When was the last time you used the Pythagorean Theorem?
Do you remember when the first battle of Panipat was fought?
Don’t know about you, but my answer to both the questions is the same: “don’t remember”.
Here’s the thing — most of the things we were taught in school are barely needed anymore.
But there’s one thing we ALL learnt in school AND use it to this day.
Surprisingly, it was never taught to us! We learnt it ourselves!
I am talking about taking notes.
Take a minute and think about it — you did it then and you do it today. Hopefully, you will also do it in the days to come. I know I will.
Our process of taking notes has evolved, but essentially, we still follow the same process, be with our pens on paper, on our laptops, or on our mobile phones.
In this article, I want to talk about why we take notes, why it’s important enough for a dedicated article and some of the tools I’ve tried working with.
So, let’s dive straight in, shall we?
Do we really need to take notes?
We humans are a lazy bunch. So, before lifting a finger, we usually evaluate why we need to put in any effort.
And that’s justified: why would you do something if it doesn’t make sense?
And what better way to make sense of something than understanding the science behind it?
Here are three cold hard facts about our capacity to retain:
Fact #1: After one hour, we retain less than half of the information presented.
Fact #2: After one day, we forget more than 70 percent of what was discussed.
Fact #3: After six days, we forget 75 percent of the information.
And these facts have nothing to do with how smart you are or how powerful your memory is. I always end up forgetting things that I am sure I won’t!
In short, if we don’t take notes, the information is forever lost (and this isn’t school, where you can simply ask a friend for his or her notes).
Our brain is like a processor of sorts, not a hard disk, which means it’s fundamentally good at processing information but storing only bits of it. So, your notes actually act like a second brain — one that’s good at storing info.
That’s not the only positive thing about taking notes. It also helps you focus on one thing at a time.
Types of notes
Broadly, we can classify notes into the following categories:
- Knowledge base
- To-do Lists
- Some code snippets/cheat sheets
And there are subtle nuances when it comes to each category. Also, different tools excel at different purposes.
Once upon a time, we were restricted to our pens and notebooks to take notes. Today, we have a plethora of options, a multitude of tools that have drastically improved the way we take notes. Today, taking notes is easier, quicker and more efficient than ever.
In my experience, a few key points we need to keep in mind while using these tools:
- No matter how good a tool is, it is the process we follow that gives us the best result (process>tool).
- It’s important to know which tool does what best in order to select and use the tools to their full potential.
- There’s a possibility that one app does not satisfy all your needs and you can endlessly lose yourself in the search for that perfect app.
- If you aren’t careful and switch from one app to the other, you might end up with all your information scattered across these apps, with zero clue what is where. Yup, it has happened to me…
- It’s crucial that all your notes are easily accessible and in one place.
- The notes you take should be clear enough for you to understand when you go through them later.
In my search for the ONE app, these are the tools I’ve used and a bit about what I have liked and disliked about them (not to diss any app, this is just my personal opinion and only relevant to the kind of notes I wanted to take)
Google Keep was one of the very first apps I used on my ‘search for that perfect note-taking app’ journey. Way back then, I was rather impressed with the fact that we could sync multiple devices with it.
But apart from that, Google Keep didn’t quite solve the problems that users were facing. There was a gap in what they offered and what the users needed.
That, in addition to the lack of innovation on their part, drove a lot of users away, including me.
Notion was the cool kid when it came to note-taking apps.
It allowed seamless syncing between devices, it was flexible enough to address a number of user problems, it was an intelligent app that was near-perfect.
Notion did require users to spend some time with it to get a complete grasp but it was quite intuitive.
There were a few drawbacks, but nothing that takes away anything from how great the application is.
For instance, I had some issues with it only when I wanted to take quick notes. The other issue I faced is that since it’s bulky, it takes a while to load.
It also went down for a while in the past, which caused some users to discontinue.
Evernote was the big daddy of note-taking apps before Notion was around. It still is big and it manages to solve a bunch of user problems with little performance issues.
Although it works well for many people (it’s quite popular), personally I felt I was being asked to follow a certain set of rules every time I used it.
Truth be told, I did not explore the app in great depth owing to the above-mentioned issue.
The ‘Notion’-shaped void in my life was finally filled to a large extent once I discovered oam Research. Additionally, it gave me the ability to take notes faster without thinking of where to put them.
Whenever I wanted to note a thought down, I looked to Roam Research and I was satisfied with the experience.
This was also around the time when I discovered zettelkasten.
Roam Research doesn’t have too many bells and whistles and sticks to very basic note-taking. It does, however, do a fabulous job of that.
The only drawback I’d say is that it doesn’t have an app and is an online application only (for now, hopefully).
I also tried Craft for a while. I liked the fact that it’s a native application but it meant for writing big articles and not really your notes, per se. Think of it as something similar to Google Docs.
Having said that, the guys at Craft are thankfully bringing about changes and the app is gradually introducing changes that make it better for taking notes.
Another plus point is that it’s also available offline.
The best part about Orgmode is the flexibility it allows you. Orgmode gives you all the tools you need to take notes and allows users to use it any way they like, albeit after a steep learning curve.
The notes are stored locally and with open source format (.org).
My search for the best app to take notes ended with Orgmode!
It might not be a great fit for everyone, but if you are into software development, this one’s pure gold.
Orgmode has a huge potential and it will take a while to fully unravel it’s potential. Frankly, I’ve barely scratched the surface and I am already a fan. If you are someone who has used it already, drop me a useful tip or two please.
Currently I use its org mode as my primary notes app to:
- Sync my notes folder with dropbox
- Orgzly as a mobile app – mostly read-only
- Create custom searches to filter and have notes
- mobile app provides me with reminders which is a plus
Orgmode deserves an entire article about it (and who knows, maybe there will be one soon).
Before I forget, let me make a quick note of it…
A few additional thoughts
- It’s best not to take notes across multiple applications, as it scatters all your notes.
- Tools are only for our help and it’s up to us to use it to the best of the tool’s ability. The magic isn’t in the tool, it’s in how you use it.
- Before zeroing in on an application, it’s best to have a clear idea of your requirements and expectations. Identify your patterns and type of notes you mostly take and create a process to manage that.
- If taking notes is an important part of your job, it’s best to explore different methods of taking notes as well — GTD for managing your to-do lists and zettelkasten for building a knowledge base, for example.
- A good note-taking app should be responsive
- It’s best if the most-often used features have shortcuts, which then translates to developing muscle memory in users after a few uses.
- The more offline features in an app, the better
Taking notes efficiently can have a significant impact on your life. You will definitely appear more professional, you will also appear like an expert, if you have all the information you need at your ready disposal.
Knowing the type of notes you want to make and zeroing in on that perfect ‘fit’ when it comes to the tools will transform you into a note-taking ninja!
I urge you to explore note-taking as a subject and the several tools available today. The destination is rewarding, but the journey is no less brilliant.
Which note taking app do you use? Mention in the comments below. Let’s learn from each other!