Note-Taking for Learning and Innovation

Do your notes bore you? They shouldn’t if you’re serious about learning.

Note-taking is among the most powerful, accessible, and portable means to support innovation and learning. Yet, most of us do it poorly. Do you review your notes after you take them? Do you know why you are taking notes in the first place?

There is an art to good note-taking and to using notes effectively. Notes capture what happens, what is discussed or observed, and record insights and commentary — but only if we use them.

Let’s look at ways to improve this.

Tools of the Trade

Fast Company has a remarkably detailed and useful guide to selecting a notebook. The New York Times annually reviews the best pens. Your choice of both can make a big difference to your willingness to use them. That is the key. The best tools are the ones you use.

If pen-and-paper isn’t your thing, consider using one of many apps. In his new book, Building Your Second Brain, Tiago Forte explores how apps and systems can help us better record and retain information. The secret is that the best app is the one that matches the way that you learn and use notes in your practice.

Forte has conducted research into the use of note-taking apps by canvassing the thousands of people who attend his workshops and he’s found that the top tools are:

  1. Evernote
  2. Obsidian
  3. Notion

These aren’t the only ones out there, but they are the most used. Each of these map on to three different note-taking styles such as those suggested by Anne-Laure Le Cunff, which we’ll explore below.

Note-taking Styles

Anne-Laure Le Cunff from Ness Labs has written extensively on note-taking — read her detailed explanation here. She reviews the literature and suggests a variety of strategies that work depending on your goals and preferences. She also provides recommendations on which app to use based on the kind of note-taker you are.

Le Cunff proposes three main note-taking styles:

  • The architect. They enjoy planning, designing processes and frameworks, and need a note-taking tool that allows them to easily structure their ideas.
  • The gardener. They enjoy exploring, connecting various thoughts together, and need a note-taking tool that allows them to easily grow their ideas.
  • The librarian. They enjoy collecting, building a catalogue of resources, and need a note-taking tool that allows them to easily retrieve their ideas.

The best way to learn is to design your systems to match your needs, preferences, and style of note-taking.

Systems of Use

Once you’ve got tools and matched them to your preferences, the next is building an actual use system. This means getting serious about learning. Learning will fail in bad systems as illustrated in a post over on Censemaking.

We suggest asking yourself the following questions ahead of any learning-based activity like a course or webinar:

  • Will I create the time to review, integrate or reflect on what I am exposed to?
  • Is the delivery of this course suited to the ways in which I make sense of the world and develop new skills?
  • Am I invested in the product — a certificate, degree, or outcome — or the process?
  • Am I engaged with this program (course, webinar, tutorial) to escape from asking myself difficult questions about my work?
  • Do I have a system in place to revisit, re-work, and apply what I’ve learned in place before I start?

A good learning system involves the following:

A good learning system is something that:

  1. Reduces distraction (preserves and hones attention to find, gather, synthesize and sense-make the most useful information)
  2. Protects/creates/utilizes time (is fit-for-purpose in connecting our knowledge to our purpose and our strategy)
  3. Articulates care (creates principles for practice)
  4. Fits the culture of your organization (creates space for integration)

Learn By Design

As you can see, any good learning experience involves good design. Our choice of tools, motivation, and systems all shape what we learn, what we retain, and whether it’s of practical value.

Learning is easy to say, more complicated to do. But it is something we can design into our organization.

You can learn to learn better by design. Remember: the best system is the one that you use.

If you want help creating a learning system for your organization to help get the most out of what you do every day, reach out and let’s grab a coffee and learn from one another.

Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

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