- Planning out a report, paper, or essay
- Brainstorming a website, business strategy problem, or a computer program/algorithm
- Taking notes during a class lecture or conference
- Even making a shopping list or a list of things to do
I like to think I take good notes and, since I'm a bit of a perfectionist (some would say I'm obsessive), over the years I have actively refined my note-taking technique. Here's how I take notes these days.
I start by making sure that I have good note-taking tools. These days I take notes with a mechanical pencil with 0.5 or 0.7mm 2B lead (i.e. softer but darker than the typical HB or #2 pencil; see Wikipedia entry on the pencil for details on gradation) on white, good quality, narrow-lined file paper. I also use a good quality eraser.
I use a pencil and eraser because I like clear and neat notes and diagrams (i.e. dark lines and no cross-outs). I use file paper because that gives me more flexibility in terms of storing, organizing, moving, and re-writing notes within subject-indexed, tab-separated file folders ('binders' for Americans).
May I geek out a bit? These days I'm using a Faber Castel Grip Matic pencil, the 2B lead that came with it, and a Staedtler Rasoplast eraser. The pencil's pretty old now so I need to buy a new one. I generally prefer Staedtler over Faber Castel -- I've been using the former's pens, pencils, lead, and erasers for about 16 years now -- but I haven't been able to find the right products in Australia so far. I guess I need to look harder. Oh, and Pilot and Uni products are good too; particularly the Uni SA-S fine ballpoint pen which I have been using exclusively for about 3 years now.
I organize my notes rather thoroughly: listing on each page the date, subject, page number, and, if in a meeting, the names of the participants in that meeting. To organize the notes themselves I use a series of headings and nested bullet points. Here's an example:
More recently I've started to take notes on my laptop. For that I use Microsoft Word with 12pt Georgia font and the same sets of headings and series of nested bulleted lists as I do on paper (except that those are now defined as MS Word Styles so they look a little different). This is what my electronic notes look like:
The Actual Notes
Then come the actual notes themselves. Since I write a lot, I've had to develop my own, mostly intuitive, shorthand to write things down quickly. For example: "this func. says nothing abt. price lvl.; dep. only on tech, labour & capital." Since I type quickly, I write full-ish sentences when typing notes, though. They may not be entirely grammatically correct, but I don't usually abbreviate words.
In the actual note-taking I try to write down as much as I can while still listening to the lecture/discussion, not missing anything going on (even at a deeper level), and participating in the discussion as well. It's not easy but I've been doing it for years so I'm used to it by now. Taking notes this way gives me a pretty accurate recording of what went on during the class (since that's what I developed my note-taking for) and, even if something isn't quite clear to me at that time, I can usually follow the logic and work it out later.
At the end of every note-taking session (e.g. at the end of every class) I try to review the notes to make sure I haven't missed anything. Then, usually while preparing for an assignment or just before an exam, I do one of two things. I either extract what is important from my notes (and in parallel from lecture slides and assigned readings) by re-writing them on a new sheet of paper or on my laptop. That is, I take notes of my notes. If not that, I make an index in which I identify what I've written and on which page that topic is located. The former helps me prepare for closed book exams and assignments. The latter helps me get ready for open book exams and meetings during which I might need to refer to my notes.
I don't follow any specific note-taking system like the Cornell system that the good folk at Student Tablet PC use , though that sounds like a really good methodology. Nor is my system as elaborate as Tim Ferriss' (via Kevin C. Tofel). I am interested in getting into mind maps like James Kendrick, but my note-taking style has always worked well for me so I haven't yet found a reason to change.
I do, however, use a mind map-type construction for breaking down complex problems. But, since I'm a stickler for writing things neatly, I use lists instead of diagrams. For example:
And that's about it. Oh, one last thing: storage. Since I have craploads on notes, I generally have a crapload of file folders to store all my notes in as well. And since I've been using, for the most part, the same system for about ten years now, my old notes still come in handy every now and then. The only problem is: I can't take all my old notes with me.
All of that, I guess, goes some way to demonstrate why the obsessive note-taker in me wants so desperately to get a tablet PC. I mean, seriously, how could I not want to get the ultimate note-taking tool? But, since I can't afford one now, I am so looking forward to getting one later and then scanning all my MBA notes into it so that they're ready for use any where, any time. In fact, I'm getting all excited just thinking about it now! Yes. I am a geek. I wrote a whole blog post on note-taking (with pictures and all), didn't I? :)
 The Student Tablet PC website has a whole category on note-taking.