Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

Take Better Notes

I used to take reams of notes.

Back when we were still in the office, I would saunter from meeting to meeting with my fancy French notepad, and fill it with scrawl. Everything went in—what I needed to remember, to follow up on, interesting points, sketches. I developed an elaborate symbol system to remind me what I needed to do. The problem was that I almost never reread the notes, and the few times I did, I found them mostly illegible.

It was the same at college and grad school. Hundreds of pages of notes—reviewed before exams and then forgotten. Completely useless now.

Frustrated, I switched to my laptop and dumped everything into note-taking apps. These were both legible and searchable. This was great, at first, but as the number of notes increased, it became an unstructured mess. Search results were long, irrelevant, and not very useful.

The two aims of note-taking

Everything improved dramatically when I discovered a new way to think about note-taking, thanks to philosophy lecturer Dan Sheffler.

The two aims of note-taking according to Sheffler are:

  1. Engagement, and
  2. Memory

Engagement notes

I often find myself automatically jotting down what is being said while in a meeting or webinar. When reading a challenging text, I underline quotes or write notes in the margin. For me, note-taking is a key strategy for keeping my mind from drifting while reading or listening. These are notes I take to keep engaged with what I’m are doing. Plentiful, but mostly useless.

Memory notes

The really useful ideas, or germs of ideas, are hidden within the engagement notes. These are things I want to remember. I now treat them differently. These memory notes go into a system where they can be easily found and retrieved when I need them. The system that allows me to find connections between my notes and spark new ideas. It automatically reminds me of what I’ve learned from time to time.


I try to make notes in one of two places only, so I can easily find them all. If I have to jot something down on a loose scrap of paper—I keep it in my pocket. Each evening I go through my paper and electronic notepads (I use Simplenote), and my pockets, and pull out what’s important and put them into my various systems. This has the added benefit of allowing me to review the notes from the day, which reinforces them, and helps to put them into long-term memory.

Some notes might be to-dos or things I need to follow up on. Those go into a task-management app or the calendar (I like Due.)

The other notes, structured, and tagged can then go into my “knowledge management system.” (Designing a knowledge management system will be the topic of future posts). This process pairs well with a Zettelkasten system, like the one described in How to take smart notes* by Sönke Ahrenson or Umberto Eco.

Yes, this process needs a little more discipline and work, and if I miss a few days it piles up and becomes unmanageable. For that reason, I’m very selective about what goes in the system. Sometimes, if I go too long without clearing my notes, I simply accept that I will lose some inputs—and that’s ok, they would have all been lost in the past. But for me, it is worth it. Reviewing my engagement notes and turning them into memory notes has been the key to creating a useful body of knowledge, an efficient reference file, and most importantly, remembering what I learn.

I still take notes constantly, but now I process them differently, and they are much more useful (though I still use the same fancy orange French notebook.)

*Affiliate Link
Fancy French notepad

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