How to Take Notes Like an Alpha-Geek (Plus: My $2,600 Date + Challenge)

201 Comments

I take notes like some people take drugs.

There is an eight-foot stretch of shelves in my house containing nothing but full notebooks.

Some would call this hypergraphia (Dostoevsky was a member of this club), but I trust the weakest pen more than the strongest memory, and note taking is—in my experience—one of the most important skills for converting excessive information into precise action and follow-up.

Simple but effective note taking enables me to:

-Review book highlights in less than 10 minutes

-Connect scattered notes on a single theme in 10 minutes that would otherwise require dozens of hours

-Contact and connect mentors with relevant questions and help I can offer

-Impose structure on information for increased retention and recall

I fashion myself a note-taking geek of the first class. How dare I self-appoint myself into this priesthood? Relax, script kiddies. I’m using a much broader definition of “geek,” this one borrowed from “Understanding Geeks” in the current issue of Inc. Magazine (that said, I was recently on Geekbrief.tv, birthplace of the ubercool iYule.tv):

“Someone with an intense curiosity about a specific subject. Not limited to tech–there are also gaming geeks, music geeks, etc.”

Here are a few recommendations from inside the world of a compulsive note taker, including both the macro (books and notepad principles) and micro (page features and formatting):

1. Create an indexing system:

aj.jpg
Indexing AJ Jacobs’ latest book (click to enlarge all thumbnails)

Information is useful only to the extent that you can find it when you need it. Most of us have the experience of note proliferation—notes on the backs of envelopes, billing statements, hotel paper, etc.–that somehow never gets consolidated. Consolidate and create an index.

My favorite notepads (covered below) generally don’t have page numbers off the shelf. Here’s how you progress with a non-paginated pad:

A. Put page numbers on the upper-right of each right-hand page but not on the left (e.g., 1, 2, 3, etc.). I do about 30 pages at a time, as needed.

B. Whenever you complete a page, put the page number in an index on the inside cover (front or back) and a few words to describe the content.

If it’s on the left-hand page, just take the prior page and add “.5” to it. Thus, if you flip over page 10, for example, and write on the back, that second page is “10.5” in the index.

blog-brainstorms.jpg
Brainstorming blog post topics and paginating on the right-hand pages

The page numbers in the index do NOT need to be in order, as you’ll be scanning for content, then referring to the page. If you write on the same topic again, simply put that page number next to the previous index entry.

Creating an index like this for non-fiction books I read allows me to refer back and review key concepts in 5-10 minutes without rereading the entire book and searching for underlined sections.

stanford.jpg
Notes from “The Biology of Sleep” at Stanford University (Notice the bottom-right square allocated to follow-up questions, which is standard)


2. Choose the Proper Pad for the Job:

notepads.jpg
My current repetoire of active notepads.

Not all notepads are created equal.

This doesn’t mean that one is better for all things, just that you should match the form factor and durability of a notepad to the content.

Below is a photo of several different notepads I use:

-I use the big notebook, which contains graph paper, for larger projects such as future books, TV programs, feature-length articles, LitLiberation, conference panel notes, etc. I don’t want to turn 10 pages to get an overview of all the pieces of a single topic/event. Cons: terrible for traveling and intimidating for interview subjects. The larger the pad, the more reserved interviewees will be.

sxsw-1-with-person-follow-up.jpg
Notes from my first SXSW (Notice the bottom-right follow-up, in this case, people to contact)

blog-to-book.jpg
SXSW panel titled “Blog to Book”; Notice the bottom panel and how I number the participants so I can just label comments/notes with each respective number. No spacial guessing required.

-I use the hard-backed red rectangular notebook, bought in Milan, as a default notepad. It is the perfect fits-in-ass-pocket checkbook size. Telephone interview notes, lists (dreamlining, asset assessment, cash-flow projections), projects requiring less than 3 hours to complete, random observations about emotional state or internal problem solving, random silliness like songs (think Adam Sandler), etc. Here is one beauty, written at 4am during an airport layover after a sleepless red eye:

Triple Threat

The fattest midget I ever met
Some called him the triple threat
Ugly, dirty, and smelly yet
The fattest midget I ever met.

Hey… if you’re bound to have rare flashes of insight/stupidity, you might as well capture them on paper.

-The flexible softcover moleskine is excellent for interviews, especially if you are in motion or in the field. I’ve found, however, that if that is the only notebook I carry, I put in material I would prefer to preserve for months or years, and the soft moleskine gets ripped to pieces in backpacks, luggage, and pockets over just a few weeks. There are hardback versions, but they tend to be square-ish and fit poorly in pockets. I limit this format to interviews, contact info when on the run, and temporary to-do/not-to-do lists.

I don’t use digital notetaking tools. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve noticed that some of the most innovative techies in Silicon Valley do the same, whether with day-planner calendars, memo pads, or just simple notecards with a binder clip. It’s a personal choice, and I like paper. It can be lost, but it can’t be deleted, and I find it faster.

###

Odds and Ends: My $2,600 Date and a Challenge

The $2,600 Date:

So, what happened after I auctioned myself off for literacy fundraising on eBay?

Quite a few of you have asked, so here’s the scoop. The $2,600 date took place this past Saturday, and we had an AWESOME time. I promised I wouldn’t show pictures, but the smart young lass looks a lot like Natalie Portman, so the night immediately started off on a much-relieved foot. She’s a veeeery pretty girl.

Big smiles all around.

Festivities began at the famous Alfredo’s Steakhouse in SF, where Marco made the meal one to remember. The delicious medium-rare Chicago steaks were matched with wine I brought along, in this case, a particularly sentimental and special bottle: Rombauer Vineyards’ Proprietor Selection 2004 Zinfandel (think of it as this wine on steroids).

Bigger smiles all around.

Once full and well buzzed, we set off for the beginning of entertainment: seats 10 feet from the main platform at Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. It was incredible, and as an acrobatics fetishist, it was in seventh heaven. Hard drumming, aerials, gainers, wheels of death… Here’s just a taste of what we feasted our eyes on:

After Cirque du Soleil… well, I’ll leave the rest of the date to your overactive imaginations! It’s entirely possible nothing happened, but if it had, I wouldn’t be one to kiss and tell. Some things are more fun left unexplained :)

The Dream Date Challenge:

What would your dream date look like?

Pick a city anywhere in the world, and for a budget of no more than $500, describe your dream date in 300 words or less (bullet points are fine). My favorite 5 will get at least 12 copies of the 1st printing (it’s now in the 25th) of The 4-Hour Workweek to give away as X-mas/Festivus presents.

Be specific… but go nuts!

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Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

201 comments on “How to Take Notes Like an Alpha-Geek (Plus: My $2,600 Date + Challenge)

  1. Tim,

    This is a helpful post (and I find most of what you offer on your blog helpful, by the way). I was especially interested to see your endorsement of hand-written notes. The most popular post on my blog is called “On Note-Taking and the Body.” It draws on the thought of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who argued that we are embodied minds, instead of minds in bodies. It is a short post if you want to read it: http://therelativeabsolute.blogspot.com/2009/05/on-note-taking-and-body.html?showComment=1244641380950#c5133607749773729340

    One thing I would like to see is a more fully articulated “method” for note-taking. For example, your notes resemble a quasi-Cornell method with the space for summaries or questions at the bottom. I imagine that your method developed organically and is therefore personally fitted to your needs, but a blog about method would be fantastic!

    John

  2. Hi Tim, thanks for the interesting post.

    I used to take notes while reading, but I realised this took the fun out of reading so I stopped. I thought, I’ll remember what I need to remember. If I can subconsciously remember what I’ve read, then it’s worth remembering. Otherwise, why bother? I’m not sure if this is the best mindset to have! What do you think?

    Mary

  3. Hello 4HWW!

    This might seem like a silly question. While taking notes on a topic, is it better to write on every page, or to write on every right handed page? Is that just a matter of individual preference? Also do I write down the page number in the index a page so…page 1 index, 2 index 3 index, or once I finish writing on multiple pages of the same topic (e.g. 1. index….stop the topic at page 20…index) I don’t quite understand.

    Thank you all for your time.

  4. No offense, but I consider an article written on advancing note-taking capacity that doesn’t include computer-generated soft-copy notes to be EXTREMELY outdated, impractical, antiquated (not in the pleasant old-school way either), and novice. I have thousands of notes all stored, archived, and categorized on computer (which are triple-backedup of course) all the way as early as elementary school, highschool, through college, certification programs and the bulk of all the notes by far are personal notes taken on self-endeavored research projects. The occasional scratchpad hand-written note is okay, and I’m a computer science geek of sorts, but still, I found an article on the “joys of numbering your handwritten pages” (and then what do you do with those stacks of slowly deteriorating pages and awkward binders???? Nothing , they create toxic clutter) to be kind of pathetic. so just my 2 cents. But all my notes are soft-copy tripe-backedup on the computer where they’re accessible on my iphone, laptop, comuter any webbrowser really. Could you imagine carrying around all of your hand-written if you wanted to look up a notes? Absurd, ridiculous, and pathetic to the extreme. I’ve put time into copying valuable hadn-written journals/notes to computer files. and properly archving/storing the notes. I was shocked to see such a not only outdated, but slow, cumbersome, and quite ridiculous (bordering stupidity) hand-written note method still used bye Ferris, of whom so many lifestyle techniques are so advanced.

    • Pathetic and stupid? There is no place for rudeness here. Constructive criticism is fine, but rudeness and ridiculing other commenters (as you did on one other comment) don’t have a place here.

      Thanks for commenting, but play nice…

      Tim

      • I’m also an avid note taker, both on paper and using Evernote, but with the system you described here I would imagine that old (physical) notebooks soon fall off the radar.
        Is scanning the notebooks into Evernote your solution to this problem? How do you go about it?
        What did you do prior to Evernote?

  5. My dream date takes place in long beach calif. Happy hour and sunset starts the date at the art deco Observation Bar on the bow of the Queen Mary. Great views and live music in an amazing atmosphere of nostalgia and wo der. The. It’s off to 7 pm salsa lesson at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) about 2 miles away. From there it’s a late dinner at Fuego, a great new Latin restaurant located close by in the new Maya hotel. More ocean views with a martini and paella. Hence, my non-existent dream date. Total cost under 200 dollars

  6. Notetaking Comment & 4HWW Suggestion

    Tim,
    Your notetaking system has really helped me. Thank you for going into such detail!

    I have a quick question: How did you use this technique for writing the original 4HWK? I’m guessing you made the headings for the concepts you wanted to discuss in an index and gave yourself 20+ pages to add to your ideas. Would you explain how you did it?

    Have you considered writing a book directed specifically to professional educators? How to quickly teach concepts (which engages students and nixes behavior problems), set clear boundaries with parents and administrators, while still accomplishing student learning? For example, if our administrators saw the instructional time benefit of teachers who only checked their email twice a day, they might be gung-ho of more ideas you advocate.

    Can’t wait for the release date in December!

    Jane=)

  7. Tim-

    Please tell me where you found that graph paper notebook. I have been searching everywhere and most of the ones I’ve found are terrible.

    Thanks,
    Woodward

  8. Hey Tim,

    as a true friend of paper-based notes (I really tried almost any digital solution out there!) I have to introduce you to the following:

    ‘Roter Faden Taschenbegleiter’ (no URLs here so just google the full term)

    It’s some kind of ‘notebook plus’ with a unique clip-mechanism, that allows you to compose a notebooks that fits to your individual needs. You can add whatever you want to it: calenders, adressbooks, plain notebooks… You name it.

    And the best thing is: You can design it on your own (size, colour, material, number of pockets….)! Have to admit that it is far away from beeing cheap but in return you get an awesome quality: All of these books are handmade by the german designer and her team.

    Go check it out and keep up the good work here!

    Cheers from Berlin,
    Clemens

  9. Tim you seem like a pretty ruthless note-taker, and I know you’re a ruthless language learner. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen you endorse the Pulse Smartpen (http://www.livescribe.com). Besides not having to worry about losing your notes somehow, its the most amazing thing for language studies (I’m currently using it for my third language- Chinese). Are you familiar with it? If you are, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If not, I think you should give it a try…

    ???

    Chris

  10. This one blog post and all of the comments are the reason I have spent 3 months building a new product around this.

    It truly changed my life and the day I stopped being a consumption whore I started building awesome stuff to point at.

    One notebook, one blog, changed my life and I can say that with honesty. I also bought every person in my family a notebook for Christmas and asked them to create, write, inspire others to do more, and they did.

    I had people say “that was the best idea ever,” – Brother “I wrote another page in my book!” – Grandma… and many more. I was then able to give $250 to St. Jude instead of blowing it all on Christmas.

    It is not about buying 1 notebook, it is about buy 10 and enabling your family and friends to do more, build more, and create. The simple things in life.

    The product will be launching soon and it is a mix of the 1 to 1 non-profit model, why buy 1 when you can buy 10, and community will have a voice in the hard copy of the book. The entire book will be pre-indexed, Tim Ferris style, and I am talking to publishers now.

    Again, thank you Tim. People read your book with so much words of wisdom and yet it was this one post mixed with your book ideas on running a business that have led me to help others.

    I would love to talk with you sometime to share the idea and get your thoughts around the product launch. (we will be using shopify and diving into the contest as well.)

    Thanks,
    Shane Mac
    @shanemacsays
    309-453-8175

  11. Tim on your note taking I really need some advice here. It seriously pisses me off that evernote and one note, the best programs to take notes in lack a user friendly equation editor.

    I have been trying a similar technique for years and I prefer to take notes by hand but it pisses me off because each class is different. A lot of classes today are literally all power-point’s and professors even leave blanks so that you will go to class. How do I put all of this together without using a binder. I hate binders. How did you deal with these class types?

    Either you need to worry about printing everything, which is a huge hassle if you need to print 30-50 pages for one day of classes, or you need to worry about scanning all of your hand written notes.

    The day that Evernote comes out with a good native equation editor, excel integration, and export ability is the day that every student will be using it to take notes.

  12. Dude,
    So Im replying a little late to this post as you wrote it 3 years ago, but you don’t need to refer to the people in India as your slave labour, I’m just saying.

  13. Ok, Tim, I thought of this as a challenge…I went out and tried to find a notebook just like you described and couldn’t…so I created it.

    I would have called it the Tim Ferriss journal, but I didn’t want any legal issues so I’ve called it MyThoughtPad. It has everything you mentioned and then some: index pages on front and back covers, numbered right-hand pages, graph pages, vertical-lined pages, a box in the lower right corner for things like random silliness, nice thick paper to write on, super heavy chipboard cover, oh and a little envelope in the back for miscellaneous knick knacks.

    There’s even one with your name on it (literally!), no strings attached, if you’re interested.

    -Nicole

  14. Seeing your writing style really inspired me man. I really dig your detail-oriented style with things, especially writing. Thing is, I have been going through this for a long time now. Teetering on the edge of the, somewhat, whimsical usage pattern of what we know as, “Taking notes with your computer”. It is seriously this thing that people I feel like CAN NOT figure out what to do! Should they take a note using a notepad for 1 thing and a computer for a diff? Should they just throw out all paper and docs on the comp for todos and just use Post-its? Whatever it is, people are confused by it – and often a few have stood out of the crowd saying we will use these tools only (E.g. Write on the computer only for everything .. (down to the purists who would only use one txtpad for EVERYthing) but also the ones who write all on physical paper- and everything in between. Anyway, point being – I was in this teeter as I have been ‘experimenting’ with different styles of note taking for seriously probably 10+ years, and I’m only 22 – yeah I was one of those kids. I was super into physics and particularly quantum/theoretical physics as a young young young kid – for whatever reason. It was intense to the point where I had, what was at the time, binders and binders of notes that were totally unorganized – BUT now, in this present moment, I have somewhat perfected it I think. Interestingly enough, it loops right back around to where I’m back to paper again.

    I kind of got inspired by your post to re-examine my situation, and it came as somewhat of a sudden realization that this is something that more than just me goes through (Doy, I know). Well, so basically now I have a setup somewhat similar to yours or ANYONE who is embracing a slight minimalism in their life to de-clutter the BS to focus on the points that stand out from the rest of the Universe. ‘Where’s Waldo’ status.

    I really appreciate the inspiration man and just wanted to say keep killing it. I pre-ordered the book can’t WAIT to get it – am getting to a point in my life where physicality is becoming a main focus in my mind/body connection. It is perfect timing for the flow of my life and I am stoked as hell and am just grateful that you keep on with the writing. You have a lot ta share mate, which I’m sure you’re aware of – but you may even have more than you would think at first. You have a philisophical side man, you should seriously write a book like that. Wayy down the road I know, but all I’m saying is when you’re like 80 (we won’t live that long but just if) you get to like 80 and have a huge white beard and long white hair you must write a philosophy book as sort of an ending memoirs. “Letters from Timothy”. Haha dude I’m totally pulling a hippy glenn here, let me just finish this. Take care Tim.

    PS – I would d-i-double-g the cover if it had the shiny meditative guy – but I can see your worry, is it too flashy gimmicky for a meditative Buddhist position. Realistic concern! Honestly tho, I really think it would just look more ‘official’ with the shiny attributes. It wouldn’t be scammy – but PSS on the ‘scammy note’: You sure are a running with that title. Just remember, the play goes ‘Run out .. hook in. Run out… hook in. Haha ;)

  15. On note taking:
    I use index cards. I usually carry around 3 to 5 in the back pocket of my jeans. Very easy to put in order, rearrange or simply file them in a box ;-)

  16. Ok, so I didn’t read all the comments, but: I am a student in public health at a semi-prestigious university, and I need to say that, for qualitative research, this is GREAT. When you are doing research, it is extremely important to document the process of your thoughts, but it is very herd to do so in a way that will help you later. Cheers to this process!

  17. This whole Wikileaks fiasco is pretty crazy. You should check out http://voteonwikileaks.com. It’s a recently launched website that seems to be going viral. They got something like 50,000 visitors in the first 24 hours of launch. It’s sort of like a crowdsourced collection of arguments against and for Wikileaks. As a blog owner, you’d probably find some of the opinions there a good read.

  18. Hey Tim, could you clarify the notetaking of books like AJ Jacobs’?

    Are you simply indexing the book, so when you need the info you grab the index and the book (or the index alone triggers recall), or is the index created in addition to notes for the book?

    Thanks!

  19. Tim,
    Great post. I second Josh’s request. It’s the HOW I’m interested in. What do you do when you take notes? Is there a book or URL that you can recommend?
    Thanks and Cheers,
    Steve

  20. Hey Tim,

    One small point about all of this that I think your overlooking (note: assumption) is something which my mentor pointed out to me and many people stuggle with, is taking notes for “post scanning”

    … if you watch most people they write at all angles across the page, in different directions, sizes etc. Whereas, if you make the choice to write either vertically (or horizontally, as applicable) down/across the page it makes it a lot more easier and quicker to scan and re-read at a later date, which is not the case when you write otherwise.

    You can increase “scanability” by using set spacing between text, set margins, bullet points etc.

    In the past I did it. Now, it makes things a LOT easier and you will notice a distinct impact on your mental and emotional state – you feel less “cluttered” more present, clear minded and certainly “stress free” which is created in a majority of cases (esp. in a digital world) by being overwhelmed by information.

    Glenn

  21. Hi Tim,

    I’ve reread this post 10 times in the last year and have found many of the suggestions very practical. I’m still struggling to understand your indexing (for example – AJ Jacobs book). Is it an index of the topics & pages in the book where you can find them OR an index of your notes on those topics from the book and the pages to find your notes on the book in your notebook?

    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond … it’s the one lingering question that is confusing me.

  22. Tyler, my intrepretation of Tim’s writing is…

    “an index of your notes on those topics from the book and the pages to find your notes on the book in your notebook?”

    Hope this helps.

  23. As a non-profit Man Coach I dream about Dates alot.. There is just one thing i’m looking for.. the woman and in what kind of Environment her beauty shines best.. I really love! to hijack woman.. they have alot of stuff to handle.. alot of responsibility.. I love it to give them a space where time seems to hold still and they can just go with theyre deepest emotional states what ever it might be..

    1. I’ll grab the woman right away from her workplace arranging it before with her chef.
    2. As working in fashion business i’ll give her a little handpack and bring here to the airport..
    3. Let her close her eyes and show with the finger to last-minute destination on a map
    4. fly there with her and prepare during flight the perfect hotel or if it would be in Croatia where im actually from, i’ll talk with old people having the best appartements you can imagine..
    5. I’ll cook for her or take her to the restaurant, depends on the woman.. and then let me inspire me true her.. i love to take pictures to let the woman see true my eyes.. or to dance tango with them.. everything where i lead and they can just relax and be who they are..

    On the last i’ll take a black pen and go with her in the almost empty street and write the first sentence of a love story on a public place.. lead her to another place and let her write the second..

    Man love your question.. greetings from a former student of orlando owen btw steve p.. you know what i mean ;)

  24. In spite of reagular reading your blog I was very excited after seeing a blog post that I have missed somehow and that is something I truly like doing – notes.

    Imagine my reaction when I got to the end of it and the only thing I can say is “well, sounds like me”. First blog post here that merely described my so far experiences. It either proves you’re a human or that those methods “really” kick ass ;))

    I learned how to take notes from my biology teacher in high school. Man was crazy, he could present 20pages-long material of difficult words and schemes in the regular lesson and the grades were mostly B (or 4/6 in the Polish system)

  25. Tim and his blind date walk into a talent agency. Says to the talent agent, “we’ve got a great act.”

    Talent agent says, “I usually don’t do ‘blind date’ acts, they’re a little too cutesy.” Tim says, “We know when you see our act, you’ll love it. Please can we show you our act?” Talent agent says, “Okay, fine.”

    With a smirk Tim says, “I wouldn’t be one to kiss and tell. Some things are more fun left unexplained”. (takes an immediate and pronounced bow)

    Talent agent says, “That’s a hell of an act, what do you call it?”

    “THE ARISTOCRATS!”

  26. Great article – I just moved from using a tablet with keyboard back to page a day diary. The act of taking notes is great for re-enforcing memories & I learn more by doing this.

  27. Thank god I thought I was the only one with the ” Notemania Disorder”
    I have notes about everything-pregnancies 2- food, random observations everywhere I go, I left Moleskin notepads for my Iphone Notes.
    Thank you for making my day.
    Have a notefunfilled day,
    Naima

  28. At some point, I realized that I totally misunderstood the Moleskine Daily Planner. I was thinking of it as a — wait for it — daily planner (with a vertical calendar in front), when it’s REALLY a general-purpose notebook with the following attributes:
    – 370-page ruled Moleskine (the largest Moleskine by far);
    – idiosyncratic page numbering scheme, but that’s okay, because it matches the built-in index pages in front;
    – each page has a big area at the top for subject and/or metadata; and
    – it can often be found at a discount starting mid-January.