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How to Take Notes like Thomas Edison

How to Take Notes like Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

Famous inventor Thomas Edison is probably the most experienced note-taker in the world. His diary which is still maintained as an important part of the United States historical record contains five million (5,000,000) pages. Important developments such as his work on perfecting the light bulb and electric lighting systems are captured in great detail. He never met a sheet of paper he didn’t like.
What lessons can we take from his work today, a century later? How did his note-taking help him to become the world’s most famous inventor with over a thousand (1093) U.S. patents in his name for a wide range of technologies from movie cameras and phonographs to cement making and electric lighting? In short, what made his note-taking and filing system so great?
Edison’s system was developed to support his life work and was very successful in doing so. The main elements of his system are as follows:

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  1. Any useful or important development was recorded so that no effort was wasted in repeating experiments or efforts unnecessarily. Edison’s method was once described as an “empirical dragnet” by Nikola Tesla, another famous inventor who worked for Edison for some time. Combining Edison’s hard working and hard thinking methods with an effective record creation and retention system was a very important aspect of his work.
  2. Forward-looking. Edison’s notes included the forward-looking things we tend to incorporate in many of our modern personal planners. Things like lists of contacts, appointments, “to do” lists, and actionable items for follow up or later review were all contained within his comprehensive system.
  3. Rearward-looking. The ability to go back and check his written record was useful in several ways. He was able to use his records in various lawsuits filed against him and by him against others as evidence and to substantiate his claims. His competitors were often unable to compete with his records so he often came out victorious in these legal battles. He was always able to review past work and avoid repeatedly going down dead-end roads. He could always review whatever he had said or was told. He never had to remember most things as long as he could remember how to look it up later.
  4. The record system was searchable. Sometimes, from among millions of pages, there would be a key document that would prove invaluable. Unfortunately, with his manual system, he often spent considerable time searching through these records looking for the key item. He did however have a fairly good system of archiving his records by a combination of chronological and subject matter based systems. He created numerous groupings, files, folders, etc. which helped him to get to the right part of his records in a reasonably short time.
  5. Who, what, where, when and how much. These details could be fairly easily retrieved from Edison’s system in relation to any aspect of whatever he was involved with. These included financial records and they formed an important part of his note-taking system. He kept all his incoming as well as copies of all his outgoing correspondence. This was not necessarily easy to do before the invention of the modern office copier.
  6. How and why. Edison’s research laboratory work was a focal point for much of his record system. Patent applications and reviews were based in large part on his notes that needed to include the how and why aspects in sufficient detail so that the patents themselves would be complete and able to withstand any legal challenges. Edison often used his records to defend his position from competitors in his day when patents and technologies were becoming very fashionable and important as they remain today. His system of experimentation and related record keeping has become the basis of the modern industrial research institution – which he is widely credited with having invented.
  7. Extremely powerful memory aid. Edison had an amazing memory. He was well informed on a wide range of topics and always seemed to be able to recall what he told someone or what he was told. Much of this is due to his system of notes. By writing everything down that he thought was worth writing, he was able to free himself of the burden of having to remember it. A strange and almost unexpected thing occurs. The process of writing things down aids in the mental memory retention. The combination of having the confidence in knowing the information is on record and easily retrievable combined with the improved retention from the process of writing it down, creates a winning combination when it comes to memory.

How can we improve upon Edison’s system using today’s technologies? Obviously, we have invented the ball point pen to replace his messy quill and ink bottle so that notes can be written in real time. In his day, he perfected the typewriter. Today, we are no longer committed to getting stuff onto paper as the final form of record retention. Vast portions of Edison’s original archives have recently been digitized and can be viewed online. This eliminates the need for mothballs and maintaining rooms full of old papers that can only be studied by someone showing up and going through them one page at a time.
How does your system compare to Edison’s? His was comprehensive and scalable to wherever his interests lay. Is your system similarly scalable? What about the content? How much of the information in your system has objectively measurable value? Edison kept everything and it all went up in value as his overall fame and power grew. How valuable has the information in your system become (or is becoming)? How scalable is your system as your interests change (whether expanding of shifting to other areas)? Edison always used the best available technology to maintain his records as efficiently as he thought they could be maintained. Have you similarly employed sound technologies for taking and keeping your notes?
Edison certainly subscribed to the philosophy that if life is worth living, it is worth writing about. At five million pages, he was at the extreme end of this. He did live a long, prosperous life. And he lived it quite fully since he always seemed to have something to write about.

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Peter Paul Roosen and Tatsuya Nakagawa are co-founders of Atomica Creative Group , a specialized strategic product marketing firm. Through leading edge insight and research, sound strategic planning and effective project management, Atomica helps companies achieve greater success in bringing new products to market and in improving their existing businesses. They have co-authored Overcoming Inventoritis: The Silent Killer of Innovation now available.

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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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