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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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