The Single Best Way to Take Notes

Ernest Hemingway did it. Successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson do it. And I’m quite sure, even most of the former US presidents did it: Taking notes. As I wrote earlier this week, note-taking is not only important because you get stuff out of your head and make sure to remember it later. But you will also somehow enable your mind to think more freely and are more likely to produce more ideas as a result.

But why is that? Why is note-taking so useful? And is there a best way to take notes?

According to scientists, taking notes is beneficial in two ways: First of all, it enhances learning and retention by producing deeper processing of information. Information that is “encoded” this way is, therefore, more likely to be retrieved. This is known as the encoding effect. The second advantage is that note-taking offers long term benefits by having notes available for review and rehearsal. Write it down and you can look it up later. Scientists refer to this as the external storage effect of note-taking.

Regarding the best way to take notes, scientists are in disagreement. Several studies looked at the effects of taking notes by hand versus writing them on the computer. Some found better retention rates when participants were typing into their laptops while other studies found that students who took notes on laptops performed actually worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.

What seems to be the case, though, is that if you take notes during a talk or a lecture, your notes should follow your train of thought and you should try to reframe the processed information in your own words instead of transcribing it verbatim, which is detrimental to learning.

Other than that, there is only one single best way to take notes: Your way. Whether you like to scribble rough thoughts, like to thumb all your notes into your smartphone, love to draw mind maps, or prefer advanced™ techniques like the Cornell Method – each and every one of us is different in what we like and how our mind works. Consequently, there are as many ways and systems of note-taking as there are people. And they all can work well. Of course, it helps to make note-taking a habit. It also might be a good idea to start reviewing your notes regularly. But in the end, you will only benefit from taking notes, if you make it work for you. And for you only.

I for one, like to take handwritten notes and to draw sketches in a large Leuchtturm 1917 notebook with a LAMY swift rollerball pen. A good pen will go a long way here. For digital notes, I use almost exclusively iA Writer, for quick notes as well as for longer thoughts. It is just the quickest way I can think of to dump a note into a backlog of ideas that can later easily be fleshed out into first drafts of blog posts or other written pieces. I enjoy the flexibility of iA Writer as a tool that doesn’t force you into a specific way of working and also that I can take notes on my mac as well as on the smartphone. But, as I said, this is only the way I found out works well for me. This might not work for many other people and everyone needs to find a way to take notes that feels right for them.

This also matches with the results of the scientific research study™ I conducted on Twitter. I asked:

What came as a bit of a surprise to me, is that even in my little web design and development filter bubble an overwhelming majority still uses pen and paper as their primary tool for note-taking. I suppose this is because the pen is just unbeatable when it comes to speed, ease of use, and directness of the tool. No other tool offers less cognitive distance between your thoughts and the resulting note. But what also surprised me was that it really seems to be true: Everybody has their favorite way to take notes. So in addition to the 114 votes, I also received numerous replies mentioning one tool after the other. Thank you all so much for your answers!

Here is the list:

So if you are considering to start taking notes or maybe want to try a new tool, this list should prove useful. Isn’t it wonderful how many high-quality tools we have these days? But regardless of the tool, always remember to write all your thoughts and ideas down. Even the smallest and seemingly unimportant ones. Even the bad ones. Because, as Linus Pauling, an American chemist, biochemist, peace activist, author, educator, and two-times Nobel Prize winner, said:

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.


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On Taking Notes

Last week Matthias wrote about the importance of writing down ideas immediately. I have to agree, the best way to being able to remember something, is to write it down right away. I have had many thoughts and ideas floating around, but oftentimes when I don’t write them down, I can’t remember or recall them later. In a follow-up post Matthias now writes about the “The Single Best Way to Take Notes”, why ...