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Note-taking Hi-Tech or Low-Tech

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High-Tech and Low-tech

There is an article from Life-Hacker which puts forward Thomas Edison as an example of a successful note-taker. The author describes Edison’s note-taking ability thus:

Famous inventor Thomas Edison is probably the most experienced note-taker in the world. His diary which is still maintained as an important part of the United States historical record contains five million (5,000,000) pages. Important developments such as his work on perfecting the light bulb and electric lighting systems are captured in great detail. He never met a sheet of paper he didn’t like.

Edison’s note-taking habits have seven characteristics. First, they are comprehensive. Anything worth taking down especially those relevant to the inventor’s work is recorded. Second, the notes are “forward-looking”. “Things like lists of contacts, appointments, “to do” lists, and actionable items for follow up or later review were all contained within his comprehensive system,” writes the author. Third, the notes are also retrospective (“rearward-looking”, writes the author): “He was always able to review past work and avoid repeatedly going down dead-end roads. He could always review whatever he had said or was told. He never had to remember most things as long as he could remember how to look it up later.” Fourth, the notes are searchable. With today’s technology we can “tag” files or associate them with certain keywords which we feed search engines, whether web-based or desktop-based. For Edison, it was a page in one of his notebooks that provides the key. Edison had “a fairly good system of archiving his records by a combination of chronological and subject matter based systems. He created numerous groupings, files, folders, etc. which helped him to get to the right part of his records in a reasonably short time.” Fifth, the notes covered the questions “Who, what, where, when and how much”. Sixth, especially as regards a current work activity, the notes also answered the question “How and why”. And finally, the notes became for Edison, a prodigious memory-aid. The author of the article makes an interesting point here:

By writing everything down that he thought was worth writing, he was able to free himself of the burden of having to remember it. A strange and almost unexpected thing occurs. The process of writing things down aids in the mental memory retention. The combination of having the confidence in knowing the information is on record and easily retrievable combined with the improved retention from the process of writing it down, creates a winning combination when it comes to memory

This last observation reminds me of what a Dominican Latin professor (Fr. Vargas, OP, now deceased) told us once: “If you wish to remember, write it down. The more senses you use, the better the memory.” So with the study of Latin, at least, not only the sense of sight should be used; one should also use the tongue (pronouncing the words), the ears (listening to the pronounced words) and the sense of touch in writing a word down. His advice to make use of more than one sense is actually a given in psychology. Fr. Merino, OP whenever he would draw maps on the board would remind us: “If you wish to remember anything, write it, draw it.” All these nostalgic data points to effective note-taking.

Fr. Enrico Gonzalez, another Dominican well known for his witty sermons, recommends a form of note-taking to his students in Sacred Eloquence:

Keep a preacher’s journal. A preacher is a reporter of good news. As such, he, like any professional news reporter, is armed with notebook and pencil to jot down anything that happens on the road — from a commonplace anecdote to a scientific breakthrough, from a newspaper clipping to a technical article, from a one-line adage to a lengthy speech — and bring it to dialog with the Word of God, the only veritable good news. (Enrico Gonzalez, OP, Diary of a Preacher: Guidelines for Preaching, pp. 45-46)

Journal keeping is a form of note-taking. Fr. Gonzalez has in mind a journal for a specific task, that of preaching. But a journal can cover a lot of topics. If you are like me, even episodes from certain TV shows like “Mysterious Ways” or “Lost” can find its way into a journal. Journal-keeping not only improves one’s writing skills. It also helps one become more aware of oneself. It is an aid to self-knowledge. The spiritual journal that some Augustinian sisters keep, the method of which I also tried to learn back when I was in college, is a simple notebook with a pattern (a “template” people would say today). At the top line, one had the title “Bible Passage”, below it, the question “What did I feel while I read the passage?”, and finally, below that question, a follow-up, “Why (did I feel what I felt)?” Finally, some lines for “Prayer”. This kind of note-taking however cannot do without some assistance from a spiritual director. In fact, the spiritual journal is a means by which one tracks one’s spiritual growth.

Journal-keeping also helps in tracking the progress of activities whether personal or institutional. Institutional note-taking takes the form of minutes of meetings, reports to the President, project reports, etc. These “institutional notes” become useful especially when administrators are changed and new ones will need to follow-through what their predecessors were not able to complete. Within this context, a middle manager who has monitored his office’s activity would be a lot of help to whomever would continue the work of that office.

Modern technology now allows us to keep a paperless environment or at least to minimize the use of paper. Fr. Desmond Foley, OSA used to tell me that computers keep us from destroying our trees. He made this “environmental observation” while showing me his new laptop. That was in the early 1990s (or was it very late 80s?). Towards the end of the article mentioned above, the author asks a set of pertinent questions about our own system of note-taking:

How can we improve upon Edison’s system using today’s technologies? Obviously, we have invented the ball point pen to replace his messy quill and ink bottle so that notes can be written in real time. In his day, he perfected the typewriter. Today, we are no longer committed to getting stuff onto paper as the final form of record retention. Vast portions of Edison’s original archives have recently been digitized and can be viewed online. This eliminates the need for mothballs and maintaining rooms full of old papers that can only be studied by someone showing up and going through them one page at a time.

How does your system compare to Edison’s? His was comprehensive and scalable to wherever his interests lay. Is your system similarly scalable? What about the content? How much of the information in your system has objectively measurable value? Edison kept everything and it all went up in value as his overall fame and power grew. How valuable has the information in your system become (or is becoming)? How scalable is your system as your interests change (whether expanding of shifting to other areas)? Edison always used the best available technology to maintain his records as efficiently as he thought they could be maintained. Have you similarly employed sound technologies for taking and keeping your notes?

I still use low-tech forms of note-taking alongside the computer. I have several notebooks containing notes on different aspects of my life and work, from bible sentence flows to notes taken from books and articles, to the articles I actually write and publish whether online or offline. My computer has several note-taking tools, some of which I have acquired for free by writing software reviews. These “tools” in fact now contribute to the ever shrinking hard drive of my computer. The fact is, notes are reusable data that can be recycled for purposes for which they were not originally intended. A sentence flow I create in my notebook can later on be scanned for use in a presentation for bible study, for example. In any case, I wonder which is more difficult to make: to create a note or to keep it? I think Edison’s example is worth emulating: he not only wrote his notes, he also kept them in such a way that he could retrieve them later for reuse.

For desktop-based note-taking tools, check out the following pages:

For the article mentioned above, go here.

Other Articles You May Want To Read

Originally posted 2009-05-08 00:27:40. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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