Digital Divide Volume 8: On Notetaking

What’s the number-one use for the stationery products I write about on The Gentleman Stationer? Notetaking - it’s not even close. For as long as I can remember, I’ve taken notes with what some people would consider an almost obsessive level of detail, whether it be my various to-dos for work or home, lecture notes in school, thoughts on stuff I’m reading, or sketches of my next writing project or blog post. Somewhere in my parents’ warren of closets and mini-warehouses sit boxes of old notebooks and schoolwork - if someone wanted to piece together a chronicle of what I was thinking or doing at any given point in my life, they wouldn’t have to work very hard. 

Write It Down to Remember It Now AND Later 

Record-keeping for posterity is a key benefit of note-taking that often goes overlooked. Most people think that in order to leave a “record” of your life, you need to keep a formal diary or journal with multipage entries per day, and the perceived time commitment puts people off and keeps them from getting started in the first place. “Formal journaling” in this sense can be great when you want to reflect on an idea at length or start pulling thoughts together into a more coherent narrative, but to the extent you want an unfiltered, real-time record of your life, it’s hard to beat good notes. Notetaking is not just about writing the grocery list, or recording "action items" from that pointless meeting at work.  
The idea of “Notes for Notes’ Sake,” or taking notes not just to accomplish some specific task, but to actually leave a written record of my thoughts, feelings and accomplishments behind, is a concept that I’ve thought about for a while. I started considering it about a year ago when we had to move my grandparents out of their house, and during the move we strangely found very few books, letters, correspondence, or notes. They were in their late 80s at the time, so it’s not as if they came from a generation that didn't write more than people do today. Sadly, they prided themselves on embracing the latest and greatest: embracing TV over books, e-mail over letters, "the paperless lifestyle," etc. But I was struck by this idea of, if not lives wasted, perfectly good thoughts wasted. Leaving no record of your thoughts, dreams, ambitions, accomplishments behind just seems flat-out sad to me. At the time I’d let lapse my habit of carrying a pocket notebook with me almost everywhere I went, so I went back home and cracked open a fresh pack of Field Notes. I've been pretty vigilant about this habit ever since.        

Don't Obsess Over Technique

My notes are pretty free-form. As much as I like to geek out over tools like pens, paper, and - sometimes - notetaking apps, I don’t pay much attention to “methodology” since the purpose of my notetaking isn't always "getting things done." Sure, I’ve tested out the bullet journal system and Cornell-style notes, and they have their place, I guess, but what’s most beneficial to me is just the fact of getting my thoughts down on paper where I can refer back to them later (if necessary). Things like the bullet journal have taken on a life of their own, where it becomes more about the journal itself and less about the information in it. I’ve not been hobbled by my lack of a “system.” Provided I can jot down enough context for my notes, I rarely have trouble reconstructing things if I need to.

So how often do I actually go back and use old notes? First of all, as I noted above, I generally take notes just to record my day and what's going on in my head, not necessarily to serve any specific purpose at a future point in time. There's no need to re-read 75% of the stuff I write down, other than for my own enjoyment.  But that doesn't mean that a compulsive notetaking habit won't come in handy, and I end up using my notes a lot. A client of mine recently asked me a fairly detailed question about a legal dispute that closed 18 months ago. She’d been searching her e-mail for a piece of information about a witness we’d interviewed and a dozen people had no clue. Guess where I went to find the answer in less than 10 minutes? Not my e-mail. 

How do I find stuff when I need it? In terms of organization, my notetaking workflow is pretty basic.  I don’t use a particular format for my notes, I just write stuff down, sometimes with a header and some bullets. The one “organizational” step that I will take, in case I ever need to find something in the future, is dating and indexing. I date all of my notebooks (beginning date and completion date on the inside cover or first page). I also number the pages and write out a rough index on the last two pages of my pocket notebooks and fill it in as I go, adding more specificity to those topics I’m more likely to look at in the future; I’ll do the same on the first two pages of my larger notebooks.  I also try to keep the number of notebooks I’m using at any given time manageable, so my notes from a certain time period are grouped together and fairly easy to locate. Currently, I’m carrying with me a single pocket notebook (an excellent graph paper notebook by Calepino) and a Leuchtturm 1917 dot grid notebook (an excellent Moleskine replacement). I do "journal" some, but it’s journaling of the “page-a-day” or “sentence-a-day” variety. I don’t carry my journals around with me unless I’m traveling. I use my Hobonichi Techo for longer entries, though I’ve also resurrected my Levenger 5-Year Journal after letting it lapse for three years.  More on how I use these last two products at a later date, and it will probably be exclusive to Digital Divide.

In the year since we cleaned out my grandparents' house, I've not only become more vigilant about taking notes, but also about going back through old notebooks and reflecting on what I've jotted down. Many of the blog posts and newsletter topics that I've written on over the past year are a direct result of random things I jotted down in a pocket notebook, forgot about, and re-read six months later. If I hadn't had my notebook with me, they would've been lost to the ether forever. 

Some Further Reading

  • Tim Ferris on Notetaking. About as timeless as something can get on the internet. His work on “lifestyle engineering” and the “four hour workweek” doesn’t really do anything for me, but I always enjoy going back and reading this article on notetaking from time to time.  
  • Indxd. I’ve linked to it in the past, but Dave Rhea’s free notebook indexing service is an excellent way to keep track of and search all your various pocket notebooks. You can also export your various indexes to your computer as a backup.
  • Pocket Notebooks: A Brief History. One of my favorite AOM articles was this 2010 profile on “Famous Men” and their pocket notebooks. While obviously dead-white-guy-centric, it’s still interesting for to flip through the various techniques and think about the what-ifs. What if people hadn’t bothered to write down some of their random thoughts and musings?  
  • The Google Guys Use Paper. Some thoughts from Levenger founder Steve Leveen on why paper-based notetaking will not/should not die.