How I Take Notes

Earlier this year, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. In this post, I’ll explain how I take notes.

First, a caveat: my personal information ecosystem is always evolving. If you’re reading this over a year since I published it, and you don’t see any timestamped updates, this information is likely outdated. That said, I’ll share where things stand now.

I have a terrible memory. For example, I can never remember people’s names when we’re introduced at parties. When listening to a presentation, ideas catch my attention and then slip by. At the end, I can describe what the talk was about, but details elude me.

Unless I write them down. Which I do. Always. I’m one of those obnoxious people who’s always scribbling in a notebook.

Was my memory bad to begin with or did it get bad because I rely on notebooks? I don’t know, but the fact remains: a key part of my ‘thinking’ apparatus resides outside me in various note-taking technologies.

I describe it like that because I don’t have a single notebook. Instead, I keep notes in several places — both digital and physical.

Let’s start with the latter. My primary notebook is a Leuchtturm1917 A5 dotted hardcover book. I’ve tried many alternatives over the years (including Moleskines and Rhodias), but I keep coming back to Leuchtturm for its quality and features. (E.g., double bookmarks!)

I go through a 250-page book about every month. Whenever I finish a book, I note its beginning and end dates on the spine using a metallic Sharpie. I ensure everything is scanned (more on this below) and then shelve it.

What goes into these notebooks? Anything and everything: meeting minutes, reading notes, details I need to remember, etc. For many years I exclusively wrote using black gel pens or fountain pens. Recently, I’ve started using wooden pencils.

When taking notes on paper, I prioritize speed over structure. One of paper’s advantages is its immediacy: there’s no phone to unlock, no app to launch, no keyboard to fumble with. With a paper book, I just open the thing and write.

As a result, I don’t impose much structure upfront. In fact, I only have one structural constraint: each note starts with a title in the upper-left corner of the page and the date (in ISO 8601 format) in the upper-right.

I’ve trained myself to automatically note the title and date of the note whether I’m writing in the Leuchtturm, a pocket notebook, a loose leaf of paper, or whatever. This allows me to quickly organize notes later when I scan them.

Because yes, all my notes end up digital. Ultimately, my main work happens in computers, so I consider digital notes canonical. My paper notebooks are more like inboxes or scratchpads — places for thinking/remembering in the moment.

I keep digital notes in Microsoft’s OneNote. I’ve written about my OneNote setup here and here. I’ve tried many other note-taking apps over the years, but a few things keep me in OneNote:

  • It’s available on all my devices (Mac, iPad, iPhone, even Apple Watch, although I don’t use it there)
  • As an established product from a large, trustworthy company, OneNote is unlikely to disappear or be acquired overnight
  • Each note has a URL, so I can link to it from other tools in my ecosystem (e.g., OmniFocus, DEVONthink)
  • The Microsoft Lens app on iPhone allows me to scan paper notes directly into OneNote
  • After scanning, OneNote OCRs my handwritten notes, so I can search them
  • Since OneNote stores data on the cloud, I can search through my notes even in notebooks that aren’t open on my device
  • I can also take digital handwritten notes directly into OneNote using the Apple Pencil on the iPad Pro

OneNote isn’t perfect. For one thing, exporting notes is limited. (You can only save one note at a time as a PDF, and the layout of the PDFs is often quirky.) This is a big issue for me, since I don’t like being locked into one vendor.

Also, capturing handwritten notes with the Apple Pencil could be faster. I don’t mean latency, which is good — I mean fumbling with OneNote’s user interface, which often gets in the way. (I preferred the radial menu in the Windows 8 OneNote app.)

In contrast to paper notebooks, I structure OneNote. I keep one notebook per project or area of focus. (I cribbed this idea from Tiago Forte. Distinction: projects have end dates; areas are ongoing.) I color-code notebooks: Blue = projects, orange = areas, yellow = scratchpads, etc.

Each notebook has at least two tabs: Notes (for reflections, research, etc.) and Meetings (for interactions with others.) Tabs are also color-coded: Notes = blue, Meetings = green.

Each note’s name starts with the date in ISO 8601 format, followed by a short title. I’ve used these patterns (naming conventions, color codes, etc.) for years. Consistency allows me to quickly find things when switching notebooks, even to old ones.

All my notes go into a notebook called Inbox. Once per week, I sort notes into sections within notebooks. I also create new sections or notebooks as needed or archive notebooks for completed projects.

There’s nothing magical about OneNote. If I were starting today, I’d consider other apps. (I especially like GoodNotes, which automatically backs up notebooks as separate PDFs.) But after many years of using OneNote, I face severe switching costs.

As with so many things in life, optimizing for consistency yields dividends in the long term. OneNote satisfices my needs — it’s not perfect, and I don’t like feeling locked in. But overall, I’m happy with my note-taking setup.

That said, over the last few years I’ve reconsidered what goes into my notebooks. I used to capture bookmarks and other reference material in OneNote, but I’ve migrated much of that functionality to DEVONthink. That will be the focus of a future post.

For now, I’d love to hear how you’re capturing notes and (especially) dealing with the digital/physical divide in note-taking. Please reach out via Twitter to let me know how you take notes.