The How and Why of taking notes

Notebook of Mark TwainThe dullest pencil is better than the sharpest memory. Mark Twain is meant to have said this, but most quotations on the Internet get attributed to Twain.

I have been taking notes for most of my adult life. Usually these notes are recorded with pen and paper in a hardcover notebook, and more recently I use computers and my iPhone. My inspiration for keeping notes are the notebooks of history’s most well-known scientist, inventor and artist – Leonarda da Vinci. Leonardo Notebook
I like to take notes so I have a record of my life, thoughts and activities. Long term memories can fade and things we think we will remember, like notes from meetings, ideas and people’s names soon get forgotten. My notes are a permanent record of information, ideas and thoughts which can be searched and re-read. I take notes at work and at home and I always have with me a way of capturing notes – a notebook, my computer or my phone. In this article I introduce you to my note-taking systems.

What sort of things are in my notes?

Skimming through my recent notebooks and files shows some of the items in my notes. How do you record this sort of information?

  • Lists of books to read
  • Outlines of projects
  • URLS of web sites and interesting articles – easily copied and pasted into my note taking text file. More about this later.
  • Usernames and passwords for various web sites
  • Meeting notes at work – these include names of people present and absent and action items from the meeting
  • Notes from telephone conversations – include date and time of call and name of person, especially when dealing with customer contact centres.
  • Toastmaster meetings – names of people attending and the roles they took
  • Quotations – and who said it.
  • Names of people I met at a party or social event.
  • Electronic receipts and order confirmations (saved in a text file)
  • Notes from watching a documentary or film
  • Vocabulary for languages I am learning – Japanese and Korean. Paper notebooks means I can practice writing Hangeul, Hiragana and Katakana
  • Plans for the week
  • Notes from meetings with doctor, specialist, or financial planner
  • Notes taken at talks and presentations. This includes notes from watching TED talks or other videos online.
  • Mindmaps, Sketchnotes and Drawings
  • Phone numbers – I write the name as well as it is easy to forget who owns the number!
  • Mini project plans – my backyard fence replacement project has contact names, sketches and dimensions of my garden.
  • Notes from books
  • Vocabulary – new words and phrases
  • Important information when configuring computer equipment. When I installed a new Wireless Router I recorded every setting and most importantly, the password!
  • Serial Numbers
  • Ideas for blog posts and speeches

How I use a notebook

My preferred notebook is a hardcover A5 size (160 x 210 cm – 6.5 x 8 inches). I have also used wire spiral bound notebooks but these tend to fall apart after a lot of use. For many years I used an inexpensive black hardcovered notebook with red trim. I can’t resist decorating the front cover with stickers.


Some of my notebooks dating back to 1995:

Notebook collection

Sometimes I have a notebook dedicated to my office job so my personal notes are separate from work. You may want to use just one notebook, perhaps dividing the book into two sections. Then you don’t have to carry two notebooks. I like to prepare notebooks as follows:

  • Ruled left margins on every page. This must be a habit from my school days but I use the margin to write dates and symbols for action items.
  • Number the pages on the right hand page. It doesnt take long to do this and the even numbers can be written later. Page numbers are used for forward and backward references and the index
  • Reserve the last few pages for an index. I write the letters of the alphabet with spaces to write topics and page numbers. The index page can be updated each week when I review my notes

When I write notes I write the date and time, and sometimes the place. For my work notebooks, I usually start each day by ruling a line and writing the day and date.  [Click any of the photos in this article to view full size.


I use symbols to indicate items requiring action or follow-up. When I review my notes I can transfer these items to my ToodleDo task  system.

Book index

It is easy to draw MindMaps in a paper notebook. No special software is needed.

Mind Map

Keeping notes on the computer

Because I use a computer in my job I like to keep notes in computer files. Many years ago I read about Matthew Cornell’s one big text file which he called his big arsed text file.

I thought it was a good idea but I wanted some structure like an outline and tags for searching. This led me to the org-mode package for the Emacs text editor. I have been using the Emacs text editor for over 20 years (mostly on Unix systems) so adding the org-mode package was easy.

Org-mode turns a text file into an outline by prefixing headings with one or more asterisks. These heading lines can include tags but since the file is just text, any sort of tag (hashtag) can be included in the content for the purposes of searching.

This is what an org-mode text file looks like in Emacs. The headlines are expanded and collapsed using the Tab key. I opened up a headline to reveal a clickable URL.

Org mode

I used the Capture feature of org-mode which allows me to quickly collect text and record it in my notes file. The results looks like a diary with headings for years, months and days and entries with headlines. I use the powerful search features of Emacs to find tags. URLs are clickable, so I can access web pages quickly.

This is my workflow which only takes a few seconds to capture trext.

  1. Activate Emacs window
  2. Press F6 to open capture window
  3. Choose a template – I use N for notes, and R to store receipts from internet banking. Each template writes to a different file
  4. Type in the text for a heading
  5. Type in optional tag text
  6. Type what I want to remember or paste from the clipboard
  7. Control-C Control-C to file the entry

My templates are customised to add the date and time, so each note is stamped with a message like this : Added: [2015-03-11 Wed 14:42] Emacs and org-mode work well for me and there are probably other tools for PC or MacOS. Evernote is popular cloud-based product but I found it was an overkill for what I need.  Microsoft OneNote is another possibility.

Capturing notes on the mobile phone

There are many apps for writing notes on an iPhone or Android device. I use the Momento app  for keeping a diary. The basis of this program is a screen for capturing new events. If I had an idea I wanted to capture quickly, then adding an entry to Momento is a good way to capture and share later.


Each week I transfer the Momento data to my computer (via Dropbox) but individual entries can be sent by email or saved to Dropbox. Another way to capture notes on a phone is to take a photograph. This is useful for making a permanent record of writing on a whiteboard, scrap paper or from someone else’s notebook.

The photos of my office notebook you saw earlier in this article were taken with my phone. I wrote about ToodleDo in an earlier article. Tasks have an associated notes field and this is another way of capturing notes. Look at the Intro Tutorial 4 video on this ToodleDo page.

Because ToodleDo is synchronised between the phone, the cloud and my computer, I can write notes on the phone or computer and each device stays synchronised. For example, I can use the notes field in my task “Write article about Note taking” then add my notes and thoughts from my phone and computer.

Regular review

Review your notebooks each week to make sure you have followed up on action items. As you review your notes you may get more ideas so write these down as well.  Remember to review the written notes, computer notes and phone captured notes.

Every month or so you may want to read older notes to see what you were thinking and working on in the past.

Over the years, your notebooks will become a record of your personal and professional life. Imagine if your notebooks were preserved like those of Leonardo Da Vinci?

Leonardo Notebook


10 responses to “The How and Why of taking notes”

  1. I’m a note-taker too. Usually when I know I have a lot of things to get through at night after work (e.g. writing blog post, editing photos, sorting photos) I will write down all I have to do in an A6 notebook so I won’t forget. Your note-taking skills are very comprehensive – spanning from jotting down things in notebooks to your smartphone. I tend to take notes on my smartphone too which doesn’t happen too often, and when I’m home transfer them to the A6 notebook so I can have all my notes in once place.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mabel. Is there a particular type of A6 notebook you use? Do you keep your notebooks for later reference?

      1. Oh yes, I do keep my notebooks. There’s been many times where I’ve picked up an old one on my shelf to have a look at a password or map I’ve scribbled down.

        I use Spirax, the yellow colour notebook popular with many Australians.

  2. The Moleskine range of notebooks is good quality but they are quite expensive my comparison to the other notebooks. But considering the importance of the notebook and how it is part of my life, what’s wrong with investing in good quality writing materials? Last year I bought a page to a day Moleskine diary which was half price because half the year had passed. I will be using it as my next notebook.

  3. I am a note-taker too. I am also interested in how you (and other people) take notes. I got the habit from my father. I use both new and old diaries as well as other notebooks both bound and spiral. The first notebook that I used (in the 1960s) is still with me These notebooks (a whole pile of them, both big and small – pocket notebooks) are a part of my life and contain items similar to yours: list of books read, plans, projects, quotations etc.

  4. […] The How and Why of taking notes: I enjoy reading about other people’s workflows. […]

  5. Charles, you are the ultimate note taker, bar none! I’m very impressed. I write my notes on the back side of used computer paper…and then I wonder why I can’t find the info I need. I definitely should be more like you. Maybe I’ll put “start taking notes” on my list of next New Year’s Resolutions…if only I could find the list…

  6. Those are some impressive note-taking notebooks. There’s something so alluring about turning the page and starting a fresh sheet. For me, that’s usually my “To Do” list.

    I started taking notes on my little laptop and iPhone. Convenient, but not quite the same.

    And then I discovered a study about note-taking. It turns out that students who take type notes on their computers retain far less than those students who wrote their notes in longhand.

    So, note-taking and notebooks forever!

  7. Here is an interesting article about pocket note books. Lots of useful advice in here.

  8. […] of my life and since 1997 I have used A5 sized hard-cover notebooks. You can read about this in a blog article on how I used the notebooks, as well as capturing notes on my phone using Momento, and note-taking […]

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