I’m Smart Because I Write Stuff Down

That’s not me bragging. I would be legit lost without my notebooks.

If you want me to remember something, imma need to write it down. I admire people who can take notes on their laptop or their mobile device. And I do this too, don’t get me wrong. But if there’s something I want to learn, internalize and then repeat – it’s going to require note taking. The physical act of taking pen (Sharpie ultra fine point, black) to paper (Moleskine) somehow cements the content in my brain. I’m talking cursive people – long hand. I write faster when I don’t have to pick the pen up. I’ve been told this makes me look old – and I don’t care.

I’m onto something here. It’s science – the act of taking notes helps you to better retain information. Taking notes is an art form, it’s meditative. When entered into conscientiously, intentionally, note taking can make your studies, your work that much deeper and more meaningful. Professors at UCLA and Princeton have recently published a new study proving that students who write their notes out by hand learn more than those who type notes on laptops. Students who used laptops generated more words more quickly than hand-writers, but the writers ended up with a stronger conceptual understanding of the material – in every experiment performed. As we’re writing, we create spatial relations between the bits of information we are recording. The act of linking the verbal information with the spatial relationship appears to filter out the less relevant information. Making learning “harder” can make learning stick.

Taking notes might seem like the most straightforward action possible, but there are several methods out there. The trick is finding a note-taking method that you are comfortable enough to stick with until it is second nature.


Stream of Conscious/Verbatim   Best for fast and neat writers.

  • Pretty self-explanatory, just write that mess down as it comes at you.
  • Start a new sentence or point for each new detail.
  • Use headings – if you like – to organize points by topics.

Cornell Style – I learned this method freshman year in high school, gave it a shot, and promptly hated it. YMMV.

  • Divide the paper into two columns: note-taking on right is 2x the size of questions/keyword column on left
  • Leave 5-7 lines (or about 2″) at the bottom of the page for summarization
  • Within 24 hours of taking notes, you must revise and write questions on the right, and a brief summary at the bottom of the page

Split-page formatting – The simpler cousin of Cornell style. Aesthetically I guess I just love a solid block of text…

  • Divide the paper in two columns: note-taking on right 2/3s, and main points on left 1/3.
  • Take notes on the right and summarize/highlight most important take aways on the left

Mapping – Great method for you visual types (also not me).

  • Start by identifying the main topic; this will be at the top/center of your diagram.
  • Identify sub-topics or supporting ideas. These should be located directly underneath or branching out from center of the main topic.
  • Continue downward or outward with supporting details under sub-topics until you have identified and recorded all relevant information.

Outlining  My personal weapon of choice; although I throw a lot more detail into mine.

  • Use headings and bullet points to organize topics
  • Each section starts with a heading of the main topic. Each subtopic and supporting fact is written under the proper heading – indented slightly to right (or use bullets as I am wont to do).
  • Continue listing details below subtopics – again indent (maybe consider dashes here).

Best Practices:

  • Steal the structure – main ideas and flow – from your syllabus or meeting agenda
  • Keep your notes to one meeting/one lecture per page (or at least don’t combine two+ on one page)
  • Process those notes: go back and re-read/edit/and highlight your notes for maximum retention
  • Be consistent! Keep the same structure across topics/meetings/clients/courses and develop an effective note-taking habit.
  • But – tweak as you need to. The most important thing is to customize to your style of learning and keep it up.

Learn more at www.ocdelight.me

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