Notes

Like many of you, I have a love/hate relationship with notes. I need a way to record what happens in meetings, in class, or when listening to a speaker, and notes provide that mechanism. Unfortunately, those notes are frequently lacking details, which makes them difficult to understand after the fact. Even worse, I, like many of you, sometimes get involved in a discussion (or zone out of one) and miss large chunks of time. Even when I do manage to get the right information written down clearly, it’s usually quite an ordeal to find it when needed. Consequently, while better than nothing, my notes historically haven’t really served their purpose well.

Looking at the problem, I believe there are really 3 main issues:

  1. Understandability. I need to record enough context to make the notes understandable.
  2. Completeness. I need to consistently record all the information I’ll need later.
  3. Findability. I need to be able to find the right information quickly when I need it.

Through the years, I’ve tried a number of things to address these issues. I’ll talk about these in reverse order.

3. Findability. Unfortunately, good-old notebooks and binders aren’t great for this in my opinion. I always end up flipping through lots of pages of notes searching for something that may or may not be there. ¬†There are a number of ways to add organization to these notebooks, such as tabs and dividers, but I find all of these to be labor-intensive and relatively ineffective.

This is what first drew me to taking notes electronically. I could take my notes in electronic documents, save them with descriptive filenames, and organize them into descriptive folders. This was a bit easier than the physical organizational methods, and a bit more effective.

Many applications have organizational features that improve upon this model, but another feature has made organization less critical. That feature is search. Quick and effective search technology is quickly making organizational schemes less important. Instead of organizing my files and using descriptive names, I can now let my computer do the heavy lifting of finding things for me. Search is the feature that has lead me to take notes exclusively in software for the past few years.

2. Completeness. Unfortunately, while software has done a good job of addressing the findability problem, it hasn’t done much for the completeness problem. However, the physical world has a common solution – the tape recorder. The most diligent students have been using them for years. They record a class, then play it back afterwards (sometimes multiple times) to fill in all the gaps. This technique is effective, but most of us will never do it because it just takes too much time. I tried recording classes briefly, but never took the time to properly transcribe the recordings. A small percentage of us will be willing to sacrifice the time necessary to use this method, but most of us won’t. Instead, we end up attempting to address this problem by trying harder to get everything written down, which is almost always a failing strategy.

1. Understandability. Similarly to completeness above, software hasn’t done much to address this problem. The only thing I’ve found somewhat helpful with this problem is that presenters frequently use slides (e.g. PowerPoint, Keynote, PDF) and they frequently give copies of those slides out. If I don’t understand my notes, I can look through the slides for clues. This requires someone else to provide me something and requires me to potentially look through a lot of slides, but it’s better than nothing. Other than that, software hasn’t done much to effectively address this problem.

In the physical world, tape recorders are again used to address this problem. During my brief attempt at recording classes, I did occasionally use the tape recording to clarify my notes. Unfortunately this took a lot of fast-forwarding, rewinding, and listening to the wrong part of the lecture to find a small nugget of information, as there was no way to locate where in the recording my notes were originally taken.

Why this run-down of the difficulties in taking effective notes? I’m currently building a program, Pear Note, that I believe addresses these issues in a very new way. I’ve been using it for months now, and it’s definitely made my notes much more effective. How? I’m afraid that’s another post.

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