These modules are huge!
They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process.
– Richard Feynman, on his notebooks
(via How to Take Smart Notes)
My notebook obsession laid bare
I jot, doodle, scribe, and scribble in several notebooks every day—it’s how I do my thinking.
This post catalogs my loose notetaking system and some of my opinions on notebooks.
Why take notes ¶
During meetings I race to note what’s being said. I don’t often refer back to what I’ve written—I get value from doing the writing itself.
I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now
– Field Notes credo
Here’s a bad and sweeping summary of how educational psychologists categorize the purposes of taking notes:
Storage – you write things down so you can remember them. Birthdays, websites, movies recommendations—you can refer back to your notes and “remember” with perfect fidelity.
Encoding – you write things down to write things down.
Writing things down without ever reading them again can still have value. In a much cited 2014 paper titled, “the Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard,” authors Muller and Oppenheimer concluded students taking notes in physical notebooks had a better understanding of lecture material vs. their laptop-tapping counterparts. The act of writing helped them solidify complicated ideas.
How to take notes ¶
I’ve perused innumerable books and blogs on notetaking, but my system emerged independently. I do a small number of things consistently:
It’s also just a great habit to date every thing you handwrite
– David Allen, Getting Things Done
I start every note with an underlined, left-aligned date in ISO-8601 format. I follow this with a space and a title for the note. Something like “GitLab meeting” or “Hiring roundup” or “Gratitude”—anything I can mentally cling to later.
Obligatory ISO-8601 XKCD by Randall Munroe (CC-BY-SA 2.5)
[The list] has an irresistible magic.
– Umberto Eco, via Der Spiegel
Most of my notes are lists. Lists capture fleeting thought quickly, but are unfit for conveying new and complex ideas—perfect for notetaking.
If I’m noting something I’ll have to do later, I’ll write TODO in all caps and put a square box around it. If I have a highlighter handy, I’ll highlight it, too. Later, I’ll transpose this list item into whatever todo list app I’m using at the moment.
How I take notes
Marginalia describes short notes in the margins, often in the margins of books. I provide ample margins in my notes to jot down questions and thoughts. This is handy in meetings to structure what I’m about to say.
I’ve endeavoured to strip my process until its as simple as I can make it. Complicated systems yield inconsistency—it’s not a system; it’s a mess. I always start with the dumbest system that could work—often it works forever.
I accumulate notebooks I enjoy holding. I get a little thrill when I find a notebook that’s well made.
Notebooks I’ve tried:
My go-to notebook is the Leuchtturm1917 A5, dot-grid, 80g/sqm paper. It’s got an index, page numbers, a little pocket in the back.
But I’d love it if it were more disposable; maybe not quite as disposable as Field Notes, something like the Endless Storyboard Standard notebook with sewn binding.
I’d also love to find any notebook offering the grid pattern of the old SparkFun SFE Project Notebook—reverse grid with a thicker gridline every 8 squares.
I’ve been playing with the idea of making my own notebook. With a UUID for every notebook, page numbers, and a QR code that will let me jump from the page to some digital system.
Here’s what I’ve got so far (it’s a work in progress):
rough idea for an ideal page layout
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