There was a thread I saw on Reddit (that I can no longer locate) that asked: why take notes? The thread contained the usual answers that I’d expect to see, but it made me think about my own notetaking and I thought I’d try to answer the question here.
Prior to my junior year in college, I was not a particularly good notetaker. I made it all the way through grade school and high school taking notes in a haphazard way. Indeed, one thing that surprises me to this day is that I can recall only one class that attempted to teach students how to take notes. In 7th grade science class, our science teacher, Maureen Burrill, taught us the importance of having good notes as part of the process of scientific discovery. While my notetaking didn’t change immediately, this idea stuck with me and became a central pillar of my notetaking later on.
Between my sophomore and junior years in college, I read a book on ways of improving how you study. It was quite possibly the first “self-help” book I’d read. I wish I’d thought to write down the title somewhere because it is lost to me now. It was a paperback edition that guaranteed that by using its methods, your grades would improve a full mark. For me, that guarantee paid off. One of the things that book did was provide me with a framework and a shorthand for notetaking that I still use today–although it has evolved in the 30 years since I read that book.
So why do I take notes? I think there are three reasons:
1. As a memory aid
The most basic reason that I take notes is that they serve as a memory aid. I’ve gained something of a reputation among my friends as someone with good recall, but this is more illusion than reality. I take notes for the very reason that I don’t entirely trust my memory. It is wonderful in some ways, and remarkably fallable in others.
When I meet someone new, I rarely recall their name, even minutes later. I’ve managed to remedy this appalling lapse by jotting down people’s names in my Field Notes notebook as soon as we are introduced. When I first began doing this, it felt awkward pulling out my notebook and jotting a note, but now, I rely on it, and it seems to work. I jot down lists, scores from my kids games, notable plays that they made during the event. I jot the name of restaurants that we visit and what I ordered. All of this as an aid to memory.
I find this useful in both the short term and the long term. I remember things better in the short term and can recall them longer when I jot them down. In the long term, I have a record I can refer to which I trust because many of the notes are written in realtime. (See #2 below.)
2. As a way of engaging with whatever I am doing
For some things, notes are a way of engaging with what I am doing. Reading and studying is one example. Engagement, for me, has two aspects. The first is understanding. I take notes to understand what I am reading or studying, whether it is a biography of Lyndon Johnson, or a YouTube video on publishing database projects with Azure Data Studio. The understanding aspect involves composing the notes in my own words (often a kind of shorthand, but one that I can understand).
The second aspect is questioning: asking questions about what I am reading, or studying. Sometimes the questions are rhetorical. Sometimes they draw comparisons to other things. Occasionally I’ll try to answer the questions, but not always. There are notes to help draw out my thoughts on a subject–in other words, to engage with it.
3. To improve and learn (especially from my mistakes)
This is what I learned from my 7th grade science teacher, Mrs. Burrill. When performing an experiment, you want to document exactly how you performed the experiment so that it can be reproduced by others. You want to note observations and results accurately, and then follow up on those observations and results with analysis of the outcome. If something didn’t work, why didn’t it work? If something succeeded, why did it succeed.
Rather than just looking at science experiments this way, I think of many aspects of what I do as little, individual experiments. Writing a story is an experiment. I write it, get feedback, learn from the feedback, make changes, and sell the story. I note what worked and what didn’t and I try to use that information to improve. At work, running software projects or writing code, I do the same. That piece of code ran slower than I expected. Can I speed it up? If so, how?
Back in school, after I’d read this remarkable book, I began doing something I’d never considered doing before: treating papers and exams like the little experiments we did in Mrs. Burrill’s class. If I missed questions on an exam, I studied those questions and tried to figure out what I did wrong. I tried to identify and note the specific error and see if I could locate a pattern so that I could improve my study over time.
This also applies to small, domestic experiments. When we moved into this house nearly 3 years ago, one of the burners on the stove didn’t work. I never thought much about it until yesterday when I decided to take a look at why. I experimented with a few things, and in five minutes had it working. I noted what I did and why I thought it worked. In the future, should a similar problem arise, I have a way of fixing it.
This is why I take notes. Considering all I just wrote, I’m surprised that I can no longer locate the thread that started this all. You’d think I would have taken note of it.
Written on January 30, 2022.
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