The Art of Note Taking in the Digital Age

By | November 10, 2008

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!

Learning how to get in shape and set goals is important if you’re looking to live a healthier lifestyle and get closer to your goal weight. While this does require changes to your daily routine, you’ll find that you are able to look and feel better in only two weeks.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to get in shape. Although anyone can cover the basics (eat right and exercise), there are some things that I could only learn through trial and error. Let’s cover some of the most important points for how to get in shape in two weeks.

1. Exercise Daily

It is far easier to make exercise a habit if it is a daily one. If you aren’t exercising at all, I recommend starting by exercising a half hour every day. When you only exercise a couple times per week, it is much easier to turn one day off into three days off, a week off, or a month off.

If you are already used to exercising, switching to three or four times a week to fit your schedule may be preferable, but it is a lot harder to maintain a workout program you don’t do every day.

Be careful to not repeat the same exercise routine each day. If you do an intense ab workout one day, try switching it up to general cardio the next. You can also squeeze in a day of light walking to break up the intensity.

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If you’re a morning person, check out these morning exercises that will start your day off right.

2. Duration Doesn’t Substitute for Intensity

Once you get into the habit of regular exercise, where do you go if you still aren’t reaching your goals? Most people will solve the problem by exercising for longer periods of time, turning forty-minute workouts into two hour stretches. Not only does this drain your time, but it doesn’t work particularly well.

One study shows that “exercising for a whole hour instead of a half does not provide any additional loss in either body weight or fat”[1].

This is great news for both your schedule and your levels of motivation. You’ll likely find it much easier to exercise for 30 minutes a day instead of an hour. In those 30 minutes, do your best to up the intensity to your appropriate edge to get the most out of the time.

3. Acknowledge Your Limits

Many people get frustrated when they plateau in their weight loss or muscle gaining goals as they’re learning how to get in shape. Everyone has an equilibrium and genetic set point where their body wants to remain. This doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your fitness goals, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you are struggling to lose weight or put on muscle.

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Acknowledging a set point doesn’t mean giving up, but it does mean realizing the obstacles you face.

Expect to hit a plateau in your own fitness results[2]. When you expect a plateau, you can manage around it so you can continue your progress at a more realistic rate. When expectations meet reality, you can avoid dietary crashes.

4. Eat Healthy, Not Just Food That Looks Healthy

Know what you eat. Don’t fuss over minutia like whether you’re getting enough Omega 3’s or tryptophan, but be aware of the big things. Look at the foods you eat regularly and figure out whether they are healthy or not. Don’t get fooled by the deceptively healthy snacks just pretending to be good for you.

The basic nutritional advice includes:

  • Eat unprocessed foods
  • Eat more veggies
  • Use meat as a side dish, not a main course
  • Eat whole grains, not refined grains[3]
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Eat whole grains when you want to learn how to get in shape.

5. Watch Out for Travel

Don’t let a four-day holiday interfere with your attempts when you’re learning how to get in shape. I don’t mean that you need to follow your diet and exercise plan without any excursion, but when you are in the first few weeks, still forming habits, be careful that a week long break doesn’t terminate your progress.

This is also true of schedule changes that leave you suddenly busy or make it difficult to exercise. Have a backup plan so you can be consistent, at least for the first month when you are forming habits.

If travel is on your schedule and can’t be avoided, make an exercise plan before you go[4], and make sure to pack exercise clothes and an exercise mat as motivation to keep you on track.

6. Start Slow

Ever start an exercise plan by running ten miles and then puking your guts out? Maybe you aren’t that extreme, but burnout is common early on when learning how to get in shape. You have a lifetime to be healthy, so don’t try to go from couch potato to athletic superstar in a week.

If you are starting a running regime, for example, run less than you can to start. Starting strength training? Work with less weight than you could theoretically lift. Increasing intensity and pushing yourself can come later when your body becomes comfortable with regular exercise.

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7. Be Careful When Choosing a Workout Partner

Should you have a workout partner? That depends. Workout partners can help you stay motivated and make exercising more fun. But they can also stop you from reaching your goals.

My suggestion would be to have a workout partner, but when you start to plateau (either in physical ability, weight loss/gain, or overall health) and you haven’t reached your goals, consider mixing things up a bit.

If you plateau, you may need to make changes to continue improving. In this case it’s important to talk to your workout partner about the changes you want to make, and if they don’t seem motivated to continue, offer a thirty day break where you both try different activities.

I notice that guys working out together tend to match strength after a brief adjustment phase. Even if both are trying to improve, something seems to stall improvement once they reach a certain point. I found that I was able to lift as much as 30-50% more after taking a short break from my regular workout partner.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to get in shape in as little as two weeks sounds daunting, but if you’re motivated and have the time and energy to devote to it, it’s certainly possible.

Find an exercise routine that works for you, eat healthy, drink lots of water, and watch as the transformation begins.

More Tips on Getting in Shape

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