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The Art of Note Taking in the Digital Age

The Art of Note Taking in the Digital Age

    Note taking is as ancient an art as any. There are hefty tomes on the subject of how to best capture and organize information in a swift and legible manner and courses devoted to the subject in colleges.

    And yet, the most popular suggestion in our Skribit widget , which you can use to suggest articles for Lifehack authors to write, is on the question of whether to use digital or traditional methods of note taking. It seems that the mountains of existent information haven’t yet caught up with the modern age, addressing traditional note-taking methods, but altogether bypassing digital note-taking technologies and techniques and assistance in deciding which method of note-taking is best for the individual.

    What do we want to take notes for?

    There are all sorts of reasons to take notes, and it’s important to first look to these reasons in deciding which particular method of note-taking is best for us in the modern age. Different note taking needs demand different note taking methods and the importance of each of these needs to each of us differs drastically. University students and freelance writers both tend to take notes for different reasons.

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    What might you need to take notes for? Here’s a few I thought of (feel free to add your own in the comments):

    • Ubiquitous capture—a note taking system to help you capture ideas, thoughts and important information any time, any where. Note taking to ensure you never forget.
    • Retaining information from lectures and seminars—you can’t take a lecture home like you can a book, but taking notes helps to offset the temporary nature of verbally delivered information.
    • Problem solving—note taking as a method of sorting out the flighty thoughts in your head with a more tactile medium.
    • Visualization—visualizing complex systems and concepts with the help of diagrams and sketches.

    While I’m sure I haven’t covered every conceivable reason to take notes, these are the things that come to mind as the most important, popular and common reasons for note taking.

    Digital methods of note taking

    Digital methods of note taking have grown in popularity over the last few years in particular. Applications like Evernote and OneNote have risen in popularity, with the former receiving enthusiastic reviews from many sites including this one and supporting many devices, including the iPhone. This makes it an excellent choice when it comes to ubiquitous capture.

    The ubiquity of cloud-supported, multi-platform applications is not the only advantage to digital note taking. Your notes become indexable and searchable, which is infinitely useful in itself. And I don’t know about you, but I can type way faster than I can write with a pen—that’s either a product of the age we live in or the product of working as a writer who pumps out thousands of words on my keyboard each day, I don’t know. But I’m guessing that most of you reading can type faster than you can write, too.

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    Also, as users of Evernote on the iPhone will know best, dropping photos of whiteboards, business cards, presenter’s slides and the like into your notes is superbly easy—with traditional methods, you have to write out every bit of info you want to keep.

    But digital note taking methods fall down in a few important areas; drawing diagrams, sketches and mind maps is usually impossible and where it is possible, by no means a pleasant experience. Feel free to drop me a link to an app that makes this sort of thing enjoyable, but I don’t believe such a thing exists. The obvious exception: tablet PCs. But nobody really wants to buy a computer that can take notes better than a laptop and do little else quite as well.

    Any sort of visualization is limited when it comes to digital note taking, and not just when it comes to diagrams, but the ability to fashion text in any format not based on the paragraph.

    Let’s go back to the list of reasons for note taking and see how digital note taking does:

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    • Ubiquitous capture—digital is a winner when it comes to ubiquity, though you’ll need a few fancy—and often expensive—devices to make that ubiquity true.
    • Retaining information from lectures—digital wins here. Most people can keep up with the presenter far more quickly with a laptop than with pen and paper.
    • Problem solving—sort of. Problem solving often requires non-linear thought, and thus non-linear expression, but you can still flesh an idea out in paragraph or bullet form.
    • Visualization—not really; you need specialist, expensive equipment such as a tablet PC or even a graphic artist’s tablet to make visualization as a function of note taking work.

    Traditional methods of note taking

    The good old pen and paper has served humanity well for… well, a damn long time. Go back a bit further and you’ve got papyrus, wax, chiseled stone and all sorts of things. The reason most note taking literature panders to such methods is simply that such methods have existed for a long time. Nobody brought a laptop to take notes in a lecture ten years ago.

    And while it can be slow, unless you learn skills such as shorthand usually only learned by journalists and professional note takers, and can’t be searched or snap an image in between blocks of text (without going home and printing one out and taping it in, which sort of defeats the purpose), it is flexible. You’ve got a blank sheet of paper before you, and you can mark it however you wish.

    You can format text in strange and unusual ways, including the famous Cornell method of note taking, diagram, sketch and visualize in any manner you wish without obstructing. Many fans of paper-based note taking call it liberating, and not without reason. This is why the Moleskine has become an icon of frappucino-sipping hipster culture; those guys hate to be restricted.

    There’s one other reason many people love taking their notes on paper. It’s never mentioned in a practical context, but I think it’s an important point to make. It’s tactile. Some people feel they can connect with their words more easily than they can with text on a screen when they create those words with a pen. And if that helps you process information, that’s great.

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    How do traditional methods of note taking line up with our list of reasons to take notes?

    • Ubiquitous capture—there’s no reason you can’t take a notebook with you everywhere, but there’s no denying that ubiquitous capture is far more easily achieved with digital methods (unless the idea to be captured is visual in nature). Packing a phone in your pocket is easy, taking a laptop everywhere is second nature for many, but lugging around a pen and pad isn’t always desirable.
    • Retaining information from lectures—if you can write quickly, write shorthand, or you’re good at really truncating information on the fly so you can get it down before the lecturer moves on, note taking in lectures is totally doable with pen and paper. But I wouldn’t do it; my hand would cramp up long before I caught up with what the speaker was going on about.
    • Problem solving—you’ve got free control of the page which is always helpful when it comes to non-linear thinking; map it out however you like. Writing with a pen also forces you to slow down a bit more, which is much better for processing information and coming up with ideas than the fast-paced world of typing. Paper wins when it comes to problem solving.
    • Visualization—digital note taking just can’t match pen and paper for visualizing concepts, whether it’s a diagram or sketch, or a good old mind map. Maybe one day things will change in this department, but it’s a clear win for paper.

    The verdict?

    The verdict is up to you.

    Note taking is one of those things where the best course of action is totally dependent on what you need to do. Do you need to sketch ideas for your graphic design job? Go paper. Do you need to keep track of shopping lists, things you’ve got to do tomorrow and ideas for articles? Go digital. Need the benefits of both? Then go with both.

    The pros and cons are lined up in a row for you here—the decision, I hope, is much easier than it was before!

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on December 10, 2019

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

    It is hardly a secret that the key to successfully accomplishing one goal after another is staying motivated. There are, of course, tasks which successful people may not like at all, yet they find motivation to complete them because they recognize how each particular task serves a greater goal.

    So how to stay motivated most of the time? Here are 5 simple yet effective ways on how to stay motivated and get what you want:

    1. Find Your Good Reasons

    Anything you do, no matter how simple, has a number of good reasons behind it.

    You may not be able to find good reasons to do some tasks at first but, if you take just a few moments to analyze them, you will easily spot something good. We also have many tasks which don’t need any reasoning at all – we’ve been doing them for so long that they feel natural.

    If you’re ever stuck with some tasks you hate and there seems to be no motivation to complete it whatsoever, here’s what you need to do: find your good reasons.

    Even when you set goals, there needs to be reasons behind these goals. They may not be obvious, but stay at it until you see some, as this will bring your motivation back and will help you finish the task.

    Some ideas for what a good reason can be:

    • A material reward – quite often, you will get paid for doing something you normally don’t like doing at all.
    • Personal gain – you will learn something new or will perhaps improve yourself in a certain way.
    • A feeling of accomplishment – at least you’ll be able to walk away feeling great about finding the motivation and courage to complete such a tedious task.
    • A step closer to your bigger goal – even the biggest accomplishments in history have started small and relied on simple and far less pleasant tasks than you might be working on. Every task you complete brings you closer to the ultimate goal, and acknowledging this always feels good.

    2. Make It Fun

    When it comes to motivation, attitude is everything. Different people may have completely opposite feelings towards the same task: some will hate it, others will love it.

    Why do you think this happens? It’s simple: some of us find ways to make any task interesting and fun to do!

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    Take sports for example. Visiting your local gym daily for a half-an-hour workout session sounds rather boring to some. Yet many others love the idea!

    They like exercising not only because they recognize the good reasons behind it, but simply because it’s fun! At certain time of their daily schedule, they find going to gym to be the best thing to do, simply because nothing else will fit their time and lifestyle so perfectly.

    Depending on how you look at it, you can have fun doing just about anything! Just look for ways of having fun, and you’ll find them!

    A simple approach is to start working on any task by asking yourself a few questions:

    • How can I enjoy this task?
    • What can I do to make this task fun for myself and possibly for others?
    • How can I make this work the best part of my day?

    As long as you learn to have the definite expectation of any task being potentially enjoyable, you will start to feel motivated.

    Some of you will probably think of a thing or two which are valid exceptions from this statement, like something you always hate doing no matter how hard you try making it fun. You’re probably right, and that’s why I don’t claim everything to be fun.

    However, most tasks have a great potential of being enjoyable, and so looking for ways to have fun while working is definitely a good habit to acquire.

    3. Change Your Approach And Don’t Give Up

    When something doesn’t feel right, it’s always a good time to take a moment and look for a different approach for the task.

    You may be doing everything correctly and most efficiently, but such approach isn’t necessarily the most motivating one. Quite often, you can find a number of obvious tweaks to your current approach which will both change your experience and open up new possibilities.

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    That’s why saying “one way or another” is so common — if you really want to accomplish your goal, there is always a way; and most likely, there’s more than one way.

    If a certain approach doesn’t work for you, find another one, and keep trying until you find the one which will both keep you motivated and get you the desired results.

    Some people think that trying a different approach means giving up. They take pride in being really stubborn and refusing to try any other options on their way towards the goal.

    My opinion on this is that the power of focus is great, but you should be focusing on your goal, and not limiting your options by focusing on just one way to accomplish it it.

    4. Recognize Your Progress

    Everything you may be working on can be easily split into smaller parts and stages. For most goals, it is quite natural to split the process of accomplishing them into smaller tasks and milestones. There are a few reasons behind doing this, and one of them is tracking your progress.

    We track our progress automatically with most activities. But to stay motivated, you need to recognize your progress, not merely track it.

    Here’s how tracking and recognizing your progress is different:

    Tracking is merely taking a note of having reached a certain stage in your process. Recognizing is taking time to look at a bigger picture and realize where exactly you are, and how much more you have left to do.

    For example, if you’re going to read a book, always start by going through the contents table. Getting familiar with chapter titles and memorizing their total number will make it easier for you to recognize your progress as you read. Confirming how many pages your book has before starting it is also a good idea.

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    You see, reading any book you will be automatically looking at page numbers and chapter titles, but without knowing the total number of pages, this information will have little meaning.

    Somehow, it is human nature to always want things to happen in short term or even at once. Even though we split complex tasks into simpler actions, we don’t quite feel the satisfaction until all is done and the task is fully complete.

    For many scenarios though, the task is so vast that such approach will drain all the motivation out of you long before you have a chance to reach your goal. That’s why it is important to always take small steps and recognize the positive different and progress made. This is how your motivation can sustain in long term.

    5. Reward Yourself

    This is a trick everyone likes: rewarding yourself is always pleasant. This is also one of the easiest and at the same time most powerful ways to stay motivated!

    Feeling down about doing something? Dread the idea of working on some task? Hate the whole idea of working? You’re not alone.

    Right from the beginning, agree on some deliverables which will justify yourself getting rewarded. As soon as you get one of the agreed results, take time to reward yourself in some way.

    For some tasks, just taking a break and relaxing for a few minutes will do.

    For others, you may want to get a fresh cup of coffee and even treat yourself a dessert.

    For even bigger and more demanding tasks, reward yourself by doing something even more enjoyable, like going to a cinema or taking a trip to some place nice, or even buying yourself something.

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    Your progress may not seem to others like anything worth celebrating but, take time and do it anyway! It is your task and your reward, so any ways to stay motivated are good.

    The more you reward yourself for the honestly made progress, the more motivated you will feel about reaching new milestones, thus finally accomplishing your goal.

    Mix and Match

    Now that you have these five ways of staying motivated, it is a good moment to give you the key to them all: mix and match!

    Pick one of the techniques and apply it to your situation. If it doesn’t work, or if you simply want to get more motivated, try another technique right way. Mix different approaches and match them to your task for the best results.

    Just think about it: Finding good reasons to work on your task is bound to helping you feel better; and identifying ways to make it fun will help you enjoy the task even more.

    Or, if you plan a few points for easier tracking of your progress and on top of that, agree on rewarding yourself as you go; this will make you feel most motivated about anything you have to work through.

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    Featured photo credit: Lucas Lenzi via unsplash.com

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