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Just a few phrases on taking notes

Illustration of taking notes

As we’re about to start out the planning conferences for 2024 at AWS, I’ve been considering 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 signifies that I’m assembly with plenty of good people doing analysis and constructing superb merchandise. And at each assembly I’m taking notes — plenty of them.

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

However this was memorisation, not synthesis.

As I continued alongside my academic journey, and the subject material turned more and more extra advanced, it compelled me to rethink observe 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 might have copied the next definition verbatim: “The basic position of mitochondria is oxidative phosphorylation, which generates ATP by utilising the vitality launched in the course of the oxidation of the meals we eat.” And when learning, I might have dedicated this to reminiscence with out essentially understanding the way it really labored. What would have been extra useful would have been to learn the definition, then write it out in a means that was significant to me, comparable 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 observe taking simply isn’t as efficient if you’re making an attempt to be taught and retain new info.

Pen and paper

To this present day, I nonetheless take plenty of my notes by hand. It helps me to take care of focus and internalise the vital bits. It’s unimaginable to jot down as quick as folks communicate, so I’m compelled to jot down down what I believe is most vital or make observe 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. The whole lot 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 cut 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 actual fact (i.e., write a succinct abstract).

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

Illustration of the Cornell Method
Credit score:

A current examine by Kuniyoshi Sakai, titled Paper Notebooks vs. Cellular Gadgets: Mind Activation Variations Throughout Reminiscence Retrieval, really confirmed greater retention and recall for topics that used pen and paper versus a keyboard, or pill and stylus. Nevertheless, 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 a giant 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 means into my mind – one thing that doesn’t occur with digital. I even use the Cornell methodology when getting ready for conferences; I summarise the briefing doc in my pocket book, and it instantly sticks. The truth that you might be lively with the textual content as a substitute of simply studying it drives this course of.

Utilizing ML and generative AI

There may be plenty of worth within the act of taking notes and actively synthesising info. However we stay in a world with extra knowledge than we might ever fairly anticipate to comb by means of. That is an space the place ML and generative AI will play an more and more vital position. Just a few 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 that you could simply share with others or retailer in a central location. (Assuming that you simply’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 vital folks throughout a whole bunch of pages from conferences, lectures, doc opinions, on-site visits, and many others.

I see this like studying a map. In the event 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 should you took the route sufficient instances, you’d bring it to mind. You’d bear in mind a fountain or the color of a selected home alongside the way in which. You’d know when and the place there could be site visitors or development, and the alternate routes to get round it. However lately, we simply use our telephones. We observe turn-by-turn instructions from street-to-street with no need to commit an excessive amount of to reminiscence.

It’s useful. It’s straightforward. That’s probably not up for debate. However studying a bodily map remains to be a really helpful ability. There’ll inevitably be instances that you simply don’t have cell service (otherwise you lose your cellphone, or perhaps you need to disconnect from expertise), and realizing the place you might be and learn how to get the place you’re going are vital. And similar to taking notes by hand, it lets you take away among the noise created by expertise, and to concentrate on the vital bits.

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

Take notes, plenty 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 a beautiful second or perception or imaginative and prescient or phrase, to know you had it, then lose it.” My recommendation: take notes, plenty of them.

Now, go construct!

Notice: I’m genuinely curious how my readers take notes and synthesise info. In the event you’re doing issues otherwise than me, let me know on Twitter or LinkedIn.



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