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Cover image for How To Take Notes on Everything

How To Take Notes on Everything

maxwell_dev profile image Max Antonucci Updated on ・8 min read

I've done lots of writing lately, but almost none of it has gone towards blog posts. Instead, it's gone towards my online notebook, now called the more badass-sounding Exocortex (you can check it out yourself here). I've read of it being called a "knowledge notebook" or a "personal wiki," which mean the same but aren't as badass.

An Exocortex is a giant collection of notes on everything you can imagine. It can range from code tricks, life strategies, favorite fiction, or revenge plots. The biggest reason I've worked on it is I can now say "I'm strengthening up my Exocortex" and sound like a supervillain. But there are many, more useful benefits get from adding to it:

  • Gather career advice for topics like negotiating salary and working with others.
  • Build your awareness of coding concepts and ideas, so you 'know what you don't know.'
  • Save new code methods and techniques to use as you experiment with languages.
  • Curate knowledge to use as inspiration for projects, jobs, and side projects.
  • See the larger info and context that current industry trends fall into.
  • Document strategies to handle unfamiliar or delicate social situations. If you're like me, you're a hopeless awkward turtle without them.
  • Look smarter to your coworkers and bosses.
  • It's an amazing tax deduction in some countries that don't exist.

These are all wonderful perks, but there's no denying building one takes time and effort. So this post breaks down how I've built up mine and the practices I follow to share with you all. I can't promise it's the perfect fit for everyone, but it should at least be a good template or starting point. So to follow-up on a previous post on taking notes on everything, this one looks at how to do just that.

Use the SQ3R Method

A useful note-taking approach from Pragmatic Thinking and Learning is the SQ3R method. It lays out a useful series of steps for reading books and articles.

First, only scan the content. Look at the table of contents, summaries, chapter headers, images, and whatever else. Don't read any paragraphs or spend too long in any one place. Get a large-scale picture of what it covers.

As you scan, note any questions you have. They can be about code, new words, or old words that you didn't expect to see. They can also be questions about what you expect to learn. Could this thing help you pull off a side-project idea you've had for months? If not, what else could?

Then it's time to read the content. As you read, record the most important points. Play with the info as you read it. Take notes in different forms, or rephrase them in a new or silly way. For example, I found the articles on JavaScript currying tough to understand. So I took notes on it as if a coder were talking to JavaScript itself.

Once that's done, take some time now and then to review your notes. Add extra knowledge you've learned writing them. Discuss it with others. Quiz yourself on different points. Only rereading the info doesn't help much.

I've been trying different note-taking approaches for a while. The best one I found is a slight variation to the SQ3R method (Scan, Question, Read, Record, Review) that minimizes the Question phase. I can attest it's worth at least trying with a few pieces of content. Even if it's not right for you, chances are it won't take more than a few changes to make it work.

Have Lots of Material in Your Pipeline

I'm not immune to avoiding things when I'm not in the mood for them, as my family or those managing my 401k will tell you. This applies to the books and articles I read too. I can hardly count the times I've thought "This has important info I should read, but I'm not feeling it."

Too often I was enthusiastic about reading something at first, then lose interest. I wouldn't read it for a while out of laziness and self-loathing. Then I find something new and the cycle continues. The workaround I've found is, oddly enough, to have a variety of reading in my focus at once. I know this goes against the wisdom of "finish one task before the next." But I've found having it keeps me motivated and reading more often.

For Books, Tackle a Variety at Once

I'm reading "Burn Your Portfolio" and need a break from that book but still want to read. With a few books in line, I can switch over to Eloquent Ruby and not miss a beat. I know this, as I did this while traveling last week, and did over three hours of reading total that day.

It's hard to choose the number of books to stick with due to the sheer amount we often focus on. So I focus on by making sure my books:

  • Cover different topics so I'm not putting all my learning eggs in one basket.
  • Help me with skills I can use in many places, not only coding.
  • I enjoy reading them.

These criteria have helped me settle on the four books I currently have in my pipeline.

  1. Eloquent Ruby since it recommended as a resource for learning Ruby fundamentals.
  2. Clean Code as one of the ultimate guides to writing understandable code.
  3. Burn Your Portfolio as a highly-recommended list of general career tips.
  4. How to Win Friends and Influence People since it's the classic book for how to better work with any person.

The trade-off is I make slower progress in each book, but all other things being equal, it's worth it for me. I can add notes chapter by chapter for each one, rotating them in or out to keep my motivation hot and my mind curious.

For Articles, Keep a Few Lists

Articles may or may not have material worth taking notes on. When they do, unlike books, I rarely make a new note or section in my notebook for only one. It's better to have notes based around topics and add info to each from relevant articles as I find them. An example is my note on JavaScript array methods. If I find an article with a new method, I'll pluck that info from it and add it to the existing note.

Organizing the articles I want to read and take notes on is another task. Lately, I've kept articles in one of three lists:

  1. Only Read. These are usually interesting news or ideas I'll skim over. If it turns out there's info I want to record, I'll shift them to the next on.
  2. Take Notes On. These articles have the info I know I want to save. So I'll go into them looking for what I want to record, and save them as references on the affected notes.
  3. Pull More Info From. These pages have huge amounts of info or resources I can't record in one sitting. From these, I only pull out concepts to research or articles to take notes on later.

Taking notes on articles is great since they have good info without a big time commitment. Articles balance that out with shorter, more timely information. Don't forget to take in the smaller, but still vital, day-to-day info.

Lower the Friction

A few weeks ago I was reading a book through iBooks but was taking notes on my tablet. I thought this extra flexibility would help. But I wound up putting off taking more notes for over a week after starting.

I realized this setup was an issue. My tablet let me directly annotate a book, so taking notes was as simple as finding my last spot. For this book I had to get my tablet and my laptop, getting enough room for both, and whatever it took to get both ready. The amount of work from "I want to take notes" to "I am taking notes" was so high, it made getting started too big a burden.

I scrapped that setup and I only take notes on this book with iBooks. No matter how good a note-taking workflow is, it's pointless if it's too much of a hassle to do. The best ones lower the friction to start as much as possible. One way to get the barrier between reading and note-taking low is annotating books directly.

iBooks is a good example of this that all Macbook users have. I also recommend a reMarkable tablet since it allows direct annotation and other perks.

  • Covers epub and pdf formats
  • Is portable but can sync files to a desktop to more easily transcribe notes after
  • Does highlights and notes with direct writing, which appeals to my tactile love of books
  • Allows freeform note-taking for events and other learnable experiences not covered by books

There are likely other tools out there (with a cheaper price tag). But they'll work as long as the friction between reading and notes is low.

Set Aside Time, Big or Small

Try to make actual space in your schedule for taking notes. This time has ranged from the five minutes before a meeting to several hours in a plane ride. The most important thing is telling myself "for this period, I'm going to be reading and taking notes and that's it." Not setting this boundary or trying to multitask has either made me not follow through. If not that, I write notes so poor I have to waste time redoing them.

Taking notes is a small time investment with a huge return. Let's say you spent 30 minutes a day spent watching television on note-taking instead. That's 3.5 hours a week, or at least 14 hours for a month. That's enough time to get through at least one book, or at least a good amount of a longer, more technical one. That adds up to around 9-12 books a year, all helping you build knowledge and skills to boost your career.

Wrapping Up

I'm not going to pretend taking notes is the best way to learn. That book I referenced twice here says as much, with many sections focused on how to learn by doing. But that doesn't mean reading and note-taking is without value.

It could only be a few books a year. Choose the right ones and devote a little time to reading and note-taking. It brings an exponential return on investment in the end. Unless you're not a book person (in which case don't you dare speak to me), there aren't any real arguments against it.

So find some good content and start building a personal wiki! Just don't call it an Exocortex, since I've already claimed that name.

Cover Image courtesy of SafeBooru.org.

Posted on by:

maxwell_dev profile

Max Antonucci

@maxwell_dev

Journalist turned full-time coder, part-time ponderer.

Discussion

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Thanks for the article!

I’d also like to share my way of taking notes.
I do read a lot of articles and the majority of them are technical.

So I have a Trello board labeled “TIL”(Today I Learnt). Each list is a month of the year and each month has its corresponding days.

Now let’s say I’m reading a great article and I stumble across a section that I need to take notes on.
I try to get the idea and then I switch over to that day in Trello and I write the information with my own words(that’s important).

And it’s been going well this way. What I’m actually trying to achieve is to understand the concept because in case I forget it, I can easily go on Trello and search for that concept.

Doing so keeps me away from spending too much time on writing notes.

 

I have trouble with the friction part when it comes to notes while reading, for sure! I read on the bus/train, so space is minimal, and I find reading on a kindle/tablet is not as pleasurable as actual pages between my hands. This means that I have to stop reading, pull out my phone, open OneNote, and type on my little phone keyboard whenever I want to make notes (which means unless it's REALLY life changing, I probably won't do any of those things).
One step I've taken to get over this friction is to use my personal Trello board and simply make a note of the page number, so I have a reminder to come back and make my notes later at a computer. It's not flawless, but it's better than it was before!

 

That is a great point, tech can't always lower friction for every situation like being on a bus. Have you tried using highlighters or sticky notes when taking notes in physical books? Even for books you don't own, I've used little sticky notes to mark where I want to pull notes from. You could get multicolored ones to quickly tell what kind of notes you want to take too, and pull them all out before returning the book. That strategy could lower the friction further by not requiring a trip to Trello later on.

Then again, trying to manage lots of sticky notes in a small, shaky bus/train could be even tougher in some ways haha. So it all comes down to which process fits with you best!

 

Sticky notes I've done before! Highlighting I avoid though because I tend to check out library books instead of purchasing them myself :) That means the sticky notes are only temporary reminders as well, for me to come back and note them once I've reached my computer.

 

Good post - great idea - and the execution is not bad.

I've been using org-capture in Emacs' org-mode for a long time, and that works well for me in terms of flow and grabbing the note and sorting it out later. While org files can be published, it's not the nicest way to do things.

I've made a go at Gitbook, and am still working it out, using a local repo and my beloved Emacs to create the entries still. It's not yet as frictionless as I'd like, but it's something that could become so.

Thanks for the inspo!

ps. - I really love the term "Exocortex" - brilliantly describes this :)

 

Great article!!! It has lot of information and practices in order to have a great notebook. I'd also liked the name "exobrain", really a good name for giving more relevance to the notes.

I would like to know which are the tools that all we used to make this real, for example, OneNote is a great one to organize information, categorize and dividen it in different sections, search features, etc. But what about others? For me this is a big point to take into account and have a complete article.

 

Considering how many different tools and preferences there are, I felt that topic was out of scope for this post. You could use personal wiki tools, one of the many note-taking apps, even apps not specific to notes like Trello could still work.

My own preference is actually none of those. My first notebook was just a collection of markdown files for simplicity and to not rely on an app too much for something I saw as hugely important. I still do that today, but the version I link to is on Gitbooks for a much cleaner, functional interface for it all.

 

Totally agree with you about taking notes using markdown as the language to format the text.
I didn't know anything about gitbooks until your article. I will check it and consider to use it in a near future.

 

This is incredibly useful. I'm definitely going to try and implement this in my workflow. I've started using Notion 2 weeks ago and it's been a blast taking notes. I particularly like your "Take notes on" list. Too many times I've found myself thinking: this is a great article with some great insights, I should take notes. But I never did, usually because the article disappeared into procrastination oblivion.

I'm wondering what your study notebook looks like. How do you organise your notes and keep track of everything?

 

I included a link to my notebook near the top, but admittedly it wasn't clearly labeled so I added a bit to the link now. Here it is again for quicker access - max-antonucci.gitbook.io/study-not....

I usually organize them more by category than a specific medium or source. I have a section on JavaScript, and each note is a specific topic like arrays or switch statements and whatnot. Some notes have only one reference, and some have multiple. I've found grouping by category makes it easier to compile info on the same topic from different sources, and gives me more flexibility in how I organize it all.

The one exception I've made lately is with books that are long and don't fall into any other topic too neatly. In that case I'll give them a section all on their own. It's what I did recently with "Pragmatic Thinking and Learning" and the first part of "Clean Code." Each book is their own section of the notebook, and each chapter or part of that book is its own note.

Looking back now, I may refactor some of the other books I've taken notes on into the same setup. "Accessibility for Everyone" has enough content that I should probably split it into a few notes.

 

Wow, thanks for sharing this article! This is such an amazing coincidence, because I just published my blog ( crlf.site/ - WIP ) that tries to solve Exactly the same kind of problem that you're solving!
I had my inspiration from other places and I've taken a different aproach, but we are trying to do the same thing.

My story is I have notes in digital format for 12 years already.
Initially I was writing them in Microsoft Word - RTF format because I hate the Doc and Docx. Then I moved to Google Docs. Then I wanted to run away from Google and I exported everything in Markdown and now I just write everything in plain text/ Markdown, edit with Atom and commit in Git every day or so. It was a long journey but I'm pretty happy with the stack.
The nice advantage of plain text journals is you can use a Grep/ AWK/ whatever to search and filter whatever you need in your files, you have absolute control. I keep my TODOs and IDEAs and everything in caps and find them later.
The only disadvantage is I can't read my private notes on the mobile, because they are on the laptop, but I take notes on the phone and move them in the journal from time to time. But that wasn't a big problem so far.

So I have decided to export a lot of the knowledge that could potentially benefit other people on the crlf.site/ that I just mentioned. I have a ton of logs to scan, so it will take a long time.

So one question for you, maybe you have an idea: How can I watch your Exocortex? I would be interested to see what you are publishing in there. If I just save a bookmark of your site, that would be forgotten in less than a week.
I'm still trying to find a solution to that problem for my blog as well. I have a RSS feed, but RSS feeds are for new articles, not for content that is constantly updated, like a Wiki.

Thanks again!

note to myself I should definitely write all this ^ on my blog

 

Totally agree. Whenever I'm reading something or doing some research for my classes, I always have a to-do list app ready to take notes and list out all of the things that I need.

 

reminds me a lot of what was called a Memex a long time ago. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memex . I had first heard the term in a Rubyconf talk a year ago. youtube.com/watch?v=DFWxvQn4cf8

 

This was a really helpful article. Being someone that's in a coding bootcamp, new concepts are thrown at you constantly. I'm definitely inspired to look up note taking best practices while implementing the SQ3R technique you mentioned. I never knew about that until now. Thanks!

 

You're very welcome! Getting into the habit while in a high-learning environment like a bootcamp is definitely useful, I agree. I have notes on a book focused around powerful learning techniques, which includes note-taking but also using your right brain and managing context. Check it out if you can, I hope it can be even more helpful to you :)

max-antonucci.gitbook.io/study-not...

 
 

Great article!

Only thing I'll add is that I find my recall yield (i.e. remembering things) is significantly higher now that I record my notes 'old school's using a Leuchtturm 1917 notebook and colored pens for different contexts.

People smarter than me have explored this concept, and have demonstrated that the act of writing is associated with higher retention. This plus the availability of high fidelity mobile scanning apps can enable your hand written notes to be available in the cloud, too.

 

Of course that simple sentence:

(The most important thing is telling myself "for this period, I'm going to be reading and taking notes and that's it.")

improve my mindset about take notes a lot

Thanks.

 

This exocortex idea is so cool😁

 

I know, thank you! And the name itself is enough to make me want to keep writing in it :P

 

This is excellent. I like your gitbook idea. Very clever. So awesome that I started looking doing something similar!
I've read many books this year but having trouble organizing my thoughts.

Just curious, what do you think of Vuepress? It sounds like they are doing similar things.

 

Thank you, glad I can help inspire some others to learn a bit more :) Vuepress looks useful, but for saving extra info it likely has a lot of extra steps. Gitbook is my favorite since you only need markdown files in the right folders and it does the rest.

I used Jekyll (another static site generator) to manage my Exocortex a while back and it was a lot more work for much less return. But if you have a more specific vision for your notebook and are willing to put in the extra work, go for it!

 

In addition to multiple note-taking apps on iOS and Android devices, iBooks and Kindle (and some other readers to a limited extent) enable you to export your notes to a file for import into your Exocortex. It never occurred to me to name my notebooks in Evernote or Notion (In the process of switching from a 10-year premium subscription!) so long as I have things organized and tagged.

The remarkable tablet is not for everyone. The eInk approach to notebooks is cool but it doesn't do anything that I can't already do except prevent me from peeking outside my activity. Since peeking is a matter of self-discipline on the learning path, I haven't found this to be an issue that interrupts my flow too much.

Thanks for the article!

 

Ah I didn't know about the note-exporting function for iBooks! Will need to check that out myself, thanks for mentioning it here.

You're right about the remarkable not being for everyone, in addition to the price tag it is more specially suited for those who are just really big fans of reading. Of course that's also me so I'm quite biased haha.

 

Thanks for the post and bringing like minded people together in the discussion..!

I would like to add that even I love to take notes. It adds to my productivity and helps me refer back some technical stuff that I have done before.

I use to use Evernote, then OneNote, and now eventually shifted to Jekyll Site on GitHub pages using MarkDown. Markdown has turned out to be best structure to take notes as I can include code snippets and easy formatting.

I recently explored r Bookdown and GitHub Books, I am planning to make a shift to BookDown as it seems more structured for notes and can also execute R/Python scripts to generate figures on the go.

Docsify is one more option that turns quick website from .md files on git.

Thank you!

 

Thanks for the tips - I'm always looking for better ways to handle notes, bookmarks, etc... :)

 

Your link is not working anymore

 

Which one do you mean? Go to the original site or this post, from there you should find other stuff too ;)

 

The "Burn Your Portfolio" book isn't mostly for designers only? Or many things can be applied to developers?

 

It’s aimed at the “design/development” field in general, so it can apply for developers too. Everything I’ve read so far I’ve found useful at least :)

 

Use a good to do list app to keep track of your ideas and your tasks.

 

I take notes on notebooks and pots-it notes but it's hard to keep track of them. I really love your idea, maybe I'll do something similar :)

 
 

Which one do you mean? Go to the original site or this post, from there you should find other stuff too ;)