My Note Taking Strategy

I take notes for two main reasons. First, to improve memory—research shows that handwritten notes aid in memory, learning, and retention. Second, notes serve as a helpful guide for tasks I don’t frequently perform.

This is my personal note-taking approach. It involves two methods, handwritten notes and typed notes. I’ve also included a handful of my own profound beliefs about note taking.

Handwritten Notes

There are studies that show handwritten notes help with learning, memory, and retention and I find this to be true in my own writing.

A 2020 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology compared the impact of handwriting, typing, and watching video lectures on learning and memory. It found that students who took handwritten notes performed better on tests than those who typed or watched the lecture.

A 2018 study in Frontiers in Psychology revealed that handwriting notes improved memory retention and focus over typing, especially for complex concepts and longer study periods.

These studies align with my personal experiences.

Today, I’m taking Paperless Notes on the Amazon Fire Max 11 but I’ve also used Rocketbook reusable notebooks and plain paper in a nice notebook.

Typed Notes

When I say “typed” I mean either typed at a keyboard or tapped into a phone. These may be notes that I take quickly or longer form notes that I’m editing and refining. Although I lean toward hand-written, for it’s memory benefits, I will use whatever method works for me in the moment.

I switch between methods for various reasons. I type faster on a computer than I write. If I only have my phone, I tap notes into that. Occasionally, I experience writing fatigue, so I use typing.

The Overall Process

My initial notes are usually captured as I think them, so stream of thought. When I start to think about an article or blog post I collect notes into a typed draft. I try not to keep the notes to myself for long.

Writing for My Future Self

They say the best way to learn something is to teach it. By writing in an instructional style I’m effectively building a lesson plan for my future self. In doing so, I study the thing more carefully.

Writing doesn’t have to be complex or detailed. Because it’s for me first, I can sketch a quick set of steps. I typically take an iterative approach to my writing. The first time I’ll write quick instructions. The next time I use those notes I’ll add additional detail, especially if I had to look up a detail or adjust something due to changes since I forest wrote my instructions.

Searching Notes

Searching notes isn’t my primary use case but it does come in handy. For search ability, I convert hand-written notes to text. This works somewhat poorly today but is rapidly improving. There’s also an opportunity to work on my penmanship to improve the situation even more.

Apps for Taking Notes

I’ve gone back and forth on apps-something you should probably not do with your note taking system. Today I’m primarily using Google Keep. It’s available everywhere I need notes, it’s synced to the cloud, and it has automatic data export options. I use this in spite of the fact that I’m primarily a Mac and iPhone user. This is because I’m a secondary user of many different systems including Android, Linux, ChromeOS, and more.

Google Keep also supports brainstorming and idea collection (think Pinterest) really well. You can copy images from the web and paste them into Keep and it will throw those images into a nice grid of photos at the top of the note. I use this as a brainstorming and ideation tool.

Numbering Notes

I use a simple Note Numbering System. It gives me a number for refering to specific notes, allows me to sort and link notes together, and more. I don’t use the Zettelkasten system of numbering. I’ve studied and tested that system but using it throws me out of my flow.

Capturing Stray Thoughts

I kept a tiny pocket notebook for a long time and wrote stray thoughts in it.

To-Do’s are Different

I do not mix to-do’s with my notes. I’ve tried, in various ways, but I find that to-do’s are different. So, I keep these separately. They are not part of my note taking strategy.

This doesn’t mean I don’t write about tasks I need to do. I do. I simply don’t use notes to organize my current to-do list.

Using Labels or Tags

I use labels (or tags) to loosley group related notes. I’ll write more about my tagging system in the future.

Written by Joel Dare on March 18, 2024.