24 votes

Let's talk about taking notes

I've been thinking about note-taking a lot recently. I'm not a particularly great note-taker myself, though I do use a calendar and a to-do list. My SO is a habitual digital note-taker, but also a hand-written journaller too. I do neither of these things (and don't feel the worse for the lack), but I am curious about how my fellow tilderen feel towards notes in general, and journalling to a lesser extent.

Are you a note-taker? If not, why not? If so, how does it add value to your life? Do you prefer a digital or a pen-and-paper notebook, or even a hybrid approach? And do you have a system?

30 comments

  1. [9]
    drannex
    Link
    I write notes, constantly. I write notes on music I listen to, books I read, videos on YouTube, articles, and things that happen in my day to day. I treat my journals as a second brain and I end...

    I write notes, constantly.

    I write notes on music I listen to, books I read, videos on YouTube, articles, and things that happen in my day to day. I treat my journals as a second brain and I end up writing about 3-10 pages of notes every day.

    I can't write by hand, but I do take them all in Word, and I create a new folder every month (ex. 09 2020) and place all my notes, documents, and various other forms in there. I also have a few 'Ongoing' folders that hold my notes on books, location research, general ideas, and a few other things.

    Another suggestion is to use bulletpoints, by far the best method of writing notes I have ever found. Easy to read through, write, sort, and create hierarchies.

    This adds tremendous value to my life, I feel my memory is a little bit better off, I can quickly find references and ideas from a mass amount of different sources, and it has just made life a little bit easier to deal with by offloading my thoughts and backing them up to somewhere else.

    Memories fade, knowledge dies, but the written word may be eternal.

    12 votes
    1. [8]
      wcerfgba
      Link Parent
      You might like Workflowy [1] , it represents all your notes as a single tree of nested bullet points, and each bullet can be selected for viewing as the root bullet. [1] https://workflowy.com/

      Another suggestion is to use bulletpoints, by far the best method of writing notes I have ever found. Easy to read through, write, sort, and create hierarchies.

      You might like Workflowy [1] , it represents all your notes as a single tree of nested bullet points, and each bullet can be selected for viewing as the root bullet.

      [1] https://workflowy.com/

      6 votes
      1. [7]
        drannex
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I dislike Workflowy quite a bit actually. The tool is featureless in most cases, and I hate the centralization factor. Word handles multiple forms of bulletpoints, notes, styling, macros,...

        I dislike Workflowy quite a bit actually.

        The tool is featureless in most cases, and I hate the centralization factor. Word handles multiple forms of bulletpoints, notes, styling, macros, hyperlinks, file (image, video, etc) uploads, and a tonne more far better. Every set of notes will be different in style and substance depending on the cases.

        I think people tend to forget how insanely great Word is and how practical and useful it is, but the fact that you can write something in Word now and know it will be able to work in 50 years is absolutely fantastic. Workflowy is likely useful to others who have added it to their work flow (lol) but I think people generally ignore the power of word processors.

        7 votes
        1. [6]
          psi
          Link Parent
          I think this is a wee bit optimistic -- 50 years ago personal computers didn't exist, let alone MS Windows or MS Word. File extensions are notoriously ephemeral, and there's really no guarantee...

          the fact that you can write something in Word now and know it will be able to work in 50 years is absolutely fantastic

          I think this is a wee bit optimistic -- 50 years ago personal computers didn't exist, let alone MS Windows or MS Word. File extensions are notoriously ephemeral, and there's really no guarantee that a .doc file from 2020 will be compatible with Word 77 (if it even exists).

          2 votes
          1. [4]
            viridian
            Link Parent
            I think if you really want something that will last, raw ASCII or unicode files is your best bet, whether the file type be .txt, .md, or what have you.

            I think if you really want something that will last, raw ASCII or unicode files is your best bet, whether the file type be .txt, .md, or what have you.

            3 votes
            1. [3]
              psi
              Link Parent
              I think if you want something that will really last, your best bet might be analogue (with backups). But then again, I don't need something that will last forever. Personally, I use markdown.

              I think if you want something that will really last, your best bet might be analogue (with backups). But then again, I don't need something that will last forever. Personally, I use markdown.

              2 votes
              1. viridian
                Link Parent
                I also largely use markdown, but ultimately markdown is just syntactic sugar on top of raw text, so it's roughly as durable, unless we lose the entire spec for markdown somehow.

                I also largely use markdown, but ultimately markdown is just syntactic sugar on top of raw text, so it's roughly as durable, unless we lose the entire spec for markdown somehow.

                2 votes
              2. 666
                Link Parent
                Just be careful with this too, pencil and ink fade away and very quickly if you are not careful. My notes from college faded away after a year (pencil) and started to fade after two (pen). Edit:...

                your best bet might be analogue (with backups)

                Just be careful with this too, pencil and ink fade away and very quickly if you are not careful. My notes from college faded away after a year (pencil) and started to fade after two (pen).

                Edit: assuming that by analogue you mean actual paper.

                1 vote
          2. drannex
            Link Parent
            But there is a high chance that you can either run an emulator running Win7/10/11/12 and run a program with relative ease in fifty years. The fact it's industry standard used to process nearly...

            But there is a high chance that you can either run an emulator running Win7/10/11/12 and run a program with relative ease in fifty years.

            The fact it's industry standard used to process nearly every document in current existence will ensure a lifespan of backwards compatibility on future OS and environments.

            You don't have that same assurance on other note taking software that doesn't hold more than 10% of the market share of today, is proprietary, and doesn't set the standard for any future document processors.

            1 vote
  2. [5]
    tomf
    Link
    If I am taking notes by hand, I have it set up like this +------------+ |----|-------| | | | | | | | | | | |-------| | | | |____|_______| |____________| the left narrow column is for quick...

    If I am taking notes by hand, I have it set up like this

    +------------+
    |----|-------|
    |    |       |
    |    |       |
    |    |       |
    |    |-------|
    |    |       |
    |____|_______|
    |____________|
    

    the left narrow column is for quick assignments and actual tasks that come up, the right is for general notes or more details about said-assignments. The bottom is for misc ideas and whatnot that come to mind during the meeting.

    I naturally keep to a somewhat org-mode-like structure to it all -- just to keep everything quick and to the point.

    The lower right quadrant is for doodles. It's going to happen, so I might as well give it a space instead of overtaking an important area.

    If I am taking notes on a computer, I do it all in a spreadsheet with three columns -- and no doodles.

    9 votes
    1. [2]
      mieum
      Link Parent
      This is an interesting variation of the Cornell method. I like that you have designated doodle space.

      This is an interesting variation of the Cornell method. I like that you have designated doodle space.

      4 votes
      1. tomf
        Link Parent
        you know, that's probably where I got it from -- then it barely evolved. I'd put money on my getting the concept from Gina Trapani in the old Lifehacker days.

        you know, that's probably where I got it from -- then it barely evolved. I'd put money on my getting the concept from Gina Trapani in the old Lifehacker days.

        3 votes
    2. [2]
      bilbodwyer
      Link Parent
      This is cool! I've never really thought of divvying up a page in that way, but it makes sense to have some structure. What size of paper do you tend to use for this?

      This is cool! I've never really thought of divvying up a page in that way, but it makes sense to have some structure. What size of paper do you tend to use for this?

      3 votes
      1. tomf
        Link Parent
        Typically I have a large notebook that is 8.5x11 — but if I am using something smaller like a B5, I’ll shuffle it would and use the left page for the bottom section (ideas and doodles) and split...

        Typically I have a large notebook that is 8.5x11 — but if I am using something smaller like a B5, I’ll shuffle it would and use the left page for the bottom section (ideas and doodles) and split the right.

        1 vote
  3. viridian
    Link
    I take a crazy amount of notes, pretty much the opposite of @icarus above. I find that if I'm not constantly dumping the contents of my brain onto my notebook, my nextcloud journal, MacDown, or my...

    I take a crazy amount of notes, pretty much the opposite of @icarus above. I find that if I'm not constantly dumping the contents of my brain onto my notebook, my nextcloud journal, MacDown, or my whiteboard, it will 100% end up either:

    a) lost and forgotten
    b) consuming my thoughts until I resolve it at the expense of more important stuff

    Generally the place I document something depends heavily on the ephemerality of what I've written. The notebook is essentially volatile memory, and sheets of paper can and will be torn up and fed to the worms at any time. Half the time stuff I write out my stuff on paper first, and move it to a better place and scrap it later. The whiteboard is for flowcharting, and storing longer term todo items, as well as my daily stuff I need to do, as well as how productive I am in a given day. Macdown is my editor of choice for note taking, and ultimately those notes will end up in ZimWiki for easy searchability. Nextcloud stores my journal entries, any shared documents, and documents I'd like to reference in the future that don't really need to be searchable.

    7 votes
  4. [3]
    Icarus
    Link
    I am not a notetaker. If I write a note down, 99% of the time I won't look at it again. I have tried to be a diligent notetaker but overall it feels like a waste of my time. I quit taking notes...

    I am not a notetaker. If I write a note down, 99% of the time I won't look at it again. I have tried to be a diligent notetaker but overall it feels like a waste of my time. I quit taking notes about halfway through undergrad. I transitioned to recording lectures and replaying them on my walks/car rides and then when I am working on a project, I will document out a mental model and go from there.

    At some point during my undergrad, I found I was too busy writing things down rather than digesting what I was told. So I just stopped and turned the recorder on. I'm not a person who is detail-oriented. A recent HEXACO personality test found my level of perfectionism to fall well below the 10th percentile (10th-90th percentile score was 2.38-4.38, mine was 1.75). My mind just feels like its permanently set to big-picture mode. It has worked out well enough, but it does contribute to my impostor syndrome. However, the way that I work and learn appears to be successful for me. I finished a masters degree without creating these huge binders filled with cryptic text and short-hand. Instead, I have a google drive filled with every class lecture I attended. I even got to the point where I wouldn't type out reports for grad school and instead used a voice software to speak my thoughts out loud.

    At work, I will sometimes take notes but it is mostly for requirements gathering or just a subtle to-do prompt for later. Sometimes I will take notes so the person that I am meeting with feels more comfortable with the conversation, as note-taking can be seen as a form of active listening for people. However, I have a huge drawer at my work desk filled with little scribbles on notepad paper of a variety of things that I will never look at again.

    I look forward to the future of digital assistants if they ever move from the cloud to a local machine. I could imagine myself speaking out random thoughts to it for it to take notes for me. I would love that. I thrive when I have a to-do list created every day, its just so hard to get myself to do one consistently that it rarely happens.

    6 votes
    1. [2]
      blitz
      Link Parent
      I had this issue in undergrad too, and I think it was caused by my never having taken notes in school. I didn't develop this skill so I couldn't effectively do it in college. It's cool that you...

      At some point during my undergrad, I found I was too busy writing things down rather than digesting what I was told.

      I had this issue in undergrad too, and I think it was caused by my never having taken notes in school. I didn't develop this skill so I couldn't effectively do it in college. It's cool that you found a way around that! I never did and eventually this plus my general lack of work ethic in undergrad eventually led me to drop out. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      I sometimes wonder if I should go back to uni and if my work ethic will have improved.

      3 votes
      1. Icarus
        Link Parent
        If you are feeling up to it, you definitely should! I think if I had tried to fit into a mold of the "perfect student", I would have floundered in the second half of my education. I often think...

        If you are feeling up to it, you definitely should! I think if I had tried to fit into a mold of the "perfect student", I would have floundered in the second half of my education. I often think about the Bill Gates (but really Frank Gilbreath quote of:

        “I will always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

        I am the epitome of laziness when taking on tasks. If I understand the needed outcome, I will focus more on getting that outcome than the steps needed to get there. For example, I learned a lot of ways to automate my work just because I got sick of repeating the same steps over and over when doing reporting and other admin tasks. Another example is my use of "Rapid Serial Visual Presentation" (aka Spritz) for getting through the initial pass of reading academic articles and textbook readings in graduate school. Finding little time savers that worked for me was key. Keeping a focus on the outcome and being flexible with the steps to get there opens up a lot of opportunities to learn new skills and think outside of the box. It's just a bit weird when I think about it that laziness is the main driver for these behaviors.

        2 votes
  5. OswaldTheCatfish
    Link
    Some shit went down in my life a few months ago and it made me realize how little of my life I actually remember. Go back even 6 months and I can mostly just remember bits and pieces, a year is...

    Some shit went down in my life a few months ago and it made me realize how little of my life I actually remember. Go back even 6 months and I can mostly just remember bits and pieces, a year is even worse. Any more than 4 years back and I'm mostly just guessing past basic concepts. If I ask people to help I can remember a bit more, but if I'm on my own I'm lost.
    I realized that I should be writing this shit down because there is no way I can remember any details of what happened without it. There are so many memories about loved ones that are just gone because I simply cant remember anything, so Ive committed to every week or two just writing down things that have happened, what I've done, and who I've done them with.
    Right now I just have everything in a single word doc backed up in 3 different places. Its barely even a system. Different days have different formatting, sometimes it just bulletpoints, others its multiple pages for one day. Its just chaos and I think it works pretty well.

    5 votes
  6. tesseractcat
    (edited )
    Link
    I take notes with something similar to the zettelkasten system. Essentially, I just have a big folder of markdown files, and I link between them with links formatted like this [[md file name...

    I take notes with something similar to the zettelkasten system. Essentially, I just have a big folder of markdown files, and I link between them with links formatted like this [[md file name without the extension]]. I edit my notes with either vimwiki, or with Emacs. I usually use Emacs when I'm writing maths notes because it has nice inline latex support.

    I take notes on a number of things, including classes, hobbies, design documents, etc. I think writing notes is a really great way to augment my memory, since I tend to forget things pretty quickly. Reading my own notes can help restore my 'mental state' back to the time when I wrote the note, and help me remember whatever it was that I was writing a note about.

    I also have a dream journal, which is just a folder of date labeled .txt files, and is separate from my main notes web.

    3 votes
  7. [2]
    cstby
    Link
    I rarely take notes. I find that if I'm focused on listening, I'll generally remember most of the details. When I take notes, it's usually so that I can forget it. Or if I'm synthesizing complex...

    I rarely take notes. I find that if I'm focused on listening, I'll generally remember most of the details.

    When I take notes, it's usually so that I can forget it. Or if I'm synthesizing complex information, I'll write it down so we can see it all in one place.

    I use simplenote to capture ideas and make lists, and I use Dropbox paper to keep an ongoing log of my own projects.

    3 votes
    1. Akir
      Link Parent
      Ditto on both of those points. I find that when I write notes it does funny things to my long-term memory; it becomes unreliable in the sense that facts I write down tend to get forgotten at odd...

      When I take notes, it's usually so that I can forget it. Or if I'm synthesizing complex information, I'll write it down so we can see it all in one place.

      Ditto on both of those points.

      I find that when I write notes it does funny things to my long-term memory; it becomes unreliable in the sense that facts I write down tend to get forgotten at odd times. If I just listen and pay attention, I tend to remember it in a more holistic fashion.

      That being said, if I'm having difficulty keeping attention on a topic, that's when notes help, since the process requires mental processing at the same time.

      2 votes
  8. ohyran
    Link
    A massive notetaker and doodler. Have a set notebook I use until its filled, then I write up on the last page what I think are the more relevant bits before moving on to the next one. I have a...

    A massive notetaker and doodler. Have a set notebook I use until its filled, then I write up on the last page what I think are the more relevant bits before moving on to the next one.

    I have a huge problem with ideas - I get ten thousands a minute at one point, but forget them the next if I don't write them down. Which can be problematic since I have to remember to note write notes as if it was to someone else but me, since my headspace makes odd leaps at those times and the words "leafier pines exposed" makes total sense at that time, but is complete nonsense two hours later.

    3 votes
  9. guywithhair
    Link
    Yep, always been one to take heavy notes during class ,especially due to all of the math in undergrad. I started taking notes digitally just a few years ago, and I feel like my productivity and...

    Yep, always been one to take heavy notes during class ,especially due to all of the math in undergrad. I started taking notes digitally just a few years ago, and I feel like my productivity and clarity improved dramatically, especially as I switched to a more structured note-taking app.

    I've been absurdly happy with OneNote. It has enough of the formatting from Word to be fairly flexible, and I like the structuring of notes. I wish the file tiers were a bit more flexible, but the 'pages' are arranged in a directory structure that goes about 5 levels deep. The big thing for me is the way that notes are arranged in columns that can be dragged around, resized, embedded with images or files, checklists, etc. My recent discovery of internal links was a big boost too.

    I keep daily notes, mostly around work/school (PhD student) and usually generating internal links for anything I work on outside that day's column. It also helps that my tablet works well with its stylus, as I once again need to write math. That's not crazy flexible, but there are a lot of QoL things over pen and paper (erase, cut-paste)

    I tend to structure my thoughts around my notes, using it as a way to communicate to myself ideas without having too many things on my mind at once. Most of the time, my notes will never by looked at again. It's like Rubber Duck Debugging, except it manifests as rambling into a keyboard.

    But maybe the nicest thing is about not having to rely so much on pure memory. I'll certainly remember most anything important, but not quite so much the unimportant stuff. Good notes have really saved me there. Hell, it solved a few questions yesterday about something that happened 3 months ago, and I found it in 2 minutes because there's a decent search feature.

    2 votes
  10. hungariantoast
    Link
    I'll start with journaling. Since January 1, I have been recording a daily journal. I thought I would eventually get bored with it, or stop writing entries every day and start just doing them once...

    I'll start with journaling.

    Since January 1, I have been recording a daily journal. I thought I would eventually get bored with it, or stop writing entries every day and start just doing them once every week, but no, I'm 260 entries in and absolutely loving it.

    There were (and still are) a lot of things I wanted to do in 2020, like New Year's resolutions and what not. Most of them remain uncompleted and will probably just end up on my list for 2021.

    But journaling? I stuck to that. I'm glad I did.

    I don't have any specific reasons for keeping a daily journal other than this: it allows me to reset at night, and start the next day as entirely new. Everything that happened today, I can write it out, explain it, and then those emotions, good or bad, are dealt with. Catharsis.

    That's the crux of it. It's a sort of writing therapy for me.

    Every entry is different. There isn't a uniform set of things that I try to include in each entry. Some days are short, some days are long, some days are really, really long, but every day is different, and every day's entry reflects that.

    I would have never guessed that I'd enjoy keeping a journal as much as I do.


    As for taking notes:

    Am I a note-taker? Oh yeah. I have notes going back over a decade, written in various file formats, stored on various drives. Most of them have had their content re-written into plaintext or Markdown files, and most of them are now tracked in a Git repository.

    Unfortunately though, almost all of them are still completely unorganized and written using whatever note-taking system I was trying out that week.

    Recently, I've started re-writing my most important notes in a way that should play well with a static site generator. Using Visual Studio Code or Vim (especially VimWiki), I can already have local Markdown files link to each other like a wiki, but in addition to that, I want to also be able to generate my 'wiki' of local Markdown files into a set of webpages that I can host on my own website, or otherwise use a web browser to read.

    So that's what I am doing right now. I'm incrementally rewriting a few notes every couple of days weeks, trying to get them to play nice with the Pelican static site generator so I can have both a set of interlinked, locally stored Markdown files that I can browse from my text editor, and a set of HTML pages that reflect this interlinked structure on the web.

    (As a bonus, I'd eventually like to somehow implement LaTeX, MathML, KaTeX, or some other syntax for mathematical notation, so I can do most of my writing in Markdown, but drop into a different syntax for equations when needed.)

    To answer your other questions:

    • Note-taking adds a ton of value to my life by allowing me to manage thoughts and ideas well beyond the scope and size that I could reliably remember in my head. For journaling, that means keeping a detailed record of what I have done for every single day for the past 260 days. If I keep this up long enough, I'm sure I start to notice patterns in myself as I re-read previous entries. For instance, how does my productivity change when I start a new semester of school? How does my mood change when we get closer to Christmas or New Year's?

      Even if I don't consider journaling for a second, taking extensive notes on ideas, for studying, and just about anything else, helps me to stop thinking about extraneous stuff that I don't need to focus on, while also ensuring that I'm not going to forget it any time soon. Taking notes helps build out more complete ideas and makes implementing them easier. Also, I've found that even just to translate my thoughts into words, I really have to have a good understanding of whatever it is I am writing about. Sure, I can write down a bunch of questions at first, but when I come back to answer them, I really have to know what I am talking about, or at least know enough, to formulate my thoughts into a structure that makes sense.

    • I prefer digital note-taking and digital notes. I type way faster than I can write. Digital files are easier to organize, categorize, keep private, back up, and otherwise preserve than an ever-growing pile of papers and notebooks.

    • I guess these days the system most close to how I write notes would be outlining, but I don't really write with any system in mind. I just tend to separate notes into different sections and subsections, with each of those having a short title, kind of like a Wikipedia article. However, this is less of a conscious choice and just more of a direction that Markdown's syntaxes pushes me in.

    Finally, it's not exactly note-taking or journaling, but for task management I use Taskwarrior, a command-line program. I wrote about it in this comment:

    https://tildes.net/~comp/nbt/what_are_your_favorite_cli_tools_applications#comment-4tev

    2 votes
  11. krg
    Link
    The only value I find in notes is in their rediscovery: This mess has grown too large...time to toss some stuff...well, no harm in flipping through an old notebook or reading the back of an...

    The only value I find in notes is in their rediscovery: This mess has grown too large...time to toss some stuff...well, no harm in flipping through an old notebook or reading the back of an envelope. Warm feelings for past-self ensue. ...(usually).

    Though, rigorous notes are useful in the context of listening to a lecture...

    Otherwise, I cherish the impermanence of thought. The trouble of taking a photo vs. just sitting with a moment. That, or...I'm simply lazy.

    1 vote
  12. nerb
    Link
    Instead of the bullet-point system I use arrows so that I can show related concepts.

    Instead of the bullet-point system I use arrows so that I can show related concepts.

  13. psi
    Link
    I take a bunch notes. I'm a grad student, though, so my use case might be different. For formal stuff, I use LaTeX. Generally I will create a new gitlab repo for each project I'm working on (a...

    I take a bunch notes. I'm a grad student, though, so my use case might be different.

    For formal stuff, I use LaTeX. Generally I will create a new gitlab repo for each project I'm working on (a programming project, a grant proposal, etc). Inside each of these projects, I create a folder/file named /notes/notes.tex. Polished thoughts go here, which I later use as the backbone for papers and such.

    For less formal stuff, Markdown is great. Specifically, I often use Gitlab Issues as my "notebook" (which, as a bonus, offers LaTeX support). I have a few repositories corresponding to different "notebooks":

    1. a bibliography repo, where each "issue" is a bibtex citation of the reference and its relevance to my research. The issues are tagged by project.

    2. a Zettelkasten. If I'm working on something that requires a substantial amount of effort, I store the thought as an Issue there (eg, a particularly long Tildes comment, the process for setting up vfio, or maybe an important but rarely-used cli tool).

    Of course, each git project also has its own Issues tracker, which I use to jot down feature ideas and bugs. Currently my only concern with this setup is that I'm not sure how to back-up my Issues (ideally I'd be able to back them up to the Gitlab repo they're stored on).

    For lectures and textbooks, I use my iPad with an Apple Pencil. I don't really have a process here -- the "note-taking process", in this case, is really just part of the learning process. Unlike the other types of notes I mentioned above, I pretty much never refer back to my iPad notes.

    For more mundane thoughts (eg, call Mom), I use the gnome extension for Todo.txt. Mostly I use this to rank the importance of my tasks so I'll remember what to focus on.