Note taking redux
February 12, 2023•803 words
Yesterday, I posted about note taking and @firstname.lastname@example.org asked me to explain a little bit more about my paper indexing system. Initially, I was going to go to town on this and include pictures, diagrams, and detailed instructions. However, the central idea behind the #100Days writing challenge is that you write for 10-20 minutes each day. Moreover, as I said in my response, the method is nothing special and is mostly common sense. So this post will be a brief summary of my method, such as it is.
Keep it simple
Once you start down the note taking and journaling rabbit hole, you will quickly find that there a huge number of elaborate systems, strategies, and methods that claim to be the most effective approach. The thing is, the majority of these methods are so complicated that there is a huge energy barrier to adopting them. More importantly, many of these methods are all about the method. Not the work that you are doing, the ideas that you have, or the people you are meeting, but the method itself. This is a complete inversion of the purpose notes — the act of making notes should fade into the background, letting you focus on what matters.
Number your pages
Either buy yourself a notebook with preprinted page numbers, or manually number each and every page — trust me you will thank me later.
Table of contents
Open the first double page spread. This will be your table of contents. At the top of the verso, write the date on which the table of contents starts and leave space to note when it ends (see later). On each leaf create a table with three columns:
Page | Date | Description
Make sure that you leave a blank row at the end of the recto table. This is where you will indicate where the table of contents continues once you have filled up the tables on these two pages. Once you reach the penultimate row of your table of contents, turn to the next blank double page spread, note the start date, create a pair of new tables, add the page number of the new table to the bottom row of your current table, and complete the end date at the top of the page. You may prefer to reserve a larger number of pages at the font of your notebook to allow the table of contents to expand. However, I don’t like leaving blank pages at the beginning, or end, of my notebooks.
In my experience, the most difficult part of keeping an orderly notebook is being disciplined in the small things. We all lead busy lives and, when your late for a meeting, or have lots of back to back engagements, it’s far too easy to just open your notebook and start taking notes. Unfortunately, when you come to review your notes later, it is often difficult to recall the subject of your notes, the time/date, or any decisions/actions. Before you know it, several days have gone by and your notes are a complete mess.
It took my a long time to discipline myself into making sure that, regardless of how busy I am, or how late I am running, the first thing that I write down is the date (in ISO 8601 format, unless you are a monster) and a descriptive title. And, before the end of the meeting, I make sure to transfer this information to the table of contents.
Categorise & tag
Whilst a table of contents is useful, you probably won’t remember in which particular meeting you wrote down that really important thing about that other thing. So it’s important that you categorise & tag things. Everybody‘s categories will be different and will depend on what you use your notebook for. Personally, I tag my notes according to activity: Meeting, Planning, Supervision, Idea, Evaluation, etc. and Topic: Project, Area, Student, Teaching/Research/Admin, etc. I add these tags to the top of each note and in the table or contents. I use letters — [M|T] for a meeting about teaching, for instance, but you could also use colours or symbols.
And that’s it — my 20 minutes of writing is up. As I said about, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about this method — and that’s the point. I settled on this method because it is simple enough that I can still focus on the content of my notes without having to think about how I am making notes, but still provides sufficient structure for me to be able to find stuff later.
Day three of one hundred.
This post is part of my #100Days writing challenge, in which I have challenged myself to write for 10-20 minutes for 100 consecutive days.