Take Notes

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How do you remember everything? Where do you keep those great ideas that pop into your brain at random moments?

Capturing ideas or bursts of genius is not as easy and/or obvious as one might think. Someone asked me where my ideas come from. It’s hard not to laugh at a question like that (unless you take yourself too seriously). Like you, everything comes from my brain (be it conscience or unconscious). The challenge is in capturing and understanding (or deciphering) what it means and what it can be. Some stuff becomes a Blog post that you’ll read here, other stuff is tweetable. Some things are perfect for clients, other ideas will be a part of my next business book. So, beyond the capturing and deciphering it’s also about the final destination.

Capture your thoughts. Take notes.

Too many people think of taking notes… and they immediately think of school. They think of note taking as some kind of linear, clean and formulated process. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, some of the best notes are the ones that would never make sense to anybody else, and they are the ones that you never look at again either. For years, I’ve taken notes in meetings. I hardly ever go back to them. In those instances, it’s the act of writing them down that helps me to remember and focus. In other instances, I’ll take notes to refer back to once (like ideas for a Blog post), but then there’s no more need for them.

It’s about how you capture them.

Here are my note taking tools…

  • Moleskine. I use two types of Moleskine notebooks. I use a super tiny one that fits in my back pocket and I use a soft-cover larger one for business meetings. Both of them are plain paper (no lines), have a black cover (the thin one). I don’t get hung up on cleanliness… I get hung up on scribbling down the ideas.
  • iPhone. I use both the notebook application and Evernote. Admittedly, I am in purgatory here as I keep switching back and forth (not sure why, but it depends on my mood).
  • Text editor. If something requires more than a few lines, I’ll use a simple text editor to let the ideas flow.
  • Windows Livewriter. I’ve tried them all and Windows Livewriter is the best Blog writing software. There are many times when I have ideas and I’m using the platform to just take notes. Sometimes it winds up as Blog content, but sometimes it doesn’t.

Do you notice a trend?

My note taking is a mess (some trend!). It’s all over the place. It’s not simple. It’s definitely not organized. No, that doesn’t mean that I know where everything is (I don’t). I’m looking for a better (more organized) system, but I know that when it comes down to it, it will have to be something that can be consistent and easy for me to adopt as a new habit. I am one of those people who can empty their pockets with napkins, business cards and random pieces of papers with ideas all over them (don’t even open my briefcase where books, magazines and more random sheets of paper are all marked up). While you may see this as an unorganized nightmare, I’m fine with it. Why? Because I’m taking notes. I’m capturing everything. That’s a whole lot better than most people, who don’t capture anything because they see note taking as a task. It’s a bad memory from school. It’s a bad way to be if you really want to bring new ideas to life.

What’s your take on taking notes?


  1. Mitch,
    I appreciate your post because I have a lot in common with you when it comes to taking notes. I’m far from perfectly organized but I am serious about taking notes. I also have a large Moleskine but mine has lines. Recently, I went to Muji, which has a delicious selection of notebooks (there is one at the Jet Blue terminal in JFK) and I decided to try a notebook without lines to see if it helped me think outside the lines and lo and behold, I found myself drawing some little icons and images with my notes. I keep work notes in a black notebook and personal notes in a non-Moleskine with a silver cover. My Muji notebook is spiral bound and a little smaller. I haven’t clearly defined what I’ll use it for yet but took notes for an Apple course in video editing in it. I flesh out ideas on an iPad using the Pages app.
    I agree that the key is to take the notes, even if the organizing system is a work in progress. Ideas, especially those intuitive flashes, are so fleeting. They are like dreams–if you don’t write them down right away they can disappear forever and that’s usually the best stuff.

  2. Simplenote for iPhone/ipad with Notational Velocity For Mac works great for me. Write a note on one and it’s instantly synced with the others. And it’s searchable…

  3. Whoa, if I thought we shared a few things before, this one is dead on! Wow.
    recently, I’ve installed Evernote on every device I can and I’m finding it really helpful in keeping things organized. from saving web pages to share at 6 links to full on speech and book composition, the synching helps a ton! Helps that it feels “gadgety” to me.
    But mostly I agree with your overall concept of writing notes to simply remember. It reminds me of college. Writing out tiny little cheat sheets for tests that I never ended up needing because the act of doing so helped me to remember.

  4. Mitch, you are right on. Note taking is important. Not only to remember things, but also to enable you later to connect seemingly separate trends and info.
    Like you, I use Evernote. Also, Delicious, which I still find more useful thanks to its built in connection to Twitter.
    I also use the Outlook note feature, which I can sync between my BlackBerry, iPad, work and home computers. I can find my notes anywhere, anytime regardless of the device I’m using at the moment.
    Finally, instead of a Moleskin, I always carry a paperclip full of blank pieces of paper (a great way to recycle one sided printing – cut each page into six pieces). This lets me take random notes during conversations – the type of ephemera that I want to remember and use for a few minutes, but that I know would only clutter my more permanent online archive.
    Thanks for a smart, thought provoking post.

  5. Great post Mitch and so true. Seeing a lot written about note taking and list making a,d capture tools…David Allen certainly refers to it in his two books “/et things done” and “making it all work”….another good catch is the catch something that you wake up with as an idea in the night….jot it down to remember in the morning or you most likely. Won’t…cheers

  6. Twenty years ago I was attached at the hip to my Day Timer, but now I’ve recently discovered Moleskines. I’m a office supply / paper junkie and had been using the hard covered composition notebooks – one per client or project – for the last 10 years or so. There is something about actually *writing* that is both creative and productive. No spell checkers, no backspace key, and it forces you to organize your thoughts a bit before putting them on paper. The options in sizes, papers, and covers feeds my inner craft geek while giving me the right format to use for my particular style. The composition books are too large and the lines are not right for me, now I have choices!
    Now Evernote has long been a favorite of mine, and I have a massive collection of notes, notebooks, tags and topics. It’s an archival system for me for content I didn’t create. I haven’t started using it for my own content yet, that’s still old fashioned files and folders on my computer desktop. GoodReader is proving to be an amazing PDF reader, mostly because I’ve not found Evernote is a decent in-line PDF reader.
    I’m still struggling with the fact that all my notes are not in ONE place and both offline and online both in the cloud/harddrive. Maybe it’s better to split it up… I’m not sure yet.

  7. I was a Franklin Planner addict, and have migrated to PocketInformant on my iPad for time management and some random notes. But for those all-of-a-sudden thoughts, on my laptop I’ve been using digital sticky notes (funny, because I used to use actual sticky notes all over the place). When I’m in the car, I like to use the Voice Memos app…it lets you record a quick voice note and email it to yourself.
    I totally agree that you need to capture those moments of inspiration as they happen!

  8. Oh, how I love the Muji brand.
    You hit the nail on the head. The tools are everywhere… the trick is in creating a personal culture of note taking. I believe note taking to be one of the main reasons I am where I am today… even with the complete and utter disorganization of it all.

  9. I’ve been struggling lately with Evernote. I find that it can be buggy and that some of the notes either disappear, or the title is there but I can’t see the content (it just keeps synching or something)… it makes me worried about using it.

  10. I’ve been amazed at how non-intrusive the iPad is for note taking as well. I always felt a little uncomfortable taking notes on a laptop while someone is presenting or while in a meeting, but I feel like the iPad removes that barrier. It’s a true pleasure.

  11. I’ve got them all over the place as well – some are asynchronous in the cloud others on paper and other just in online files somewhere.
    I’m quickly falling in love with the iPad app called, Writer. Check it out… you will fall in love too (promise).
    Lastly, I’m a office supply store geek too… I can’t seem to walk by one without going in.

  12. I do think that it will be hard for me to add any new platforms into the mix that don’t integrate in some form of asynchronous or cloud-based way… seems silly to have stuff everywhere. I feel like a digital text hoarder!

  13. I know people LOVE sticky notes. I’ve never been good with them (both the digital and physical ones). I feel like they don’t have a home and they’re all over the place. I know I’m probably wrong, but habits like note taking are hard to change. I just find them too random and too all over the place.

  14. I’m a big fan of white boards. I use them to jot down thoughts as they come to me and then transfer the notes to a more logical place throughout the week.
    I think there’s huge value in taking notes by hand and not having to type them right away (Could be because I’m reading Dan Roam’s book) … I’m debating getting an iPad though. Is it as easy to take random notes as they come to you on it? I noticed it wasn’t on your list of ways you usually take notes.

  15. Funny enough, I got my iPad yesterday (we have a handful of them floating around the offices but I never took the personal plunge), so the integration has only just begun. From the looks of it, it seems like I will be using it a ton for notes (I’ll keep you posted).
    I was never big on whiteboards as I never liked people trying to decipher what was rolling around in my noggin… privacy and note taking seems to be key for me.

  16. I’ve had the same bugginess with Evernote on the iPhone and started using Simplenote, then went back to Evernote because I wanted to use the more advanced features that Simplenote doesn’t have, but I don’t use them anyway.
    Regardless, for really important must-do items, I still rely on a sticky note on the monitor.

  17. I *always* (and I do mean always) carry a small Sony voice recorder. It’s in my pocket during the day and on my nightstand at night. If I get an idea (from a major business epiphany to an item I need to put on the shopping list), I record it. Then I can dismiss it and go on with what I was doing. No searching for pad or pen, writing things down, trying to decipher my handwriting the next day.
    Then, each morning, as part of my prepping-for-the-coming-day ritual, I listen to and transcribe the notes into the appropriate files on my computer.
    I used to joke that this was my “old lady” way of remembering things, but it saves me lots of time by not having to take written notes (where DID I put that pad???) and relieves me of the stress and effort of trying to remember everything. Many of my younger associates have adopted the method and like it.

  18. I tried recoding audio notes. I couldn’t do it. I never went back to them. Ever. I hardly listen to voice mail messages (not sure why and not sure where the mental block is). That being said, I’ve always admired those that do.

  19. Love this post. Any type of creativity involves a constant stream of scribbled notes. Tried Evernote and the rest, but wanted something simple, lightweight and that works across every possible platform and device. So, I created a gmail account just for notes and sync it. I put a synopsis of the idea in the subject line and write away like I would any email. Then save it as a draft. That’s it! I can then scan the subject headers and quickly identify the note, and delete/weed as I complete a project trying to keep it under 100 notes

  20. I use audio notes just when I feel I really can’t waste time writing or typing, something quick and dirt, an idea, a thought, anything. Happens sometimes, I record on my iPhone and that’s about it.
    Other than that, evernote all the way 😉

  21. I must admit that I have never used live writer for anything but blogging, but other than that I recognise perfectly what you’re saying. I used Microsoft’s OneNote for awhile and it’s a great hidden gem in the office suite, but I switched everything to Evernote now because it offers such a multiple options on note gathering, I plugs in to firefox, it has a native windows application with advanced functions, you can email your notes, dm, or @ them from twitter as well as ofcourse send it from your phone app. i also still use the notepad on my nokia for some notes, these are more short memos of instant stuff that dont need to be kept for later – I also recently rediscovered remember the milk which can be integrated to various calendars. Oh and keyword notes and brainstoriming are still done with pen and paper at least sometimes.
    i think the point still is it dosent matter where or on what you jot down your notes as long as you do.. its what you do with them aftwrerwards that counts.

  22. afterall note taking and the purest form of Blogging (web loging) is siblings as both is about writing down thoughts and ideas in short free flow form as they pop to mind.

  23. I find myself struggling to take notes in a linear fashion. Because of this notebooks would fill with pictures and graphs, sometimes even flow charts of ideas. When I moved my note taking to the iDevices (yes iPad, iPhone, but also blackberry) I struggled at first with linear note tools until I discovered ithoughtsHD and a few other apps like it. I recently purchased bento and look forward to seeing what that can do for me.
    The kindle and other ereaders have been great as well since they have trained me out of my fear of marking up books as I read them.

  24. Does anyone else have the same issue with Evernote as I have? I sometimes click on a note (and I can see the content in the preview), but the body text never comes in… it just spins and spins. It makes me question its ability to hold my content.

  25. Because I tend to be a text/word type of person, I’m fine with that. If I had to draw diagrams around my ideas in meetings, nothing would ever get done. I have such a high level of respect for people who have notepads that are filled with doodles and visual goodies… I wish that was me/I wish I could do that!

  26. Some people use drawings, etc. to help take notes. Some people swear by using full fledged mind maps as a means of taking notes. You can do a quick and dirty one in less than two minutes for something simple. There’s an eBook out there called ToDoodList that talks about something called Glyphies, where are simple, personalized symbols that you can use for mind mapping.
    I’m a compulsive note taker and I’m semi-organized about it. However, where I need to improve is actually reading and thinking about the notes later on…

  27. Hey Mitch,
    I was absolutely in love with Evernote, and I thought it was just me re: bugs etc.
    Now I’m using http://linoit.com, it is great for including websites, pictures, and online video with your notes and also allows you to collaborate with a group of people.
    Only draw back is that there is no iphone app for it yet.

  28. Somehow comforted by the knowledge that you are also an office supply geek. I used Levenger Circa for note taking -love how the pages work and can be moved around.

  29. Moleskine(s) – check
    Android Phone – check
    text editor(s) – check
    Ecto (Mac) – check
    Random scraps of paper – check
    emails to myself – check
    voice mails to myself – check
    Then, I don’t spend too much time worrying about organizing. The good ones alway seem to float to the top somehow. I agree that the key is to capture as much of your thinking as you can. There are always quiet moments you can circle back and sort through the captured thoughts. On the other hand, try having creative thoughts in a quiet moment… doesn’t’ work – at least not for me. I think one of my best ideas of the last couple years occurred in a Wal-Mart parking lot this past Saturday. It’s captured as a text document on my Android phone. Good as the idea is, had i not captured it I’m pretty sure it would have been lost by the time I got home from picking up the RedBox movie.

  30. Mitch,
    Great post. The most-creative thinkers in history have been note takers: da Vinci, Darwin, Edison, Einstein, et al. We’re blessed today to have as many ways to capture ideas as we do that go beyond notebooks. Thanks for pointing out all the options. I use a Moleskine and simple iPhone audio recorder.
    Taking notes is not only a good way to reinforce learning and draw out new ideas for yourself; you can also use your notes from a seminar to meet other people. Your blog post inspired me to expand on that idea in an article of my own ….
    I hope you don’t mind my linking to it – http://kdonlinblogs.blogspot.com/2010/10/hidden-payback-for-taking-notes-worth.html

  31. Thoughtful stuff, as always.
    I find that the act of taking notes is more important than having the notes in the first place. Perhaps this is a function of my poor handwriting, and I do recall to sheepishly lending my history class notes to a college classmate, knowing he would not be able to read them.
    Why? Because actually taking notes means I am paying attention, and I am then able to separate out the most salient points.
    Online, I use Evernote, with very few problems. Also, of course online notes (when spell-checked) are searchable, which adds reference to the utility for me. I suppose, though, this opens another topic- the acceptability of laptops and tablets at meetings, even for note-taking. It is an etiquette question, but I am frankly surprised that some companies still frown on taking devices to meetings when they are so useful.

  32. It kills me when I have an idea and I don’t write it down thinking that I’ll remember it and – of course – I don’t. I basically had a breakdown at one moment in time where I simply said, “never again.” So, since that moment, I try to capture everything.

  33. I’m a big fan of Simplenote (the service, as well as the iOS app) and Notational Velocity as the Mac-based client. The Simplenote service is the perfect bridge between individual notes on an iPhone/iPad and individual text files on a Mac which runs NV. I use the setting in NV which saves each note as an individual text file (vs. a monolithic database) so that I can use either a text editor or NV itself to edit any given note. Notes within a folder are easily searchable via Spotlight or within NV, and I have this particular folder sync’ed across multiple Macs via Dropbox so that I have multiple computers, iPhone, and iPad all in sync. The Simplenote iOS app also integrates with TextExpander, which allows for even greater efficiency when typing.
    It’s a beautiful, clean, and simple way to make quick notes at anytime and have everything synced through two different cloud services. I’ve cataloged my favorite apps and services in one of my blog posts here: http://blog.manifestyourreality.com/2010/08/03/essential-apps-and-services/

  34. i haven’t had any issues with the latest desktop version, if you’re talking about the iphone app I would not know, you can email your notes though if you think the app are the issue, I sound like a chill for the brand, it’s just that i think they got the best note solution at the moment, except for as mentioned by someone else further up in the comments; muji note & sketch pads/books and a good parker pen.

  35. Taking notes is critical to showing customers you are listening and care about what they say. I find the fewer systems to take notes the better. Use 1 system 80% of the time and stick to it. Right now handwrite notes, then PDF them for reference and followup. Found that PC note taking put a wall up between myself and the customer. Moving to iPad this week.

  36. Let me know how the transition goes.
    I remember Herb Cohen (the author of You Can Negotiate Anything) used to joke that he always takes notes of what others have said, because no one has ever documented the stupid things that come out of most people mouths. That one always makes me laugh.

  37. I went back and forth between Microsoft OneNote and Evernote. I blogged about it. I vlogged about it. I screencasted some vlogs.
    In the end, I went back to OneNote. I am fanatical about taking notes in OneNote.
    My only problem is that I am dragging my laptop around to meetings all the time.
    I believe the solution is an iPad with a Stylus. Really. I tried out a stylus on my iPhone and it worked just fine, but it’s an iPhone –> too small.
    By the end of the year I definitely see myself with an iPad in all my meetings and using MobileNoter and OneNote.
    I’ve got no affiliation to those 2 products … really … I’ve just been a dedicated user for a while now and it definitely works for me.

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