Note-Taking and Notebooks: Delineating and Organizing the Content

Welcome back to the Wndsn series on effective note-taking. Last installment, we prepared our blank pages and they are ready to use.

Delineating and Organizing the Content

Now we are organizing the content within a notebook in order to make information accessible and thus retrievable. When information is retrievable it is available for rumination. Then, maybe we can actually do something with our ideas. And to do so, we have to give some shape to our output, to reflect upon and in turn, maybe shope our minds.

  • Date all entries, including later additions, corrections, or deletions

After you have created a TOC or Index and have numbered your pages, putting a date down is not difficult. It is probably pretty automatic, a function of muscle memory having had to put a date on your school papers. And now you can track your progress over time, easy.

  • Develop an internal organization method, such as 'Objective’, ‘Outline’, ‘Results’ and ‘Conclusion’

What is the next layer of challenge is figuring out how you are literally going to organize your brain space. If your notebook is oriented for the lab, project specific, or process oriented reason for using the notebook, you will want to be clear on the following matters:

  • Objective: A clearly and plainly stated reason for endeavoring on an activity/project/method, etc.
  • Outline: The process taken or will be taken to achieve the above objective.
  • Results: What was actually achieved.
  • Conclusion: What sticks, what didn’t, what needs to change, suggestions for further development.

Best practices (here and here) include codifying this structure as the example you will follow as your overarching format in the very front before your TOC. In doing so, you will have a reference point to make sure your data is examinable and process repeatable.

Whether your notebook is goal specific or more free form, the following comes into play and is standard for effective note taking:

  • Develop your own set of symbols, or use something like the Bullet Journal Rapid Logging system and apply them consistently.

It is already a bit of an ask to start serious note taking nowadays on a non-digital platform. Especially when we can pop in a keyword and hit search, or take a short amount of time to just open an app. Therefore, we must make advantage of time saving processes. The easiest way is to create a set of symbols for each visual scanning. That way, you can open up your notebook, give it a glance and proceed on your way.

Andrej's icons

The popular Bullet Journal system three basic notations “• Tasks” “- Notes” and “○ Events”. Wndsn Expedition team member Andrej has a system of 85 separate symbols that he draws from (see the figure above). Whether it is 3 or 85, any set of symbols that has meaning to you, that you can easily draw, and that you will instantly recognize is what is important.

  • Consider use of your own labels, color coding, or hashtags to more easily populate your TOC/Index.

You are looking for a piece of information, for example, your quarterly tax payment is due and you have to reference the amount because you are trying to pay the bill now. You wrote it down in your notebook last quarter but you don’t remember when exactly. You start flipping through impatiently.

If you had written at the bottom of the page #taxpayment, or highlighted the completed task, like☒ Tax Payment, then a quick flip could deliver the information you need. This is what we are calling a label. It is ultimately a condensed version of the larger text/task/data on the page from which you reference by sight in a time sensitive manner. It is an extra step, but a useful one for quick, less formal, visual indexing.

Try not to get bogged down with what other people are doing. Ultimately it doesn’t matter which set of delineators you use, it is important that you recognize the purpose of the notebook, and then develop a set of reference points to help you find where the data is stored. It is important that you will recognize what each symbol of label means instantly and upon sight. And as in all things, consistency is key.

Lastly, creativity rules. Maybe you have a few favorite pen colors and carrying a bunch of pens around is easy for you. Or washi tape, or stickers, or whatever. Do you. Red flag alert, however. Occam’s Razor applies to note taking as well: "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity." Keep the simplest method, the one that is the easiest to reproduce. Carrying around a bunch of custom stencils becomes annoying after a while, and time to apply washi tape and hand drawn banners is the first to evaporate.

  • Notate your Legend (symbols, labels, required pieces of information) in the cover or beginning pages.

And lastly, we must enshrine our system in the front of the notebook, because memory is faulty and the memory of what we wanted to hold to memory is also faulty. Thus, we must codify in the front in order to reference in the future.

To review before moving forward:

Why are we doing all of this? We’ve taken the time to clear our minds and set an intention by the ritual of purchasing a notebook. We then prepare our brains (and by extension, the rest of us) by preparing the paper and with it, the page numbers. We then make the statement to ourselves that our work is valuable to ourselves (if not to a wider community) to remember and reference, and to show that we create a more formal TOC or Index. We declare the focused nature of that which we want to track and develop and have consecrated them into future use. Finally, we populate a TOC or index after we have made a note or expanded a section, making the data easier to find as we move forward in time.

This can literally take just 15 minutes. Or it can take longer to consider your goals, your strengths and your shortcomings, how you work, and what you want to achieve.

Next Installment: Preserving the Content. Your homework: What do you value in a writing implement?

The picture shows a page from the Wndsn XPD Explorer’s Notebook inside the Papa Wallet by Thousand Yard Studio.