The Art and History of Productive Note Taking

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What Is Capturing

Everyone has done some version of quick capturing in their life. For example, have you ever written a grocery list? What about a post-it note reminder to yourself in the future? If you’ve ever written down a thought, idea, or task with the intention of reviewing it later, that’s an example of capturing.

Capturing ideas, book quotes, and random bits of information became significant in early modern Europe. People simply needed a system for organizing and remembering pieces of information they deemed important. The commonplace book was thus born into the world. A commonplace book is essentially a notebook containing random bits of information unique to its owner. Commonplace books contained all sorts of information including, famous quotes, common measurements, ideas, prayers, and anything else you would want to jot down during Renaissance Europe.


The History Of Capturing

The history of capturing dates back to the ancient Greeks. The Greeks captured and curated information they deemed important in scrolls. They called this hypomnema which translates roughly to a reminder, a note, a public record, commentary, anecdotal record, draft, or a copy.  Basically something which was read or heard and considered important enough for capturing would get written down for archiving and retrieval later.

This practice of capturing and archiving information became necessary in early modern Europe where intellectuals, teachers, and students needed a system for keeping a filing information. The commonplace book was born.

A commonplace book is essentially the equivalent of a personal notebook. You filled it with all the information that you would want to remember, learn, explore later, sort of like a journal. In the 18th century, this information would likely consist of literature, poems, religious quotes, or copied passages verbatim from a well-known author (copying passages word for word was common practice because information was harder to come by therefore if you wanted to remember something, you had to write it down.) Each commonplace book was therefore unique according to its owner like a personal journal which stores all of one’s personal interests, ideas, and thoughts.


John Locke’s Indexing Method

John Locke, the well-known English philosopher and physician, created an indexing method for commonplace books by which one could search for existing notes. In fact Mr. Locke thought of his new indexing system to be so progressive for its time, that he published a 71 page treatise on the subject. First published in 1685 as, A New Method on Making Commonplace Books, Locke’s new method entailed taking the first two blank pages of your notebook to form the index where each note title corresponded with its page number for reference. 


Capturing Today

If you want to get an idea for just how innovative John Locke’s method must have been, just Google Bullet Journal. The bullet journal indexing system is a direct derivative of John Locke’s indexing system for commonplace books. You’ll see that many of the same methods Locke created are still being borrowed over 300 years later. Many great productivity methods have borrowed directly from history. Quick capturing is the first step in the Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system. The first step in GTD is to capture what is in your head into a trusted system such as a notebook or digital tool. The idea is to get the lingering stuff out of your head so that you have the clarity to focus on what really matters now.


Benefits Of Capturing

Never Forget Creative Ideas

The famous classical composer, Franz Schubert, kept a small notebook near his bed every night just in case a fleeting melody came to him during the night that he didn’t want to forget. Schubert understood the power of keeping a simple notebook nearby for quickly recording ideas. The fact is that the brain is far from perfect when it comes to storing and retrieving information you want to keep. Keeping a simple pocket notebook is literally an insurance policy for your memory.

Clarity Of Thought

Don’t waste precious mental energy and time thinking about things being stored in your head until you absolutely have to. Write it down now, forget it, and come back to it later so that you can focus on the task at hand (such as sleeping if it’s in the middle of the night like Schubert). The less stuff you have stored in your mind, the clearer your thinking will be during the present moment. In other words, a capturing tool is like an external hard drive — you retrieve information when you are ready to view/process it and it does not burden your internal memory.   


How To Capture

There is really only one step to master with regard to learning how to capture — any piece of information that you feel might be relevant for future use/retrieval is to be recorded as soon as possible. As we have seen earlier, there exist a number of productivity methods out there. Each one has lessons we can all learn from but I suggest starting with the basics. Starting out with a simple analog tool like a pocket notebook or an index card system will force you to focus on the simplicity and essence of capturing information as it comes to you. This way you are not wasting time trying to learn a new smartphone app or having your attention diverted elsewhere on your digital device.


Best Tools For Capturing

Pocket Notebooks

My personal favorite of all the capturing tools available is the pocket notebook. The utility of a pocket notebook has many advantages over our modern digital devices. Perhaps most notable is the speed to which I can pull out my pocket notebook and quickly jot something down. Doing the same on an app on my iPhone takes almost twice as long. There are even studies which show the advantage of writing something down versus typing information for internalizing information. More recently, the internet has connected paper and notebook lovers from around the world to connect and share their ideas for what makes the perfect notebook. There exists a sort of school of notebook aficionados who treat their notebooks more like a vintage bottle of Cabernet. So when you begin to explore this world of pocket notebooks, you’ll soon discover that there exist many different varieties to choose from.  For example, there are different types of paper. Some are thicker, others are thin. Some will work well with fountain pens, some will work better with ball point. The formatting of your paper that you choose will be a personal preference decision. You might use graph paper for planning and creating check boxes for to-do lists. Or you might choose dotted or blank pages if you like to sketch your ideas. The options are so vast it’s easy to see how someone could easily get overwhelmed just trying to decide which notebook is the best one for you. My advice is to experiment with each one to get a feel for which ones fit your style of note-taking the most.  

A list of my favorite pocket notebooks for capturing:

Moleskine Cahier Pocket Notebooks
Field Notes
Word. Notebooks
Midori Travelers Notebooks

Voice Memos

The voice memo is advantageous in situations where physical writing isn’t practical. For example, recording a quick thought while driving (using your hands free digital assistant of course). Voice memos have a slight advantage over writing regarding speed because most people can speak faster than they can write. I only use voice memos when my current situation does not allow me to write it or type it — like in the car. I’ve found that the best voice memos are either Evernote or that native voice memo app that already comes with your smart phone. I use iPhone and I’ve found the simplicity of their voice memo app to be quite superior to others I’ve used.

Smartphone Apps

Many apps out there pride themselves on having a good capturing feature. A few things that I look for in an app is the speed to which I can get to a blank page to type or record in and its ease of use. I don’t want to capture The standard Notes app on the iPhone or even a blank Google Docs file for example can all work for quick capturing. Here’s a list of some great apps that I recommend which can be utilized for capturing:

iPhone Notes

Index Cards

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with the use of index cards for quick capturing. The advantage that index card might have over a pocket notebook is that they are faster to jot notes in because there are no pages to flip through to find a blank page to write in. However, they are disposable. Whereas in a notebook you can flip back in time to reference a note, if you’ve thrown away an index card, you are out of luck. I assume that one way around this is to transfer all important notes to a permanent filing system like Evernote.


Limit Your Tools

The best practice is to incorporate the fewest number of tools possible into your capturing tool belt. If you’re struggling to remember where you jotted something down, then you’re trying to keep track of too many tools. Using too many tools will increase the chances that you’ll forget to check one of them. use a maximum of three capturing tools — two pocket notebooks (one for business and one for personal use), and Evernote (my digital brain and task manager). 

Review Your Notes Often

Reviewing your notes often is going to make the difference between getting things done and just writing stuff down. For this to work effectively, you will need to schedule the review process. I recommend you do this on a daily basis opposed to a weekly one.


What are your thoughts one capturing as a method for increasing your productivity? Do you have favorite tools that you want to recommend? 

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