I’ve always kept notebooks, but I’ve never felt the need to examine the practice beyond sometimes planning to keep everything for one project contained in a single notebook. But over the last year or so, the convergence of a few things have really pushed me toward thinking deeply and critically about how I take and organize notes.
The first is that I was made chair of my department, which the number of things I need to think about and keep track of shooting through the roof. Then, partly as a reaction to the new gig, I bought a Supernote e-ink notebook, which opens up many possibilities for note organization but can quickly escalate complexity. Lastly, I read a few articles that demonstrate how others are making sense of the ways they keep track of information, particularly Multi-Layered Calendars by Julian.Digital and How Do I Save Links for Later? by Chris Coyier.
My experience with the Supernote has taught me that chosing an existing organizational system for notes and applying it from the top down is fraught. There are just too many things that don’t fit the prescribed categories and too much mental overhead in trying to figure out how to make it work while dealing with real work at the same time. Many systems rely on the note taker being able to make complex categorization decisions as they go or to form a habit of regularly processing their notes, both of which have proven difficult in the face of busyness and the inertia of laziness.
So instead of enforcing compliance with any particular system, I’ve satisficed and let water flow downhill and paid attention to where the channels form. Out of this lack of a plan and my own on-the-fly decisions, something that works pretty well for many of my needs has emerged. But it’s not complete and there are certainly gaps and room for development.
To that end, I think it’s time to start taking stock to assess the elements I’m working with. What follows is my own taxonomy of types of notes I take and some thoughts on how I handle them.
This may seem obvious, but I’ll go ahead and define this as the capturing of ideas and information.
Ephemeral info logging
Notes I’ll only need in the very near future. Happy to throw them away when I’m done with them. This might be something like a list of points to make at my next meeting or a grocery list or notes for grading a student presentation. This sort of thing has a home in a post-it, a notebook page that can be easily thrown away, or maybe a Google Keep note. The point is to capture the info, use it, then be rid of it
Brainstorming and thinking on paper
Ephemeral, but I may want to come back to it. This is a very freeform activity and can work well when done on paper (especially very modular paper systems), a whiteboard, or in a digital whiteboarding app like Miro. The tricky bit is knowing what, when, and how to translate results into docs, drafts, or tasks.
Project docs and updates
I try to keep all information related to a single project in one place. All the tasks, plans, ideas, and research that go into a project should be together so you can find it when you’re working on that particular project.
These days, for professional projects I use Notion for project management, and it’s easy to create as many sub-pages, project tasks, and even embedded databases as might be needed.
Ongoing creative process
Building up and upon creative sparks I want to continue to develop. This could be drafts of writing, lyrics under development, design iterations, even (if we can extend to the auditory) sketches of song ideas.
I tend to use different media or software depending on the type of creative project. Where things get messy is when I don’t have a habitual place where I always work on a particular pursuit; which is why I always end up with scraps of lyrics smattered between different notebooks, apps, and other random places.
Captured notes from others’ information
Think of taking notes in a class or jotting down the really important new process your boss is explaining. These are notes you want to keep and put somewhere to reference as needed.
I don’t really have a clear system for handling these. In my current role, I don’t need to do this quite often enough that I’ve found a niche for it in my system. Ultimately, I probably want this kind of information to end up in Notion, but I like the feeling and memory boost that comes from writing by hand. Probably I should reach for my e-notebook for this.
Journals and history
I’ve never been particularly good at journaling with regularity, however much it seems like it would be worthwhile. But as a history enthusiast, I really believe in the value of recording and expressing the things that happen, both for posterity and for my own memory.
This site has helped in that it gives me a place to log my book reading and film watching (good riddance GoodReads and Letterboxed). For a while, I was also doing weekly recaps here, but I think I was starting to make them too complicated and it all became a bit daunting. I also have an ambition to journal my travels, and I think the website might be a good place for it .
Perhaps the real key is to be accountable to others for recording the happenings of the day. At work, I’ve been pretty regular about posting a weekly list of updates and news to my faculty. And I’m decently consistent about posting a daily list of what I’ve worked on for my close team.
Logging data points
Sometimes you need to keep track of data points. Maybe it’s your blood pressure (doctor’s orders) or whether you’ve written every day or how often you think about the Roman Empire. Often it’s not a lot of data that has to be logged, but it’s regular, so it grows quickly.
I confess that I don’t have a particular system for this. At one point, I had an app that I could program to nag me for particular data points at set times, but I found myself ignoring the prompts. And now I use some mix of Google Keep, paper notebooks, and whatever else I come up with in the moment. Perhaps a Notion button might provide a clearer path.
Fleeting or drifting thoughts
Ideas I’d like to return to to see if anything comes of them. It might be something like a fact I’d like to learn or a wild idea that could develop into something or something that feels like a revelation when it pops into my head.
These are the kinds of things that are nice to put where you’ll happen across them with some frequency to keep the creative possibilities alive. Something like a notebook you thumb through a lot or maybe in Google Keep where I’ll see it if I scroll through my notes.
You know the kind of thing: actions that need to be taken and can be checked off. As much as possible, I try to keep tasks as small and achievable in one sitting as possible.
These are my immediate to-dos, actions I should take in the next few days or, at most, weeks. Some are time sensitive and need a due date. Some are recurring regular tasks like sending out my weekly news and updates post at work.
I use my primary Google Tasks lists for this and it functions pretty well, especially since it’s handy in the sidebar of my enail. I tend to migrate tasks here from other lists when they become timely or I think I might have bandwidth to tackle them soon.
The tasks required to move a specific project forward, which may or may not be time sensitive.
Generally, I keep these in my Notion projects database as tasks with statuses, assigned owners, and priority tags. This makes it easy to track the status of the entire project and get the last of the land. And when I’m ready to tackle one of the tasks, I’ll also list it in my primary Google Tasks list.
The problem I’ve always had with task lists is those items that would fester undone at the bottom of my list for months on end. They’re always the kinds of things that I’d really like to do, things that seem like great ideas for whenever I can find the time, but that don’t have the urgency to be checked off quickly.
You could argue that it’s fine to leave them hanging out at the bottom of the list until time presents itself. But for me that constant choice to ignore them makes them feel devalued and even loathsome.
The solution I’ve found is to create a secondary list in Google Tasks called Holding Zone. I put all those I’ll get to them eventually tasks there, and when I think the time might at last be nigh for one of them, I transfer it to my main list. Having them out of sight until the rare occasion when I ask myself ‘so, what else can I get to today?’ really assuages helps with the psychological side of all these uncompled ambitions.
Other people’s tasks
As a manager of people (but also just as a collaborator on anything), it’s often necessary to check in with others to ensure they’re making progress on things they’ve agreed to get done. For a long time, I tried to just keep everything I was waiting on others to do in my head, or sometimes I’d give myself a task on my main list that said something like “check whether so-and-so has done such-and-such.” Neither is a great idea; you don’t remember everything and those checking-up tasks clutter my own list with things that aren’t really my to-dos.
Easy solution: I created a Google Tasks list called Taskmaster in which I keep things I need others to do. Whenever I check in with someone, I pull up the list to see if there’s anything to ask them if they’ve completed. If they say not yet, I leave it on the list to ask about again next time.
Things you didn’t write or create yourself but need to hold onto and reference at some point.
Access and passes
Tickets to events, lab orders, insurance cards, shipping tracking numbers, and the like. The sorts of things that you need to keep for some period of time because they are your point of access or validity within some system that is external to yourself. In other words, you need them because someone else says so.
These tend to sit in my email inbox until used, if they can be had as emails at all. The problem with dealing with other people’s systems is that you have no control over how they send us these things, but then the onus is on you to keep track of them. So you end up having to remember whether something came to you in email or text or in an app or (worst of all) on paper somewhere.
The manual for a gadget, the procedure for creating a job requisition, what to do in case of catastrophic engine failure–the kinds of things you need to keep handy for when you require knowledge about something ultra specific.
As much as possible, I try not to keep these things at all, favoring instead confidence that the answers are all a quick web search away. Where that’s not practical, particularly at work, I add them to a Notion knowledge base.
Communications with info important to a project, task, or effort
Sometimes you get an email with the answers to a bunch of questions about a project. Or maybe it’s a chat message in which someone outlines in detail a process you need to follow. Because there are so many possible channels of communication, it’s hard to have a single system for keeping track of all of these.
If it’s in email, I usually apply labels, but in practice I mostly dig them up with search. Other forms of communication are even more haphazard; sometimes I’ll copy the content to a more savable location, but often I rely on my fragile memory to know where to find them. This fractious methodology really amounts to very little methodology at all. I think copying into a project or task in Notion may be the best way to go.
I revel in the little unexpected quirks of the world, the things you’d almost pass right by except that they trip you mid-step with their humor or irony or wonderful strangeness. The other day while getting a vaccine shot, I snapped a picture of the eye-wash station diagram of a man dumping water into his own eye (included at the bottom of this post for your enjoyment). Often I’ll learn a new word etymology that unlocks some particular linguistic pathway in my mind. Other times, I’ll come across some old object with wonderful typography. These gems should be captured so I can return to enjoy them again and again.
I really like the idea of a commonplace book for just this purpose, but every time I try to start one I find the habit of daily sitting down to record my findings rather hard to sustain. This probably means I need a tool on my phone for gathering my treasures as I find them, right in the moment. Perhaps I can leverage Notion, or maybe something similar to Adobe Capture could do the job?
Something you find that you want to act upon
Like a link you want to share or a tool you want to try, maybe a creative work you want to check out in more depth. This is another of those categories where I don’t have a good system in place. Often, it’ll just sit as an open tab in my browser until I either give it the time of day or get sick of the unresolvedness. Other times, I’ll throw it into my Pocket queue, but that’s not really what it’s for and doing so muddies the waters a bit much for my liking.
Speaking of Pocket, I’ve found it to be a pretty good solution for saving articles and other bits of writing that I want to read when I have more time. You’d be surprised by how many Wikipedia articles I pop in there for end-to-end enjoyment.
There are certainly other possible categories that I haven’t captured here. Perhaps highlights in books, articles, or other sources. Or maybe certain correspondence should be considered. But I’m drawing the line at what I think are the most important for me to consider in my search for a coherent system of information capture and recall.
So now I’ve named and taxonomised all these different kinds of notes, now what? Well, identifying them has helped me to get a sense of where there are gaps or inconsistencies in my methods. Hopefully, with that done, I’ll be able to find ways to be more thoughtful about how I handle them. I don’t expect to ever have a complete or static system, but understanding what the problems are is the first step in solving them.
And as promised, here’s a guy squirting water in his eye: