Just a few phrases on taking notes

Illustration of taking notes

As we’re about to start out the planning conferences for 2024 at AWS, I’ve been pondering loads about how I take notes. In the identical vein, the method of placing collectively a re: Invent keynote takes months, and it signifies that I’m assembly with plenty of good people doing analysis and constructing superb merchandise. And at each assembly I’m taking notes — numerous them.

The earliest recollections I’ve of taking notes are in major faculty. I’d copy word-for-word what the instructor would say or write on the board. Issues like definitions and multiplication tables. Then I’d go residence, research what I’d copied, and ultimately take a take a look at. In follow, I used to be studying to encode, retailer, and recall info. When you consider it, it’s a bit like S3.

However this was memorisation, not synthesis.

As I continued alongside my academic journey, and the subject material grew to become more and more extra complicated, it pressured me to rethink observe taking. It was much less about being a scribe, and extra about listening, observing, and comprehending what was being taught. For instance, the youthful me might have copied the next definition verbatim: “The traditional function of mitochondria is oxidative phosphorylation, which generates ATP by utilising the vitality launched in the course of the oxidation of the meals we eat.” And when learning, I’d have dedicated this to reminiscence with out essentially understanding the way it really labored. What would have been extra useful would have been to learn the definition, then write it out in a method that was significant to me, similar to: “Mitochondria are the energy plant of the cell. They generate a lot of the chemical vitality wanted to energy the cell’s biochemical reactions.” Perhaps even diagram the method within the margins. That is synthesis. This denotes understanding.

And there’s analysis to again this up. Particularly, that verbatim note taking just isn’t as effective when you’re trying to learn and retain new information.

Pen and paper

To this day, I still take a lot of my notes by hand. It helps me to maintain focus and internalise the important bits. It’s impossible to write as fast as people speak, so I’m forced to write down what I think is most important or make note of what I don’t understand so that I can ask questions.

A stack of notebooks
The notebook archive view from my desk…

The Cornell Method

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few months reading about and relearning different note-taking approaches. Everything from outlining to mind mapping to charting. And what’s worked quite well for me is the Cornell Method. A simple approach that has you split a notebook page into four parts: 1/ title, 2/ notes, 3/ keywords/questions, and 4/ summary. And no, it’s not because I worked at Cornell for the better part of a decade, but because this method encourages you to document your thought processes (i.e., ask questions), synthesise what you’re learning in real-time (i.e., take notes), and summarise it all after the fact (i.e., write a succinct summary).

What I wind up with are structured notes that are easy to read, organise, and revisit, because it’s more than just writing something down, but being able to go back and review questions and challenge assumptions.

Illustration of the Cornell Method
Credit: https://www.flexcil.com/tips/cornell-note-taking/

A recent study by Kuniyoshi Sakai, titled Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory Retrieval, really confirmed increased retention and recall for topics that used pen and paper versus a keyboard, or pill and stylus. Nonetheless, there’s broad settlement that taking notes, in any type with any enter, helps with encoding, retention, and recall.

As you possibly can see from the picture above, I’m an enormous fan of analog note-taking. For me, analog helps with memorising, synthesising, and summarising. As quickly as I write one thing down with pen and paper, it additionally appears to search out its method into my mind – one thing that doesn’t occur with digital. I even use the Cornell methodology when getting ready for conferences; I summarise the briefing doc in my pocket book, and it instantly sticks. The truth that you’re energetic with the textual content as a substitute of simply studying it drives this course of.

Utilizing ML and generative AI

There is a lot of value in the act of taking notes and actively synthesising information. But we live in a world with more data than we could ever reasonably expect to comb through. This is an area where ML and generative AI will play an increasingly important role. A few examples that come to mind are:

  • Using a transcription service with speaker identification to supplement the notes you take during a meeting.
  • Using computer vision and optical character recognition (OCR) to convert your handwritten notes into docs that you can easily share with others or store in a central location. (Assuming that you’re not already using something like Kindle Scribe).
  • Near-instant summarisation.
  • Iterating over an entire corpus of notes using an LLM to identify themes, trends, and important people across hundreds of pages from meetings, lectures, doc reviews, on-site visits, etc.

I see this like reading a map. If you go back 20 years, reading a map was a fairly common skill. You’d plan a route, take some notes, then try to navigate it. And if you took the route enough times, you’d commit it to memory. You’d remember a fountain or the colour of a specific house along the way. You’d know when and where there would be traffic or construction, and the alternate routes to get around it. But these days, we just use our phones. We follow turn-by-turn directions from street-to-street without needing to commit too much to memory.

It’s helpful. It’s easy. That’s not really up for debate. But reading a physical map is still a very useful skill. There will inevitably be times that you don’t have cell service (or you lose your phone, or maybe you want to disconnect from technology), and knowing where you are and how to get where you’re going are important. And just like taking notes by hand, it allows you to remove some of the noise created by technology, and to focus on the important bits.

I’m genuinely curious to see how research will evolve in the next 10+ years as we continue to study what works best for digital natives.

Take notes, lots of them

I’ll leave you with a quote from the writer Anne Lamott: “[…] one of many worst emotions I can consider, [is] to have had a beautiful second or perception or imaginative and prescient or phrase, to know you had it, then lose it.” My recommendation: take notes, numerous them.

Now, go construct!

Observe: I’m genuinely curious how my readers take notes and synthesise info. When you’re doing issues in a different way than me, let me know on Twitter or LinkedIn.