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A number of phrases on taking notes

Illustration of taking notes

As we’re about to begin the planning conferences for 2024 at AWS, I’ve been pondering quite a bit about how I take notes. In the identical vein, the method of placing collectively a re: Invent keynote takes months, and it implies that I’m assembly with a whole lot of sensible people doing analysis and constructing wonderful merchandise. And at each assembly I’m taking notes — a lot of them.

The earliest recollections I’ve of taking notes are in main college. I’d copy word-for-word what the trainer would say or write on the board. Issues like definitions and multiplication tables. Then I’d go dwelling, research what I’d copied, and ultimately take a check. In observe, I used to be studying to encode, retailer, and recall info. When you consider it, it’s a bit like S3.

However this was memorisation, not synthesis.

As I continued alongside my instructional journey, and the subject material turned more and more extra complicated, it compelled me to rethink be aware taking. It was much less about being a scribe, and extra about listening, observing, and comprehending what was being taught. For instance, the youthful me could have copied the next definition verbatim: “The traditional position of mitochondria is oxidative phosphorylation, which generates ATP by utilising the vitality launched throughout the oxidation of the meals we eat.” And when learning, I’d have dedicated this to reminiscence with out essentially understanding the way it truly labored. What would have been extra useful would have been to learn the definition, then write it out in a method that was significant to me, equivalent to: “Mitochondria are the energy plant of the cell. They generate many of the chemical vitality wanted to energy the cell’s biochemical reactions.” Possibly even diagram the method within the margins. That is synthesis. This denotes understanding.

And there’s analysis to again this up. Particularly, that verbatim be aware taking simply isn’t as efficient whenever you’re making an attempt to study and retain new info.

Pen and paper

To this present day, I nonetheless take a whole lot of my notes by hand. It helps me to keep up focus and internalise the necessary bits. It’s not possible to write down as quick as folks converse, so I’m compelled to write down down what I believe is most necessary or make be aware of what I don’t perceive in order that I can ask questions.

A stack of notebooks
The pocket book archive view from my desk…

The Cornell Technique

I’ve spent fairly a little bit of time over the previous couple of months studying about and relearning totally different note-taking approaches. Every part from outlining to thoughts mapping to charting. And what’s labored fairly properly for me is the Cornell Technique. A easy strategy that has you break up a pocket book web page into 4 elements: 1/ title, 2/ notes, 3/ key phrases/questions, and 4/ abstract. And no, it’s not as a result of I labored at Cornell for the higher a part of a decade, however as a result of this methodology encourages you to doc your thought processes (i.e., ask questions), synthesise what you’re studying in real-time (i.e., take notes), and summarise all of it after the very fact (i.e., write a succinct abstract).

What I wind up with are structured notes which can be straightforward to learn, organise, and revisit, as a result of it’s extra than simply writing one thing down, however having the ability to return and evaluate questions and problem assumptions.

Illustration of the Cornell Method
Credit score:

A latest research by Kuniyoshi Sakai, titled Paper Notebooks vs. Cell Gadgets: Mind Activation Variations Throughout Reminiscence Retrieval, truly confirmed increased retention and recall for topics that used pen and paper versus a keyboard, or pill and stylus. Nonetheless, there may be broad settlement that taking notes, in any kind with any enter, helps with encoding, retention, and recall.

As you possibly can see from the picture above, I’m an enormous fan of analog note-taking. For me, analog helps with memorising, synthesising, and summarising. As quickly as I write one thing down with pen and paper, it additionally appears to seek out its method into my mind – one thing that doesn’t occur with digital. I even use the Cornell methodology when making ready for conferences; I summarise the briefing doc in my pocket book, and it instantly sticks. The truth that you’re lively with the textual content as a substitute of simply studying it drives this course of.

Utilizing ML and generative AI

There may be a whole lot of worth within the act of taking notes and actively synthesising info. However we dwell in a world with extra information than we might ever moderately anticipate to comb by means of. That is an space the place ML and generative AI will play an more and more necessary position. A number of examples that come to thoughts are:

  • Utilizing a transcription service with speaker identification to complement the notes you’re taking throughout a gathering.
  • Utilizing laptop imaginative and prescient and optical character recognition (OCR) to transform your handwritten notes into docs you can simply share with others or retailer in a central location. (Assuming that you just’re not already utilizing one thing like Kindle Scribe).
  • Close to-instant summarisation.
  • Iterating over a whole corpus of notes utilizing an LLM to determine themes, traits, and necessary folks throughout a whole bunch of pages from conferences, lectures, doc opinions, on-site visits, and so forth.

I see this like studying a map. In case you return 20 years, studying a map was a reasonably widespread ability. You’d plan a route, take some notes, then attempt to navigate it. And when you took the route sufficient occasions, you’d bring it to mind. You’d bear in mind a fountain or the color of a particular home alongside the way in which. You’d know when and the place there can be site visitors or development, and the alternate routes to get round it. However lately, we simply use our telephones. We comply with turn-by-turn instructions from street-to-street without having to commit an excessive amount of to reminiscence.

It’s useful. It’s straightforward. That’s not likely up for debate. However studying a bodily map continues to be a really helpful ability. There’ll inevitably be occasions that you just don’t have cell service (otherwise you lose your telephone, or possibly you wish to disconnect from expertise), and realizing the place you’re and the best way to get the place you’re going are necessary. And similar to taking notes by hand, it permits you to take away a few of the noise created by expertise, and to concentrate on the necessary bits.

I’m genuinely curious to see how analysis will evolve within the subsequent 10+ years as we proceed to review what works finest for digital natives.

Take notes, a lot of them

I’ll go away you with a quote from the author Anne Lamott: “[…] one of many worst emotions I can consider, [is] to have had an exquisite second or perception or imaginative and prescient or phrase, to know you had it, then lose it.” My recommendation: take notes, a lot of them.

Now, go construct!

Be aware: I’m genuinely curious how my readers take notes and synthesise info. In case you’re doing issues in another way than me, let me know on Twitter or LinkedIn.



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