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


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, birthplace of the ubercool

“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:

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.

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.

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:

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.

Notes from my first SXSW (Notice the bottom-right follow-up, in this case, people to contact)

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!

Posted on: December 5, 2007.

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

  1. I’ll go with Munich, Germany where I live, for the Dream Date. I like things to be relaxed and unpretentious, so there’s a lot of fun but little glamour in this one.

    * start off in a beer garden (simple outdoor restaurant) under oak trees by the river for dinner
    * walk up the embankment past ancient churches with the setting sun behind us bathing everything in a nice orange glow
    * take the Tram lines to the old Olympic centre for an evening of free outdoor concerts by local bands and artists in front of a crowded theatron
    * after this there’s an optional ride on the Ferris wheel if the fair is in season

    If a lady is interested, we’ll have to wait for late spring to get the required temperatures for outdoor evenings. And oh yeah, the budget for this is more like $40.


  2. Hello Tim,
    I really enjoyed this post. I have also discovered that I do much better with note taking when it is on paper. At work I have a moleskin softcover for meetings and other important info. As for the to do list… I used to have it on paper as well. I thought this was the only thing that worked. Turns out it was not the paper factor that made the difference, but the number of times I happened to glance at the list (how often I got reminded of my to do’s in other words). I now use the tool online. It works because I look at my browser about a thousand times a day.

    It would be cool if you also shared your to do list system.

    Cheers from Switzerland,


  3. Very interesting. Could you talk a bit about the style you take notes in?

    I see lots of questions – any reason? How detailed are your notes?


  4. This is a great post; I can’t believe we still haven’t embraced the ‘paperless office’ in 2007. But it just doesn’t seem practical! Even I carry a “month to 2 pages” diary for “real life”, though I try and take notes using gmail and notepad. Consolidation is always an issue, because its tedious, and I haven’t really decided on a central repository.

    I might try this dream date in the next few weeks (trying to find a free weekend). I realise there are far more exotic locations in the world, and probably more fun ‘things’ to do, but I like to keep it simple, and I enjoy the time/place/person more than I do the expense/novelty (although novelty is still cool!):

    Perth, Western Australia
    – ferry to Rottnest Island early morning (you know that magic time just before the sun comes up… between about 6am and 7am?)
    – day snorkelling/beaching/general fun ;-)
    – lunch at a good french restaurant (there goes the budget!)


  5. Dream Date?

    I never really dated-not properly. I fell in love, and she said yes: we were married at 19. Now, approaching 5 years on, dates are intimate times with the one I love without all the pressure: is she the one, do I look OK, what if I embarrass myself?

    Still, it’s harder to hide surprises.

    Dream dates take preparation: she comes home to candles and something that’s been in the oven for hours. Cabernet Sauvignon and a home-made soup, while warm bread is taken out. Christian Forshaw on the stereo, and the most important part: some quiet, gentle time with the phone off the hook and no talk of plans or bills. Main served, and following is a gentle walk through the town, or along a track. Finally, something chocolatey and gooey (her choice) and a cuppa tea.

    Most of it’s cliche, but sometimes you need the old favourites to make it feel classy.


  6. Sure that should read
    “Thus, if you flip over page 10, for example, and write on the back, that second page is “10.5” in the index.”



    Oops! Right you are. Fixed. Thank you :)



  7. I am such an easy date – almost anything which involves exploring, talking, intimate “adventures”, and… I love breakfast. So, just pulling something out of the sky:

    –in a foreign city where I can understand some of the language and read enough to order a menu or comprehend street signs (English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, etc)… (Just having returned from Shanghai – I realize that I like at least knowing an alphabet).

    –wandering the streets poking into shops, watching street shows, maybe nibbling on partial meals, wine, coffee here and there – like taking in a sample of the town. Nothing too loud or crowded: no bars, nightclubs, etc. The weather is cool enough for wandering but not too hot and not too blustery. Talking, enjoying, taking-in the surroundings, deep conversations about philosophy or sidewalks or shoe-leather – everything. Laughing and discovery seems to fit right right.

    –winding up together back in a cozy [homey] location to explore each other also… for the rest of the evening.

    –and the best part, rich fragrant coffee and breakfast in a cafe the next morning, continuing the conversation and feeling deepened by our night’s various explorations of mind, soul, and body.

    You asked ;)


  8. “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 “15.5” in the index.”

    Should that be 10.5? Great post!


  9. My Dream Date?

    This date would certainly be with my fiancee. She is my dream girl, and I’m glad to have found her. So, on to the date.

    If this date could be anywhere, it would be Ireland (she has always wanted to go there). I’d find a nice, little village with that rustic beauty and quiet charm and start things out with a nice meal that I made for her, a nice hand selected cut of steak, grilled medium just for her with her favorite mix of vegetables (carrots, broccoli and nice baked potato with chives and garlic butter). I’d top the steak with a touch of Monterrey Jack cheese with some mushrooms satuteed in garlic butter.

    For a touch of wine, I would go with a 1998 Petrus Pomerol merlot. My father gave me this bottle of wine on New Years Eve of 2000, and I’ve been saving it for the right occasion. If this wouldn’t qualify as the right occasion, no other one will.

    After dinner, we’d take in the Irish country side and enjoy the night. We are both real night hawks and love being away from the lights of the city so we can star gaze.

    To end the night, we’d make love under the stars and lay with one another to watch the sun rise.

    and that my friends, is my idea of a dream date.


  10. My dream date would be in Copenhagen where I live, since I want to see how well she fits in my reality. First we would go shoot a deer north of Copenhagen, then cut it up and prepare it over the bonfire. Then we would do a Crossfit workout to burn off the calories, and afterwards make a shelter in the woods where we would finger-paint each other with nutella all night in the moonlight :-)


  11. Dream Date:

    – Walk down to the lake and have a picnic together, with awesome homemade sandwhiches of course(made by you).

    – Talk. No distractions or others around.

    – Walk back home to start making a fantastic dinner together. Once the fantastic dinner is made and eaten, let her pick a DVD to watch. While she is picking, do the dishes and clean up the kitchen.

    – Take out dessert, that you made, preferably something chocolate and start watching the movie and eating.

    – Once the movie is over, talk a little more before taking her home(you did pick her up, right?).

    – Remember you are a gentleman, open and hold any door that she goes through.

    -When at her place walk her to her door. Say your goodnights, maybe with a kiss and go back home floating on air.


  12. i guess i must be a cheap date, but $500 to me sounds like wayyyy more than necessary for a dream date… i could turn that into a whole day, a whole weekend (or longer, depending on the country… heading to bali in a few weeks, $500 would last my entire stay!) =)

    i’ve traveled to many romantic places and while paris comes to mind as my ideal setting for a romantic dream date, i’ll have to spend my hypothetical $500 on a day here in my current hometown of honolulu:

    – wake up early to watch the sunrise out at sandy beach on the east side
    – go for a run together around diamond head and stop to check out the early morning surfers getting in a morning session
    – breakfast at the kapiolani community college farmer’s market, sample all the local produce and made-in-hawaii products
    – picnic lunch from diamond head grill (mmmm… grilled portobello mushroom with balsamic jus!)
    – drive out to the north shore via the windward side, stop along the way at the fruit stands, beaches, etc. and make sure to take in all the beautiful scenery
    – grab a shrimp scampi plate from giovanni’s shrimp truck (accept no immitators!) and head to – where else! – sunset beach for another fabulous hawaiian sunset. =)

    all of that would definitely cost less than $100, so we’d have enough to splurge on a stay at the turtle bay resort for the evening.

    this is all assuming, of course, that my dream man comes along with my dream date package. now there’s something money can’t buy… ;)


  13. Dream Date:

    With my beautiful girlfriend Em and in the town that we first met in…Las Vegas. The date begins with a trip for her to the saloon, so she can relax and beautify. Then onto The Pink Taco at the Hardrock–this was the place of our first date two years ago. After much good food and margaritas, I would take her to Cirque du Soleil’s newest show(nice one on that Tim). We would top off the night in a suite with champagne and looking out over the Vegas strip! Maybe this ends with making her something more than a girlfriend :)

    This is such a great idea…think I will book it! We will be in Vegas in March for a tradeshow!


  14. I’ll take a stab at a dream date. If you’re not familiar with Utah some of these locations may not mean anything to you, but I’ll do my best to describe. I’m quite fond of (ok madly in love with) my wife, so this date is all day, and the kids are with grandma.

    – Breakfast at the “Over the counter cafe”. A hole-in-the-wall always packed with blue collar workers that serves the best omelets you can get anywhere, period. (Breakfast for two, and tip $30)

    – Skiing at Utah’s best ski resort, Alta. Some may disagree, but though Alta lacks some the niceties of fancier resorts, e.g. Deer Valley, they have the best snow, and it’s skiers only–sorry no boarders. (two lift passes, and cocoa at the lodge, $90)

    – Lunch at Ruth’s (another known-by-locals-only diner, and a short drive from Alta) Patio dining, beautiful view, great food. ($60)

    – Shopping at the Gate Way (an upscale outdoor mall) because my wife loves to shop. Stroll around, buy her something nice. ($100)

    – Laughing, playing, snow men and snow balls at Library Square. (Free)

    – Dinner at the Market Street Grill, the best fresh fish in the state. To-die-for crab dip to start, followed up by wild sea bass. ($100)

    – Coffee desert at “The Salt Lake Roasting Company”. Great fresh roasted coffee, wonderful cheese cake made in house daily. ($15)

    – A night off without kids, downtown hotel. ($100)


  15. I take notes because it helps me remember. Essentially, if I write it down it comes back to me immediately. If I don’t write it down, I’ll never remember it again.

    You’re note taking is on par with Thomas Edison. Here are two links to posts on that discuss similar topics and methods for notetaking:



    Happy Holidays!


  16. Tim, great post on notetaking. Especially useful idea about pagination and indexing.

    I’ve been keeping journals/sketchbooks since my freshman year of art school, over 30 years ago, and at this point have an encyclopedia set of them on my shelf. The pages aren’t numbered, but every entry has a date. They contain drawings, diary writing, ideas for paintings and song lyrics. I got in the habit of using the last page of the journal to keep a running list of books I read; title, author, date completed and stars next to the good ones (4HWW is in there w/ a big star). So I now have a list of every book I’ve read for the past thirty years, which is a great resource for retrieving information I’ve come across, as well as recommending books to friends.

    The journals I use are 8 1/2 x 11 hardcover sketchbooks, available in any art store. The size works for me because it’s big enough for drawing and writing in, and small enough to easily fit in a backpack. I pretty much always have one with me. If by some chance I’m out in a restaurant without it and get an idea for something, it’s easy to make a note on a napkin or something and paste or copy it into the journal when I get home.

    Here’s a post I wrote on Art & Perception about keeping journals.


  17. Ahh, another note taking aficionado. Clearly, Tim, from reading your book, The 4-hour Workweek, you are a note taker. Academics often fall into this category, myself being one of them. The Brainstorming section I supplment with mind mapping. A fantastic way to generate ideas and get the notes organized.

    Professor Click

    P.S. I’ll leave the date challenge to those who want dates.


  18. Ideal Date:
    In New Orleans:
    > You start at the bar at the Loews Hotel. Get Lu Brow (bartender of the year in N.O.) to fix both of you a sazerac (first cocktail in existence). Its a production and its a treat! Lots of great conversation warming up the evening.
    > If the weather permits, walk into the French Quarter. Walking allows bodies to interact that sitting does not. The wonderful lights and old shops encourage us to believe we are in our own world.
    > Make our way to Bayona. A restaurant of extraordinary delights. Its adult and warm and beautiful. Oysters, sauces, rich meats/seafood and great wine are topped off with great desserts. We take our time and every table in the place is turned over 1.5 times while we are there.
    > Then we walk and talk some more in the Quarter. Maybe window shop on Royal St. looking at art, antiques and jewelry. We exchange views about various purchase options and learn more about what each other likes.
    > Then we walk out of the Quarter to the Windsor Court Hotel. Because a dream date deserves a dream destination.
    > Next morning, we get up and walk back into the Quarter to Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets. The quintesential Nawlins breakfast. We people watch and enjoy the final moments with one another.
    > We part with a full list of wonderful moments and memories . . .or maybe we decide to do the whole thing over again tonight.