Things worth learning: note-taking



What

Note-taking … is the practice of recording information from different sources and platforms. By taking notes, the writer records the essence of the information, freeing their mind from having to recall everything. Notes are commonly drawn from a transient source, such as an oral discussion at a meeting, or a lecture (notes of a meeting are usually called minutes), in which case the notes may be the only record of the event.

(Wikipedia)

I take notes when I’m:

  • reading books or papers
  • listening to lectures, meetings, or discussions

Why

I’ve always been pretty good at remembering things I hear and read, but even a great human memory is not as good at recording details as notes can be.

I find that taking notes helps my mind stay present, actively listen, and synthesize what I’m hearing with what I already know. The same applies to reading. It’s possible to take notes without processing what’s being said, or what you’ve just read. If I find myself slipping into that mode I stop and try to re-focus.

How

I must have learned how to take notes in longhand before middle school, since I can remember taking notes from books and lectures then. In class we would copy what the teacher wrote on the board. That was an ineffective strategy at best, and detrimental at worst. Rather than processing the lesson, trying to learn and understand, we had to focus on rote copying. The written notes didn’t serve much purpose, either. When I would read them later the notes wouldn’t make much sense, since there was no mental context for them.

I continued in that mode well into college. At some point the material became challenging enough that I struggled to keep up with my handwritten notes. Back then fewer people brought laptops to class than do now. In retrospect I’m glad that I didn’t have one, or I might have used my ability to type quickly as a crutch, and continued to take mindless notes.

Instead I had to learn a better note-taking strategy. I figured out that I should listen more, think more, and write less: summarizing and synthesizing general ideas, filtering out the most important details and recording those as-is. This is the essence of Niklas Luhmann’s note-taking system, though I only learned about it much later.

There are situations where recording what is said verbatim is as important as listening to it. I learned the value of this when I worked at Asemio, where the management consultants are trained to type meeting minutes in near real-time and edit them afterwards. I often take verbatim or near-verbatim notes during important meetings, especially when gathering customer requirements. That can be challenging when I also need to participate in the meeting, but having good notes on what a customer said is so useful that it’s worth the effort.