Notes on Note-taking

This is a screenshot of some nested folders on a Mac, as described in detail in the blog post.

Over on Mastodon, some folks asked about my note-taking/writing process in response to the above image. I replied, and then I figured I could tidy it up and archive it here, in case it’s of interest:

The short version is I have (1) a document named “today” that I just keep running notes in all day long. I have some #categories in there, to break it down, many of which remain empty by the end of the day, but they provide some organization, some guardrails. I then have (2) a document for the given month (and these end up in one folder per year as the months go by). This month’s document is titled “daily202301.” I always go “yearmonth” (or “yearmonthday”) for file names, because then they sort easily into chronological order. I’ve been labeling files that way a long time, back to the late 1980s at least. (I remember in 1996 I took a new job overseeing a fairly large editorial staff, more than a dozen people, and I requested that people do this. At first they were like “Why?” — and then they saw the benefits.)

The next morning I copy the “today” stuff and paste it to the top of the given month’s document, so at the end of the month I have a reverse chronological journal of all the stuff I’d noted. That way I start each day with the “today” doc fresh (aside from those categories I mentioned). I also have a (3) various special documents (books-in-progress, Junto material, raw This Week in Sound fodder, articles-in-progress, projects, cut’n’paste replies for over-eager publicists, etc.), that some of the “today” stuff ends up moved over to (rather than to the generic monthly documents mentioned above). (For what it’s worth, I do this all in markdown, so the files end with an “.md” suffix. These files are the same size as .txt and .rtf files, take up very little room, and are quickly searchable and indexable.)

Also, my laptop screen is arranged so I have a narrow window for the file always visible on the left 1/5th (or so) of the screen, and then all my other activities (browser, word processor, Slack, Discord, calendar, etc.) fill the remaining right 4/5ths of the screen. I use Scrivener for anything longer than a blog post and iA Writer for anything shorter than Scrivener, and I generally end up in Google Docs for stuff that gets particularly collaborative.

I also have a cheap Android tablet to my right that’s my digital project whiteboard, with all my projects listed on it. Currently it displays a Google Sheet, but I’ve used other software to the same ends. I like a whiteboard that can be turned off, rather than have it stare at me 24/7 from a wall. Also, I like to work in lots of places — cafes, museums, libraries, the couch — and this way my whiteboard is always accessible, even by phone if I feel the need to take a peek. To my left is an iPad that’s usually got my email and calendar running, and which I often lift up to take handwritten notes on, or to annotate PDFs and screenshots, and so forth. (Or to make music with, or read comics on.)

I do use little paper notepads, but I treat them as essentially disposable. I write in them, less as full text and more as line-item mental reminders, and then I transfer that writing to digital files every day or so (though sometimes there’s a bit of a backlog) by typing it and expanding the initial thoughts. At some point in the last year or so I concertedly taught myself to write in all caps by hand quickly, and that’s significantly extended the half life (i.e., legibility) of my stray thoughts.

There’s a whole lot more to the process, and the tool deployment slowly evolves over time. Everyone’s needs differ. This has just worked for me.

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