Note-taking revisited

I was away for training last week, attending a 3-day learning session organized by IBM. There were around 500 IBMers there. My manager not only suggested that I go, he even gave me a lift. I resolved to make the most of it.

Packing light meant taking my work laptop, leaving my netbook, and bringing a small paper notebook along as a backup for note-taking. I like taking notes. I’d rather slow down and take notes than waste the time and the opportunity by forgetting.

In 2006, I wrote about how taking notes during conversations helps with post-event connection. What’s changed in the last four years? I now take casual notes on my iPod Touch. I’ve been thinking about getting a tablet PC for better note-taking. But for fast-flowing conversations, I still return to paper.

I’ve rediscovered drawing. My notes are punctuated by doodles: quick sketches of presenters, random objects that suggest themselves to a wandering right-brain. I like drawing. It helps me remember what a session felt like, instead of just what it contained.

I no longer bring fountain pens, as they’re all too easy to drop. Instead, I use a fine-point gel pen, which is clearer than pencils when it comes to scanning or review, and which writes more smoothly than a ballpoint pen does. I use a multi-colour ballpoint pen for review and emphasis.

My workflow has improved. While taking notes, I mark action items with a square on the left, particularly interesting topics with a star, ideas with a lightbulb, and thoughts and reflections with a thoughtcloud. This makes it easy to skim my notes for action items during review.

Instead of trying to hold the notebook open as I type thoughts in, I scan new pages at 600dpi full colour. This gives me a digital backup that I can flip through on my computer while I type my notes on a separate screen. As I type, I copy my action items into a separate section. After I finish writing my notes, I review the action items and import them into my task manager.

How can I make this even better?

I can write more neatly. This means slowing down in the beginning, but it will save me time when skimming or reading my notes. (And if I do it really well, maybe Evernote can understand my handwriting!)

I can try using a pad and then scan sheets using the automatic document feeder. Our printer/scanner’s automatic document feeder scans only one side, but I can simply do two passes. This would reduce scanning time.

I can save up for a tablet and see if that works out better for note-taking. I like being able to draw diagrams and icons while taking notes, so it would be good to experiment with a Tablet PC.

  • Hi Sacha, I use a small system for taking notes. I write on small notebook (similar to moleskine).

    After taking notes, I import than into my system. By the way, I use orgmode as task and project manager.

    I posted the note symbols here:

  • Miguel

    I learned about smartpens just the other day and it blew my mind.

  • What about using a netbook computer? I thought you had a small laptop computer or is it too big? I guess battery life is the big issues for notetaking on a laptop.

  • Netbooks are fine when you’ve got a place to set them on. Harder to use during cocktail party conversation, though. =)

  • Miguel alluded to this above, but for the note taking needs you described, Sacha, you really would do well to look at the Echo smartpen from Livescribe ( It allows you to write and draw in a notebook (that has virtually invisible micro-dots) as you would with any ball point pen but because the pen is smart (with up to 8 GB of RAM) it will record the ambient audio (meetings, lectures, interviews, etc) for up to 800 hours as you take notes. You can then tap the pen on any words or images anywhere in the notebook and it will play back the audio (via built in speaker or headphones for privacy) that was occurring at the time you made the notes/drawing. It also has a camera in its tip so it is making a digital image of what you put into the notebook which can then be uploaded to Mac or Windows via mini-USB. The computer files are then actually searchable for handwritten text. Here is a short video: It’s pretty amazing. I don’t work for the company but I hope to use one in my classroom this coming school year and use it for meetings as well.

  • I’m still a big fan on mind-mapping and although the s/w has improved quite a bit, I find that good old pen & paper is the fastest and most flexible. Quite often my note taking isn’t so much about archiving for future reference but identifying concepts and relations for greater understanding. Also, I can easily go back and add to a mindmap as new information is made available, and fit it in to concepts that make sense to me even though the source may be presenting the information in a different way.

  • I’ve had my new tablet for a couple of days now, and I’m very excited by the possibilities. Inkscape’s a little awkward – can’t figure out the right smoothing parameter to draw like I used to – but OneNote is pretty slick and searchable. Infinite paper for the win. =)

    I still make paper mindmaps when I can only bring a smaller notebook, but I think I can make digital-but-handwritten mindmaps work well for me. And if I’m going for sheer volume, Freemind is an awesome keyboard-friendly mindmapper… =)