Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve taken notes. Some of my earliest school memories involve scribbling with a blue BIC pen on a cheap stapled notebook, struggling to capture what the teacher was saying. What for? So I could remember later. One would never know what would come up in a test, so better take it all down!
In retrospect, it was a bit stressful. That said, I’ve always enjoyed putting marks on paper, almost regardless of what for. And I’m not alone. Recently, I asked on Twitter why people took notes. Most responses fit within one of three categories:
- To remember things later
- To think about stuff now
- To pay better attention
My younger self would recognize the first of these. The other two are subtler. Let’s consider them in more detail.
To remember things later
I expect this is the main reason why we think we take notes: to recall ideas later. Jessi Shakarian wrote:
I take notes digitally and physically, otherwise I will forget it. I have the attention span of a goldfish.— Jessi Shakarian 🐈⬛ (she/her) (@JessiShakarian) February 11, 2022
Moments are fleeting. If something important is said or done, we might forget it, so we record it for later use. For example, we may want to follow up on a colleague’s commitment to do something by a specific date. This often happens in meetings.
I don’t think it’s worth belaboring this reason. But note I said it may be the main reason we think we take notes. The other reasons are less obvious, but I think we often use “remember it later” as a subterfuge for the other two.
To think about stuff now
A subtler reason for putting pen to paper is that doing so helps us think about things. This isn’t necessarily about writing for recall. Instead, it’s about creating a feedback loop between our minds and the piece of paper (or the screen) that helps refine our thoughts.
Making ideas tangible changes how we think about them. We organize and reorganize thoughts when we see them in the world. By making stuff we can see, we liberate our thinking from the vague, abstract miasma of our minds. Fran Kearns expressed the idea succinctly:
To synthesize, organize and retain what I've learned.— Fran_Kearns (@gracewithhumor) February 11, 2022
To pay better attention
This reason surprised me, but it shouldn’t, since I do it too. The act of scribbling — not just for taking notes, but for its own sake — may help us focus. Bastiaan van Rooden put it memorably:
To slow down the monkey in my head.— Bastiaan van Rooden (@CaptSpot) February 11, 2022
When recording interviews for The Informed Life podcast, I take notes using pen and paper. I’ve tried to use the computer but get caught up in the words I’m typing rather than what the guest is saying.
Keeping my hand moving on the paper helps me pay better attention. I seldom look back at these notes. (And often apologize to the guest for not looking at them while they’re talking.) But I’ve found the act of putting down lines on paper helps me focus.
Of course, these three reasons aren’t mutually exclusive. Besides helping me focus, taking down what the guest says allows me to ask better questions since I can refer back to what we discussed earlier. But I find there’s often a dominant reason.
Some situations call for one means of note-taking over the others. I switch between taking notes by hand when I want to focus, using a text editor (Obsidian) when I want to remember, and a mapping tool (Tinderbox) when I want to organize my thoughts.
What about you? Why do you take notes? What has worked well for you? Please let me know by replying to the Twitter thread.