Thursday, June 26, 2008

Project Note Taking System

A while ago, I went looking for a good note taking system. Notes, as in on paper. I work on a lot of projects, and since I grok things better when I write them down, I needed a way to organize ideas, meeting minutes, tasks, and progress.

I found several hacks to turn my preferred notebook, a Moleskine into a full-fledged PDA replacement using GTD. However, I didn't want a PDA replacement. I wanted a simple way to organize project ideas.

I also found a lot of good note-taking systems. Of these, the Cornell system was closest to what I wanted. I liked the idea of taking notes, then adding higher-level comments off to one side. Unfortunately, page division doesn't work well in a small notebook, and the system isn't very project-oriented.

Thus, after some trial and error, I've mostly settled on something that works well for me. I begin with a large, graph paper Moleskine, though any notebook should work. Next, I take notes on the right-hand page, then write higher-level comments on the left page. That's the gist. The fun part is the details.

On the right-hand page, I always first write the date in the upper-right-hand corner. This makes finding old notes a lot easier. After that, I take notes however I like — outlines, drawings, mindmaps, whatever.

Then, both while writing notes and when reviewing them, I write higher-level comments on the left page. I find it useful to vertically align them with the part of the notes they comment on. Each comment is labeled, in the form Label: comment, so that I can immediately tell what kind of comment it is. I use five labels:

Every left-hand page has a single Topic comment first thing on the page. It's short phrases or keywords to remind me what the notes are about. By using only one per page and putting it at the top, it's easy to flip through the notebook and find notes about particular topics.
These are interesting thoughts about the notes, such as summarizations, ideas, etc.
Often my notes include good lessons, so Tips are things I want to do differently in the future.
These are things that I need to do based on the notes. As I do them (or move them to a better task management system), I check them off.
This pair of labels keeps track of tacks we've taken in the project, and why we've decided to tank them. I use them because I found that projects often cycle back to old ideas without remembering the very good reasons they were killed in the first place. To illustrate their use, suppose we have a project meeting on Monday and decide to use MySQL. My notes on the right-hand page contain our reasoning, and I add "Tack: use MySQL" to the left-hand page, leaving some space underneath. On Tuesday, we change our minds, and decide to use SQLite instead. So now I add "Tack: use SQLite" to Tuesday's left-hand page. Then, I go back to Monday's page, and under the "Tack: use MySQL" comment, I add a Tank comment explaining why we're no longer using MySQL.

That's it. Fairly easy to use and well organized, and relatively easy to find information later. Of course, it's not ideal. What I really want is a lightweight tablet PC, about the size of my Moleskine but all screen, with a swivel keyboard, and nice note software with tags, tree-structure organization, and handwriting search. But before saying such things exist, I also want it to be affordable. Good luck to me. Until then, I'll keep buying Moleskines.

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