Over the last five-six years I've become a meticulous note taker - it's vastly improved my comprehension, retention productivity. However, more recently, I've started recording meetings with a dictaphone and then I write them up after. This allows me to both interact and engage in a meeting, while documenting the crucial details at a later date.
Of course, there's an element of judgement in deciding what meetings are worth recording or not. I'm doing a PhD, so typically I only record meetings where information is being presented (of which I have a lot), but not those which exist exclusively for making decisions or whatever.
Couldn't agree more. I've spent many years trying to find the ideal note taking solution. I basically tried it all: TiddlyWiki, Evernote, blog posts, wordpress, MindManager, Trello, text scripts on a remote server, Google Docs. None felt good enough for me. I got annoyed by the features, distracted by formatting, frustrated with performance.
I finally realized it's not the tool, but the habit. While a half decent tool goes a long way, after a certain threshold what really matters is the discipline and the frequency you take notes.
After months/years, you start to see the same benefits the OP describes. It's great to look back in time at your own thoughts/comments and what changed since then.
(for the record: I ended adopting Markdown notes, on a shared Dropbox folder. Things are there whenever I need it, and doesn't require any custom client to read/edit the notes. And Trello for things that are transient, like task lists, GTD-stuff, short term ideas, etc)
I keep a separate notebook for each project that I am working on, be it for work or pleasure, and I also have a whiteboard for the important TODO items that I don't want to get lost in a notebook page that I don't check everyday.
Before I begin working on a project for the day, I always review at least the most recent pages from the relevant notebook to refresh where I was at when I left off.
Sometimes when I have a good insight that I can't implement right away because I am busy with something else, I will find the right notebook and write it down very quickly in a few words. Then occasionally I come back to it later and get a bit confused about what that note was all about, and in the process of trying to figure out what it means, I remember the whole thought process and come up with a better variation on the original idea that inspired the note in the first place.
To be honest though after a few months like this I've found that being away from the computer with a pen and pad helps me to focus and tends toward a better quality of output than note-taking at the monitor.
Each is suitable for different kinds of problems. As always, use the right tool for the job.
(And yes, the main caveat is that you do pretty much need a single-desk setup for this. Then again, I would argue that having a single workspace might be better for performance anyhow.)
A lot of people just keep thick journals, but I like A6 cards that I compile into slim exercise books. I just capture anything that comes to mind on a card and let them sit on a pile. Then, after some time, enough stuff has accumulated and I review the cards and compile them.
It has the sweet spot of not having to commit to something big (meaning it circumvents the urge to make it perfect, usually preventing you from writing it down in the first place), is reasonably flexible if you use masking tape to glue in the cards (there are some books that I could take apart completely and reuse) and can be stashed and sorted easily.
An even lower bar (in terms of commitment) than the cards are whiteboards, but I lack the nerve of putting one up. I also think that I'd hardly maintain them properly, so they'd end up crammed with stuff that I never really finish. The sweet spot that I've found for that is laminating balsa wood. You can get a 10 pack of balsa wood sheets (about .5cm thick) cheaply and just wrap them with clear adhesive film so you can write on them with a non-permanent marker. Bit of water and a tissue and they're good as new.
(In 3&4, you can see how I'm copying and updating an existing concept to a new whiteboard, which is pretty simple if you can hold your whiteboard in your hand...)
Maybe I should finally write that blog post I've been thinking about for years now...
I agree that keeping a journal is a valuable method of decompressing and understanding your own thoughts and feelings, and also serves as a good documentation resource. In fact, I'm thinking of keeping a 'work journal' to keep track of progress I make and work I accomplish. (This will have the added benefit of documenting all of the side projects that detract from my general productivity.) However, I would caution that chronological organization is not always ideal.
(A) Paper notebooks, good quality and largish (10x12 inch) acid-free artists sketch books. I use these for notes, designs and so forth. When I approach a new body of code, I'll make class diagrams and make reverse-engineering type notes; the "muscle memory" of writing seems to help with my understanding and recall. These are also good for cartooning when I'm frustrated. :-)
(B) A single large file containing a daily log of "interesting" stuff, such as what I've done, hard-won knowledge about systems (including bugs), descriptions of personal interactions and so on. Sometimes I won't make an entry for a day or two, some days I add dozens or hundreds of lines. I have a shell command that can append a single line to the log, and another one that opens the file and appends a timestamped entry, whereupon I can write a few lines, paste-in a bit of email, etc.
The log file is real handy at review time. I also find myself grepping it for obscure things, like "How did I set five servers up to find that bug last summer?"
I have these two habits going back 25 years or so, and it's quite interesting to revisit my decisions ("No! God, don't do /that/!" :-) ) and day-to-day issues.
(there are better links than this one but it's the only one I can find that isn't blocked by my corporate firewall)
Sat closer to the front and always took notes in class, of everything. I didn't just blindly transcribed everything like in a court room but tried to summarize. Being forced to do that, combined perhaps with mechanical muscle memory of writing the words on paper really helped me learn concepts at a very fast pace.
My handwriting is horrible, sometimes I couldn't even read it, but funny enough, I didn't always need to read it, because just having written it once on paper and summarized was enough.
EDIT: forgot to qualify, I am old school and it is paper and pen/pencil for me at the moment. None of the digital solutions have worked as well (yet). Emacs Org mode is next on the list to try.
There was definitely something about using pen and paper rather than typing. Typing didn't work nearly as much.
I tried the Hipster PDA , but without review, sorting, and copying onto my computer, I had issues with finding notes, and ever-growing stacks.
I tried Org-mode by using MobileOrg  on my phone, but learning Emacs, and getting Org-mode to work on it, was a big hurdle. And MobileOrg by itself doesn't really sort or search very well.
Spurred by a Verge article , about syncing notes everywhere with Notational Velocity, I gave SimpleNote and ResophNotes a shot. It was pretty immediately impressive! I eventually imported my MobileOrg notes, and haven't touched that since. I'm a bit bummed that there's no Linux client, though perhaps the Dropbox integration would let me build something. I really like the search interface.
I've heard encouraging things about Evernote, and it can hold images and other documents, unlike Notational Velocity, but I've been content enough, so I haven't really examined this.
I hope this helps!
This all assumes I'm a top performer though. Maybe I'm not.