Ask HN: How to Take Good Notes ?, Hacker News


I want to improve my note-taking skill . I’ve started writing a text file with notes from class, however, I don’t have a systematic way of writing. This means at this point I just wrote down, arbitrarily, things the professor said, things the professor wrote, how I understood the information, and everything else, mostly all over the place. I’m wondering if anyone developed a system like this I could adapt to myself, and how did they do it.



Ask HN: How to Take Good Notes?
points by romes 3 hours ago hide past | web | favorite | comments



This is a hard one to answer, and what works for someone might not for another.

The most useful advice for me has been to find a method, and stick with it. This is most important for organization. I prefer handwritten notes, and I only take notes on things I don’t understand. I’m not writing a textbook – I don’t need my notes to be a complete reference manual on the subject. Moreover, notest that explain how you went from ‘eh?’ to ‘oh, yeah …’ are so much more useful, and if you already understand something you don’t have that moment to talk about. It’s also a waste of time. I use hardback notebooks. If I’m studying 3 things simultaneously, I have 3 notebooks running. When I finish one subject, I start the next a few pages later. I write the subjects on the spine (normally need a sticky label). The growth of my ‘notebook library’ has been quite satisfying!

My method of note-taking has varied a bit, I generally use the so-called ‘Feynman technique’. I write the subject, leave a few blank lines, then go through the steps needed to understand the subject. I then write the ‘summary’ that I now understand in the blank space.

I might write a few exercises underneath, or reference a textbook, or something. Basically anything that will help me when I inevitably forget. Often my notes are rewritten – my lecture notes are borderline unintelligable. After a while (at university) I gave up taking comprehensive notes, preferring to remain active in the class and then deliberately rewrite my notes using other sources later. This fueled a powerful cycle – my other sources put me about half a lecture ahead, which helped me stay engaged in the lectures themselves, so I got more out of the lectures, and needed less study after. Lectures are like Shakespeare – knowing the plot enhances the experience.




I think you ought to consider whether you should take notes at all. Notetaking is great for remembering actions that you have comitted to doing, or if you need to spread information to people who did not participate in a meeting. Managers need to do a lot of notetaking.

However, taking notes seriously hinder your ability to engage with the material and build true understanding as you are listening, which would have helped you remember the material right away. If you are in school or are an individual contributor in a company I think you ought to stop taking notes all together.

If you need notes for future practice I would advice you to write them after the meeting / lecture . Actively recalling things from memory is the best form practice.




I think the magic to good note taking is to develop a discipline to write and having a system that supports organized note taking. I have found small little things can derail building a good discipline. For example, for years, I had been using vimwiki for my note taking, which is overall excellent, if you love vim, however is not readily available when you are away from your computer. For me this led to two sets of notes – one in vimwiki and another in Apple Notes app. As a result, I found myself disorganized and confused at times. More recently I decided to drop vimwiki alltogether, a hard decision given that vim is my natural habitat for writing. I instead decided to fully adopt Apple Notes app as my only note taking app. I am finding that I am pretty happy with it. It provides a decent structure to organize notes and it’s available on all devices that I care about. I also found that having a “Scratchpad” note, eases my cognitive load, when I want to quickly brainstorm something, without having to worry about which folder / category / project the note should land in.


A great book on this topic, especially if you’re still in university is “How to be a straight A student” by Cal Newport ( ( … ) Ignore the title for now and read through it, I believe there are excellent tips in note taking and how to process the notes to really excel in your studies. If you’re already working you have to adapt that system into something that works for you best, some use a bullet journal or audio notes and process them differently.

One really interesting approach (that I was not able to implement yet in full form) is to take creative notes (called sketchnotes). This works well if you’re a visual person. (A great book on this would be The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde.)



If you want to take great notes, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that you don’t need to worry about doing it right, your aptitude and personal preference will come without any conscious thought. The bad news is that there’s no shortcut except for practice, practice, practice. Having said that, here are some of the specifics that work for me. – This notebook: Cambridge Jotter A5 Card Cover Wirebound Notebook Ruled Page. A5 means it’s easy to carry (everywhere) . Wirebound means the pages don’t flap back on their own and only one sheet needs be open at a time. (page is a good balance between how long each notebook lasts.) – Put a DD / MM / YYYY and a title at the top of each page, don’t be too fanatical, but contextualising the notes is essential, and it helps search. Abbreviated titles and dates are fine for when the notes of single events stretch over multiple pages. – Always write notes at everything that could be a meeting or a talk. (Everything else came.) with experience and I can’t really put it into words, though I’ve always appreciated when I’ve taken notes under the assumption that my future self will remember (nothing) of the event, it’s been an accurate assumption more times than I care to mention. Don’t worry about chronological order being an imperfect method of organizing data, it’s a strong practical heuristic.




I like to do hand writing and drawing doodles for everything I want out of my head for the moment. I use small notepads for this purpose, so that the space is limited to store just the information that is important. If I work on a different topic or fraction of a larger one, I start a new page. The doodles help me to visualize a topic or a structured problem. Later on I write down everything in Emvi [1] and add more detail, so that I know what I was thinking. The articles can be linked to each other to build deeper knowledge from small fractions of information (“structured by content”). I wrote about this concept on our blog [2]. We also have a few students that use this system in Emvi with great success. I hopes this helps you to take better notes. Just try a few different methods until you find one that suits you. [1] ( [2] .. .




Just handwriting by itself will force you to rephrase the topic at hand because you will be to slow to write everything down verbatim. This will improve your memory and understanding of the matter at hand. Andrew Ng touched on this topic in his recent interview on the Articifial Intelligence Podcast ( () starting at around : 30)





You may want to mix different note formats as needed. For example, you can use Google keep for simple notes and Evernote for notes that need to be organized. It is also a good idea to use a tree-based note-taking tool to organize your refined knowledge. This is because the structure of knowledge follows the structure of the tree. I use this (Actually, I made it): (



When I was in university, my girlfriend at the time taught me about good note-taking. – Use paper. I could annotate printed PPT slides with the whitespace on 4 per page, but sometimes would overflow onto the (blank) reverse side. Computers have too many distracting notifications. – Write down questions with a big (?) And ask them at an appropriate time. Professors care much more about that than you think, in Western education systems (don’t get me started about my ill-fated Ph.D. attempt in Korea). – Use colored pens. If you think this looks too feminine or gay, get over yourself. It’s SO much easier to quickly speed-read and study once you’re doing this. I would use red for formulae, green / pink for definitions, black for examples, pencil for diagrams, blue for everything else.

Example: ( (@ N) / Brave Browser / in / d …




Using a multi colored pen has helped me mark important information and add my personal context. For example, during meetings or brainstorming I’ll mark up information using different colors (red-to do, green-new idea, pencil-plain, sequential notes). I found a good one that has all the colors I need and a mechanical pencil [1]. There is overhead of thinking which color to use, but the value of having the context later is much more. 1. …


What do you think?

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