Note taking software part 1: what works and what does not

Academics need to capturing ideas and pieces of knowledge while doing other things: processing emails, sitting in meetings, listening to students’ presentations, reading books or articles, listening to podcasts, surfing the web. This capture process should be on the one hand non-obtrusive so that the main activity is not interrupted. On the other hand it should be “watertight”: the captured ideas should be easy to find and use in the future. These two requirements are seemingly contradictory: for smooth and easy capture you just want to drop all the information in one big file without thinking about it. But how are you going to find it later? On the other hand for easy finding you need to organize your information, but organizing can really distract you from the main activity. These two fears: of interruption and of losing your information prevent most people from effective note taking. I have personally evolved from taking may be a couple of notes a week (and not always being able to find them) to taking dozens every day and always having them at hand. Here are some of my lessons with what does not work, which lay the foundation for what works.

As many other people, my note taking started with typing in various ideas in Microsoft Word. Although this system worked, to a certain extent, I was never very comfortable with it. Using word processing software for note taking is like using a supersonic jet to visit a friend two blocks away. We have already discussed why word processors do not work for writing, they are even less suitable for note taking. On the one hand, it takes a lot of time to open a word processor because it has all these toolbars and menus and templates to load. Besides consuming time, these features are really distracting. Then there is a problem of organizing your notes. If you keep them in one or a few long files then you get distracted. Imagine you mix your writing ideas with cooking recipes and funny things your children say and books you want to read. Would you have any productive writing based on such ideas? But if you keep all your files separate: one for teaching ideas, one for films to see, one for interesting quotes, you will end up with hundreds of them. Word processors do not allow you to quickly browse and open many files at ones. So not only will you be interrupted by taking notes, you will also not be able to use your information efficiently. Finally, most word processors have unique data formats and unless you keep all your notes constantly updated one day you may end up with notes which are not readable (especially if you switch computers or operating systems).

I also experimented with taking notes in Microsoft Outlook or native Apple Mail Notes or similar applications. Although it’s easy to take cute short notes, the system does not really have industrial strength of maintaining hundreds if not thousands of notes. Besides, you need to switch to the relevant application (e.g. Outlook) for note-taking and that essentially ruled the system out.

About 2 years ago I started experimenting with specialized note-taking software. The first one was Evernote which I still use occasionally. It’s great in keeping occasional pictures or other non-text stuff and it synchronizes between Mac, PC and iOS devices. However, it never worked for me, perhaps because it has so many distracting features. It is great to be able to take a camera snapshot or a pdf file into your system, but most of my notes are textual files and I do not want to be distracted by anything else. Evernote has one more disadvantage: it keeps its notes in a format which is not readily accessible to other software. This is not very good for the reasons I already described. I want my information to be there forever in as safe format as possible, independently of the software or even hardware I will use in the future.

Another similar application was DevonThink. It is much more academically-oriented than Evernote and it has a lot of excellent features such as Artificial Intelligence for automatically organizing your content. I also uses OpenMeta tagging system which means it is compatible with MailTags, Leap, DefaultFolder X and other software I use. DevonThink can “index” files which means that you can keep them anywhere on your disk and still maintain an organizing system in DevonThink. I invested a lot of time in organizing my files in DevonThink. However, at one point I stopped using it. The reason is the same: it is too slow and distracting and it has many features which I do not really need. Fortunately, thanks to OpenMeta tags, my organizing in DevonThink will not be lost.

I have also tried keeping notes in other applications, such as Scrivener and MacJournal. Whereas these are excellent pieces of software they are much more suitable for longer pieces of writing than for simple note-taking. Finally, I used to keep a lot of project notes in OmniFocus. It was tempting since OmniFocus provides an overarching framework for my workflows. I would mark a piece of text with the project name (e.g. a specific article I write) and assign the Context as “ref” to distinguish it from real actions. It worked, to a certain extent, but I eventually found my OmniFocus to be extremely cluttered with “ref” entries which slowed Reviews and reduced concentration when working with really important items.

Approximately one year ago I listened to Mac Power Users podcast 023 mentioning Notational Velocity as summarized in the Notational Velocity Simplenote Tango masterpiece by David Sparks. Since then I started to use Notational Velocity and the more I use the more I like it. I have also been using its iOS counterpart SimpleNote, and more recently some other iOS software. The reason NV works for me is that it is lighting-fast and simple. I never need to think about adding a new note (or even adding text to an existing note). The empirical fact is that the amount of notes I am taking increased many-fold after I switched to NV. I can also find my notes within seconds (from NV itself or from Leap, Tags or even DevonThink if I wish so).

Most importantly, my notes are now kept in text format which means that whatever software I use in the future will most likely be able to search, read and edit it. Moreover, it does not really matter what software I use now as long as it works with text files! Read this beautiful entry from Macsparky on the importance of text format and why it is coming back right now. In fact I am experimenting with three or four apps on iPad using the same set of notes and without fear of ruining my system.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He also coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
This entry was posted in Notes, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Note taking software part 1: what works and what does not

  1. Pingback: Byword – an ideal tool for plain text writing on a Mac | Academic workflows on Mac

  2. Muriel says:

    I see that Notational Velocity has not been updated since April 2011 or so. That worries me because it looks like this software’s development has stopped, which means eventually the product won’t work with our newer laptops, newer OS’s. Not sustainable.

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