How to take notes for better learning (without devoting your life to it)

In a recent coaching call, my client told me how bad reactions were undermining his communication. While we dug deeper in the problem, my brain was at full throttle to find some helpful exercise.

Suddenly, a book came to mind. I read it at least a year before. It was on a different topic.

But when I suggested an exercise from that book, my client’s eyes lit up. It was what he needed.

This episode, once again, showed me the power of note taking.

I took notes on that book while I was listening to it. Then I summarized it for our website.

They fixed it into my memory. So I could recall it by free association when needed. Then I could quickly scan them and find the right suggestion.

I already shared with you how I manage to read one book a week. This post is the ideal second part: reading is necessary to improve your thinking, but it’s useless if you don’t remember. Note taking is a necessity.

So, today I’ll show you the note taking techniques I find helpful to learn and think better.

Why note taking is necessary

Reading takes a lot of time. Taking notes, on top of that? Impossible.

It’s true: strong concepts stay in your mind even if you don’t write them down. You’ll spontaneously remember them.

But you can’t count only on this automatism. You’ll miss many important lessons.

First, when you commit to taking notes (taking GOOD notes) you are more motivated to focus on the book. You’ll notice more and remember more just because of that.

Second, the very act of writing improves memorization.

Third, when you take time to review your notes, you create mental connections between your experience and all the books you read. This will synthesize new insights.

Beware of perfect note taking systems

There is a “note taking porn” niche out there. Nerds like me drool over sophisticated technologies and methods to create a digital replica of your brain.

But when you try them, they often fail. Why?

They are too perfect. They become a full time job.

It’s like diets: the perfect diet isn’t helpful if it starves you or makes you socially awkward. You won’t survive the first week.

Consistency beats perfection.

You need a compromise. A note-taking method that helps your work and your personal growth and allows you to take notes on everything meaningful.

If you get tired just at the thought of taking notes on what you’re reading, change your approach.

Methods

For me, an effective note taking system should allow you to:

  • record all the important lessons from anything you’re reading,
  • quickly retrieve past notes and find what you need,
  • save also spontaneous ideas,
  • (optional) categorize notes,
  • (optional) link notes to one another.

The last two are optional because they can make the process far slower and decrease consistency.

The first requirement has a corollary. To save ALL the important lessons, the system must allow you to quickly save notes, too, at any timet.

If you use a paper notebook but never have it handy while reading, the system won’t work.

Commonplace book

I learned this from Ryan Holiday (who in turn learned it from his mentor). In his words:

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits.

The method is simple:

  • write the information on a flash card,
  • add a category and/or topic,
  • store flash cards in boxes, divided by year, project or other criteria that suits your needs.

I implemented it in Evernote:

  • each flash card is a note,
  • the note title summarizes the gist of the information,
  • the note body gives more information and reports the source (e.g. book title or article URL)
  • a “.commonplace” tag tells me the note is a flash card (the initial dot puts the tag at the top of the tag list and makes it quicker to select),
  • other tags describe topics, category, related project and so on.

This is a good catch-all method. It’s useful when you want to save an idea or a random lesson you stumbled upon.

But I read many good books that deserve a more thorough treatment. An untidy heap of notes isn’t enough.

Automatic note-taking

If you read ebooks, technology can help you. At least in part. (By the way, I prefer electronic vs paper books, as I explained here).

I read on Kindle. I always use the highlighting feature. Then, I can use Readwise or clippings.io to automatically save highlights online.

Readwise does more than that. It shows you some random notes from your archive every day. Spaced repetition strengthens memory.

But Readwise is a paid app. And what if you mainly listen to audiobooks? (like me, now that I am a father 😅)

Moreover, often notes needs revision and reorganization.

One book, one document

So, for the last 2-3 years, I’ve been creating a document for each book I read. Boring, huh?

If it’s an ebook:

  1. I highlight while I read,
  2. I import the highlights in clippings.io,
  3. I transfer the most important ones into a document and organize them with bullet lists.

However, having a child forced me to almost only listen to audiobooks. This way I can keep learning while pushing the stroller, doing chores, exercising. I have no other free moments!

This is my method for taking notes on audiobooks:

  • I create a page for each book in Notion,
  • If my hands are free while listening, when something catches my attention, I open the app, search the page and write it in my words,
  • Notion keeps showing me the latest opened page every time I open the app, so every note after the first one takes a moment.

I did it in Google Drive before. But I like the Notion editor far better.

All my book notes are saved in a single Notion database.

Since note pages contain a lot of text, it’s easy to find what you need, when you need it, even without additional tags.

I also add chapter titles. It sometimes helps me keep notes structured.

What if you can’t write while listening?

Sometimes my hands aren’t free. For example while driving. In those cases I postpone.

As soon as I am at my PC, I go through the ebook version of the audiobook. I quickly scan the part I just listened to and remember what caught my attention.

It’s time consuming but I didn’t find a better way. It’s very important to do it as soon as you can. Otherwise you’ll forget what you need to write down.

The final polish

Some books are well organized. So, my notes mimick the book structure and end up very clear.

Sometimes, instead, my notes are more sparse, or there are repetitions. A reorganization is useful in those cases.

But I don’t always have the time to do it. So I reserve it for the best books or I do it later, when I find a use for that book.

What about linking notes? Is it necessary

I am fascinated by the knowledge networks some people are trying to build. I could use the Notion backlinking feature to that purpose.

But this is one of the things I don’t have time for. Maybe in the future I’ll go back and start connecting the dots.

What’s your note taking system?

That’s it. As you can see it’s not the perfect method. But it’s compatible with my life and work.

It allows me to save important lessons, retrieve them as needed, remember them. And most of all, it allows me to keep reading lots of books.

What’s your method? Share it with us on our Twitter group. DM Samuele and we’ll add you.

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