Category Archives: notetaking

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Mindmapping chat with Billy Waters (@vitaminsludge)

I’ve been curious about how people manage hundreds of maps. Billy Waters reached out to me over Twitter, gave me plenty of tips, and shared his Dropbox folder with hundreds of maps with me. (Neat!) Instead of pinging him constantly with lots of questions, I asked him if I could set up a Google Hangout so that I could pick his brain. He agreed, and he was okay with sharing it too. Here’s the recording!

Time Note
1:02 Started in 1990
1:14 Other tools
2:01 Mindjet
2:53 Building an archive of book notes
3:42 Mind-maps and to-do lists
4:02 todo.txt
5:09 Taking notes
5:23 Organization vs brainstorming
5:40 How to process a book
6:23 Don’t like linking maps
6:59 Mindmaps not a solution for everything
9:11 Keeping maps when you move computers
11:09 Forgetting what you have
12:21 I don’t really search them
13:26 Mapping for others
14:48 ~12 hours to process a book
15:18 Highlighting on a Kindle
17:00 Learning about mindmapping
17:52 Other techniques: Major system, spaced repetition
18:33 Learning Chinese
20:43 Unwieldy maps
21:54 Favorite map
22:34 Printing and laminating maps
25:11 iPad and iThoughts for mindmapping on the go
26:34 Ikea
28:51 Mindjet vs Freeplane
32:20 Learning from other people’s diagrams
38:21 Copyright and book summaries
42:03 Paper, digital; ScanSnap
43:58 Dropbox
45:09 Backups
46:19 Teaching English in China for three years; visual thinking
48:04 More creative mindmaps
50:52 Biggerplate and sharing mindmaps
52:22 Two people: Jamie Nast, Michael Deutch
53:25 Use Your Head (Tony Buzan)
54:05 Unwieldy map, unwieldy thoughts
54:32 Floating nodes

The main things I picked up were:

  • Don’t worry about all those fancy features or about losing track of what you have. It’ll work out.
  • Check Biggerplate and other mindmap collections for inspiration.
  • Check out these other role models and books.
  • Structure + detail

Power user of mindmaps? I’d love to hear your tips too!

You can download the MP3 from archive.org.

What keeps you from taking notes? 9 excuses and how to get past them

How do people get away without taking notes at presentations and conferences? Slides are rare and recordings practically non-existent, so… Do other people just remember?  It boggles. I find it hard to remember stuff from two days ago, much less last week or last month.

taking-notes

Note-taking is such a big part of learning. It helps you stop wasting your time. Notes help you remember not only the key points, but also the questions and ideas you had and the actions you wanted to take. And yes, this goes for you even if you’re more of an auditory learner than a visual learner. Notes can help you remember where the interesting bits were, triggering your memory.

Not that people need to be convinced of the value of taking notes… It’s like exercise. Everyone thinks exercise is great, but not that many people do it. If I want to help people learn how to take better notes, then I have to help people get over their excuses. We are very good at making excuses for things we don’t do. I’m amazing at making excuses when it comes to exercise! At least I can help with the excuses you might make for note-taking.

Here are some perfectly reasonable reasons you might use to explain why you DON’T take notes—and some ideas for working around them.

1. “I’m not in school any more!”

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Many people probably got so burned out in school that they don’t want to do anything remotely related to it, including reading books and taking notes. I understand. I didn’t get along with many of my classes. I nearly flunked some of them. But really, why let seething resentment left over from your grade school years get in the way of learning more effectively now?

(Just to clarify: I liked school. Mostly.)

2. “Taking notes makes me look stupid.”

Taking notes makes you look like you’re paying attention and that you care enough to learn. It makes you look smart. (Read Ben Casnocha: Experts Take Notes)

People generally feel flattered—unless they’re saying things that are sensitive or that they may want to deny later, in which case they’ll feel uncomfortable and might ask you to stop.

3. “I’m not fast enough to keep up while people are talking.”

Write down key words or phrases instead of whole sentences. Shamelessly abbrv. You don’t have to write down everything. (No more quizzes or final exams!) Focus on the stuff that matters to you.

If you’re taking notes on a computer, learn how to touch-type. That way, you don’t have to think about typing, you just take notes.

4. “My handwriting is hard to read.”

Slow down and write less. Bigger letters can be easier to read and write. Print block letters instead of using script. Legible is better than fast.

5. “I’m smart. I can remember this easily.”

Sure. While you’re there. Tomorrow, who knows? Your notes aren’t for your current self. They’re for your pre-coffee future self who’s frazzled and fighting fires but needs to follow up.

Also, if you need to share what you’ve learned with other people (which, by the way, is an excellent idea if you’re doing this on your company’s dime and you want your company to send you to other events), notes help.

6. “I get distracted.”

You’ll get even more distracted without notes. At least with notes, you can quickly review what was discussed and come back.

7. “I might miss something while I’m taking notes.”

Worried that writing will distract you from listening, or that looking down will mean that you miss an important slide? Start by writing less – you just need enough to remind you, and you can fill in more details later. As you practise taking notes, you’ll get better at storing things in your working memory. Most speakers repeat themselves at some point, so that’s a good time to go back and add more notes.

8. “When I look down to take notes, I can’t lipread the speaker.”

Mel Chua points out that touch-typing helps, especially if you can’t write legibly without looking. Also, in her experience, getting a good hearing aid opens up all sorts of possibilities.

9. “I never review my notes anyway.”

Taking notes will help you pay attention and remember things better, even if you don’t review your notes. You’ll get extra value if you review, though. Reviewing a large block of text can be overwhelming. Right after a talk (or shortly after, when you have time), go back and highlight key points. A highlighter or a coloured pen works well on paper. If you’ve only got one pen, go ahead and draw boxes or arrows instead. The Cornell note-taking method is great for adding keywords and summaries. On the computer, you can make things bold or change the background. That way, when you review things afterwards, you can easily jump to important information.

What else gets in the way of your note-taking? Let’s see if we can blast those excuses and get you going!

Image credits: Pen with notebook, Mikael Cedergren (Shutterstock), Burnt notepaper, Monchai Tudsamalee (Shutterstock)

Thanks to gozes, John Dietrich, Mich W., Mel Chua, and Richard Manriquez for feedback through Twitter!

Thinking about how I can use Evernote more effectively

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Every so often, I go on a tagging and filing spree. It took me a couple of hours, but I finally cleared the 700+ items that had piled up in my Evernote inbox. I was thinking about how to get even better at this because Timothy Kenny told me how he has a virtual assistant file the notes in his Microsoft OneNote notebooks.

Is my filing really worth it? Is it something I value enough to pay someone else to do? Could I explain what I wanted clearly enough so that other people could do it? Could I benefit from organization even if I’m not the one organizing things myself?

Before I dig into that, I should probably examine this question: What do I use Evernote for, and what could “better” look like?

Here’s a quick summary of the different reasons I use Evernote:

Type of note Description Organization Improvements
Sketchnotes Collection of my sketchnotes for easy searching Shared notebook, tagged by type Fine the way it is
Inspiration Interesting sketchnotes, images, and web designs Notebook, tagged by technique Tag and file when clipping, identify key areas of focus
Visual library Visual thesaurus / sketches of abstract and concrete stuff Notebook, titles updated, duplicates merged Improve workflow – delegate titling?
E-mail archives Keep important information no matter which e-mail inbox it’s from None at the moment; notebook and tags Tag and file when forwarding
People, conversations Quick notes from my mobile Notebook Add full names; consider Evernote Hello for mobile input?
Ideas and thoughts Quick notes from my mobile Notebook Should have weekly task to review and act on; separate from main Inbox?
Actions Quick notes from my mobile, when I’m away from Org Notebook Should have weekly task to review and act on / copy into my Org file
Cooking Recipes, usually with pictures Notebook, tagged by technique or dietary considerations Review periodically; update when cooked
Wishlist Resources to buy after more consideration None at the moment; tags, probably Tag and file when clipping
Reference books Books held by the Toronto Reference Library, to request next time I’m there Notebook, search Go to the library more often
Letters Scanned letters so that I can review correspondence Notebook, tagged by person Fine the way it is
PDFs Makes PDFs more searchable Inbox, occasionally tagged Use Web Clipper to specify tags and file in Notes right away
Blog posts / casual browsing Interesting things that might be useful someday, especially for related items Notebook Use Web Clipper to file in Notes right away
Other sketches Scanned sketchbook pages so that I can review Notebook Fine the way it is
Private notes Things that I might want to remember or write about someday, but not yet Notebook Have an outline?
Blog post ideas Inspiration, drafts, links, images, checklists Notebook, some tags Add links to outline?
Business and personal receipts Back up business and personal receipts; possibly be able to search through them Notebook; tags, or just use folders on my drive? Decide where to do the organization; have an assistant retitle before import?
Blog research? Clipped pages so they’ll show up in Google Search and related notes, and so that I can review them even if the source disappears (payoff > 2 years) No organization; search by keywords or sourceurl: Clip, but remove from inbox quickly

I have different types of clipping activities:

  • A. Researching a topic, which results in lots of clips related to a single topic. Usually in preparation for a blog post or as a way to answer a question.
  • B. Casual browsing and clipping based on blog posts, news items, or other things I come across; roughly topical (ex: skill development), although may be tagged and filed in different places
  • C. Saving reference material from email or websites, which should be filed
  • D. Adding notes on the go using my phone, which should be reviewed and acted on or filed when I get back to my computer
  • E. Automatically clipping things based on external input, using services like IFTTT to archive my blog posts.

There are several strategies I could use to manage my Evernote collection. I can choose different strategies based on the results that I want. Here are some possibilities:

  • A. Spend a few extra seconds tagging and filing things when I clip them. Advantage: I touch something once, so I don’t have to recall the context of an item.
  • B. Capture everything into an !Inbox, then file shortly after clipping. Advantages: I can select multiple entries and tag them give them the same tags, and copy all the note links in one go.
  • C. Capture everything into an !Inbox, then file weekly. This is my current strategy. This isn’t working out too well – things pile up.
  • D. Capture everything into an !Inbox, then teach someone to file.

I think strategy B will give me a good improvement in performance without me needing to bring in someone else.

One of the areas that I could generally improve in is integrating the notes into my outlines and plans. Instead of just collecting the information, maybe I can use Copy Note Link and then spend some time adding those links to my outline. Alternatively, I can copy the source URL right then and there, find where it fits into my outline, and paste the link. If org2blog respects comments, I could even use that as part of my workflow.

If I were to outsource more tasks in order to improve my effectiveness at learning, I think I’d gain more value from finding someone who can speed-read like I do, filtering through lots of cruft on the Internet to find high-quality resources. They could then clip those pages into Evernote for my review. That might be worth an experiment or two… Let’s find out how that works!

Scanning my notebooks

You’ll often find me taking notes in a small paper notebook that I tuck into my beltbag for easy access. I like taking notes on paper more than I like taking notes on my smartphone because:

  • I don’t have to look down when taking notes.
  • I don’t have to worry about battery life. My phone runs out of battery frequently enough even without using it for notes or web browsing, because I use Bluetooth and GPS frequently.
  • I can add little sketches here and there.

My notebook habit started in 2006, when I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto. My mom reminded me that living like a student didn’t have to mean denying myself all sorts of things, so I splurged on my very first Moleskine and started writing in it.

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I’ve filled a few of these notebooks over time. I don’t write in them consistently. Sometimes there are gaps of weeks or months when I take notes on my smartphone or my laptop instead.

Many of the pages are lists: things I’d like to do in Toronto, reasons for starting a business, ideas to try. Many of the pages are notes from conversations. Few of the pages are straight-up journal entries like the one above, as I prefer to type in my reflections so that they’re saved in Org Mode.

Workflow:

Scanning the notebooks

We have a Samsung SCX-4828fn printer/scanner/copier/fax. The scanner supports both sheet-fed and flat-bed scanning. For batch scanning on Microsoft Windows, I used Picasa’s import function. (XSane on Linux is more configurable, though.) I set up my foot switch to click on a button in the scanner program so that I could scan the next page without touching the mouse. I put the notebook on the flat-bed scanner, hit the footswitch, waited for the scanning head to finish the page, and then flipped to the next page while the scanning head returned to the ready position.

Well, technically, there was also the set-up step of hooking up a second monitor and picking things that would run on that second monitor so that I could watch screencasts while scanning. =)

You can do the same setup without a foot pedal (keep your mouse within easy reach) or a second monitor, but those things made it a lot more fun for me.

Reviewing the notebooks

Picasa makes it easy to flip through images, and I’ve been using that to “star” pages and add tags. I’ve also imported quite a few of my notes into Evernote in order to take advantage of the handwriting recognition.

I saved the images in my Dropbox folder and uploaded them as private albums to Google Photos, so I can refer to them on my Android phone too. That’s pretty nifty. I may spring for the Evernote premium subscription so that I can sync and search the handwriting in my notebooks when I’m offline, too. (Still cheaper than a data plan.)

Updating my notes

Haven’t done this yet, but updating my scanned notebook pages with additional notes should be easy to do with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro or something like that. Hooray for tablet PCs! I might use git or something similar for version control, but it’s not important.

Partial notebooks

Partially-used notebooks are harder to scan because I have to remember to come back and scan the last section, and I can’t seem to change the import filenames in Picasa (one of the reasons why XSane is awesomer). Anyway, I’m going to focus on filling the pages of the partial notebooks, then I can scan them in one go. I tend to update previous pages in my current notebook (lists, recent conversations, etc), so I’d prefer to scan them only when the notebook is finished. I see scanning as a way to carry digital copies of my past notebooks with me, so that works out nicely.

Lessons learned

  • Cursive script is hard to quickly read. Winking smile I think I’ll stick to printing letters.
  • Conversation notes are ephemeral.
  • Lists are useful for a long time.

Thanks to Markus Zmija for the nudge to write about this!

What I want from visual notetaking; imagining wild success

drawing-planning

Here’s what I want when it comes to visual notetaking. I’m going to go through thousands of books, presentations, blog posts, conversations, ideas, and thoughts in my lifetime. Maybe even millions of these little pieces of content.

I want to get really good at remembering, reusing, and sharing the significant ones, a tiny fraction of the whole. I often refer to ideas I’ve picked up in the past. I recommend books to others. I review items to see if I’ve been applying the lessons I learned, and if there are more I can use. Sometimes I come across unexpected combinations – part of one book resonating with a presentation on a different topic mixed in with a conversation I’ve just had. I benefit from holding these ideas near working memory.

Like the way I can flip through a slideshow faster than I can speedread a book, it might be easier and faster to review an archive of visuals than to refresh my memories using text notes. If I can convert some of this abundance of content into visuals, then I can use that to get around the limitations of time, attention, and memory.

Maybe other people will find the sketches useful. Maybe I’ll scale up and work with other illustrators, readers, and writers. Even if I don’t, though, I think that having these visual notes will make it easier for me in the long run.

Here’s a project for myself: convert my book notes into sketches. I could do the Lean Startup thing to find out if other people would be interested in the idea before I invest a lot of time and effort into it – mock up a minimum viable product with payment options or a subscription model. But then I want something like this for myself, too, so it’s okay to spend some time figuring out what I want before pitching it to others.

What would wild success look and feel like?

I have visual notes for the key ideas I want to revisit. I flip through them rapidly once a day, and rotate my desktop or screensaver through random ones for serendipity. They’re searchable through Evernote and accessible even when mobile. I’ve posted many of them online. Subscriptions, book reviews, and advertising provide a stream of income. People recommend other books and ideas I should check out.

I occasionally do sketchnotes on commission: simple sketches of key ideas captured in real-time during webinars or recorded presentations, used for marketing and post-session follow-ups. I also sketch summaries based on blog posts, e-books, or books sent to me. I do the occasional meetup or lecture as well, taking notes on my laptop. Focusing on electronic content means that I don’t have to travel or lug large rolls of paper around, and it takes advantage of my setup with multiple monitors.

In addition to sketchnotes, I offer or coordinate useful complementary services: presentation planning, design, coaching, transcription, e-book creation, writing, and so on. These help people scale up their ideas and engage more people.

My visual style is crisp, simple, with visual metaphors and the occasional pun. I usually work with one or two accent colours, and have figured out how to draw people with character and objects that have some heft. I draw in high-resolution mode just in case I want to make a letter-sized print of something, although I’m okay with redrawing in case I want to make a poster.

Most of the time, I work at a standing desk I’ve rigged up facing the garden. I take breaks and go for long walks, or do some gardening. Sometimes I go to art galleries to immerse myself in colour and shape and line. I keep a digital notebook of things I like: title treatments, hand-lettering, colour combinations, visual metaphors, drawing techniques. I flip through it for inspiration, and add my experiments to it as well.

I use my sketches as anchors not only for ideas, but also for memories. Like the way people flip through their photographs, I go through my sketches. I like it because I can sketch scenes that I didn’t get to shoot, and I can draw them the way they felt like instead of just what I saw. Drawing has become a part of my life, and I sketch regularly. I’ve even started drawing on paper, using ink and markers.

So, how do I get closer to that?

I’ll start with the sketchnotes, because that would be a great way to review things, develop style, and practise the craft. As I accumulate more notes, I’ll put them in a special section of my blog so that people can read them easily. I already have the standing desk (actually a kitchen chopping board). When I want to take a break from making sketchnotes, I can draw memories or fiction. Looking forward to it!

New note-taking workflow with Emacs Org-mode

The new workflow looks like it works better for me. Or rather, it’s an old workflow with new tools. Now, instead of using Windows Live Writer or ScribeFire to post my notes directly to my blog, I’m back to using M-x remember and Emacs, keeping a superset of my notes in text files and publishing selected parts of it.

  • The new workflow
    • M-x remember saves quick notes into a large text file (~/personal/organizer.org), possibly with tags, with diagrams inserted later.
    • I regularly review and file items into the appropriate sections of ~/personal/outline.org.
    • I post selected items to my blog using C-u M-x org2blog-post-subtree, scheduling them by adding a timestamp or using the C-c C-s (org-schedule) command.

    I sometimes use Microsoft OneNote on my new tablet to take notes during meetings, but it’s easy enough to convert my handwriting to text and paste it into my Org-mode file. I still have to think of a better way to refer to images while keeping my file manageable, but a filename is probably okay.

  • A worked example

    This is being composed in a M-x remember window. (Well, remember is bound to C-c r on my system, so it’s easy to invoke).

    After I finish braindumping, I’ll use C-c C-c to save it somewhere.

    I may schedule the post immediately (C-c s (org-schedule) and then C-u M-x org2blog-post-subtree), or tag it for later review. (:toblog: – ready to go, but not scheduled? :rough: – needs more thinking?)

    When I review the items, I’ll copy this into the Geek – Emacs section of my outline.org.

    It feels nice having my notes in plain text, and being able to organize it in more than just chronological order…

  • The history

    From 2001 to about 2006, I kept an Emacs Planner wiki with all of my notes in it. Emacs Remember let me write notes that were automatically hyperlinked to whatever I was looking at, and I added code to Planner that made it easy for me to file the notes both chronologically and topically. Planner rocked. I loved being able to easily hyperlink between topics, and the wiki structure kept pages a mostly manageable size. (My public Planner files are still on the Net, but I need to regenerate the index or enable directory lists so that they’re usable.)

    When I moved to WordPress as a blogging platform in order to make it easier for people to leave comments, I hacked around with RSS to import my posts from Planner into WordPress (ex: http://sachachua.com/blog/2002/). Moving to WordPress meant a change in my workflow. I now had two places to store my notes: Planner and my blog.

    I tried Emacs Org because I liked the way it organized information. In Planner, we’d been struggling with elegant ways to manage tasks and notes that needed to be accessed in multiple contexts. The approach we had taken in Planner was to make copies of the information, but Org had a cleaner way to do it using different views. It was intriguing.

    When I started working at IBM, however, my information workflow diverged. I shifted to using a web-based to-do list and Lotus Notes, posting on an internal blog and an external one, and managing multiple sources and repositories of information.

    I wanted to go back to keeping my notes in plain text, encrypted if necessary, and to have a place where I could keep notes that might not be publishable. I still had to manage multiple computers, but synchronizing systems like Dropbox or SpiderOak got rid of some of the hassles I’d encountered with git. When I found out about org2blog thanks to a test link from punchagan, I modified the code to work with subtrees instead of new buffers, and that solved the blog publishing part of it.