link directly to specific notes is helpful when sharing ideas.
I’ve also taken to recording personal project documentation in wiki format. Even when I’m working alone, I prefer to write asynchronous documentation as though I’m together with a team. These project docs help me link thoughts and ideas togethers that would otherwise decay over time as other priorities come into focus.
A personal wiki is the brain’s external hard drive.
Your Notes, Your Way!
It’s with this combination of a small notebook, yellow legal pad, and personal wiki that I declutter my brain and keep focused. What’s your preferred note-taking method/tool? Do you have one that fits all your needs or are you like me: different tools for different situations? I’d love to hear your thoughts!