This page is intended to collect various methods of taking notes. This page is not complete yet, and probably never will be unless I have an AI assistant that can manage my notes exactly like I would.
Computer-based Note Taking Systems
Computers (and mobile devices) are excellent at storing huge amounts of data and filtering it. This makes them the prime candidate for keeping our notes and knowledge-bases in. They can store all of the details, so we don’t slow down trying to remember it all. But just being able to store the information doesn’t mean it can represent it in a way that is useful to you, or resembles your inner thought process. This is why there is a seemingly neverending supply of note-taking methods and programs, each of them doing things differently.
Personal Wikis are really good for organizing your various notes into notebooks. Depending on the kind of wiki used (web application / desktop application), it can be accessible from any device and location you might need it.
Zim is a personal wiki that runs as a desktop application instead of a web app. Although it presents a rich text editor on the User Interface, all your pages are actually stored as plain-text files with wiki formatting.
It has support for pages, images, links, sub-pages and multiple notebooks in order to help you organize anything.
Dokuwiki is an online wiki application written in PHP. You can set it up on your personal server and use it to keep your notes with you wherever you are. You can create users and collaborate on your notes with other people.
Another advantage of Dokuwiki is the fact that it can keep the plaintext wiki pages in a directory, allowing you to sync it with your desktop and use it with the “folder of text files” approach.
Folder of Markdown / Text files
A really simplistic option is just having a folder with plaintext files in it. It is possible, although not necessary, to improve this system with scripts that search your notes or create new ones.
If you’re using this approach, using an editor with Fuzzy File Search will be very useful.
While not strictly for long, descriptive notes; todo.txt is an amazing way of managing your Todo list. It stores all the data in a plaintext file that can be synchronized across devices easily.
One advantage of having a todo-list system with a simple plaintext structure is the ease of implementation. And todo.txt comes through with this promise. It is possible to find a client for almost any device/operating system. And if you can’t, it’s just a plaintext file.
- Todo.txt website - Has a list of programs for various platforms
- Simpletask - An Android app that I’m using for todo.txt
- todotxt.el - Todotxt client for Emacs
Of course, no page about note-taking systems would be complete without Org Mode. There is so much information on the internet about org-mode. It is a versatile tool that can be bent into any workflow.
- Org mode website - The home page of the project
- Org manual - The (long) manual
- Worg - Org mode documentation written by the community
Physical Note Taking Systems
Pen and Paper Note Taking
Regardless of your stance on taking notes on electronic devices, the good old pen and paper approach is still really useful. Even if I’m going to throw it in the trash after a few hours, drawing an outline of my ideas on a piece of paper always helps me think. I believe that having an empty piece of paper that you can freely write/draw on is a very effective way of keeping your flow of ideas going.
Autofocus is the system I use daily to manage my tasks. It lets me grab a task quickly when I have some spare time. Instead of managing task priorities, it allows you to work on whatever stands out to you in your list when you are looking for something to do.
You can find a guideline on this method here: Autofocus System.
- Read quickly through all the items on the page without taking action on any of them.
- Go through the page more slowly looking at the items in order until one stands out for you.
- Work on that item for as long as you feel like doing so
- Cross the item off the list, and re-enter it at the end of the list if you haven’t finished it
- Continue going round the same page in the same way. Don’t move onto the next page until you complete a pass of the page without any item standing out
- Move onto the next page and repeat the process
- If you go to a page and no item stands out for you on your first pass through it, then all the outstanding items on that page are dismissed without re-entering them. (N.B. This does not apply to the final page, on which you are still writing items). Use a highlighter to mark dismissed items.
- Once you’ve finished with the final page, re-start at the first page that is still active.
This is a system that I came up with on my own, but I’m sure other people have tried it before. Basically for each thing that you need to do, you have a small card (an A5 paper - or A4 cut in half) that represents that task. Each card has some fields, mainly;
- Task name - A short name describing the task
- Task context - The context in which the task takes place (school assignment, work, etc.)
- Description - A description describing the final goal of the task (finish the Haskell assignment)
After this, the rest of the card will have subtasks. You can use these to divide the task into smaller pieces, or add more steps to the task if you need to do so. Any empty space on the front and the back of the card can then be used for notes related to the task.
The good thing about this system is, it is very flexible.
- You can get paperclips and order the tasks based on priority.
- You can create multiple stacks and have tasks for different categories.
- You can stick the tasks on your pinboard/wall and take them down based on completion.
- You can have cards of different color for priority/category.
If you want a more elegant approach to this than half A4 papers, you can try getting “Index Cards” from Tesco. They are cheap and they do the job nicely.