A Simple, Flexible System for Taking Notes


I’ve got a simple, effective system for taking, searching, and retrieving notes that I’d like to share.

I take a lot of notes: lists of movies I want to see, lists of apps I want to try, quotes from books I’m reading. In addition, I create a lot of text: blog entries, story snippets, article ideas, summaries, reports.

Over time, the text piles up. I wanted to create a system that would let me capture, search for, and retrieve information as efficiently and effortlessly as possible. When I set out to create that system, I had these requirements in mind:

– Dependability. My note wrangling system must be reliable. No bugs. No crashes. No exceptions.

– Universal Access. I must be able enter and access my notes from any desktop computer with a browser and an internet connection. I must also be able to enter and access notes from any of my portable devices (my iPhone, my iPad) whether those devices have an active Internet connection or not.

– Syncing. A change made once, through any interface, must be quickly and reliably be reflected everywhere else.

– Search. Typing a keyword or two must bring me the note I need.

– Speed. Note entry must be quick. Syncing must be almost instantaneous. Searches must produce results in the wink of an eye.

– Portability. My notes are mine. If I decide to leave one platform for another, my notes must go with me, with a minimum of fuss. The transition from one platform to another should be quick and seamless.

While assembling my personal system, I tried lots of alternatives. Lots of them. Maybe all of them. (Yes, I was a little obsessed, and, yes, I’ll talk about some of these later.)

The system I wound up with isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. If you’re looking for a system for information entry and retrieval on the fly, this blend of applications and practices might work for you, too.

The Applications

1. SimpleNote. The hub of my system is a web application called SimpleNote. For free, SimpleNote provides ample storage for thousands of text notes. (Paid subscribers get perks.) In all the time I’ve used it, the service has never been down. I can access my SimpleNotes from any Internet-connected computer, anywhere on the planet. Changes are saved instantly, and searches are fast. Should I decide to leave, I click Account Settings/Export, and I can take all my notes with me.

SimpleNote also syncs with (or automatically copies my notes to) Dropbox, an online file storage system. (Dropbox is free, with perks for subscribers.) As a result, anything I enter into SimpleNote is backed up to my Dropbox account. Should SimpleNote disappear from the planet tomorrow, I’ll have a copy of every note I’ve ever taken squirreled away in my Dropbox.

2. The SimpleNote App for IOS. The SimpleNote IOS app pulls copies of all my notes and stores them locally on my iPhone and iPad. Any changes I make — from my computer, on my iPhone, on my iPad, through a web browser — are instantly replicated everywhere else. The app is rock solid; in all the time I’ve used it, it has never crashed. While an Internet connection is required, of course, to sync changes, I can take, search, and retrieve my notes whether I have a connection to the Internet or not.

3. Notational Velocity. I could access SimpleNote through my web browser, but Notational Velocity, a desktop app for my Mac, makes using SimpleNote a lot more fun. The interface is clean and elegant, and searches are lightning fast. By using Notational Velocity, I’m also creating *another* local copy of my notes … so if SimpleNote *and* Dropbox should ever go under on the same day, I’ll still have a local copy of my notes to work with.

So far, these systems have worked flawlessly; they’ve never let me down.

The Practices

1) I take plain text notes. Switching to plain text notes — notes with no images or special formatting — was hard for me. I’m visual, and I like pretty pictures, and I had a (bad) habit of capturing entire web pages and saving them for reference later.

In the end, though, I realized that, most of the time, when looking for a fact or note, I wasn’t looking for a picture (or an entire webpage, ads and all). Instead, I just wanted a piece of text: an address, a phone number, a fact. So I switched to plain text notes, which take far less space, are far more portable, can be edited by virtually any word processor or text editor.

2) I tag my notes. Tagging a note means applying a label to it. (I might, for example, label an article about a new iPhone with the tags “#Apple” and “#gadgets.”)

A search on a tag finds all notes bearing that tag. (By searching on “#Apple,” for example, I could pull together a collection of all my notes tagged with “#Apple” — but my grocery list, with just the word “apple” on it, wouldn’t come up.) Essentially, tagging is a way to create collections of related notes on the fly, just by typing a keyword or two.

SimpleNote and Notational Velocity both incorporate a tagging feature; unfortunately, they are incompatible. (Tags entered into Notational Velocity don’t appear on SimpleNote’s web site, and vice-versa.) But that doesn’t bother me, because, while I use tags, I don’t depend on the tagging feature supported by either application.

Instead, at the end of any note I create, I add a line of tags. The last line of this blog entry, for example — written on Notational Velocity at my desktop Mac — was “#blog #notetaking #madebymark.) When the time came to publish this entry, finding it was as easy as searching for #blog and #notetaking. (Had I wanted to see all past and future blog entries, I could have typed just #blog. Had I wanted to see all my notes on the art of taking notes, I could have typed just #notetaking.)

Putting tags at the end of my notes keeps them pretty much invisible; I don’t see them unless I scroll down to find them. And because this tagging system embeds my tags inside my notes, this system works whether SimpleNote or Notational Velocity supports it or not — and it will work on any platform, in any application I choose to work with in the future.

3) Have one place for taking notes, and put all notes in it. Keeping notes in multiple places (on sticky note sheets, on napkins, in a notebook, on the back of your hand) breeds distraction and confusion. With this system, I never have to ask, “Where should I put this note?” or “Where did I put that note?” This makes me more efficient and gives me tremendous peace of mind.

It’s Not Perfect

As I said before, this system isn’t perfect — it won’t accommodate attachments, or store files, or archive photos or diagrams — but it very effectively handles 99.9% of my actual needs. (It impresses people, too, who are amazed at how, with just a few taps, I seem to be able to summon up anything I’ve written or researched.)

This system also works best with short notes, blog entries, text snippets, and quotations. (Shorter notes tend to be more focused, which improves the efficiency of my tagging and searching efforts.) I wouldn’t want to write a longer text — a thick report or a book, for example, which requires more structure — using this system.

I also know there are other good apps out there, from interesting the upstart SpringPad to the established, popular, and seductive Evernote. Later on, I’ll talk about why I’ve elected not to incorporate these into my system.

In the meantime: if you have tips or tricks for taking notes — including favorite apps or best practices — drop me a line or make a comment. I’m always interested in improving the system, and, because my current approach has portability built-in, I’m always ready to jump ship should a better system come along.

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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Who Wrote This?

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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