Taking Notes can Change Your Life

One of the most useful changes I’ve recently made in my life is better note taking. Unlike so many other things that will change my life, this one really has.

Reasons to take notes

I see many benefits to writing.

  1. It helps me remember. Writing forces your brain to slow down, and think about what you’re writing. It’s reinforcing the information.
  2. It find gaps in your understanding. When you have to translate into words what you think you understand, you often find you’re missing some detail, something doesn’t make sense when you put it in word, or it spawns additional questions in your mind. Now go find those answers, write those down, and you’ve helped yourself learn.
  3. It saves time. Writing takes time, but how many times have you wanted to do something you know you’ve done several times before, but don’t remember how? What was that linux command, or tha code snippet. If you have this in your notes, with keywords that can help you find it in a search, you can save a lot of time.
  4. It saves time, take 2. Sometimes when I’m searching for how I solved this problem before, I find that I didn’t really solve this specific problem, but something similar. Maybe that’s helpful, maybe it’s not, but I’m not getting frustrated because I’m annoyed I don’t remember how to do something I never knew.
  5. It helps me look smart. Often, a topic being discussed is fairly recent, and you can quickly find it in your recent notes. When you’re in a meeting, and someone states the issue slightly incorrectly, you can go to your notes and restate it accurately, and be confident you’re correct. My mind is good at recalling the gist of a problem, but it’s the particulars that make me look smart.
  6. It documents your accomplishments and guides your work. Do you ever feel like you don’t get much done? Look at your notes and see what you accomplished; you did get things done. Maybe they weren’t what you should have focused on, so now you can redirect your efforts.
  7. It’s nostalgic. It’s fun to look through your old notes and see what you were working on years ago.

What type of notes to take

This is going to be particular to each person, but I’ll tell you what notes I take.

  1. Meeting notes. Any meeting I’m in I keep track of what was discussed, who attended, and any actions that come out of it. I’ll talk about tasks later. Here I’m just capturing what’s important for later use. The level of detail will depend on the meeting and what will benefit me. I’m not taking notes to send a recap to everyone; I’m taking notes for my benefit, and I tailor them to that end.
  2. Any phone discussion, who I talked to, what we discussed, and again, any actions from that call. If it’s a call from a salesman I’m not interested in, I don’t write this down as it’s not going to be helpful to me, unless I want to keep track of how often I get called by them.
  3. Technical notes. If I’m solving a technical problem, I keep notes of the problem, what I tried that didn’t work, and what I tried that did. Again, I don’t document every little detail, just what I think will be of value to me later.
  4. Links to websites that’ve helped me.
  5. Notes from emails I want to save. I’d rather have one place to search for information (my notes) than my notes, files, emails, etc.

Task management

I used to keep track of tasks in my notes, and to some extent, I still do. I document tasks as they come up because it’s easy to add them to my notes. If I can complete that task that day, I check it as complete, and I’m done. But if it’s going to take longer, I add it to my task manager, so I can keep track of it.

When I complete a task in my TM, it disappears, but I often want to know when I completed a task, and what the results were. In that case, I document the completion of that task in my notes, on the day I completed it, with any additional info I think might be relevant.

What tools do I use

Pen and paper is the simplest approach, and it’s very portable, but it’s difficult to search. My notes are electronic, and I take almost all of them on my laptop, although I sometimes use my phone or tablet.

Because I work on Linux, Windows and Android systems, I wanted a note taking method that was cross-platform. This ruled out Evernote and Onenote, that don’t work on Linux. You could use a web-based interface, but that means you can only take notes when you have an Internet connection, and being able to work off-line is important to me.

I also didn’t want my notes shared with some commercial provider, which might use that data for their own ends. It’s not that there’s anything real interesting or incriminating, but privacy is important to me because it’s important to a freer society. Also, some of my thoughts, captured in my notes, could be embarrassing or offensive to some. I don’t want to filter myself in my notes; they’re my notes.

I decided to use a text-based format, that has no dependency on any application. To give me some ability to format it with headings, lists, and tasks, I chose the open markdown format; you can read more about Markdown at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markdown. There are different flavors of Markdown; I chose the “github” flavor so I could create tasks.

As I mentioned, markdown is text based. You can use a markdown-capable program to view it formatted, but I seldom do this; I just read and edit the text. You could develop your own nomenclature, but why not use a standard, and have the option to export it as HTML, and send it to others?

On Ubuntu, I use the Atom editor (https://atom.io/). On Windows I used Markdown Pad (http://markdownpad.com/). I recommend both, but now that I work primarily on Ubuntu, I don’t use Markdown anymore.

Organizing my notes

I create a separate journal file for each month, titled something like Journal_2016Nov.md. I keep them all in a journal directory, so I can do a text search in that directory to find notes from months or years ago.

Heading 1 is always the date. All notes within a date will be Heading 2s or lower, or lists.

I keep all my notes in one journal, both personal and professional. I used to keep them in separate files, but putting the note in the right file was an unnecessary hassle. These notes are for me, and only me, so I don’t need to worry about keeping them separate.

I’ve discussed how I handle actions. I’ll document them in my notes, but if I don’t get them done the same day, I transfer them to my task manager. When I complete a task, I do make a note of that.

Show me an example

# 18 Nov 2016
## Wifi problem on macbook
- [x] Find out why my network connectivity is poor on some routers
* From https://sites.google.com/site/easylinuxtipsproject/internet#TOC-Broadcom:-install-the-right-driver, following "bad wireless connection" suggestion.

### Disabled powersave features on wirelss card
* sudo vi /etc/NetworkManager/conf.d/default-wifi-powersave-on.conf
 * Changed wifi.powersave value from 3 to 2.
* Seemed to work after reboot, but wireless is always okay initially. Went back to normal, bad performance after a few minutes.

### Disabled IPv6
* Opened up network settings, chose current connection settings, and turned off IPv6 support.
* Disconnected, reconnected to wireless network.
* Seems to work. Speed test on speedtest.net is much faster, and doesn't seem to drop out. I think this fixed the problem.

If you view this as HTML, or in your mardown-capable viewer, it’ll look like:


18 Nov 2016

Wifi problem on macbook

Disabled powersave features on wirelss card

  • sudo vi /etc/NetworkManager/conf.d/default-wifi-powersave-on.conf
    • Changed wifi.powersave value from 3 to 2.
  • Seemed to work after reboot, but wireless is always okay initially. Went back to normal, bad performance after a few minutes.

Disabled IPv6

  • Opened up network settings, chose current connection settings, and turned off IPv6 support.
  • Disconnected, reconnected to wireless network.
  • Seems to work. Speed test on speedtest.net is much faster, and doesn’t seem to drop out. I think this fixed the problem.

Syncing

The last step I wanted was to have my notes available on all my devices. I never know where I”ll be when I want to look something up, or take a new note. I needed a syncing solution that would work on Linux (Ubuntu), Android and Windows. As I mentioned before, privacy is important to me, so I also wanted a service that kept my data private, not just from 3rd parties, but also from the syncing provider.

I’ve selected Tresorit (https://tresorit.com/). This syncing service is a little more expensive than many, but:

  1. It works seamlessly on Ubuntu, Windows, MacOS and Android.
  2. I can keep local copies of the files I want accessible on my mobile devices, so I can get to them when I don’t have Internet access.
  3. Provides a cloud backup of all of the data I want to save, not just my journals. I created a directory in my home directory that I backup to the cloud. Any data I want to sync or backup, I save in that directory.
  4. Uses a “Trust no one” approach (term coined by Steve Gibson of https://www.grc.com/intro.htm); the provider doesn’t have the keys to your data and cannot see your data; it’s completely private. Of course, if you lose your login information, there goes you access to your backed-up data.

Summary

I’ve summarized the value of taking notes, what I capture in my notes, and the tools I use to do this. I can honestly say that this has helped me significantly in my professional and personal life. Need to remember what we agreed to do in that meeting 2 weeks ago? I have it. Need to find someone’s size or preferences for a gift? I bought them something like this a couple years ago, let me go find my notes. It’s there; done.

The keys are:

  1. Taking good, useful notes. Error on the side of taking too many notes, not too few.
  2. Using good keywords to help you search your notes. Ask what you would search for if you wanted to find this a year from now.
  3. Making them accessible to you wherever you are, so you can always benefit from them.

If you’ve found notes to be useful, and you have an interesting twist on how you use them, I’d love to hear about it.

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