Digital note taking

I’ve been interested in note taking for years. (I had to be to finish my PhD…)

This page is an entry point for the articles and posts I’ve written on note taking over the years. While it stands alone, it also includes plenty of links that give additional info on specific aspects of note taking.

To set your expectations: I’ve not simplified much here, so grab a cup of coffee, settle in, and take your time.

What is note taking?

Note taking is many things: a skill, a process, and a system.

Skill – the act of taking notes.

Process – note taking as an aid to comprehension.

System – taking notes as part of your personal library of information, insights, and ideas.

You need to consider all three aspects to take notes that will improve your ability to work on complex problems now and in the long term.

Why take notes?

Notes are a worthwhile exercise for three reasons:

  • To recall information.
  • To understand information.
  • To make connections between ideas.

These are the fundamental aspects of acquiring knowledge and, subsequently, being able to apply this knowledge to creatively solve problems.

It is the cognitive effort of making notes – actively grappling with new ideas – that provides the means to reflect, process, and internalise new concepts.

Individual notes help you to understand the concepts at hand (for example, from a book, lecture, or podcast). But it is all of your notes together, as a body of work, where the effort of note taking really pays off.

Your notes can be the greatest asset in your working life. This is no exaggeration. Your notes are the record of your lifetime of learning and thinking.

You are what you pay attention to. Read great books, absorb fascinating ideas, and look to make connections between them. Taking notes is how you do this. (When I say ‘read’, I also mean watch, listen, etc.) Notes are an aid for your mind as you seek to know more, acquire wisdom, and prevent important concepts slipping from your consciousness.

Good note taking has a cumulative effect. The more notes you have, the more ideas you have at hand, which you are able to apply to the challenges you face in your professional (and personal) life.

A well structured note system is a proxy for the sum of your knowledge and wisdom.

How to take notes

Note taking is a skill that must be developed. There’s no single ‘right’ way to take notes because everyone is different, with a mix of preferred learning styles. However, the basic character of notes can be boiled down to three components:

  1. Summarise
  2. Critique
  3. Ask follow up questions

Summarise: Rewrite concepts in your own words. Don’t simply copy them verbatim. Rather, synthesise what you’ve learned in a way that reflects your unique approach.

Critique: What is particularly noteworthy? Is there anything you agree with or disagree with? Ask questions of the material and try not to take it at face value.

Follow up questions: What would you like further information on? Either for general interest, or to validate or disprove an aspect of what you’re reading.

How you complete these elements of note taking in practice depends on the tools that you choose to use. Should you take notes with a pen or a keyboard?

Digital note taking vs handwritten notes

Don’t automatically assume digital note taking is better. Going paperless may not be the answer.

There is still incredible value in using a pen and paper system. Studies have shown that comprehension and recollection improves when notes are handwritten.

Be clear on how digital tools actually assist your note taking process. For example, your laptop isn’t helping you when your fast typing means you can transcribe a lecture verbatim. You need to slow down!

What do I mean by this? Don’t take shortcuts where the effect is to stop you actually thinking, such as transcribing lectures verbatim or copying and pasting large blocks of text. These actions might appear to be digital note taking but they are not.

You are not a computer. As a human, you really don’t want to speed up your thinking. In fact, the slower the better. Digital tools are at their most useful when they assist your process of contemplating and synthesising concepts, not when they simply capture information for you.

Avoid digital scrapbooking and instead use digital tools to help you focus on the elements of note taking mentioned above: summarise, critique, follow up. Don’t fall into the trap of capturing information and then ignoring it.

It’s better to read one book closely and take great notes than it is to download 1,000 PDFs and read none of them. Owning information is not possessing knowledge.

This is not to say that you should ignore the benefits of digital note taking tools. The point is that you should think very carefully about how knowledge, understanding, and comprehension actually work before you build your note taking structure and habits.

My advice: refuse to choose between digital and analogue. Try to take the best of both and develop a note taking strategy that assists comprehension and recall, not one that simply permits you to hoard as much information as possible.

Note taking strategies

As I’ve hopefully convinced you, note taking isn’t just about storing clips of your reading (or watching, or listening). It’s also about organising your information so you can play around with the new concepts and ideas that you discover. You are then able to mash new concepts with older ideas to come up with something original.

This is creativity in practice. I don’t believe in creativity as ‘lightbulb moments’. Creativity is the hard work of proactively searching for ideas and inspiration and then marrying them with your prior experience.

For me, the whole point of a note taking strategy is to facilitate creativity in this way. This is the value of the ‘summarise’, ‘critique’, ‘follow up’ structure to note taking that I mentioned above. Having ‘new’ ideas yourself means deeply understanding existing ideas. Creativity is linking ideas from disparate fields together to solve the problems you are working on.

The most elementary forms of note taking are highlighting, underlining, and clipping. That’s not to disparage these methods, they are necessary to take good notes but not sufficient. The biggest problem (especially on eReaders) is that they are simply too easy to accomplish.

Your note taking strategy has to be clear on what the next step is, after highlighting. You need to do something with these highlights and clippings. Otherwise they just sit on an Amazon server and do nothing for you.

Processing your notes

Collating your highlights and annotations and then writing summary notes is one way to process notes. Free writing based on what you’ve read fosters understanding and comprehension.

Another way – this might also be an additional step to truly cement new concepts – is to use mind maps. If you struggle to absorb and reflect on new ideas, mind maps are a great way to turn linear written notes into a form that is meaningful to you. Mind maps are especially useful for visual/spatial learners.

The purpose of all these note taking strategies is to prompt your mind to reflect. You solidify understanding by thinking things over and placing new ideas in the context of what you already know.

Creating something new is a way to force your mind into converting your understanding into true comprehension. This way, you don’t merely understand a concept, you can use it. Concepts become part of your own idea toolkit, ready to use on problems you are actively working on.

Ways to advance understanding into active comprehension:

  • ‘Free writing’ notes to yourself based on your recent reading. (This strategy generated loads of material for my PhD.)
  • Create mind maps
  • Give a presentation (or create a slide deck for yourself)
  • Write a blog post

These are all strategies I’ve used to encourage myself to spend time with new concepts and combine them with those I’ve already worked with.

When considering your note taking strategy, this is a crucial extra step. You cannot just highlight a book or transcribe a lecture and then move on. Work with new ideas to incorporate them into your intellectual toolkit.

Best note taking app

By now you’re probably wondering what tools/apps I use to achieve all this. But hold on.

I could just list everything I use right here but I respect you too much. You really need to determine your own, personally-tailored note taking strategy before you choose your apps, not the other way around.

I want to stress to you that the best apps are the ones that match your own learning style, reading habits, and creative process.

Don’t just choose the most popular tools in the App Store. Choose software that fits into your overall note taking system. My advice: don’t search for silver bullets, build a system.

A note of warning: A common problem is to constantly search for new ways to ‘improve’ your note taking setup. I strongly caution against this. Take time to build a system and workflow that you’ll use for a long time. Only move away from your system if the change will overwhelmingly improve your productivity.

(My system was essentially the same for around 5 years until I opted in to the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. After this shift, I hope I don’t change anything else for another 5 years.)

Tinkering with your note taking workflow takes effort and energy away from actually reading, learning and improving your knowledge and generating useful ideas.

So, what is the best note taking app? A boring answer, I’m afraid: there isn’t one single, killer app. However, there are a few that I use in my note taking system and can recommend for your consideration.

My note taking system

My own system has evolved from biro pens and stacks of hardbacked notebooks to a tablet and stylus and digital knowledge database.

A problem, an issue I raised earlier, has been that I like handwriting paper notes. The process forces my mind to slow down and consider information more carefully, which is great. However, searching across older notes and discover linkages is vastly easier when notes are stored in a digital format. What to do?

A few years ago, I would type up my handwritten notes. This was a chore but, every cloud has a silver lining, I saw it as an opportunity to revisit notes and improve recall. I would do this every few months.

These digitised notes would then live in my Devonthink database alongside clipped articles, PDF files, and eBooks. When I tagged, grouped, and attached these notes to the relevant source material, I felt that I had control over my ideas, notes, and sources.

Now, I use the iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and a handwriting recognition app (Nebo). I handwrite my notes but it is automatically digitised and I can save it to my database straight away. No more transcribing and my database is always up to date. I am more than happy with my current note taking workflow.

Note taking on the ipad

The iPad Pro has been transformational in my note taking workflow.

I really like handwriting notes on paper for many reasons but this meant I had to type up the notes in order for my Devonthink database to be up to date. The database was always a few months behind my reading.

Now, my database is always current. I use Nebo, which accurately recognises my handwriting, and then I export the note to the Devonthink To Go app. The note then appears in my main Devonthink database on my main computer via a sync process.

I used to take a pen and paper everywhere to capture notes and ideas. Now, instead, I take my iPad. I make handwritten notes but can also add to and access my database wherever I am. I find this very liberating.

Because I trust my note taking system, I can devote my productive energy to ponder, critique, and link ideas. Having ideas and linkages front-of-mind makes it far easier to stay focused on writing. I always have material in my head to write about.

Currently, I use IA writer as my prefered writing app. You can read more about my writing system here.

Take note: Notes are worth taking

That brings us to the end of this roundup of my thinking on the vital skill of note taking. There’s a lot of information here, so feel free to dip in and out of the articles that I’ve linked to throughout.

I do tend to write a few posts a year on note taking, especially digital note taking, so sign-up to my newsletter if you’d like to receive those updates.

Finally, many readers send emails asking for help and advice on developing their own note taking system. I always do my very best to help out, but the reality is that my system might not work for you. That’s not the most actionable advice, but I really think you need to reflect on your own learning style and how you like to work with information.

Please leave comments if you’d like to add your own thoughts on note taking strategies and workflows. This is all fascinating stuff to me!

5 replies
  1. fashhad says:

    I’ve recently started using one note as a note taker, it is really good and comfortable. it was really interesting reading your article and the sentence that you wrote about owning information is not possessing knowledge was really fascinating.

      • Brian says:

        Hi Nick. Like Robert I use Noteshelf 2 and I sync with Evernote. I have found them very useful in syncing all my notes and calling them up whenever I need to. Brian


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  1. […] 2016, a research conducted by The Michigan State University found that the digital notes in class actually led students to earn low test scores, regardless of their level of academic […]

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