Notes: what’s in the name?

Naming notes is very important. Inconsistent naming can really contribute to your fears about note taking. Having to think about a name can interrupt your flow. Messy names will greatly complicate organizing and finding your notes. Thus, names of your notes should be easy and fast to enter and help you to process and use your notes. You can only find your own effective naming system by constantly reflecting and experimenting with your own unique memory pattern, vocabulary and working habits. Here I describe the system which works for me.

I have already quoted Brett Trepstra who said that choosing a tag he considers a term he will use to find this file a year from now. It takes a year to understand how you think and what you are likely to remember about that file or topic. The same applies to naming notes. Your system may take a year to take shape. I started to use systematic note naming about a year ago and I changed my system quite a lot during this time. For example, I used to use dates in naming all notes but then I noticed that I never search by date, so I eliminated this noise.

A couple of other sensible suggestions from Macsparky. Use lower case. Use as simple system as possible. Keep a list of your naming conventions in a separate note.

I try to divide my notes by the standard GTD classification: reference materials, project notes, and action items.

Reference notes are notes which will be referred to in one or several current and possibly future projects.

  • Examples: facts, quotes, definitions and “text banks” (almost like in text expander but not used so often hence not requiring abbreviation and perhaps more numerous).
  • Naming: “ref:area:topic title”; e.g. “ref:es:oil effects of iranian revolution
  • Processing: Tagging with OpenMeta tags and may be kept in the system forever.
  • Searching: Either by name or by tag.

Project notes are notes related to one specific project.

  • Examples: records of meetings and phone calls, various ideas or facts (firmly related to a particular project).
  • Naming: “area:project title”; e.g. “teach:eap students’ presentations 110408”
  • They normally live as long as the project lives. They do not normally need to be tagged.

Often a reference note also relates to a project (or a project snippet may be used as a reference for other future projects). In this case I name it as a reference snippet and type the project tag in the text. For example:

Title: ref:es:oil effects of iranian revolution
Body: “Production was permanently cut by 3mbd/day. Use in es:km5”
Tags: energy:oil, energy:security:geopolitics, regions:asia:iran

This snippet will be found when I search for es:km5 snippets but also if I search for Iran or any of the substantive tasks.

Where “es:km5” is a project code. This can also be achieved by tagging (for tagging fans).

Action notes should not really exist, because every single action should be in OmniFocus. However my notes often contain semi-processed pieces of information which really need work before they can be parsed into actions, references or project ideas. For example, I am reading a journal article and taking notes. These may include quotes for teaching, references to be used in writing, ideas to be further elaborated or shared with colleagues. It would be disruptive to make a separate note for every such idea. I use Merlin’s qq trick to designate action notes (which otherwise are named as projects or references).

Running notes

There is a special types of notes which are “running” in a sense that I am constantly updating them (most notes referred to above are not changed once entered). Such notes should be really easily found. Moreover, the LaunchBar allows you to append some text to a note without even opening it in an editor. All you need to have is the note title and the text.

Here are some examples of my running note names. I’ve learned the “x” trick from Merlin. Well, you get the idea.

  • mbx (mind board) – things I always need and always forget such as my Passport number or kids social security numbers (of course, more secure information should be in 1Password);
  • gtx (Get) – things to buy
  • mdx (Media) – various videos and other stuff to watch when online;
  • otx (Office Time) – quick office time records
  • blx (Blog) – ideas for the blog
  • kdx (Kids) – funny things kids say

The list of these funny names as well as categories and some projects are kept in a separate NV file.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Central European University and Associate Professor of Lund University. He is also the coordinator of MESPOM, an Erasmus Mundus Masters course operated by six Universities in Europe and North America.
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6 Responses to Notes: what’s in the name?

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