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Just a few 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 loads 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 a number of good people doing analysis and constructing superb merchandise. And at each assembly I’m taking notes — a number of them.

The earliest reminiscences I’ve of taking notes are in major faculty. 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 house, examine what I’d copied, and finally take a check. In observe, 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 instructional journey, and the subject material grew to become more and more extra advanced, 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 might have copied the next definition verbatim: “The basic function of mitochondria is oxidative phosphorylation, which generates ATP by utilising the power launched in the course of the oxidation of the meals we eat.” And when learning, I’d 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 method that was significant to me, reminiscent of: “Mitochondria are the energy plant of the cell. They generate a lot of the chemical power wanted to energy the cell’s biochemical reactions.” Perhaps 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 once you’re making an attempt to study and retain new info.

Pen and paper

To at the present time, I nonetheless take a number of my notes by hand. It helps me to take care of focus and internalise the essential bits. It’s unattainable to put in writing as quick as individuals communicate, so I’m compelled to put in writing down what I believe is most essential 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 Methodology

I’ve spent fairly a little bit of time over the previous couple of months studying about and relearning completely different note-taking approaches. All the things from outlining to thoughts mapping to charting. And what’s labored fairly properly for me is the Cornell Methodology. A easy method that has you cut up a pocket book web page into 4 components: 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 technique 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 might 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 evaluation questions and problem assumptions.

Illustration of the Cornell Method
Credit score:

A current examine by Kuniyoshi Sakai, titled Paper Notebooks vs. Cell Gadgets: Mind Activation Variations Throughout Reminiscence Retrieval, really confirmed increased retention and recall for topics that used pen and paper versus a keyboard, or pill and stylus. Nonetheless, there’s broad settlement that taking notes, in any type 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 technique when getting 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 number of worth within the act of taking notes and actively synthesising info. However we dwell in a world with extra knowledge 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 essential function. 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 pc imaginative and prescient and optical character recognition (OCR) to transform your handwritten notes into docs 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 complete corpus of notes utilizing an LLM to establish themes, developments, and essential individuals throughout tons of of pages from conferences, lectures, doc evaluations, on-site visits, and so on.

I see this like studying a map. In the event you return 20 years, studying a map was a reasonably frequent talent. You’d plan a route, take some notes, then attempt to navigate it. And when you took the route sufficient instances, 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 building, and the alternate routes to get round it. However today, we simply use our telephones. We comply with turn-by-turn instructions from street-to-street while not having 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 talent. There’ll inevitably be instances that you simply don’t have cell service (otherwise you lose your telephone, or possibly you wish to disconnect from know-how), and figuring out the place you’re and the way to get the place you’re going are essential. And similar to taking notes by hand, it lets you take away a few of the noise created by know-how, and to deal with the essential bits.

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

Take notes, a number 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 number 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 in another way than me, let me know on Twitter or LinkedIn.



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