How do we cope with our growing digital lives?  How do we manage the ever increasing amounts of digital stuff we create and use?  This is the challenge of Personal Information Management.   



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Note-taking continues to be a conundrum

The simple task of note-taking has turned out to to be harder to master than I would have thought. It is my primary information capture activity, central in how I remember and learn and communicate.  

Yet my system for taking notes is far from settled. For many years I took notes on a paper pad and then transcribed them into an e-mail message or an MS-Word document. Here, the process of transcribing notes from paper to screen helped to organize them, refine them, and improve my recall of what had happened.  

More recently, I have attempted to capture my notes electronically in the hopes of saving time and being "more electronic."   As a windows user, I tried Microsoft OneNote - a nice tool that let me take notes and capture other kinds of information (and perhaps the only Microsoft tool that has a cult following).  Its organizational system of tabs and notebooks intrigued me, but I succeeded in making a mess of them.  With more time, I suspect I could have made it work for me.  But when I switched to a Macintosh, OneNote was no longer an option. So what are my criteria for a good electronic note-taking solution?  


cc image courtesy of Brady Withers

It must be instantly available when I need it.  I must be able to pull up the writing space quickly and save my information quickly.  When something comes up in a meeting, or when a thought occurs to me, I don't want to wait to type it in. This is a problem with cloud-based services like Google Docs and Mindmeister, because in both cases I've run into network delays that have interrupted my notetaking. Likewise, Microsoft Word is a large, bloated program that takes time to load.  For this reason I prefer a more lightweight program, like a text editor.  

The notes must be portable and easy to pull into other tools.  My notes must be easily converted into an e-mail or a formal document; or posted into a mindmap or a blog post or a personal knowledge-base.  This argues for basic text with minimal formatting.  This too, points towards a simple text editor

My notes must be searchable and organized. A quick keyword search should pull up any notes I want to put my hands on.  Ideally my notes are filed, tagged, or linked in such a way that related information can be reviewed and worked on together.  

For most of the past year, I took my notes with the web-based mindmapping tool, Mindmeister.  The notes were stored in simple text. They were well organized within the framework of various mindmaps, and I could access them from any computer, including my iPhone. Then I started running into network hiccups that meant the tool was not available when I needed it.  This, and my concerns over my excessive reliance on a cloud-based service have me looking at alternatives. 

Today I am using a free product for the Mac called Notational Velocity.  I like it because it is lightning fast, easy to search across all my notes, and easy to synchronize across multiple machines through the use of the free Dropbox service.  It is streamlined and has no extraneous functionality.  According to its maker:

It is an attempt to loosen the mental blockages to recording information and to scrape away the tartar of convention that handicaps its retrieval. The solution is by nature nonconformist.

So far it is working well, though I haven't worked out all the details about how I will use this tool in conjunction with the rest of my information management tools. 

This is part of a series of posts summarizing my PIM activities in 2011.

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