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Learning from top performers - the importance of making notes (mikhailklassen.com)
90 points by JohnHammersley on June 2, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments

There is a danger with note taking - it's often easy to become so engrossed in the notes that you fail to interact with the situation.

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.

Do you ask people if you can record it before hand? How do they take it, if you do?

Good question - I do, always, and so far no-one has had a problem with it.

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.

Thanks for the insight - I've wanted to do this with corporate meetings but haven't got past the first step of actually asking. Maybe people won't have as much of a problem as I think they would - only answer is to try, really.

Whatever tools you use (and there are plenty of them), the important thing is to pick something and get started

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 don't like to take notes on the computer, I like to actually write notes in notebooks, and I have a lot of them! I think the act of writing things down in a notebook is really helpful for me to think things through carefully and clearly, and I just don't get the same feeling typing notes on a computer.

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.

I am the same, however I have begun to write less notes of late after the reacquisition of a wacom tablet. Writing with that is excellent. Another quick way for me to document things is the combination of compiz' "draw on screen" feature and screenshot support.

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.

I just digitize everything once a week. I also use camera on my phone a lot.

For those of us that use Emacs, org-mode is a big win here. Apart from the todo list/agenda, you've got instant "take a note/record a task" at your fingertips. And all of this bundled with an outliner. You can even setup reviews of progress, etc. It's just about infinitely flexible.

I use Trello and Google Calendar for smartphone support. But I do use emacs whenever I'm at a computer. Should I try org-mode? Can it interface with those?

org-mode has a pretty good phone app for iPhone & Android for when you're on the road: http://orgmode.org/manual/MobileOrg.html

Some of us are crazy enough that we are using org-mode, in Emacs, on our spare N900, while the replacement micro-USB ports and hot air rework station arrived last week. That is how awesome org-mode is to me.

I'd love to see a blog post on how other top performers organize and collect their information.

Yes. I've never been able to come up with a paper or computer organization that I would naturally come back to every time. Every attempt gradually dissolves into a random spray of data.

I've failed with computer organization a couple of times, so for capturing ideas and compiling them, here is the paper-based method I use (updating an earlier comment).

(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[0] and let them sit on a pile. Then, after some time, enough stuff has accumulated and I review the cards and compile them.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3][4]

[0] https://plus.google.com/photos/111011776153281260419/albums/...

[1] https://plus.google.com/photos/111011776153281260419/albums/...

[2] https://plus.google.com/photos/111011776153281260419/albums/...

[3] https://plus.google.com/photos/111011776153281260419/albums/...

[4] https://plus.google.com/photos/111011776153281260419/albums/...

(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...

The wood sheets idea is awesome! I imagine it feels like a kind of analog tablet - small enough and stiff enough to carry with you and pass around the team. Also the reusability and ability to easily modify text beats paper for transient notes. Gotta get few of these at work.

Yes, they really are a bit like an analog tablet. You could probably get the same thing with sheets of plastic (would have to be opaque, though), but I like that they have a small bit of heft to them. Also having wood somewhere in the mix makes things pretty cozy and that is always a good idea when you want to stay in the flow. Plus it gives them a certain gravitas.

I love the idea of the wood whiteboard! I was just wondering if you might share have some links for where you bought the wood and the plastic film? No use trying to recreate the wheel, if you already have a winning combination :)

The adhesive foil was something I had around (though it was similar to this[0]). Wood sheets was from amazon.de[1]. For US equivalents, this foil looks similar[2]. The wood sheets I couldn't find any equivalent to, but it was declared as poplar/cottonwood. Searching for "plywood sheet" seems to get some close results. Only thing you really have to look out for is that they're light enough.

[0] http://www.amazon.de/Herma-7025-Selbstklebefolie-transparent...

[1] http://www.amazon.de/Laubsägeholz-Sperrholz-Sperrholzplatten...


I subscribe to the theory that "you are the average of the 5 people you associate with the most", so I agree that in order to excel, it's important to surround yourself with those whose mindset or ethics jive with the person you want to become.

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.

I keep two things:

(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.

(B) Sounds a bit like a spark file:


(there are better links than this one but it's the only one I can find that isn't blocked by my corporate firewall)

What works for me -- take notes always. Helped me a lot in college.

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.

I wish I'd figured out earlier that for me taking notes in class is completely useless. Actually, it's worse than that, it's counterproductive. I spent two years of college scrambling to copy down what professors had written on the board 45 seconds before, hoping that some day I'd look at it again and it would make sense. I never did. Finally, I stopped taking notes and started just paying attention to what the professor was saying right then. What a difference. I always knew what was going on and remembered almost all of it. I realize that different people have different learning styles so this doesn't apply to everyone, but good god do I wish I hadn't wasted so much time on note-taking – and even more, I wish I'd just been watching the professors and listening those first two years.

The key for me was summarizing and paraphrasing what was said. Just blindly copying didn't work. It was also helping me concentrate better on the content. I had to pay attention to professor and had to understand most of what was said in order to correctly take my style of notes.

There was definitely something about using pen and paper rather than typing. Typing didn't work nearly as much.

In my case, at least, I literally cannot hear or think as clearly when I try to multitask by taking notes. Unlike Stefan above, though, I figured this out before high school.

I've tried a few ways of capturing and sorting information.

I tried the Hipster PDA [1], 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 [2] 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 [3], 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!

[1] http://www.43folders.com/topics/hipster-pda

[2] http://mobileorg.ncogni.to/

[3] http://www.theverge.com/2012/4/23/2959214/dnp-verge-at-work-...

For a while I've been using my personal instance of confluence, but I've become infatuated with evernote. I need my notes to be accessible anywhere and I don't want to worry back solving the sync'ing problem myself.

This all assumes I'm a top performer though. Maybe I'm not.

Vimwiki's served me well on a shared dropbox folder.

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