Nearly every literate person has written notes for herself at some point in her life. However, most people haven’t spent much time thinking about all the ways they could be using notes to improve their creativity, productivity, and enjoyment of life. This series is meant to get you thinking about these ways, as well as provide some practical guidance.
I define notes as any information someone writes on paper or in digital form where the primary audience is the writer.
Benefits of writing notes
It’s commonly assumed that the main benefit of writing notes is the ability to read and refer to them later, but this is an unnecessarily limiting view that misses much of the value. In reality, notes confer a wide variety of benefits merely in their writing: many types of notes are worth taking even if you drop each page into the garbage as you finish it. (Of course, you shouldn’t do this because reading them is valuable too!)
- Active selection of important information during consumption: Whether you’re participating in a meeting, listening to a lecture, or reading a book, sitting with a pencil in your hand and recording the most important information encourages you to stay attentive and pick out the main points and anything that needs follow-up. (Recent studies suggest handwritten notes are the best at this, most likely because handwriting is slower and thus encourages greater selectivity.)
- Improvements to memory: Due to the aforementioned active selection and perhaps some other factors, most people remember things they’ve taken notes on better than things they haven’t, even if they never actually look at the notes.
- Getting things off your mind: When you write down an idea or something you need to do, you’re more easily able to move on and focus on something else. Trying to remember something important, even subconsciously, reduces your working memory capacity and makes concentrating harder.
- Improvements to writing skills: I haven’t seen any proof of this with relation to note-keeping in particular, but people who write a lot tend to become better writers. It stands to reason that an extensive notes system could improve your writing – particularly one that involves a careful prose style and opportunity for revision.
- Clarification of thoughts: Writing something out requires you to linearize and narrativize your thoughts and exposes things you thought you knew but actually didn’t. (Just about every day I realize I’ve forgotten to take some follow-up action or even spot the solution to an outstanding problem when I write about something I’ve just been doing in my work diary.)
Benefits of reading notes
Of course, reading notes you’ve written in the past can serve many useful purposes as well.
- Reference for specific facts or quotations: This one’s self-explanatory. Most people assume this is the primary purpose of taking notes. It’s certainly a useful one, although it depends to a great degree on how well you organize, link, and search your notes. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, the notes can’t serve this purpose at all.
- Preservation of context: If you have to set an idea or task aside for a long period of time, rereading good notes can help you remember where you were and quickly jump back in. This differs from reference in that you read over a large set of notes rather than look for one specific piece of information.
- Comparison of memory to truth: Human memory is notoriously unreliable. Notes, on the other hand, generally don’t change unintentionally once written, barring unusual circumstances.
- Spark for connecting old thoughts to new ones: Rereading old notes while working on a new project can help you identify connections between disparate ideas.
- Archival and history: Looking back on old notes is a lot of fun. And while probably nobody will be all that interested in your life after you’re gone, there’s no denying that whatever notes you leave behind will be incredibly useful to anyone who is.
In this series, we’ll be looking at a variety of note-related ideas, including but not limited to:
- Tools for taking notes: physical, virtual, cognitive.
- Kinds of notes: diaries, work records, documentation, reading notes, commonplace books, idea development.
- Organizational considerations: searching, indexing, systematizing, separating types of notes.
- Case studies: how I’ve handled some of these needs in my own systems.
I have accumulated somewhere around two million words of notes of various kinds since I started becoming interested in this topic in high school (that’s somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 pages depending on typography). That said, I’m nowhere near exhausting all the possibilities or understanding everything in the field, and it’s entirely likely things in this series will change as I learn more. But I’m excited to start sharing my knowledge and experience in this area, which I’ve never gotten around to doing in detail before.
Announcement: As my readers are no doubt aware, the COVID-19 pandemic is traveling rapidly around the world right now, and based on health department guidance and my review of the data, I expect the virus is already abroad in my community and reported activity will begin this week. I anticipate continuing posts as usual (I’ll probably even have some extra time given that all my normal social activities are canceled!), but please excuse any further changes to post schedules in the event I get sick, my internet connection is interrupted due to high utilization, or we experience any other disruptions. If your area is affected, stay well, flatten the curve, and don’t buy all the dang toilet paper!