Handwritten Notes

Hand written notes are pretty great, but perhaps digital could be great too.

When I started work at MartianCraft I decided that I would try to shake up some of the ways I worked. It felt like the right time. And since I knew there was going to be a great deal of things I would be learning, my note taking system seemed like the ideal candidate.

I threw out my entire structure for digital notes, grabbed a few Field Notes and started scribbling notes in them. After a month or so, I had decided the experiment was enough of a success to warrant moving to a better notebook. I looked around and decided on the Leuchtturm1917 journal as it looked nice, had solid reviews, and mostly it was on Prime.

It’s been a great notebook, but it is nearly full after just shy of a years worth of usage. I’ve bought a Baron Fig to replace it, so that tells you my hand written notes are sticking around, but I’ve decided I needed to look at this system a little more in depth.

Not so much how I take notes, but the differences between digital and analog. I’ve always been a fan, and advocate, for digital notes. My love for digital notes has always been out of efficiency: I can type faster than I can write, and I can more easily search/lookup notes which are taken digitally.

I Can Type Faster

Most people can type faster than they can write. It’s the entire reason bringing a laptop to college lecture became a thing. It’s a dense and boring thing, which you need to remember, therefore you need notes and lots of them. Laptops are perfect. Type fast, get it all, remember it all.

Except, the research doesn’t back this up at all, which is a large reason I decided to make a go at hand written notes. What many studies have found is that students taking handwritten notes instead of typed notes, perform better in recalling the subject matter and in being tested/graded on the subject matter than do their counterparts who took notes on a laptop.

Handwritten notes are also less in quantity than typed notes. So less notes taken, with better retention. Sounded interesting. I do have my reservations about the studies — as to whether good software was being used, good note taking practices were taught, whether iPads were tested, etc.

That notwithstanding, there does seem to be something to it, and a large part of it seems to be how we synthesize what we hear when we have to write it by hand. This is likely because we can’t take dictation by hand very well, so we have to listen to an entire thought in order to distill it down into as short of a note as possible. We have to not only listen, but hear (process, remember, decipher) what is being said.

The entire Sketchnote movement is built around this (and it is awesome), but not what I use day to day. Even still, most of my notes are bullet points of 2-4 words on average. Rarely ever full sentences.

There’s a few more things about my notes in looking back at them: they are messy, I sometimes make shapes around things, and it turns out I have pretty good recall about what most of my notes mean.

With digital notes I find my notes are tidy, I have low recall, but I have more of a note there to help get me somewhat more recall than I would.

Advantage analog notes for sure.

A typical digital note would be: “Talk to Sally about getting her project’s team to help out with the final push.”

Whereas my analog note for the same might be: “Talk Sally FINAL PUSH”.

The latter would be useless if I weren’t the person who wrote it, but because I wrote it and processed the thoughts which it took to distill it to just those words, I recall what I meant.

One last thought: I wonder if the tidiness of my digital notes is part of the downfall of the system. In other words, do I spend too much time tabbing, listing, and so forth to make them look neat. As I mentioned my analog notes are often messy. Sometimes words don’t even stay on their assigned lines. Nothing lines up, nothing is the same scrawl size. A mess.

But it is a mess which doesn’t bug me, and I can’t help be be curious as to why this is. Perhaps because I know I cannot change it — ink is ink after all.

Searching Notes

I’ve wasted a good amount of time flipping through pages of my notes in search of a note which I just know I took. We all know searching written notes suck. You can date notes, and add topics all you want, but that only helps so much and in the end sometimes the only way you find what you want is to start at the beginning and read until the end.

As I thought back over the frustration of searching analog notes, I realized that I only really searched through them a handful of times. Talk about exaggerating memories. I also realized most of those searches could have been predicted. Because of this I have started to use the infinity symbol on the top of a page of notes which contains things I think I might want to later search for. This will hopefully be a flag upon which I can home in on when I am searching a book of notes. The trick will be using it sparingly.

Previously, I was only marking tasks which need to be done. Now I mark pages which feel important. I haven’t been using this system for nearly long enough to comment on how effective it is, but it seems better than nothing.

And despite my contempt for searching analog notes, as I will explain in the next section, it turns out it really doesn’t matter — because I just don’t search my notes that often.

Why Do I Take Notes

Thinking through all these different aspects really started to frustrate me — here I am thinking through how to best take analog notes when digital notes had been working perfectly well. Except, that my notes systems have never been working well if I am honest about them. I took tons of notes, but I rarely looked at them because I always had low recall on the notes and my notes were usually more cryptic than I thought.

With analog notes I have much better recall, so it’s not wasted time taking them. Which means I have to figure out why I take notes, and how I use notes in my day to day routines in order to try and improve the systems.

What I figured out so far is the notes I take are primarily for today. They are for noting all the things which I have happening that day, and not really meant to be carried forward into the next day. It is short term information with a few long term things scattered in. While it’s not always obvious which parts are long term, there are some obvious parts and because of this I have decided to keep the obvious long term notes in Notes.app, by copying them over at the end of each day.

This helps alleviate a lot of the stresses of searching through my notes since I can now first search on the computer, and helps to further keep my notes focused on what I need them for: today. With lookup being the most troubling factor, I am hoping this bridges the gap nicely.

The Wishy-Washy Part

What is really bothering me about all of this, is I can’t wrap this up with a neat bow and tell you whether or not analog notes are better. It bothers me not because it makes for a crappy ending to an article, but because I really want to know for myself.

There seems to be evidence which points to analog notes being better, but I can’t help but to question most of it as I am too unsure of all the variables in the research. I also wonder if part of the problem is our software for taking notes is still lacking — we don’t take notes the way our software lends us to take notes, and therefore we take notes to fit the software. While Apple Notes may be a really nice upgrade, it is still a far cry from what it should be. And even still I wonder if something like OmniOutliner might actually make for a better note taking tool as it might more readily fit how I take analog notes.

With advancements in tools like the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, with better software, why couldn’t we have the best of both worlds At some point? I am going to be testing the iPad Pro for notes over the coming months, but I am not ready to give up the notebook either as it has proven solid and reliable and surprisingly not finicky at all. But it is another thing to carry with me.

I guess I will have to check back in another few months down the road as I test the Pencil with the iPad Pro for notes and I test out theories on using a tool like OmniOutliner.

This is a most unsatisfactory conclusion to this article.

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