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Note-taking revisited

Posted: - Modified: | connecting, kaizen, notetaking, productivity

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.

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I’ll never buy a Moleskine again

| notetaking, sketches


Hand-made notebooks are so awesome. Charo not only gave me a wonderful little notebook, she taught me how to make my own. I’ve got a feeling that this will be a lifelong craft. And it complements my interest in sewing, too. Now I can make notebooks that match my quirks and my clothes! ;)

She got interested in bookbinding because she couldn’t find the kinds of journals she wanted, so she decided to make her own. I’m so glad that she shared that interest with me!


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Personal knowledge management, morgue files, capture systems

Posted: - Modified: | kaizen, notetaking, process

How do you organize what you know so that you can use it for inspiration later?

Here’s what I have:


  • Experience
  • Conversations
  • Books
  • Blogs
  • Ideas
  • Experiments

Capture and sharing:

  • Words, sketches, brainstorms – paper and pen
  • Mindmap on my iPod Touch and laptop
  • Quick tips through microblogging and bookmarks
  • Longer thoughts in my blog and on wikis
  • Generally useful information – slides, presentations
  • Book notes – scanned pages, text files; this needsh to be integrated into my system and set up for regular review
  • One big text file organized with outlines and keywords for life, and another big text file for work


  • Search
  • Indexes in my notebooks
  • Randomness, similarity, and on-this-day in my blog
  • Hyperlinks
  • Summaries
  • Outlines and keywords

Index cards are useful for brainstorming too (especially for life planning or when I’m sketching a big talk that doesn’t have an obvious structure), but I don’t use them for long-term storage yet. My blog includes first drafts as well as more polished posts. I need a place to braindump. =) If you want less volume and more thought, just check out the highlights. (Note: I haven’t been keeping this tag up to date)

I love the idea of a morgue file. I’d love to eventually build myself a good random-access information management system. I currently stuff most things into my blog, and am slowly figuring out how to organize things more. I used to use howm, which was pretty cool too (if very geeky). I may go back to building a personal wiki. W- uses Tiddlywiki. =) Digital works well for me because I like being able to access things from anywhere. I don’t interact with enough paper to have a full-blown paper system, and would rather go digital instead of printing things out to integrate them with a paper system.

I love mapping things out. Mapping helps me navigate, see gaps, and plan. It’s also a good way to make it easier for other people to discover interesting things.

Next steps for me:

  • Digitize paper
  • Build indices
  • Build online and offline naming conventions for linking
  • Flesh out map
  • Learn more

More to come as I figure out and improve my system. =)

Thanks to Eric Blue for the inspiration!

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On pen and paper

| notetaking

A friend of mine wanted to know my notebook preferences, so here’s what I do in terms of pen and paper. =)

My favourite kind of notebook is a hard-cover non-spiral-bound notebook, with a back flap for storing ephemera. Hard-cover notebooks are easy to write in when I’m walking around, and I don’t have to worry about squishing them in my bag. Spiral-bound notebook coils tend to flatten or unwind, so I avoid them.

I’d love to have a notebook with a spine that can accommodate a pen clip, but I’m happy carrying the pen around separately, too.

I use different sizes for different things. Pocket-sized notebooks are good for daily notes. Mid-sized notebooks are good for single-page sketches. 8.5×11” notebooks are good for brainstorming or visual note-taking.

I like using unlined pages, preferably in off-white. Unlined pages let me use the notebook both horizontally and vertically, and they scan better when I have diagrams. It would be great to find a notebook with a light dot-grid (not an square grid) that can be removed from scans, but that’s okay.

My notebooks tend to have white or cream pages. Cream pages go well with my dark red fountain pen ink and feel less harsh than white pages, but white is okay too.

The Moleskine unlined hard-cover journal is nice, but Curry’s and other art stores carry cheaper alternatives. I usually stock up on 8.5×11” sketchbooks when they’re on sale, and pick up pocket notebooks whenever.

Following Lion Kimbro’s recommendation, I’ve stocked up on 4-colour pens. My current favourite 4-colour pen is the Pilot Feed GP4 0.7, which I picked up at National Bookstore in the Philippines for the equivalent of ~CAD 3. You can bet I’m going home with a box of those pens. I also sometimes carry an inexpensive fountain pen that I don’t worry about losing or dropping, saving my Waterman Harmonie for bedside writing.

I usually use a pocket-sized notebook to take notes during conversations, which are usually captured as keywords. I tend to use visual notetaking for talks. For brainstorming, I make lists, mindmaps, visual notes, sketches, and other diagrams.

I number odd pages and keep an index at the back.

Archived notebooks go on one of our bookshelves. I rarely refer to them, but it’s fun to flip through old notebooks once in a while.

I’m looking forward to getting into the habit of scanning my notebook pages when I get back. It’ll be fun!

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Thinking out loud: Mapping what I know

Posted: - Modified: | blogging, learning, notetaking

I want to map what I know.

I want to make what I know more findable. The reverse-chronological order of blog posts isn’t enough organization. Search is useful, but it’s not enough. I want to make it easier for people to learn my skills or take over my role so that we can all do more than I can do myself. In order to do that, I need to make it easier for people to browse and learn.

I want to map the gaps so that I can see what else I need to reflect on and write about. I want to write what I’ve learned before I take too much for granted. Mapping my knowledge is one way to figure out what else is missing. Answering people’s questions is another way. This is one of the reasons why mentoring is useful.

My ideal would be a visual, expanding map of what I know, with links to additional resources. It would distinguish between things I’m actively learning about and things I’ve archived. It would be easy to update. It would be easy to cross-reference. People could browse it from the top down, or they could search it. It would be back-linked from my blog so that people could see the context of what I’ve posted.

It’s challenging to think about that map in full, but I can start building small pieces of it. People ask me about exploring interests and passions, improving productivity, delegating, being positive, and connecting with others. I can use a mindmap to organize my thoughts as well as previously published resources. As I expand the map, the bigger picture will emerge.

This will be fun!

Have you come across people with similar goals? I’d appreciate any pointers to role models!

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Learning about note-taking

| blogging, life, notetaking, productivity

Extra value comes from taking notes when learning. Exponential value? From sharing those notes.

When you take notes, you understand things better. You express ideas in your own words. You condense thoughts and expand tangents. You reflect on how to integrate concepts into your life.

When you share your notes, you create value. You build relationships. You learn from what others share.

Someday, I would like to be able to share everything I learn.

Other people are working on this too. There’s even a free e-book on how to make a complete map of every thought you think. The main challenges are: How can I capture the essence of what I’m learning? How can I organize what I’ve shared to make it easy to find? Maybe some of the things I’ve learned about capturing and organizing learning can help you share more effectively, too.

Capturing thoughts

There is no shortage of things to share. In a typical week, I may skim 10 books from the library, looking for key insights. I read countless blog posts. I listen to podcasts and participate in conversations. I experiment. I experience. What I learn provides me with material. The interconnections among things I’ve learned provide me with even more. People’s questions and ideas yield even more.

Capturing the essence is easier than most people think. I scribble a few keywords into a notebook, sketch an idea, type in staccato sentences or mental shorthand. My task list is infinite, although my priorities are few. Then I publish without polishing. Better to have something out there than to have drafts cluttering my head. I’ll learn more about a topic when I write about it again, anyway.

The mechanics of how? A laptop if the words are already in my head, open to a blog editor, a drawing program, or an outliner/mind mapper. A tablet for drawing ideas. Pen and paper if I need to explore. On the go: a notebook and fountain pen. A voice recorder when I need my hands free. An outliner on my iPod Touch.

I think about how I capture what I’m learning, like my book workflow.

Find whatever works for you. Publish early. Publish often. Get something out there. You’ll learn from the questions people will ask you if you’re unclear. Just get enough of your thoughts down so that you can use it for recall.

Organizing notes

I want to build a map of what I know so that people can find things. I used to publish a personal wiki. Maybe it’s time to do that again.

I use search engines and tags to find my old notes. I keep an index in the back of my paper notebooks. I take advantage of similarity and randomness on my blog.

Links and memories from other people help me rediscover myself. They find things I’ve long forgotten.

Every so often, I review what I’ve written and summarize what I’ve learned. The more links there are, the easier something will be to find later on.

I don’t have an index or a table of contents yet. I want to build one. Do you have any role models you can point me to?

Thanks to Dror Engel for the question!

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Notes from VizThink video on Visual Notetaking 101

Posted: - Modified: | notetaking, sketches, visual

Visual notes from VizThink video on Visual Notetaking 101

Click on the image to view a larger version.

Next actions:

  • Post notes
  • Practice with podcasts, webcasts, books, and teleconferences
  • Collect symbols
  • Develop a visual vocabulary

Three hours summarized on one page!

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