How do you take notes?

by ChristianKl1 min read22nd Jun 201429 comments

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Note-TakingScholarship & Learning
Personal Blog

We all deal with a lot of information. What are your strategies of taking notes for new information?

Do you take any notes on paper? If so do you scan them or otherwise digilatize them?

Do you have specific strategies for deciding which information to write down?

How do you write notes to capture all important information?

Do you tag your notes?

If you use Evernote, or a similar system how private are your notes? Would you allow friends to read in them? Your spouse?

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I just open a plain text file and write down all the relevant information I discover about a topic, along with my own analysis and commentary.

By way of example, at one point I considered burning numerous movie and anime files I had downloaded using uTorrent into discs with the intent of watching them on a DVD player, which is something I had basically zero experience with. This is the document that emerged as I kept on adding my research notes to the bottom of a text file over the course of several days (weeks?).

Hey, I do the same thing to take notes. I even decorate the header with the "==" too! What I do is I download a pdf or epub of a book (from straight google search or libgen.info/index.php) and split the screen, notes on one side and the book on the other. If I turn off wifi, this can be fantastically productive.

I usually take notes:

  • On a piece of paper if it's about a book I'm reading (I use the paper as a bookmark, and usually finish the book with 2 or 3 sheets of notes)
  • In Google Docs if I'm brainstorming stuff at a computer or if it's on web content
  • In a notebook if it's from thoughts/discussion with people
  • (rarely) directly into Anki on my phone if it's convenient

I then will usually go over those to enter into Anki the bits that are worth remembering (striking them out from my notes if necessary).

I usually use a four-colored pen for notes with the following rule:

  • Black is for info about what I'm reading (summary, quotes, interesting bits)
  • Blue is for commentary on the above ("I didn't understand this", what if, questions, "this reminds me of...")
  • Red is for important stuff
  • (Green is for other: highlighting special stuff, off-topic, etc.)

My google docs are sorted in folders, and I usually start them with a bunch of keywords to make them easier to search (I have browser "quick search" keywords, where entering "md whatchamacallit" will return a search in My Docs).

I go into some details here.

What are your strategies of taking notes for new information?

Start by reading random articles -> wiki -> papers / books Decide how complex it is likely to be for me and how far deep I want to learn the topic (e.g. how useful is this to me for really learn this)

Do you take any notes on paper? If so do you scan them or otherwise digilatize them?

Used to do notes on paper in bound books, a book per area (ideas, programs, building, etc) but never digitized them. For the last few years I use Google docs - like evernote, easy to search, write and read anywhere.

I still do Maths problems of paper as it seems quicker to scribble and draw diagrams / charts - would love to know a digital option though that worked as easily as pen.

Do you have specific strategies for deciding which information to write down?

New document for each topic to learn , or application of knowledge. e.g. document "Learn maths" - progress of maths courses , "AI applications" = how to actually build something.

The usual structure of a document is

*Overview - what is it, what do I want to learn

*Progress - what do I need to do, current tasks, upcoming tasks

*Application of Knowledge - ways to apply the knowledge - for me, usually software / website. I feel I need to actually apply new knowledge otherwise it doesn't stick after a few years. This section often has links to other project documents

*Notes - sub headings as needed, usually a 2-3 sentence summary of the area, links and the actual content contains things I didn't know / should learn / not obvious

*Log of Events - dated entry of when I read, learn or apply the knowledge

How do you write notes to capture all important information?

I don't - I only write down things I don't know, paragraphs usually with links to appropriate sources for deeper reminders. I find actually typing in my own words helps best for me to learn.

Do you tag your notes?

clear use of of document titles, standard sections, make sure right keywords are in the document (anywhere) and Google makes it very easy to get to the right document

If you use Evernote, or a similar system how private are your notes? Would you allow friends to read in them? Your spouse?

All notes are private by default, but some code I write as part of applying the learning is public e.g. - github. My spouse isn't at all interested in Maths or AI but would happily share if she wanted to read them

[-][anonymous]7y 10

I use onenote if I'm at a talk, and then will copy the notes into Anki's incremental reading extension to get them into anki.

If it's reading material, I copy them right into the incremental reading extension. I have a special note type called deep processing that I try to use every so often to make sure I'm not just doing a superficial reading to create anki cards.

[-][anonymous]7y 4

Which extension do you use? The last time I looked there were no good solutions for IR with Anki.

[-][anonymous]7y 6

I used a version previously only found on github, but which apparently a couple of days ago was updated on the official anki extension page:

https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/2880922486

It's still not perfect, and I would love if all the bugs were worked out, but I've been using it for a few months and the benefit of being able to remember everything important that I read more than outweighs the cost of dealing with occasional bug.

I take notes on paper, I've tried on Microsoft Word but it hasn't worked well for me. I do not usually save my notes for more than 6 months.

My purpose for taking notes varies, but there are two general things I try to do: record information for retrieval later, or condense and process information that so that I understand it better in the moment. These goals unfortunately lead to two different styles of note taking.

The first style is simply writing down everything the professor says/writes on the board, which was my default for a long time, and it works well for classes that are not conceptually difficult.

The second style is to do quick and general summaries and diagrams illustrating the concepts and processes that are going on. The second style is important for classes that provide detailed notes already - usually as slides - but are somewhat conceptually difficult. For example biochemistry. No one process is very difficult to understand but the share volume of them makes it difficult for me to understand what's going on if I don't draw some conceptual diagrams illustrating the processes that are occurring.

For mathematical classes I actually tend towards the first style. Most of my learning takes place when doing the problems and I just want to make sure there isn't any rule that I missed that would prevent me from doing the problems.

I take notes in text files that I have named by topic and all in one big folder. This allows me to search all of the files easily at once and gives me ease of mind that text files will never become obsolete and I should still be able to read them in 30 years. I've been doing this for quite sometime and have files going back at least 10 years.

An important step however is that I occasionally copy the entire directory as a backup into a new folder and name it by the date of the backup. I then never alter that archived version. The purpose of this is that I now feel free in my working directory to be liberal with edits and deletes so that I can keep the amount of notes down to a relatively small amount only including important topics at any one time, but have the ability to search through old iterations at the same time.

I never scan notes I take by hand, and only take notes by hand if I'm somewhere that it's socially unacceptable to have a computer/phone. If I do this I just go through later and type important parts into a text file.

As far as capture goes, I either write a quick sentence or two and email it to myself to later transfer to a text file or I place the note in my phones note feature. Usually once a week or so I go through and clear my inbox and my phones note feature and transfer everything to text files.

I've gone through several attempts to build tagging systems but in reality grep (or spotlight search on a mac) are so good at searching text files that it's never useful and I end up canning the tagging system.

I don't use evernote, but my notes are very private, I sometimes write in a very journal like fashion, and so I would not let anyone read them.

All my notes take the form of questions and answers now. I find that notes that can't be used to challenge me to recall and think about the material are pointless.

Note these are not like SR flashcards, which I have had little luck with outside things such as vocab.

I keep them in markdown in Dropbox, and edit them on my iPad or phone while reading. When I feel like reviewing I have a custom style sheet to present them in a form that it is easy to cover up the answers with one hand.

In terms of deciding what information to capture, I used to fetishise names and dates and things. Nowadays I focus mainly on concepts (if the author names the concept it's gold) and the outlines of arguments, and try to keep the volume to only the most important info, since everything I put in there I expect to remember.

Another text file user. My current system is a log.txt file that has to-do lists at the top, followed by a big list of ideas waiting to be filed, followed by datestamped entries going downwards. That way the next thing to do is right at the top, and I can just cat the date to the bottom to write an entry. I keep this in the home directory on my notebook, but regularly copy it up to my Dropbox. When it gets really long I cut the log part off and save it.

I have another set of files with story ideas, productivity notes, personal thoughts, wildlife sightings, goth sightings, etc, but they've kind of accreted over a long time and aren't well organised, with duplicate files for the same thing. What I'm trying at the moment is to just enter everything in the log, and go through the log every now and again to classify and copy things out.

One problem I have is ubiquity - I love my light-weight notebook and carry it a lot of places, but not everywhere. If I could find a really good phone note-taking app from which it was really really simple to export notes, I might use that.

The other problem is diagrams and photos. I find drawing diagrams and annotating them really helps me think. I have a hardback graph-paper notebook and pencil that I use, but I'd like to have my drawings digitally too, and link images into my log. I'm thinking maybe some sort of markdown-type thing, so I can look at my log with a browser and see the pictures.

I carry a small notebook and pen in my back pocket, which I use for to-do lists and short terms notes. I don't have a system for longer-term notes or for processing things I have read, which is a deficiency I think I should target soon.

When I read a book I take notes on paper, because it's faster. I use these notes to summarize / reword the information for myself and to write down further references I should check up later. I usually try to copy the summaries manually into OneNote later. This helps me remember them better and saves them for further use.

For all other types of notes (thinking by writing - which I do a lot, random notes, web clips, contacts, to do lists, etc.) I use OneNote. I've been a heavy OneNote user for years, so my system is pretty robust and has tons of information in it, but it's all very simple to access with a click or two, and it's extremely organized.

I have a few OneNote notebooks that I put a privacy lock on, but I'd let my wife read them (she monitors my computer use anyway, so she can read them when she views what I typed).

I use text files. (.txt, because I hate waiting for a rich text editor to open, and I hate autocomplete for normal writing) It's the only way to be able to keep track of them. I sometimes write paper notes when I don't have a computer nearby, but I usually don't keep those notes. Sometimes if I think of something I absolutely have to remember as I'm dozing off to sleep, I'll enter it in my cell phone because I use that as an alarm clock and it's always close to my bed. But my cell phone's keyboard makes writing notes really slow, so I avoid it under normal circumstances.

I have several kinds of notes that I make. One is when I'm doing a hard intellectual task and I want to free up short-term memory, I will write things down as I think of them. I usually title this kind of file with the name of the task. For tasks too minor to remember just by a title like that, I just write something like " notes 2014-06-22".

I also write "where I left off " notes, whenever I leave a programming project or something for a day (or sometimes even before I leave for lunch), because usually I will be forming ideas about how to fix problems as I'm fixing other problems, so I can save my future self some work by not forgetting them.

I realized the importance of note-making only a few years ago (and found wikidpad only a few weeks ago), so in my current system I have notes only about recent things. There are three main categories: "personal", "job-related" and "knowledge".

The "personal" data are on my home computer only, and I wouldn't want any other person to see them. (Nothing too embarassing, but it would be a violation of privacy.) This mostly means contacts (one page for each person, various categories) and plans (something like GTD).

The "job-related" data are on my work computer only, and if I change job in the future, I would throw most of it away (except for contacts on colleagues). This contains information about the company, our projects, and my tasks.

The "knowledge" data mostly contains notes about programming languages and frameworks. It's like a personal wikipedia / wikibooks. I transfer it on a memory stick between work and home. I wouldn't mind someone else reading the info, there is nothing personal, but if they copied it, I would feel my intelectual property was violated.

I also have a box full of papers with various notes I have taken in the past (mostly at university), and I used to believe that one day I will digitalize them, but that will probably never happen. However, keeping the box is not a problem.

When I work with computer, I make notes on the computer. When away from computer, I use any piece of paper, and later put them on my table with the intention to digitalize them later, but in fact the heap only keeps growing. (One day I will probably put them in the box with old notes, too.) But the idea is to rewrite the notes by hand; because I have to put it in the system and hyperlink it with the existing information.

I almost always have a pen and paper with me.

One thing to remember is that retrieval is easier now than it has been for most of the history note-taking systems have been developed. Easy note entry should be a priority. I've kept a diary-like miscellaneous notes file where I just append a time-stamped entry of whatever any time I want to make note of something for over 10 years now. Currently there's 4.7M of text. (The whole file is occasionally too large to work with so I've split it to a recent notes and archived notes halves, and append the recent notes to the archived notes every few months.) I don't actually retrieve things from there very often, it's mostly for general concentration-aiding brain dumps. I haven't got a tagging scheme, though I probably should if I started taking notes I need to refer back to more.

Recently I've been inspired by the MineZone wiki book notes to write outline-based notes using Vim and the VimOutliner mode. Been doing this on some nonfiction books that promote various systems of behavior, mostly meditation and productivity books so far, distilling the core steps of the system to an outline and dropping the fluff.

So far I've just appended my notes into text files named after a topic, like productivity.otl, with the top-level headings being the names of the articles and an outline going below that. I might get started doing something similar with nonfiction that isn't about crisp, hierarchical behavior systems and for various math and theory stuff. I'm tempted to go back to Emacs and org-mode for the mathy needs for the inline LaTeX functionality.

I remember being inspired by Cosma Shalizi's notebooks page years ago as a model for a set of notes from disparate subjects.

This post'll be more useful as more people chip in with their diverse methods, so here're mine.

At home I almost exclusively take notes on my PC, where I use MediaWiki, although in retrospect MediaWiki's probably unnecessarily heavyweight. (Everyday use is straightforward but it's cumbersome to install & maintain.) Very occasionally I make & save computer algebra system notebook files.

In transit I don't have an easy way to take notes, but I recently bought an e-book reader and installed a simple notepad application on it. I'll see how that goes.

On campus:

  • marginalia on printouts of other people's papers and my own preprints
  • semi-temporary mathematical scribbles and short-term to-dos on pads or loose scraps
  • project-specific text files in relevant directories on my office PC
  • computer algebra system notebooks again (more so on campus than at home)
  • titled & dated entries in hardcover lab books
  • LaTeX files for medium-to-long notes potentially expandable into papers or reports
  • occasional emails for things others might also find useful

An idea might grow & transmogrify into different formats as I experiment with it. In extremis, an idea might start as 5 or 10 words in the margin of a printout, become a clumsy stream of improvised maths on some scrap paper, get upgraded to a more systematic derivation over a few lab book pages, generate a few emails, then grow an abstract and figures as I turn it into the outline of a potential paper.

Do you take any notes on paper? If so do you scan them or otherwise digilatize them?

I don't systematically scan or digitize paper notes. The nearest I come to that is manually expanding scrappy notes into better-written notes on my computer if I (expect to) try to rework them into a proper project.

Do you have specific strategies for deciding which information to write down?

Nah.

Do you tag your notes?

I use categories in my wiki entries, but that's about it. For other computerized notes normal search tools usually suffice, and I manually search my lab book based on entries' dates & titles.

how private are your notes? Would you allow friends to read in them? Your spouse?

Pretty much. The most embarrassing things in my work notes are little comments like "Oops that's wrong", which is no big deal. Almost all of my home notes are innocuous to the point of being boring, as they're things like extracts or references from books. There is the odd blunt/rude comment about other people in there, though more about authors/public figures than people I know.

Is there some reason you use MediaWiki rather than a personal wiki software (for example Zim)?

I chose MW as I knew it existed, I had the most familiarity with it, and I wanted to err towards a more featureful bit of wiki software in case I wanted features later. (Inline graphics & mathematics turned out to be useful, though I presume there are other wikis that handle those too.) I didn't do much research to see whether other wiki software could satisfy those constraints, though.

I just want to clarify here -- are you aware that personal wikis and server software such as MediaWiki are different classes of software? The most relevant reason to use personal wiki software rather than wiki serving software is, no server == no consequent security holes and system load, no need to do sysadmin type stuff to get it going. Personal wiki software is generally just an ordinary program, meaning it has it's own GUI and can have features that it would be insecure to expose over the internet.

Personally I have found Zim a little lacking when I wanted tables (it doesn't currently support them, except through diagrams), but it supports most other things I've wanted, including some rather exotic stuff

Anyway I mainly commented because using MediaWiki only for your own personal notes seems rather like cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer.

I just want to clarify here -- are you aware that personal wikis and server software such as MediaWiki are different classes of software? [...] Personal wiki software is generally just an ordinary program, meaning it has it's own GUI and can have features that it would be insecure to expose over the internet.

Apparently not! I didn't realize "personal wikis" referred to wikis implemented as separate, ordinary programs; I'd thought they ran on web-server-plus-scripting-language stacks as MediaWiki does, just with smaller, simpler codebases and far simpler database schemas (or indeed a bunch of flat files instead of a full-blown database).

Anyway I mainly commented because using MediaWiki only for your own personal notes seems rather like cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer.

Yeah. Were I to do this again I'd look more deeply at the simpler personal wiki programs out there rather than just shrugging and going with the more familiar choice.

I have everything in one txt file called ToDo.txt. In there are different categories and sub-categories. It starts out with rules to follow. Then there are important meta-level activities. Each activity refers to another category. One of them is simply called ToDo, which refers to the ToDo category that features sub-categories sorted by how timely they are.

So it basically goes like this (very roughly)...

Category: Rules

Rule "What to do": Decide what to do between the activities listed in the category Activities. ...

Rule Learning: If "learning" criteria is met, ignore.

Category: Activities

Activity Learning: See category "learning"; See rule "learning";

...

Activity ToDo: See category ToDo...

Category: ToDo

Sub-category immediate:

Call doctor for new meds...

Category: Learning

Sub-category proofs and problems I need to understand:

Proof and Variance of MLE


The length of ToDo.txt is currently 139572 characters and 2076 lines.

Do you delete old "to do's" after you have completed them? How do you navigate the big text file? When and how do you write the rules?

Summary: Evernote + gesture typing, unsorted and untagged.

Do you take any notes on paper? If so do you scan them or otherwise digilatize them?

No. Paper is cumbersome and unsearchable. I need my notes with me at all times, so I use Evernote.

Do you have specific strategies for deciding which information to write down?

Most often, I record details that would likely be lost after a mental context switch. Also, if I feel that I will need this piece of information in the future, I just write it down.

How do you write notes to capture all important information?

Evernote on Android, using gesture typing. (BTW, gesture typing will be introduced in iOS 8 in September, so this strategy will work on Apple devices too).

Do you tag your notes?

No. Basically, I have one dedicated tag, "booze", which I use to tag notes about wine (unlike whisky, there are hundreds of wine brands, so I have to remember which ones I liked). The rest of my notes are an unsorted mess. I rely on search for retrival. When I write notes, I try to include keywords that I'm likely to use when searching.

If you use Evernote, or a similar system how private are your notes? Would you allow friends to read in them? Your spouse?

Fully private. I'm a paid subscriber which lets me protect notes with a pincode.

Edit: Just wanted to add that if a note grows too large, I move it to a separate Google doc (also accessible via mobile).

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Just wanted to add that if a note grows too large, I move it to a separate Google doc (also accessible via mobile).

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(I don't claim to be using my notes to any great effect, but this is what I do with them):

To me, I've noticed that I seldom actually use my notes as a reference. When I need to refer to something, I go to a place in a book somewhere. Rather, during a lecture, my notebook for the class seems to function more as a way to keep me paying attention to the lecturer, and to run various complicated pieces of information (equations, etc) across my mind. (Okay, I do sort of refer to these during exam study, but the books tend to be more legible).

I also do a lot of my own investigating of various subjects. I will be reading a book, and noting the equations, then go off on a tangent playing with the equations, or attempt to re-derive something that I may or may not have played with before. I have several 5-subject spiral bound math notebooks that I will fill with whatever ideas I am currently playing with. I try to expend one of these every 3 months or so, though my current one is 5 months old. :'/

When I am done, I clip the spiral binding and roll it out of the notebook, then use my document scanner to scan the thing and put it in my notebook library for future reference. (Some of it I do end up looking back to, but hardly most of it,.)

I take notes in Workflowy, and sometimes on paper if I don't intend to save them. My Workflowy tree has branches for different types of notes, like conversation logs or reading notes, which makes the notes searchable and well-organized. Tag functionality exists, but I rarely use it. Most of my notes are private, but I show the overall tree structure and some of the notes to friends.

I use org mode in emacs to take notes from web browsing and to store notes about projects I'm working on. It's plain text but allows for hierarchical organization, tags, generation of spread-sheet like tables, etc. and I can always export it later to something that non-emacs users can look at, like html or pdf. Being emacs, there is an absurd amount of stuff that can be done with the document, including the ability to compile and execute code snippets in the languages that I use (I am a programmer, so this is sometimes quite helpful).

I have a folder with various document files on my various theories and work. I used to go with the earliest ideas at the top and then work downward. Now I've reversed that and have the newest ideas at the top, so I start out looking at the latest things. I bold the main concept that made me want to write that thing down, so I can skim the file easily, and then under that use hyphens with each thought or longer statement relating to it. So a typical entry looks something like this. (for some reason I can't do hard returns so...it actually wouldn't look like this at all.)

Ted Williams called his book "The Science of Hitting." -This type of phrase might be good if we want to collect this as a book. -We can go to wikipedia later and see how the book was received.

If I have a breakthrough, I put it in red, and if I quote something or have something interesting, it's in italics.