Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor (kistaro) wrote,
Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor

Notes, notes, notes, and notes

I think I've finally figured out why it's so hard for me to choose a notetaking tool. I sort of thought I'd eventually figure out a best tool to take notes with; I think I've just figured out why I never will.

The problem is that I don't take notes, I take notes, notes, notes, and notes. Or, more accurately, I do four superficially similar activities that I call "taking notes", and none of them are the same, or even similar. But the good thing about realizing this is that I suddenly understand why it's okay to use different tools for each mode of note-taking: because when I'm in one mode, I really don't need notes from the other mode. They don't cross very much, with the exception of the Archive.

So, of notes, notes, notes, and notes:

  • The Archive: The unordered bucket of information I want to keep forever. The Archive is everything I've come across, or written down, that I personally believe is accurate and is important enough to want to refer to ever again. It also has medium-term stuff, separate buckets for queues of things to act on eventually but with no fixed deadline. (LiveJournal post ideas, for example.) The most important things about the Archive are that I can put absolutely anything in it, I can find it again, and it's there when I need it.

  • The Project Binder: A loosely-ordered collection of decisions about what I'm working on right now, sorted by project. It's sorted by functionality- what I need to do with the information- and the majority of the information is actionable. Information I need to keep, but can't act on, is Archived instead. The most important thing about the Project Binder is that it is organized- it represents designs and decisions, and while a specific search probably won't work, I need to categorically find decisions on things so I can refer to them when implementing those decisions.

  • The Exocortex: A relational dump for my imminent work item/s. This is swap space for my brain. Search is useless, because if I need to think of search terms, I have lost flow- what is important is linking, information must be related directly to other connected information: thoughts about edge conditions need to link to bug reports, both of which link to my overarching design, which is linked to specific algorithms, which are tied to my class architecture, which is closely related to the design. The most important thing about the Exocortex is that it I can make it shaped sort of like my thoughts, and it must be fast.

  • The Mental Laxative: What I do to get unblocked when I'm at a loss for what to do next. Ink has this magical quality for me: if I just start writing- by hand, and by hand only- what the problem I'm trying to solve is, and any notes, no matter how scattered, on the problem, I start thinking again. I'm either stuck because the problem is too large, and writing enables me to break it down into subproblems- the slow analog transcription of ideas into individual words forces me to understand what trees make this forest- or because I don't have enough information to make a decision, and writing it down lets me see what I don't know. The most important thing about the Mental Laxative is that it forces me to break down what's blocking me, and so far, only handwriting slows me down enough to do it.

So it's clear why I haven't found a single notetaking tool that does all this: I'm not trying to solve one problem, I'm trying to solve four, and it's hard to optimize four problems into one thing, especially when some of the requirements are mutually exclusive. (The Mental Laxative works because handwriting is slow, and the Exocortex must stay out of the way and let me drop ideas as quickly as I can.)

Actually, I've tended to use about three tools at once, and looking at this, I see why. The Project Binder and the Archive aren't very different: once I'm done with a project, I always need to archive those notes, if only to cover my own ass if something goes wrong later. The Project Binder is something I reference by category; the Archive is something I reference by search term. They're references.

The Exocortex is actually the most important note-taking tool for me, and it has to be shaped like a wiki to be effective. And if I can't shape it like a wiki- I usually can't- I have to make sure it's visual and relational. A whiteboard helps; a tablet PC where I can drag around text blocks and elements is much better. Better still is a stack of index cards, pins, and a corkboard, if it's short-term. The best thing so far has been notes shaped like a wiki; epic level is notes shaped like a wiki I can do arbitrary diagramming in, but failing that, I usually just use a diagramming tool and copy it into my notes when done. Linking is more important, by a mile.

The Mental Laxative is none of these. Most relevantly, I never need to refer to it again; it is the process that is important. Anything important from this process is immediately thrown into the Exocortex, if I needed to break down a problem, or the Project Binder, if I don't actually have enough information to proceed. So of the four, it has the shortest lifespan; I don't need to archive this at all, and the only reason I can't use a whiteboard is that it's uncomfortable on my arm and my handwriting is even worse that way. The Exocortex lasts only as long as a task- meaning, of course, that if I plan to revisit a task, I better save its notes, but otherwise I won't touch them again. The Project Binder is similar, with project scope, but projects never really die. The Archive, of course, lasts forever.

So it's clear why I keep using divergent note tools: I have divergent needs. Evernote is the best Archive tool I've ever used, while OneNote beats it as a Project Binder because of its hierarchical organization- but Evernote does fine, with aggressive use of tags and notebooks. Evernote is worthless as an Exocortex because I can't drag around text blocks, I can't arbitrarily sketch unless I'm actually using a Tablet PC, and it has no inter-note linking- the biggest weakness in Evernote. It would be a perfectly reasonable Exocortex if it had note linking, although the lightweight behavior of Tomboy Notes that encourages you to scatter notes about your desktop is exactly what I need. It also automatically links phrases equal to a note title to the note by that title, and is basically designed for wiki use, and its complete lack of anything more complicated than RTF is nearly irrelevant compared to that power. OneNote 2010 got it right, though, by allowing double square brackets to quickly produce links like that, and the tendency for its interface to stay out of the way- I actually prefer OneNote 2010, given a Windows workstation. And none of them will ever beat pen and paper as a Mental Laxative, nor do I need anything else.

I guess it's not a surprise that I use this divergent set of note tools. I just wish I'd figured this out sooner so I'd've stopped trying to find a unified note tool that would magically meet all my needs better than my previous note tools.

I've migrated to DreamWidth. The original post is at View comment count unavailable comments at; go ahead and use OpenID to post your own.
Tags: notes

  • Last LJ post

    Hey all, I joined the LJ exodus train before it was cool</hipster>, but with recent developments in LiveJournal server location (…

  • (no subject)

    I want to assemble things that nobody else could ever assemble, and when they are done, I want to have done it in ways that nobody of average skill…

  • Failing, etc.

    That feeling of being 99% sure a social space would have been better for everyone without you in it, but you can't apologize or talk about it or…

Comments for this post were disabled by the author