24 January 2019

My Learning - Part 5 - Note-taking


Taking notes have three purposes for me (in order of value):
  1. When I take notes I have to process the new information to find what's relevant and where it fits. This means I repeatedly "make it mine" which helps it stick.
  2. Since I'm deeply focused (processing information and writing it down) I'm much more resistant to distractions than I would otherwise be.
  3. My memory sucks so when I want to recall something, having it written down is crucial.
So the fact I usually takes notes but rarely go back to them later might seem odd but I hope purpose 1 and 2 above can explain this somewhat.

Pen and paper

I prefer pen and paper over a laptop or tablet. There are a few reasons why:
  • Pen and paper don't depend on a battery
  • I look, and sometimes feel, disengaged when I have a device in front of me
  • There are distractions on a device (notifications, other apps, interface elements etc.)
  • I find it much easier to create visualizations quickly on paper
  • I type faster on a laptop which tends to make my notes more verbose (bad)
  • On the other hand I find it much harder to quickly switch color, add layout elements etc. on a tablet or laptop which makes my notes more bland and boring when digital.
  • On paper I find it much easier to adjust my note taking style to e.g. support a very specific flow.
Some of this will obviously change if I practice but to be fair, I have tried numerous different applications and input methods and so far the only two features I miss with paper is filtering using labels/tags and being able to easily share my notes with others... and I can live without both.

Finally I should add that I do have plenty of notes in Google Keep but they generally serve a different purpose. These notes can for instance be ideas I come up with on the go and just picking up my phone is quicker. When I add a note to Google Keep however, I'm aware that it will be virtually impossible to find that note a month later so if I want to do anything with it I need to act quick (more like a journal).

Brands and stuff

Since I'm sure someone will ask:
  • I use Stabilo point 88.
    Another pen I like, which my wife uses a lot, is Pilot Frixion Clicker 05. I don't like the look of my notes as much with those pens but having the option to erase is helpful.
  • Which notebook I use varies but there are some criteria that must be fulfilled
    • I aim for 110g/m2 or thicker paper otherwise the ink bleeds through.
    • The pages must be blank (no lines or other annoying stuff).
    • Size should be standard A4.
    • Each page must be fully accessible to write on and stay open.
      So not like "a book" since the pages tend to flip over on their own and part of the paper is off limits due to the binding.

Above is what I currently use


I keep 3 different notebooks:
  1. Work
  2. General
  3. Focused learning
"Work" refers to anything related specifically to the company I work for. Currently I actually keep two different work notebooks: One for my coaching role and one for my software testing role.

"General" is the notebook I use for basically anything that doesn't fit the other two categories so my own plans, personal notes, notes from conferences or courses and notes from when I reflect.

"Focused learning" is a fairly new concept. I use this only in my focused mode and when I can control the source. So for instance a book or podcast since I can control the pace, the order, take pauses etc. which I can't during e.g. a live event. The idea is to create a notebook great enough to make me actually revisit it and thus I'm extremely picky with what I add to it.

On that topic: I always plan to store important pages and trash the rest but instead I usually save notebooks as they are and since my notes aren't ordered in any way it's time consuming to find specific things which is one reason why I rarely go back to old notes. It'll be interesting to see if my new Focused learning notebook will fare any different.


My style is inspired by mind maps but I've diverged quite a lot for various reasons, the main one being that mind maps depend on me dedicating the right amount of space for everything and I find this hard to manage on paper. My notes are instead more like separated sections with enough white space in between so I can add arrows, make small additional notes later etc. Since it will get messy, no matter how careful I am, I try to be selective with what I note down.

I generally start with a title; usually placed at the center of the page or at the top. To help me quickly find this title when I later browse through the notebook, I have a specific color, cyan, I only use for the title and some layout elements meant to separate e.g. two distinct sections (e.g. notes from two different meetings on the same page).

After that it differs but I've started using the following color scheme more and more when I take notes for learning purposes:
  • Green: Information
  • Red: An exercise or experiment I can try
  • Black: Something I should do/act on ("action point")
  • Orange: Used to highlight specifically important things in my notes
One problem with this is most of my pages are now just green. Due to that I'm experimenting with using at least two different shades of green so I can get some separation without making the notes messy.

When in situations where basically everything is "information" and it's more important to separate one topic from another (e.g. different projects at work) I use the different colors to create this separation instead. I still keep black and cyan though for actions and title. This means my work notes are often more colorful but look more messy.

White space is also something I try to use to help create a more clear structure to a page. In all the examples at the end of this post I think you can see how I use white space to separate the different parts from each other.

How much I visualize varies greatly depending on my mood, the topic, the content I learn from and probably lunar phase, solar activity and all sorts of crazy stuff. But no matter what, my notes use to be filled with small, helpful images/visualizations but for whatever reason this has changed a bit the last few years (which I don't like).

Finally, I often misplace individual pens or do other things that force me to alter my style but at least the above is what I do when I'm well prepared.


I use to take notes with the intent to accurately retell everything from the resource. Over time I've changed this though and now I aim to only note down what I think is - useful for me - right now. This means I can finish a book and only have one small statement written down but still be perfectly content with the book because that one thing was extremely valuable.

I even have a thought process that starts when I observe myself take more notes than usual:
  • Is this so amazing that taking all these notes is actually the right decision?
  • ... or is it because the content is bad (I don't care to process it, I just write things down)?
    If yes: Stop reading, turn if off or leave, whatever is applicable... if socially acceptable.
  • Otherwise I assume it's because I'm just not in the right mood. Can I get my shit together? If not I should probably take a break (if possible) or at least stop taking notes since I'm basically just wasting paper.

Things I typically note down

  • Visualizations
  • Short models and key ideas/concepts
  • Topics I want to investigate
  • Quotes (both firsthand and secondhand)
  • Bullet lists
  • Metaphors
  • Comparisons between two or more things
  • Actions or ideas for experiments
  • Names of people I want to learn more from
  • Recommended books, podcasts etc.
  • Flows, as they often help me create a structure in my head which I can stick things to
  • My own ideas that pop up based on the information I take in
  • Questions I want to ask
  • If it's a presentation/course I sometimes note down speaker feedback

Things I typically do not note down

  • Stories or lengthy examples
  • Information not tied to the topic(s) I'm interested in
  • Years, dates and who did what (I just note down the person's name if she seems interesting)
  • Reasons why the person has decided to share this information
  • Reasons why something is better than something else (I prefer to form my own opinion)
  • How someone came to a particular conclusion
  • The method used to get some information
  • Bragging and accomplishments


I normally take notes in the language of the medium so if I listen to a presentation or read a book in English my notes will be in English and if I attend an event or listen to a podcast in Swedish my notes will be in Swedish. If I can choose freely I tend to use Swedish but that can differ too (e.g. all technical terms used in software testing are in English so it's easier to write everything in English).

Some examples

Example: Book notes

Example: Plan

Example: Notes from a course

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