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Ask HN: What are your note-taking techniques?
35 points by tixocloud on July 30, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments
Being swamped with projects and wanted to find a better note-taking system to manage all my information. My plan is to eventually transfer over to something digital - looking at Excel or OneNote for a GTD system.

My constraints are that I'm in an enterprise environment so cloud solutions aren't viable.

I have a personal wiki powered by Org-mode[1] that includes several thousand documents containing the notes I've taken. I keep all the documents open all the time, and I use Ido[2] to access any document in under two seconds. A high-speed note-taking solution like this is necessary for me because I refer to and take notes up to hundreds of times per day. When I last evaluated note-taking solutions (2012?), no solution was both fast and feature-rich like Org-mode.

One example of a feature that Org-mode has that the other solutions I evaluated didn't was support for plain text spreadsheets[3]. This feature is very helpful to me because many of my notes include small sets of tabular data that I strongly prefer to include directly in my wiki documents rather than in a separate Excel or LibreOffice spreadsheet.

[1] http://orgmode.org/manual/

[2] https://github.com/emacs-mirror/emacs/blob/master/lisp/ido.e...

[3] http://orgmode.org/manual/The-spreadsheet.html

What is the directory structure you use for managing all of your org files?

I've been converting my note taking to Org-mode over the past few months and am still trying to find the ideal directory/file layout to put things in.

Do you have a recommendation for editing your notes on mobile devices?

I went paperless in college.

My method is Notepad++ with either a cloud storage solution, or a shared network drive. I take my laptop to all meetings and take what notes I need, then store those in my cloud/network storage. (In certain situations, I'll use my phone instead of my laptop)

I use Excel heavily, and it's a great tool for many uses - managing and manipulating lists of servers and data quickly, better grid formatting than Word/Outlook, script generation automation (using VBA to create Powershell scripts), and other uses. But it's a terrible note-taking platform to me.

I've had a love-hate relationship with OneNote. It works best for me from within Sharepoint. Others make much better use of the tool than I do, and hopefully you'll be able to do so too.

I have considered going paperless in lectures/etc., but I'm hesitant because of research that shows typing leads to less retention than writing, even in the absence of distractions [1]. This also conforms with my own experience with written notes and typed notes.

[1] Meuller, Oppenheimer, "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking," Psychological Science, 2014 http://zetesis.org/wp1/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/MuellerOpp...

I've done a bachelors degree in electrical & computer engineering, half a bachelors degree in chemistry, a year of grad school, and have been in the workforce now for a few years.

In this time, I have never been able produce legible or useful notes much less come up with a personal note taking system that works for me.

My studying habits in school boiled down to showing up to class and pretending to take notes and then going home to spend hours outlining textbook chapters until I had everything I needed to do well on exams.

At work, I take notes in meetings for the exact same reason I took notes in college - so I won't be judged for not taking notes.

so tl;dr: ...you don't really take notes, everything goes in your head?

I wish I were that smart, but no - I have to spend extra time revisiting / researching concepts on my own time.

My secret: optimize for writing, not for reading/finding. Write now, organize later, and use search to find stuff.

My setup is on OneNote, which does a really great job of indexing everything you throw into it.

- Start with one notebook, call it "Work" or "Main" or whatever. Put it on OneDrive or some other web-accessible location if you want (or don't - OneNote may be proprietary, but it's file-driven and you own your data). Create a section in it called "Unfiled". Create another section called "Unfiled Archive."

- Customize the system notification icon to create a new quick note when you click it.

- In OneNote Options > Save and Backup, set the Quick Notes Section to the Unfiled section you just created.

Need to jot something down? Click the notification area icon and you get a new note. Most of your day-to-day can live in the Unfiled section until you get a little down time, which you can use to organically sort and organize as you see fit. If something's old and you're not sure if you need it, drag it to the archive section. Over the years I have grown one huge notebook called "Learning" with tons of sections on every conceivable subject. My main "Work" notebook primarily consists of the Unfiled section plus a few others that have some long-lived stuff in them.

A few other OneNote-specific tips:

- Win+Shift+S freezes the display and lets you draw a bounding box to take a screenshot. I configure this to send the screenshot to the clipboard; super handy.

- OneNote has a printer driver. I print stuff to OneNote all the time.

- Interesting web pages have a habit of disappearing. Use IE's "Send to OneNote" or the OneNote printer driver to capture them. Bonus: the entire text of the page gets put into the OneNote full-text index.

My time to shine! I'm a huge note taking nerd and have tried many many solutions.

I first used my Gmail Drafts folder. This was actually really good for a time. Accessible via web or phone, the Gmail app automatically syncs the drafts to any device. However with many notes this gets messy.

I moved to some startup note-taking app after that. I can't remember the name now but it was fairly perfect. Unfortunately they closed down. This was the time I really started lookin triedg and trying many different things.

I settled on plain Markdown files stored on Dropbox. I use the excellent Draft app on Android to edit on my phone, and vim on PC. The only drawback with this, Dropbox's text renderer doesn't do fenced code blocks, so it looks funny on the webpage if I share a note with those.

I have a note-taking nerd friend and he settled on a private git repository.

I've tried Evernote but I hated it.

Since you're a huge note-taking nerd, I assume you evaluated Org-mode. What didn't you like about it?

For a high task environment: Carry a tiny tiny notebook around, 100 pages or so, that fits into any pocket. Each page for a day when tasks get assigned. A note in the notebook for the task.

When something's done, put a confident line through it. Flick through the book every day for what's not done.

I use nvAlt (http://brettterpstra.com/projects/nvalt/) and have it write to a "Notes" folder in Google Drive := ubiquitous format + search + syncing

Loved using nvAlt. I need to get back to playing with my cross-platform version of nvAlt in Qt. I got as far as getting a search as you type with minimal file create/load/save going and then trailed off to work on other things.


The number one problem with note taking for me is keeping track of all the notes. In the past, I'd make all these great notes with Zim then never read them. With anki and spaced repetition, that problem is solved. When the memory of the note is on the verge of decaying, anki reminds me, keeping it fresh.

Anki has a web, android, Windows, Mac, Linux, and iOS client, it features online syncing, supports html markup and has extensions support with python. Works for me!

My strategy is to avoid taking notes unless absolutely necessary. In a meeting, just engage in the conversation. The only things you need to write down are the things you need to DO because of that meeting.

I know this doesn't work very well for i.e. discovery meetings with clients, but I don't have those anymore (and when I did, I just recorded the audio). You asked what MY techniques were ;)

Agree fully. To add: print out an agenda of a meeting, take down any points on that, take a picture of that and email yourself.

I know this is probably not the kind of note-taking you are looking for, but if you're not affraid to take notes without a computer, you should really read about stenography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shorthand

I use tiddlywiki, a single file javascript app accessed with a browser and stored in dropbox (tiddlywiki.com). Supports some version of markdown, and importantly for me, has many plugins including one for Latex. I think the search and tagging features are what make it awesome.

I also went paperless.

I keep track of everything in Evernotes with The Secret Weapon. (http://www.thesecretweapon.org/)

It is email + evernotes + GTD.

Takes a little bit of effort to set up/ get oriented with but worth it.

Cornell notes with pen and paper.

It's not digital, and it'd be tricky to OCR my lousy hand writing.

I've been using gingko, its changed the way I take notes! Awesome tool.


Online solutions like Evernote and Onenote have always just been tricky to get into. At the minute I have pieces of paper dotted around everywhere and occasionally use Google's Keep app.

I wouldn't trust Google Keep. I used Google Notepad for a while and had great organization, then they shut it down.

Never again, Google. Keep is an easy way to sync our shopping list to my partner and that's it.

Evernote uses local clients that are "online" only for backup / sync between devices. Everything's stored on your machine in a local db. They've got a browser app, but in 4+ years of use, I've never used it.

Evernote is basically my OS.

related question: any good note-taking techniques for work? how to organize notes so it'll be easy to refer to in the future?

currently I organize notes by having a .txt file for each project, but sometimes that still doesn't work because stuff adds up, so it's hard to find the how-did-i-do-this-last-time steps

^ Real talk.

This https://cloudup.com/clkR99FLNgC/f is becoming a nightmare - I'd also value how other people keep their notes organized and understood.

Plain text files and indentation.

Ironically, one of my final projects was a personal organizer/notepad in C# that was going to be awesome... until I realized just having a tab open in Sublime Text was just as good. So now I just have a ton of text files on my laptop about random things.

Y'all need Markdown

text file + evernote app + email


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