The 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.
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:
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.
It is easy to draw MindMaps in a paper notebook. No special software is needed.
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.
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.
- Activate Emacs window
- Press F6 to open capture window
- Choose a template – I use N for notes, and R to store receipts from internet banking. Each template writes to a different file
- Type in the text for a heading
- Type in optional tag text
- Type what I want to remember or paste from the clipboard
- 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.
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?
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