On notetaking


I’m a prolific notetaker—and I don’t just mean in school. A quick scroll down my iPhone notes app reveals a list, 132 at the moment, of notes: logistical numbers (golf handicap number, school mailbox number, phone numbers of customer service departments I called to complain to), dream diary entries, action items after meetings, things I should check out, funny anecdotes, insightful quotes, and the list goes on. 

A lot of note taking is reactive—recording something urgent before it slips from your working memory. Yet, note taking can also be a proactive strategy to accelerate your learning. Here, I mean learning in the broadest possible sense: about the world, and about yourself. In a recent conversation with my friend Carl Shan, he made this insightful comment: “learning comes from 2 things: having experiences and reflecting on them.” Note taking helps with this second piece of learning, reflection. According to research from UCLA, the average human has 70,000 thoughts per day. How do we make sense of these thoughts? A popular technique is to journal regularly. Because (infrequent) blogging is as close as I get to journaling, most of my daily reflection comes from note taking on the go: when I come across something noteworthy during my day that sparks new thinking or contributes to an existing theme I’ve been thinking about, my right hand instinctively dives into my pocket, pulls out my phone, and starts typing into the notes app. These “micro notes” make up my own private Twitter stream.

Once I’ve collected some fragmented Tweets—quotes from Season 3 of the Wire, insightful metaphors a friend used in conversation, impressions from an article I read—I sit down to transfer my iOS notes to Evernote, where I edit, format, and organize them into notebooks; I also type up any notes that I’ve collected on pen and paper into Evernote. This transfer phase is crucial to reflection—a consistent space for combining ideas, synthesizing them, and situating them into larger streams of thinking. Just as academic researchers contribute to generalized knowledge, notes contribute to my knowledge—about the world, and about myself. 

3 notes were written during the writing of this blog post.