How To Take Notes Such That You Can Think About Things Better Later


Thursday, 5.29am

Sheffield, U.K.

I’m a compulsive note-taker, and I used to feel self-conscious about pulling out my little notebook and taking notes during a casual conversation. Then I noticed that people really seemed to enjoy it; the fact that I was taking notes made their remarks seem particularly insightful or valuable. Now I don’t hold myself back. – Gretchen Rubin

In my previous post I said I’d look at some approaches to capturing information.

This is going to be a first pass, a non-exhaustive list, to help me see it too.

The diagram above lists a few approaches and I think three categories started to emerge.

First, there are the notes you make when you capture raw material – the stuff directly from the source.

Then there is what you do when you start to process and make sense of what you’ve collected, although sometimes you can try and capture and organize for sense-making at the same time.

And then there are notes that are really meta-notes, notes about how to take notes and these are more akin to computer programs, where you have inputs and outputs and, most importantly, feedback.

Let’s look at these ideas in some more detail and see if some sense starts to emerge.

The world of graphemes and phonemes

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that I had to spend time learning what is taught in primary schools and I came across the idea of graphemes and phonemes.

A phoneme, in case you don’t know, is a sound you make – what you say.

It’s sort of there in the root of the word – its about the phonic, the sonic element.

A grapheme, on the other hand, is a mark you make to represent that sound – graph as in draw.

So graphemes are literally representations of sounds using drawing.

Now, if you start to look at how writing has developed over time you might come across Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum.

To give you a flavor of the person, have a look at this talk, in which he tells you about the evolution of writing and says, “The shift from pictographic use to writing sounds was the only real giant leap man has ever made apart from the development of the Electric Guitar.”

Writing started with drawing – if you wanted to represent a bird you would just actually draw a simplified bird form.

The sort of thing you get with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

But there are lots of words that you can’t just draw, where there isn’t a physical equivalent – words like “word”, for example.

So you end up developing alphabets and if you look at their history you’ll see how the letter “A” has its roots and shape in an ox.

Look at an A upside down and you’ll see the horns and head – but rather than the “A” representing a literal ox, it starts to be used for the sound.

So, you first had pictographs which were useful for quantities and physical things and then you had the alphabet, which lets you capture all the words you can say.

This little digression is important, I think, because writing is really a form of drawing – and I think you can do something quite useful when you combine the power of the two approaches.

On to taking notes

The first function of note taking for many people, then, is to capture the words people say – the sounds they make.

In many cases chronology is important, you capture notes in a linear fashion as the words come at you.

For example, think of what a police officer or a journalist does.

They have a pocket notebook and they ask questions and take down facts and direct quotes.

A police officer’s interest is in the timeline and the facts – what happened first, what happened next, what did you see, what evidence is available.

A reporter is interested in the facts, but is also looking for the story, which you will usually find in the feelings people have about the situation.

As a reporter, then, you will also take notes about the situation, the surroundings, the feel of things – the sort of details that add context and flavor and bring a touch of reality to your story.

With police officers and reporters your notebook is also a legal record, which means that you have to preserve those documents and show that they haven’t been tampered with.

And because you’re taking notes in a bound notebook they are necessarily linear and chronological, you write down things one after the other and the pages stay in place.

A different kind of linear notebook approach is taken by people who need to record thoughts and ideas rather than spoken words – the kind of work engineers and research scientists do.

They use laboratory notebooks, bound and numbered pages and again record things chronologically, with results and ideas and experiments.

A linear approach works when you have to do one thing at a time but there are several situations where you the restrictions of the bound notebook gets in the way.

If you’re a lawyer, counselor or business person, for example, you’re probably going to have several meetings where you’re taking notes.

You could have all that in a single notebook but you rarely ever see a lawyer using that approach.

If you picture a lawyer you’ll probably see them using a legal pad – and that’s simply because once you’ve made your notes on a particular case what you want to do is tear off the relevant pages and add them to the case file.

Using individual sheets of paper to take notes comes in useful when you have to maintain a filing system – when you’re building up notes on many subjects over time.

This approach is also useful when you’re collecting research in addition to recording spoken words and your own thoughts and ideas.

If you’re reading and making notes on what you come across then loose sheets help you organize that by topic later.

Now, most notes, whether linear or non-linear, are probably word based but what you can do to help improve understanding and retention is add pictographs to your graphemes – use the power of drawing and writing.

That’s what you do with sketchnotes – bringing in visual elements that capture concepts and things more effectively than words alone and that also help you emphasize or indicate relationships between the notes you take.

The transition from simply recording what is said, what you think or what you read to analyzing what you are putting down is an important one.

Sketchnotes are a first step to making that shift – as you move from a vertical arrangement of words on a page to arranging concepts in space, like in the image below.


This is the kind of thing I use in my own work which combines traditional note taking with sketches and an infinite sheet of digital paper to leverage the power of spatial note taking.

As someone who primarily works with organizations, where systemic approaches are important, this kind of note taking approach is more helpful when you’re trying to work out what’s possible and achievable in the situation you face with the resources you have rather than what’s the task, case or story.

That’s the difference between what a manager or entrepreneur does and what a professional typically has to do.

Moving on

I think this post is long enough and really only covers the areas that aren’t circled in the picture at the start of the post – the elements of note-taking in the raw.

The other two elements are really about analysis and method – ways to help you think better once you’ve taken down your notes and I think we’ll look at those in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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