Notes are the ephemera of our lives. Now, ‘ephemera’ is an interesting term all on its own, but it’s one that is particularly relevant here. Its original definition describes something that exists or is used for only a short time. It has since evolved in meaning, though, to encompass memorabilia—often written or printed—that were supposed to only be useful for a brief period, and that nonetheless hang on for a great deal longer.
So it is with notes. On a shelf behind me, for example, I have a row of notebooks that represent my day-to-day journal, dated from 2013 onwards. In a box somewhere, I suspect I have others, but the journals I have close to hand represent the sum total of what has been produced since the time I got deliberate about having one, single, identifiable place to capture all my notes.
Prior to that period, I have used untold different strategies.
There was a time when I had one notebook per project (which was wasteful, disorganized and an absolute nightmare to keep track of, especially because the relevant notebook was rarely, if ever, in proximity to me at the time that I wanted to use it. Or more importantly, I wasn’t in proximity to it).
There were several years in the early part of the millennium when I used pads of paper, ripping off sheets and attempting to file them in the appropriate project, client or personal file (slightly more organized and less wasteful, but highly dependent on me staying on top of my filing).
Sometime after that I attempted to take all of my notes on an electronic tablet (this at the time when tablets were still heavy and dense computers running Windows-something-or-other). My favourite of these weighed about 6 pounds and had a battery that lasted 12 hours. It unfortunately become obsolete far too quickly, and nothing that came in the years that immediately followed ever quite measured up. It was a sort of useful way to take notes, in that every note got saved as a file, but it depended on you being really comfortable lugging a Windows computer everywhere.
Paper journals and pens at this point represent the longest track record of sticking (mostly) with one approach and running with it, which is apparently an impressive accomplishment for me. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad. My journals adequately address some of my needs, but not all. There are aspects of my note-taking practice where they do just fine, but there are others where it all continues to fall completely apart.
Part of the challenge I experience is borne of the fact that there are different types of notes that I capture (and I suspect that this is true for all of us). If I flip through the last few journals I’ve filled up, the vast majority of my notes (at least in terms of page count) are records of meetings with others. They’re a blend of key discussion points, my observations and the action items that get identified (either explicitly or implicitly) for follow up.
In the limited context of Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal method, which I’ve referenced several times in the past (including last week) I’m pretty much covering off the three types of information he identifies: tasks, notes and events. I’m well covered in capturing the things I have to do, the things I don’t want to forget and the experiences I want to remember, at least when I’m in a meeting.
The other things that get identified in my journal are a bit more inconsistent. I have true ephemera: phone numbers I need to call, voicemail messages I’ve picked up, addresses I need to run errands to. I have randomly brainstormed to-do lists as well, which in my world shouldn’t be in my journal but still get recorded until I can (theoretically) get them to where they rightfully belong. Then there are lists, article ideas, potential blog post topics and future presentations that vary in detail from mere scraps of a possible title to full-blown, comprehensive outlines of what I will cover.
This is where things get more than a little random, and where my note-taking starts to crumble. As a record of meetings and a means of capturing raw scraps in a consistent place, my journal is just fine. I don’t anticipate firing it or replacing it with a new approach any time soon. My journal remains a valued partner that I plan to keep by my side. It’s when things get bigger than this that I start to run into trouble, though, and where untold different solutions have been tried and found wanting.
By way of context, it would probably be helpful to define what I mean by “bigger.” Mostly what I am referencing here is projects of some form or another, and how I manage and deal with relevant notes as they progress. “Project” is its own broad umbrella, of course. As a consultant, I obviously have client projects to manage. There are also personal projects, from managing the re-launch of a web site to the development of a workshop. In the past, projects have also included writing whole books, as well as a doctoral dissertation and the co-leading of a ridiculously large and complex research project.
Under the umbrella of “projects,” learning could also be considered and in itself comes in many forms. Formal workshops and courses are the most obvious. Participation in conferences, attending webinars and listening to podcasts can also play a role. Reading books in my world never gets old (although the attention span to books admittedly wavers from month to month and week to week depending on whatever else is going on). The note taking challenge associated with this is multifaceted: there is the capturing of information as I find it, the processing and reflection that tries to make meaning of what I’ve consumed, and ultimately the attempts to do something useful with the results.
Figuring out how to make sense of all of the above in a significant and sustained way is where things tend to break down and my sense of coherence in managing information gets a little fuzzy and pixellated. When I deal with a client project (or a something really large-scale like a book or a doctorate) the essential information (major drafts and final deliverables, at the very least) all get filed in the same place. Sometimes those are physical files; more often they are electronic, but once again there is a relatively stable structure where things are reasonably expected to show up (and be found at a later date).
What I have outlined so far frames the two book-ends of my filing and note-taking structure. At one end is a growing stack of paper journals that captures the day-to-day. The other bracket is a permanent file structure that manages the deliverables and large chunks of work that constitute the records of major projects I’ve done (and which are duly backed up multiple times, to several locations). It is all the in-between that is where the problem lies.
Let’s use a project to illustrate and illuminate the problem we are tackling. I recently built a workshop for a client. It was delivered online, and consisted of video modules, corresponding handouts, exercises, quizzes and supporting materials. While there was a lot of work that went into building the finished project, there was a great deal more that went into the planning, structuring and research of the content.
The topic of the workshop was one that is relevant to my overall work, and that I will likely come back to in some form or other. What is an open question is whether any of the materials I relied upon at the time will serve as on-going references. I utilized a handful of books while building the course, and there are notes in the margins (everything from asterisked support and underlines of quotes to tangential thoughts, elaborations, further questions, links to additional research and more than a few fervent rebuttals to what I was reading). There were also research papers, white papers, articles, presentations and interviews.
Most of the references I used were electronic in some form or other. There are links to articles in Instapaper, along with some white papers and downloaded materials. PDF files of other articles, white papers and research papers are stored in the actual project directory of my filing system. The books that I used are back on my bookshelves; the notes I made are still there, but with the passing of time they become increasingly distant from the purpose for which they were captured. Most of the other notes that I made are in whatever large planning journal I was using at the time, although there are inevitably a few more my regular journal for the period.
While this might sound chaotic, my note-taking process—such as it was—served my purposes just fine while I was completing that project. Everything got sifted and sorted into mindmaps that organized my thoughts, structured deliverables, built workshop outlines and ultimately guided the creation of presentations, resources and tests.
It is the value of this information going forward that becomes problematic. There is a risk that everything that I used gets filed away with that project, never to be seen again. There is an opportunity, though, for it to be so much more. The problem is that there is no system (apart from a few tenuous links in my brain) to hold it all together and make it valuable in the longer term.
What I have come to realize is that my note-taking system is largely project-based. It lurches from project to project, serving its purpose in the immediate time and space of the work that I am doing. The books are part of my on-going library, so they will stick around; the notes, however, will rapidly lose context. There is a very real risk that the next time I come across them, my reaction will be, “Just what the hell was I thinking?” While the answer would no doubt have been meaningful and maybe even profound at the time, I will not know that answer. It will simply be another random bit of marginalia.
What I am not currently good at is making my vast trove of notes, references, resources, articles and research papers (which now count in the tens-of-thousands in number and occupy umpteen scores of gigabytes of storage) mean something in the long term. Let’s take my dissertation as an example (for I have one of those, and I laboured hard over it for a surprising number of years). My research was a bit of a medley, stewing together strategy, behavioural decision making and psychology, with a dash of the more esoteric reaches of project initiation for extra spice. I read hundreds of papers and dozens of books (while downloading several thousand more papers, and buying a not inconsiderable number of other books that seemed interesting at the time).
The extensive notes that led to the development of my dissertation have gone the way of those for just about every other project I have done in the last couple of decades: they’re filed somewhere, along with the supporting materials I used. This has been further complicated by my favourite bibliographic software maker quietly but rudely going out of business. Not that this really makes a difference, if I’m honest. The trove of papers still exists on a hard drive, and I can get access to the raw files easily enough. It is an open question of whether the notes I lost in the process would be any more relevant than my scribbles in the margins of my library.
Doing something big like a dissertation should be a foundation. It should be the core on which later research and insight gets built, around which more questions get asked and answered and on which further knowledge is generated. The research exists still, compartmentalized in my brain. I still do work and read and study in and around the central themes on which I earned a doctorate. Every new project, though, feels like starting over. Rather than expanding on the references to a literature I already theoretically know, I very often go back to first principles, figuring out what I need for the next project.
It is probably not a surprise that my brain compartmentalizes around projects. Projects have been my occupation—and have occupied my attention—for more than three decades. Knowledge and learning should transcend projects, though. We should be able to build connections and sustain meaning, pointing out gaps and finding interesting questions to ask and answer. During the exploration of one project, we should be able to find our way back to the other things that we have done that are directly relevant, as well as those that offer indirect surprises.
I’ve proven that I can take meaningful notes about day-to-day goings-on. I have more than amply demonstrated that I can hoard—articles, research papers and monographs are fragmented across folders and hard drives while books are spread through a very many bookshelves in my home and office. What I have yet to do is manage a process that connects these disparate worlds together in a way that leads to sustained meaning across projects and over time. For me, that’s what notes are for, and that is a problem that is still to be solved.