Note-taking strategy early 2016

I’m probably what one might call an obsessive note-taker.

I’ve talked in the past about the importance of keeping a lab journal. Initially I produced a stack of books filled with hand-scribbled notes. Although this is my favourite authoring modality, the fact that such notes can’t be easily indexed and queried (maybe one day?!) soon leads one to try electronic solutions. Over the years I’ve experimented with a number of different tools (see under “Nerd News”) to do this.

This post summarises my current selection of tools.

For making notes with a visual aspect, for example photos of beers that I’ve tasted, and sometimes screenshots of websites, I use Google Keep. This has a really great Android app with which you can easily save a website, including screenshot, using the Android “share with” functionality. On the desktop, this has a web-app that looks like this:

keep_screenie

One of the neat features of Keep is that you can easily have it extract and OCR text from images, for example if you’ve taken a photo of a business card. Unfortunately, the web-app is quite sluggish (this could be because I live in a bandwidth-constrained world here at the southern tip of Africa), and there’s no web clipper with which I can easily save web pages whilst on the desktop. Furthermore, I find the layout to be quite chaotic, and therefore I treat it more like my similarly chaotic digital cork board.

After a two year hiatus, I’ve returned to the SimpleNote universe as my core mobile and desktop note-taking tool. They have great apps on IOS, Android, Mac and Web. I use the super sleek, some might say austere, SimpleNote Android app (recently rewritten when Automattic, makers of WordPress, bought Simperium, makers of SimpleNote) and on the desktop I mostly use nvpy, my open source SimpleNote client. The latest greatest version (0.10.0, soon to be released) looks like this:

nvpy_screenie

Because SimpleNote is text-only, and it’s a fully synced offline-capable tool, it’s nice and fast. This is the tool you want to use to store those small but useful factoids, quotes and code snippets.

For more in-depth and technical lab journals, I use GNU Emacs with Org mode. This enables me to write documents with beautifully typeset math, syntax-highlighted and in some cases even live-evaluated code blocks, and good document structure, all in plain text. Here’s a sample of my November 2015 lab journal where I started reading about and experimenting with a bit of D language:

emacs_orgmode_screenie

Parts of these journals can be sent directly to your WordPress blog from within Emacs, and you can generate high quality PDFs at the press of a typical simple 12 key Emacs shortcut combo. This being Emacs, the experience can be easily customised to emulate SimpleNote in terms of interactivity, but this will not easily compete with SimpleNote proper in terms of transparent syncing between all devices and in terms of accessibility on mobile.

Using these three tools together currently takes good care of my note-taking requirements. However, I think that there might be room for a fourth type of tool that is more visual, supports rich and graphical linking between data items and even between sub-components of such items and, perhaps most importantly, enables us to build note landscapes that are natively as non-linear as our thoughts.

On the importance of taking notes. [Weekly Head Voices #38]

Post summary: Part one is about friends graduating from Evil School, part two is rather short mentioning vague bits of good news and part three is 100% time management and productivity boosting goodness! Feel free to skip, skim or reorder!

One

On Thursday, February 10, 2011, my dear friend Mister Krekel graduated from Evil School after years of hard work and evil-doing, and will henceforth go through life as the formidable Doctor Krekel. Please do watch out.

Evil School. (Photo by the talented fpixel.wordpress.com.)

The joyous transition took place in the Evil School’s Academiegebouw in Leiden, and this time yours truly (I’m referring to me in a round-about fashion) even had the great honour of playing a part in the formal proceedings. If you’re curious as to what exactly this ritual constitutes, see this previous edition of the WHV on the graduation of another terribly evil colleague. I believe that the bunch of us now constitute a bona fide Axis of Evil. No, the evil jokes can unfortunately not stop yet.

The Party was held in a secret cafe nearby. You will notice that I’ve capitalised Party, as it was not your average run of the mill Evil School graduation affair, but a social event of note. Here in Holland, the PhD defence and graduation are a combined affair, and so the whole day is dedicated to just one person. It is actually very special: People take time off from work, sometimes even temporarily put aside their differences, and travel from all over to attend the festivities. It’s like a wedding, except that there’s only one of you. I can only recommend it very highly. At the Party, everyone had clearly read the memo, and they were there with that singular goal in mind: Celebrate the freshly minted Evil Doctor. Presents were given, speeches were held, photos were shown, beer was imbibed and, flying in the face of all advice concerning the mixing of alcohol, cameras and social networking, the best evil photographer in town, who’s coincidentally also in Evil School, took the most amazing photos that you should be able to see on Facebook if you’re one of the privileged few to belong to The Network, also known as The Friends of the Axis of Evil.

Two

On the good news front, you’ll see (or not) on the list of EuroVis 2011 conditional accepts, that a paper by cool colleagues from far away, to which I contributed a small part, has been conditionally accepted, and hence has a significant chance of being presented at said event in Bergen, Norway (May 31 to June 3). We also have plans to submit a poster (or two), so there’s an even more significant chance that I will make an appearance at this fantastic conference! We’re also cooking up various odds and ends that will hopefully crystallise sufficiently by the end of March to be submissible for VisWeek 2011. Cross yer fingers.

Three

Today’s backyard time management section is in fact more about planning than it is about notes. However, my Pro-Tips involve combining them in an easy to implement productivity booster. When people start out in research, one of the first bits of advice they get is keeping some kind of lab journal. I think this advice applies to more than just research: If you do any kind of independent or project work, jotting down your activities, thoughts and results during the day is useful in helping to structure your thought processes, and also very helpful when you have to backtrack a complex multi-day procedure. During my Ph.D., I filled a number of real cardboard-and-paper books with notes. More recently, I’ve started using Google Documents for the same purpose. Besides all the other advantages, having to document explicitly your work output keeps you productive and on your toes.

Pro Tip #1: Keep a lab journal, even if you don’t work in a lab.

I’ve mentioned before that my resolutions for 2011 included more concrete planning. This has manifested in a work-in-progress planning for the whole year, including milestones, awards won, and so forth, but much more practically, it has manifested in a little lab-journal-compatible trick. Every morning when I sit down to begin the day, I spend a few minutes thinking and then start the day’s journal entry by writing down, as concretely as possible, the tasks that I plan to complete by the end of the day. This also ensures that I spend effort on the important things, and not only on the urgent things. So, that brings us to:

Pro Tip #2: At the start of each day, write down in your lab journal exactly and concretely what you plan to accomplish by the end of that day.

These pro tips appear to be quite straight-forward, but together they help one to focus, and to keep tabs on one’s effective productivity. In other words, just being terribly busy the whole day gets you nothing; the trick is being terribly busy in all the right directions.

P.S.

Somebody is clearly pushing the boundaries of awesomeness… cowboys AND aliens!