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.   



Entries in Notetaking (3)


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.


Keep a list of important problems handy

The blog Taking Note just took note of a kind of information that deserves to be kept handy:

Richard Feynman seems to have given younger scientists the advice that they should keep a list of a dozen or so of their favorite problems. They should have this list constantly present in their mind. In this way they could relate everything they read or heard to one of the problems on the list and then determine whether the new information could help them in solving the problem. The claim was: "If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work."

Although my notion of an "important problem" might be different than Feynman's I like the notion of carrying a list of important problems around with me.  I can see myself including this in my category of important information to keep in touch with and in some fashion "manage."  This includes the directional information that gives meaning to my personal research activities: my goals, my personal mission, and my guiding principles.

In search of the right notebook and notetaking system

In my last post, I wondered about whether the commonplace book is a good model for personal knowledge management or,  to put it more plainly, whether it is a good tool for capturing and remembering key ideas and concepts.  This has increased my interest in good examples of notebooks in use. This past week the VizThink blog posted an interesting 7 minute video of a designer discussing his notebooks, mostly filled with sketches and how they figure in his creative process.  I have also come across the blog Taking Note, "a blog on the nature of note-taking" which discusses notetaking tools and systems.  The most recent post discusses the diary entries of an Austrian writer concerning his system of notetaking:

Musil tried to make the vast material accessible to himself by assigning to entries a sequence of numerals and letters. Apparently, there are 100,000 of them. This system of reference is, however, very opaque to outsiders. In any case, his approach is not too dissimilar from the way in which other authors and thinkers tried to master the results of their note-taking and thinking. Whether Musil's system was more effective than that of others may be doubted.

I doubt my system needs to be terribly complex but it does need to be electronic. When I used a Windows machine I used Microsoft OneNote  and liked it, but now that I am using a Mac I am looking at tools like Devonnote, Scrivener, and OmniOutliner.  The solution has to have the ability to quickly organize and reorganize my notes and to create links between them which show the relationship of one idea or note to the other.  Thus, outlining capabilities are important as are linking capabilities. Otherwise I would like to keep it simple. One possibility: Mindmanager has the ability to switch between mindmap and outline view modes.  If each topic in a mindmap linked to a file containing a document or note that might work.

 Charles Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)