I’ve been making notes basically always, even in primary school I filled many notepads (‘kladblok’) of grey recycled paper I bought myself. It still means I can cycle back to e.g. conversations I had in 2014 with the notes often being more or less verbatim. Two years ago in April, a few weeks into the first pandemic lockdown, I revamped my personal note taking system and added something I hadn’t done structurally before: a day log. In it I list the things that I worked on during the day, or thought about, or came across etc. Below is a basic example from July 2020 when I just started using Obsidian for my day log notes.
Example day log, with links jumping off to more detailed notes
The day logs have quickly become much more than a simple list of things I’ve done in a day. It also forms a jumping off point for any notes that belong to an entry in a day log. It is a habit fully part of my routines.
As a result I am now structurally not only taking notes during conversations as I’ve been doing for decades, but also much better documenting things as I’m doing them. Basically I find myself much better logging my actions, and thus the status of my activities. When I return to something I don’t need time to reconstruct what it was I was doing or thinking, or to figure out what I can do next.
It means that when I was e.g. figuring out how to build my own Micropub client I could do so incrementally, and even spending ten minutes could be fruitful. Before those ten minutes would be lost to switching costs. It also means I find it easier to let something rest for a while, because I know it will be easy to pick up again.
Two years on I feel keeping day logs, by structurally leading to notes jumping off of them, causes a very specific effect for me: My notes now stop me from having to go backwards whenever I pick up something again at a level unlike ever before. Ideas stay intact and usable, concepts don’t need to be reworded each time, experiments can be incremental, projects can stand still for a while but can restart immediately when I return to them. That’s valuable return on the time spent making those notes.
Ratchet, image by Paul van de Velde, license CC BY
Donald Clark looks at what we know about whether handwriting is better than taking digital notes, and mentions 4 papers in that context. The 2014 “The pen is mightier than the keyboard” paper by Mueller and Oppenheimer, has been easily adopted in broader pubic conscience, probably as it fits neatly in a bias. I never bought into that because my own experience with 4 decades of handwritten notes, and 3 overlapping decades of taking digital notes did not bear that difference out. (I know, I know, ‘n=just me’ is no base for critique on a paper, but still) If anything, to me my speed and ease of making digital notes is more effective and less distracting (I can type blindly and without looking at the screen, but who can write blindly?). The key is what happens afterwards. Which is about active engagement with the notes I make. Hence the selected quote below, in which I would replace the final word learning with engagement.
The 2014 study has been replicated in 2019 by Morehead, Dunlosky and Rawson showing no difference at least, and the opposite at worst.
The 2022 paper by Voyer, Ronis, and Byers, “The effect of notetaking method on academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” “showed no effect of method of note taking on performance under controlled conditions. It considered 77 effect sizes from 39 samples in 36 articles, showing no effect on note taking approach.“
It would seem that writing notes in your own words, and studying your notes, matter more than the methods used to write your notes. This makes sense, as the cognitive efforts involved in studying are likely to outweigh the initial method of capture. It is not note taking that matters but effortful learning.
Heel herkenbaar wat jij (en Alex) schrijft. Ik heb mijn oude notitieboeken over de periode 1988-2008 ergens rond 2010 weggegooid (nadat ik sommige pagina’s persoonlijke aantekeningen er uit had gehaald en gescand). Die van daarna zijn er nog. Die ben ik nu aan het scannen, zoals Wouter Groeneveld doet, n.a.v. de eerste Obsidian meet-up, en voorzie ik daarna langzaam maar zeker van een index in Obsidian waarmee het doorzoekbaar wordt. Ik gebruik een staande CZUR scanner met voetpedaal die een notitieboek scannen reduceert tot tien minuten werk. Dat maakt in ieder geval de eerste stap van digitaliseren eenvoudig (en weggooien mogelijk!). De inhoud beoordelen komt dan later.
T.a.v. uren schrijven en weeknotes: Ik open elke dag in Obsidian als eerste stap een daglog waarin ik activiteiten opschrijf met tijdstippen. Die gebruik achteraf voor urenstaten en voor de weeknotes (ik maak een weekoverzicht door de daglogs achter elkaar af te beelden en schrijf op basis daarvan mijn blogpost). Daglogs zijn ook mijn startpunt voor nieuwe notities over thema’s, meeting notes etc.
Steeds als ik de stapel notitieboeken zie denk ik, “ik moet er nog eens door bladeren en zien of er iets van waarde in staat wat ik nog kan hergebruiken”
This is a brief description of how I make my ‘notions’, which are permanent notes I keep as part of my private digital garden (titled ‘Garden of the Forking Paths‘). I choose a title and type “.nu” which inserts the current timestamp (as shown above in the title), ensuring unique titles. I use Alfred (and previously used TextExpander) for such keyboard shortcuts. This means I don’t have to use e.g. the ‘Zettelkasten’ plugin for my note taking tool Obsidian, or deal with the fact that such plugins never precisely match your personal preferences. It also means I can change my process anytime I like.
If the notion is based on a blogpost or presentation or other material I wrote, then I will change the timestamp (and the tags at the bottom) to reflect the date of that post / presentation / document.
Then I write the content of the notion.
I include at least one link to an existing notion e.g. something like [[Notes input tactics 20200728173504]], but usually more.
If I think it needs more work then I can do now, I add the tag #aanscherpen (Dutch for ‘sharpen’)
Where applicable I include references of one or more of three types: Ref: something I just directly name here, a person, book, or ‘my presentation 2018 at conference X’ Ref blog: the url to one of my own bloposts Ref Zotero: something that can be found in my reference library in Zotero.
I add tags of different varieties, either inline or underneath the note’s content:
tags naming the reasons and associations why I made the note, what triggered my interest. (An article ‘the 10 biggest tech developments to watch in 2021’ might be tagged ‘prediction’ and ‘2021’ e.g.)
tags as the terms with which I think my future self should be able to find them,
tags allowing search in different languages (I write notes in 3 language, but have notes with parts in at least 4 other languages which I can read ok enough to keep the original),
tags denoting some status or action (urgent, waiting, sharpen etc)
tags which look like #2020/09/13, which represent the date of the creation of the note. This is done by using a shortcut (“/now”) as well. These tags allow me to search by year, month and exact date, as well as allow me to create timelines if needed. E.g. the screenshot below shows my Notions dated July 2003, found by searching the tag #2003/07