In my quest to ‘change buckets’ (aka retrain/change professions/change industries), I am working on developing more effective and time-efficient systems of note-taking to learn and retain what I’ve learnt from books, self-help guides, articles etc.

Why note taking?

Note-taking is not just about creating an external information storage, but it also aids the memorization process by  enhancing our internal ‘storing’ process. Research shows  that note-takers make stronger connections (“the generation effect” ) between the new information and what’s already stored in their long-term memory.

Structuring notes in a hierarchical way and organising it help us learn, too, whether we organise it in a linear  (e.g. Cornell notes) or non-linear (mind mapping) way

Since knowledge in books that are not textbooks or courseware is not always organised in the way that supports learning, I have been trying various systems to enhance my ability to learn from this kind of material.
My current system (see picture below) consists of writing useful stuff on little sticky notes. I use those little pieces of paper deliberately to keep it short and ideally one idea per note, organising the information if possible (e.g. lists) and highlighting the key concepts Sometimes (bottom left corner) one note is not enough and the list spills.

Note taking system (current)

The system is far from ideal and can get quite messy (see upper right corner). It is also not consistent (bottom right corner), so I DO need a new and better one.


I have just found an excellent article on note taking from books. A recent interview with Maria Popova on Tim Ferriss’ blog (I love her Brain Pickings) prompted Cal Newport (highly recommended Study Hacks blog) to write about his system. And this article sparked a very interesting discussion on various note-taking systems (see comments section).

I Like Maria’s method – it makes a lot of sense:


How to take notes from a book:

1) Create an Index page of ideas/concepts as you are reading the book; separate ideas/concepts in separate lines

2) As you read and encounter passages related to indexed ideas/concepts highlight the passage/tab mark it and then write the location on your Index page

3) Add new ideas/concepts to your Index as you come across them.
Here are some other note-taking advice found scattered across the net:

Keep it simple: use keywords, short sentences,

write down what you find important, relevant, useful (if this is not for school/uni or college course (here is how to know what to write), if you are a self-directed learner, like me – use your own judgement here

– create your own system of symbols, a kind of ‘shorthand’ (e.g. w/=with, w/o (-) =without, & (+) =and, -> = leads to/results in, etc.)

– create an index page (another great and sooo simple idea for an index page in a notebook).



But how to take notes from an e-book?

This looks much more organised than hat I’ve got now, but … there are some challenges:

– I have been reading e-books more often than paper books, and using various e-readers, as not everything is available on Kindle or iBooks

– not all e-readers display page number/location, so it is hard to tag the notes by location

– I also prefer to take notes by hand, as it helps me organise my thoughts and learn as I do it (there is actually some research that shows that hand-writing enhances your learning.


Some of Cal’s readers use note-taking features available in e-readers and may send the note to Evernote or print them out afterwards. Some create a paper-based Index page for e-books.

Being a paper girl, I am going to try to use a paper-based Idea Index for my ebooks and file it separately.

Here is my first attempt at note taking from ‘Mindset. How you can fulfill your potential’ by Carol S. Dweck:

note taking system (improved)

– I highlight passages as I read
– I’m using a small notebook as it is easy to slip into a handbag or a pocket so that I can continue using it on the go without losing pages; I can cut it off after I finished, staple and file away

– one idea/concept per page (so hopefully I don’t end up spilling out, like with my current system)

– in this case I am unable to see the location when I’m making the note, but can chack it once the note is made

– I have also starred creating notecards with ideas ‘for future reference’ as per Ryan Holiday’s Notecard System  but will write about it more later


This system is definitely still a work in progress.


And what system do you use for note-taking from books and e-books?