Context. A couple of days, a friend asked me how I take notes and while I was giving him gyaan on that, I realized, I could write a piece on it! So, here we are.
PS: In SoG 40, sent in Dec 2018, I wrote about how I take notes for the first time. And 18 months on, most of the process has remained the same! Except that Evernote has been replaced by Roam. And that one tool has allowed me to streamline my process far better. Let’s dig in!
So, how to take notes that actually work!
I am dividing this piece into various parts. These are the philosophy, tools required, the actual process of taking notes, and more.
A. My philosophy of taking notes
This is going to be the longest part!
Lemme start with a simple question.
So, why do you take notes?
Note-taking aids in learning better. See this free course and do it if you haven’t.
Thing is, the act of storing information helps create neural networks in the head that moves things from your temporary memory to long-term memory. Plus, I have observed that if I write things in my handwriting, the brain tends to make stronger associations and I can remember things for longer.
And of course, you want to save information and data and notes and tidbits and all that, that you think can come in handy as you go along! You know, sometime in the future?
Lemme give an example.
Imagine you and I worked on a start-up idea 2 years ago and we made elaborate notes on it, including sketches and all that. Now, after 2 years, suddenly, somehow, for an important work presentation, you need to refer to some charts from that idea. Of course, you remember making some notes! But for your life, you can’t find the piece of paper (or the notepad) that you took those notes on! You see, back then you spent hours on those notes, and now that you cant find em, they are worthless!
So, the notes you take must be taken in a way that allows you to retrieve those notes FAST.
THIS IS THE CORE OF HOW I TAKE NOTES and you must too!
Repeat. I MUST BE ABLE TO RETRIEVE NOTES.
And the process of retrieval MUST allow for serendipitous connections to happen. This serendipity is what makes us humans better than other living things. You know, how you often get some of your best ideas when you are thinking of something different altogether! It happens because deep down at the synapse level, your brain has made some connection between those things!
Lemme give another example, to give gyaan to my friend when I was looking for my notes on #noteTaking, I realized that I had actually written an entire SoG on #noteTaking and this could be a good time to do a redux. And thus, this SoG! I also “remembered” the Coursera course on learning that I have linked above. It also made me stumble upon the painful memories of how my ex-girlfriend managed her closet (will talk about it in a bit).
So, repeat. A great note-taking system MUST allow for serendipity!
A1 – Your notes as your wardrobe!
Think of taking notes as your wardrobe. While wardrobes and the management are personal to people, I think there are the following approaches that most people can be slotted into…
A1.1 My ex-girlfriends’ method.
She would dump all her clothes in a pile in the almirah. In no order. To make matters worse, she had three different almirahs at three different places in the house where she would store clothes. Which to her worked because, in her head, she had all her clothes in one of the three predictable, known places.
But when we had to go to a party, she would have a hard time finding her party dress (yeah, she had one favorite dress). And to find that dress, she will empty all the three almirahs. And more often than not, she wouldn’t be able to find her dress and make do with something that is easily accessible.
Most people take notes like this. They save things in an un-orderly manner. At multiple places. With multiple methodologies. With no means to retrieve. And when they need to revisit those, they do not know how to find the notes they want!
Plus, because they are looking for a specific dress (aka note), they ignore other great dresses (or notes) that could prove to be better at that time! You know, serendipity?
So, notes must allow for the retrieval and help bring to surface seemingly unrelated connections!
A1.2 A shopkeeper’s method.
Imagine walking to a store that sells clothes. You tell him that you want a shirt in Salmon Pink color. He’d ask you your size and in less than 1 second he’d pull out a piece of the exact color and size that you asked for. If you then told him that you wanted a Baby Pink or a Rose Pink or a Blush Pink or some other minor variant of Pink, he’d find it as fast as you can rattle of the color name. Aren’t you amazed at their speed / system etc? They organize things so neatly that you can use their shelves for ASMR meditation! Imagine ASMR and notetaking in one piece! Serendipity!
So, how do they do it?
Well, every time they get new stock, they either stack the inventory neatly (which takes a lot of time) but makes the retrieval fast and easy. After all, you need to serve the customer fast!
Some people take notes like that and it is super! Except, all the time you invest in taking notes is essentially sunk, and more often than not, you do not need all notes that you take!
Lesson? Note-taking must be reasonably quick!
A1.3 The Sheldon method.
You know Sheldon Cooper? He is so predictable and so orderly that there is no room for adding newer things. I mean his closet would probably be arranged by days or color or even by superheroes. It works great for him but may not work for you and me. Look at him arranging Howard’s closet!
Plus, it would leave no room for serendipity!
A1.4. My best friend’s method.
So, he is somewhat like Sheldon and somewhat like a shopkeeper. So, he has these 4 different closets, each with multiple shelves. In one he puts all his shirts, in other, he puts all the tees, and then in yet another, he puts his pants. So across these 25 shelves in those 4 almirahs, he’s spread his clothes methodically.
This is great but when he has to dress up, he needs to go to each closet and each shelf and then decide. This does two things. He misses some great combinations that he can wear if he could see all his wardrobe at the same place at the same time. Plus he takes time!
This walled-garden worked well for boring people that wear predictable patterns and combinations. But if you want to get crazy and do new things, this may not work.
Think of how you organize your files in folders and sub-folders and then further nested folders. You bury the files so deep that it’s literally impossible to look at multiple files at the same time. The method worked great to hide porn when we were kids. But now that life has little more meaning, this nested folder approach just won’t cut. No?
So, you need to be able to see your notes in toto and they can’t be buried under structures and all that.
Here’s a quick / dirty way of visualizing these…
So, like closets are personal, note-taking is personal. And you need to find the approach that you like. Just that you need to stick to the five principles. Your notes…
- must allow you to remember (aka retain) better
- must be reasonably fast to take
- must be easy and fast to retrieve
- must allow for serendipitous connections
- must make zoom-in and zoom-out possible with reasonable speed
B. Tools that I use to take notes
So, now that we have established the philosophy and principles, here are tools that I use to take notes…
B1. I use a physical, old-school notepad to record everything that I come across. Nothing is missed. Even the pauses that people take while talking gets into my notepad!
B2. I use Roam (been on it for about 3 months) where I transcribe everything that I initially put on the notepad. Before I had access to Roam, I used a combination of things like Evernote, Asana, The Brain, Google Sheet, and even my EA for that matter!
B3. Web-based clippers like Wordbrain Memex etc that automatically save all that I browse / see etc. This allows for a quick search on the pages that I may have visited but not found good enough to be saved.
B4. I have enabled all history on all websites that I use – things like Google, Twitter, location data, auto-completes, etc etc. Thing is, I am one of those that believes that privacy on the Internet is a myth. I may try whatever I wish to, someone out there would have access to my data and would target me with ads! So, stop trying!
Before we jump to the process, please allow me to submit that as long as you know what’s your note-taking philosophy and the reason why you take notes, tools are not important. Tools, like other things, will evolve with time and you can not become a slave to a tool!
C. The process I follow to take notes
The holy grail! The meat. The crux. The reason why you are here!
The process has largely remained the same since the original piece. The tools may have changed! So, the process is…
C1. Use tags extensively.
Every piece of data that you save (called a block in Roam) has to have a tag. Think of a tag like a connection to the world. A note without a tag will get lost. There is no way to navigate to it. And more tags a note has, better it is!
For example, if I am listening to a conversation between screenwriters, I would use tags like screenwriting, filmmaking, sgInterests, creativity, name 1, name 2, and so on and so forth. Often I have more tags than the actual piece of information.
Now imagine I am brushing my teeth with Colgate, that is endorsed by Sonam Kapoor that worked in a film scripted by a person that I saw the talk in the instance above unless I use tags and links, I would never be able to connect my daily chore to writing for films! Ok, shitty example. But I guess you get the drift!
Thing is, you have to make sure that the tags are consistent across all your tools! This is the linchpin on which great notetaking rests. Tags allow you to link notes to each other. Tags allow you to zoom-in and yet zoom out. Tags allow you to find meaningful and often, meaningless connections.
C2. Use your hands!
I take pen-paper notes as much as possible. If I am not sleeping, I have a notepad within an arms reach. Even if I am walking or something. And then I digitize these notes. Back then I wrote that if I am on a date, even then, I have a notepad on me. That has changed :D.
When I first wrote about taking notes, I wrote about how I write (bullets, index, etc). But after almost 18 months of sustained use, I have realized that I have stopped following any particular template. So, I’ll skip it.
For times when I can’t carry a notepad, I use blank visiting cards. I’ve also sort of spewed them all over my house. See this thread. If I am walking, I cant take a note per se. But I have these cards. If I am watching TV and the notepad is not around, these visiting cards are right next to me.
C3. When on a computer?
If I am on the computer, I use Google Chrome (even though its slow af) and use things like Pocket Web Clipper, Memex, Pinterest button, Feedly, Google’s Keep, and so on, and so forth. A quick glance at my extensions tells me that I have more than 50 active extensions on Chrome, most of those manage tabs or history! Most people would scoff at this but I really like to capture all that I can.
In my emails, I have tools like Hubspot active to archive those.
Plus when I am reading on the computer (or seeing videos or something), I keep Roam open in a tab and I keep dumping links, thoughts, etc in it.
And, on a day to day basis, in no order, I use the following tags in Roam to archive notes / information…
- whatIRead – I keep a list of things I read. I add my notes on those, add links and tags. For example, for this Bloomberg story about Ambani’s, I have tagged it as Mukesh Ambani, #sg5stars (a tag I use for best of the things I come across). The things I read, I often write #sgTLDR – a short summary of what I read.
- People – like a CRM, I take notes of calls made, things that I did, etc. Of course, I can’t capture everything but I try to get the most of it. For example, today I had 6 conversations that were worth saving for later. This does not include conversations with friends, family, etc. And neither do these include inane chats.
- toDo – things that I need to do during the day. The ones I do, I mark them as #sgDone
- sgThoughts – ideas, thoughts, and other things that I don’t have tags for. I often club this with #parkedIdeas, #toWrite, #currentThings etc.
There is more. But tagging is like wardrobing. You need to find a system that works for you.
C4. The phone is not an office tool!
Call me old-school but I do NOT consider the phone an office or a productivity tool. I do not check my mail on the phone. I do not read on the phone. I do not use the phone to learn by watching videos etc. The only thing I use it for is podcasts. I want to stop even the podcasts but I don’t know an answer right now.
Phone to me is communication, entertainment, navigation, and payments device.
If there is something that I see on the phone that needs saving, I send it to myself on a WhatsApp group that has just me on it. And then I log in to a computer and then copy-paste it in the right place. If its a tweet, I “like” it and it gets saved in my Pocket. If its a LinkedIn update, I “share” it on the WhatsApp group that I have with myself. Ditto for videos. I tried taking notes on Notepad in the phone but I kept forgetting about those – like I said, unless I write things with hand or put tags onto them, I don’t consider those as “notes”.
C5. Digitize all hand-written notes and compile them in one place!
I compile all information from all sources and dump it on Roam. Like I said, I do not dump anything without the tags that I spoke about earlier. Repeat. Tagging is the cornerstone of great notes. Plus the double-linking in Roam allows me to find connections between things that I did not know existed!
So, I digitize things that are not automatically in Roam.
The sifting and sorting of things from digital sources is easy (copy-paste and some manual processing using Google Sheets). People like Tiago recommend that we use automation looks like Zapier and IFTTT etc to get things into one common repository. I like the idea but I can’t afford the monthly, recurring payments for those tools as yet. You may want to try. And you MUST read this piece by Tiago on note-taking and listen to this conversation between him and Perrell. Both are long but both are good!
The tougher part is digitizing notes that I have scribbled with my terrible handwriting!
When I got started on this PKM journey, I’d do it every day but now I do it once a week. This does two things. When I revisit things after, say, 3 days, I am reminded of things that I would otherwise forget. And second, once I set time away for this information management, I get to do deep work with on it. You know, without distractions.
Oh, I still use help from my EA on transcribing some of the notes. Though I am trying to do less and less of it. I have realized that the act of transcribing helps with retention and serendipity.
C6. Assign tasks to action items.
Everything needs to be actioned goes into Asana. Again, I maintain those tags that I have used on my Roam.
D. How do my notes help?
So, I had to write this piece on note-taking. I ran a quick search in my Roam (and nowhere else). I found that I’ve written about note-taking a bit and the search throws references to Tiago Forte (have included already), Andy Matuschak (skipping it for the time being), Zettelkasten (the principle on which Roam is based), and the fact that I wish to be a super-connector and a quote from Bill Gates about notes. And other things things that I don’t want to publish here. Without the notes, I wouldn’t have known that all these are connected. So, there is serendipity for sure.
Here is how my notes look like. The faint blue lines are things that are connected to #noteTaking in my Roam!
Second, this act of writing this piece (about 3500 words) took me less than 2 hours. I wrote the entire piece with the help of just the Roam. I did not have to open another webpage (except for referring to the old SoG, making the cover image for the post and finding a youtube link for Sheldon’s sorting thing). So, there is the ease of retrieval for sure. And it’s fast!
Third, since I have started to use Roam, I now have a large repository of notes. This is growing larger by the day! This means that every time I have to refer to something (for a meeting, a project, or something), I just glance at my notes and I am ready. Yay!
Finally, I must say, a note-taking system is as good as the number of notes in it and the tacit connections that you can draw from that. This is the second linchpin of the note-taking system (apart from tags). You need to thus spend time on it. There is a learning curve but once you are over it, you will NOT go back. In fact, there is this entire school of thought emerging in the PKM circles where they compare taking (and maintaining) notes to digital gardening (you know how gardening requires a lot of work initially and then it gives you this beautiful garden that requires tad less maintenance? That! See tweets from my list of digital gardening geeks!
E. Finally, a word of caution
Do NOT let these notes become the end goal in itself. Notes and note-taking is your slave that you must use to become better. Not the other way around.
A great note-taking system can be one of the differences between you reaching the peak, vs you almost reaching there! If you do not have one, may be its time to start implementing one!
And here’s an offer. If you want to put in place a note-taking system for youself, I would love to help. Lemme know and let’s do this 🙂
That’s about it for the time being. Over and out.
Wrote this originally for SOG (original at SoGv4-10). Should you want to receive the weekly SoG’s in your mailbox, sign up here.