Note Taking

Where Are My Notes?

I take notes, a lot. And I place them everywhere. I have handwritten notes mainly in two college ruled composition notebooks. I have a smaller, handy Mead notebook that I write down my to-dos and random thoughts. I also have a separate notebook to keep the notes while I program. I have created Freemind mindmaps on my computer. I have notes on my iPhone, both in the stock Notes app and the Awesome Note app. I also have Evernote and Catch notes, as well as pieces of writings in Google Drive and Dropbox. I sometimes also have a document or two that I would scan as pictures and save on my local machine (not shared online since they mostly contain sensitive legal/financial information).

It is a mess, indeed. Especially when I would like to find some piece of my previous writings. I first have to recall to where that was written, and then search through the media. That often ended up in vain, even if the media is readily accessible. What actually happened was that I instead worked on the piece and recreated what I might already have. This has to come to a stop. A complete stop.

What Are My Notes?

My notes are broadly of two types: those that I simply wrote to help clear my thoughts, and those that I couldn’t remember at the time of taking them. The former type notes are not so valuable after they were created. They were only helpful for a later review if I was interrupted during the process. The latter type are more important: I have to come back to them some time later.

Lucky for me, most of my hard-to-read, hard-to-search, written notes are of the former type. So simply archiving them would suffice. And this is the basis for my reorganization of my note taking system.

What Are The Goals For Reorganization?

I first of all want everything in as few places as possible. Keeping things in their dedicated notebooks is simple and effective, but at the price of high cost of maintenance. For handwritten notebooks, I often had to think which notebook to carry with me, not to mention that they are indeed heavy, when you carry a few of them, together with the laptop, tablet, and all the other stuff in my backpack. On the electronic side, searching from a few different sources is also a pain.

Second, my notes have to be easily accessible and searchable. If the point of taking notes is not to review them at a later time, then it is worth considering whether to take them in the first place. This means that my notes should be reviewed more often than I’ve previously had. Making the notes easily accessible can make the reviews easier.

What To Do Then?

To achieve the goals, two aspects of things must be done, the note taking aspect and the note organization aspect.

When taking notes, it is almost impossible for me to stop taking handwritten notes immediately. Therefore, I must extract the main points more often than I did before, and store the gists in electronic format. These useful bits have to be typed in manually, since current state-of-the-art OCR technology is incapable of recognizing handwritten notes well enough. Some additional work has to be done.

In the note organization aspect, a central repository has to be chosen. After a while of research, I chose to settle on Evernote. (Disclaimer: this link is my Evernote referral link. Registration to Evernote by following this link earns both you and me Premium Evernote services.) Its notebook structure is simple (stashes, notebooks, and notes) yet effective. Once the notebook structure is established (for me, 10 stashes and 52 notebooks), it is quite easy to put each note in place and access them, even without using the search functionality provided by Evernote.

I have now started a gradual transition from everywhere else to Evernote. It took some time, but this is almost done by now.

What Else?

However, Evernote is known to be not perfect for everything.

First off, I have another source of collectibles taken as presentation slides and formal writings in LaTeX. They are sometimes very big files. I will continue to use Dropbox to synchronize them across my computers. (Disclaimer: this link is my Dropbox referral link. Registration to Dropbox by following this link earns both you and me an additional 500MB storage.)

Also, there is a good share of Internet resources that will explode everyone’s Evernote if they were gathered literally in Evernote. Taking these notes as URLs does not help much either. Some complementary approach is to use Evernote together with Pocket, which turns out to work very well for me.

I also collect funny pictures as well as useful information shown in graphical format, such as infograms. Recently I discovered that Pinterest is just for this purpose, and have started using it.

So my combination of electronic resources for my notes are Dropbox + Evernote + Pocket + Pinterest, which I call the DEPP system.

What Now?

After about two weeks since I started this post, now here are where and how I store my notes.

In my own computer:

  • Documents with sensitive information;
  • Scanned version of written notes that are to big to fit in Evernote; and
  • Presentation slides and formal writings, synchronized via Dropbox.

In DEPP, I store:

  • Most of my electronic notes in Evernote;
  • Summaries of written notes in Evernote;
  • Web pages that I feel a need to read more than once in Evernote;
  • Read-later articles in Pocket; and
  • Information in graphical format in Pinterest.

In my handwritten notes (one and only one FIVE STAR college ruled, 5 subject notebook.)

  • All notes that I use to help clear my thoughts, scanned, summarized, and disposed periodically.

On my iPhone:

  • Awesome Note for all the small pieces of note taking, synchronized with Evernote; and
  • OmniFocus for iPhone (version 1) as my one-stop to-do management system. I am eagerly looking forward to the release of OmniFocus 2 for Mac to make full potential of my purchase.