Taking stock of the way I take notes

One of my friends was surprised that I use both Evernote and Microsoft OneNote. Many people are fervently in love with one or the other, as they’re both excellent notetaking tools. I like them both, and I also add Emacs OrgMode to the mix. I figured it would be a good idea to write about how I manage my notes so that I can think about ways to make it even better. Besides, other people might find it useful, or they might share a few good tips!

I take most of my text notes using the Emacs text editor. In particular, I use Org Mode because org-capture totally rocks. It’s easy for me to quickly take a timestamped note. I share most of my notes on my blog, but some stay in my private notes – post drafts, sensitive information, random tidbits. I save sensitive information to an encrypted location as needed. Every week, I review my inbox of notes, filing them under the appropriate headings in a large outline file.

Org is great for text. It can handle attachments too, but I want a more graphical way to manage the visual notes and reference pictures that I take. Evernote’s handwriting recognition gives me a way to search for words in my sketchnotes, which is awesome for digging up sketchnotes or book notes (and for wowing people; yes, the future is here). OneNote is better at capturing screenshots and snippets, though, so I use it to collect elements from sketches and pictures that I like. I also use OneNote for Latin studies because it feels the most like a paper notebook.

I share as much as possible on my blog so that I can have more ways to get to what I know. Google searches occasionally lead me back to blog posts I’ve completely forgotten about, which is pretty nifty. Besides, people often comment and share even more information, and that’s awesome.

I’m still trying to figure out better ways to get to what I’ve stored in all these places. I’ve been going back and adding more posts to this topical index. I’m thinking of reviewing the 6,000+ posts in my archive and rating them on a scale of 1-5 so that I can filter them for the highlights view of my blog. So much in the past, and that’s just ten years of writing – imagine what the archive will be like when I’ve been writing and drawing for decades. =)

I picked up this quote recently. It’s from Carl Sagan:

“Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

  • Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Writing, drawing, and photography are all miniature time machines. They’re amazing and fantastic, but you’ve got to have a way back into them in order to make the most of them.

How do you manage your notes?

  • This is a very timely post for me as I’ve been struggling with this. I love plain text and I love emacs, but what I’m capturing is frequently screenshots of graphs/images I’ve created, emails (outlook at work), scans of hand-written notes, pdfs, office docs, web pages, etc., which I do using MS One Note. Sometimes I feel I’m using org-mode for the nostalgic love of plain text and I’d be better off just moving everything to One Note. Since One Note has outlining and tagging capability, what is it that you find compelling about org-mode that makes it worthwhile to use more than one program?

    Also, would you mind sharing how you organize your .org files? Do you have lots of .org files by subject or just a couple of giant ones?

  • Have you tried evernote mode? http://code.google.com/p/emacs-evernote-mode/

    For a long time I’ve been resisting to try evernote, since I love org-mode and have tried to get organized with mobile-org (android) but without much success. When I found out there’s an evernote mode, I made my account. I’ve postponed trying the mode so I’m yet to discover if it has orgmode integration of some sorts.

    I just wanted to know if you’ve already tried it, and if not, pass you the tip that it exists.

  • I use the following

    Evernote+Skitch: for Note taking @ http://evernote.com/

    Archi: mind mapping in TOGAF @ http://archi.cetis.ac.uk/

    Notepad++:editing @ http://notepad-plus-plus.org

    but I also use

    I’m working on an Evernote export tool because I don’t like being locked in even if the app rocks! :)

  • Like Greg above, this is a pretty timely post for me too. I store my notes on a variety of places and formats in order of frequency: windows notepad (on both my work PC and my laptop), 1-2 paper notebooks, and evernote. I really should be shifting more to evernote probably, so it’s easy to access all my notes from anywhere.

    In terms of organization, I have little to none. At best, I use filenames of the format [(person)-topic-date], where person is optional if I am making notes based on a conversation with the said person. It’s really a pretty messy system, and I’m pretty sure it’s costing me time and energy whenever I need to refer to any of my notes. You can be sure I will be following the comments on this post for tips!

    Thanks for writing about this Sacha!

  • Juan G.

    Sacha Chua wrote:
    “Org is great for text. It can handle attachments too, but I want a more graphical way to manage the visual notes and reference pictures that I take.”

    For a more graphical Org-mode, with images displayed directly in Emacs buffers, there is org-toggle-inline-images (C-c C-x C-v), and org-startup-with-inline-images (see the Org manual).

  • Juan G.

    To quickly try this graphical Org-mode, right-click any image in your computer (better not too big, since it keeps its size) to copy it. Then, paste it on any line of any of your Org buffers, between [[ and ]]. The image (at least on Linux, KDE) will be pasted as url (file:…). If org-startup-with-inline-images is not yet enabled in your .emacs file, there is also C-c C-x C-v to show the image or images in the middle of your Org text, or where you place them.

  • Juan G.

    Just added a brief summary of that detail on image integration to the Org-mode Wikipedia article.