Note-taking methods: Strategies for taking better notes (2024)

Thinking and learning without taking notes is wasteful. It's not just about capturing information – although this is a big part. Note-taking expands our understanding and ability to recall complex concepts quickly and effectively. It helps us form new thoughts, ideas and connections. Quite literally, it improves our thinking.

This guide will go through 11 methods of note-taking. Each will tell you exactly how to apply them to your own note-taking app. We’ll also dive into how recent advancements, like AI, can help you.

Skim through the methods, and then dive deeper into the ones that seem like they’ll fit you well.

Here is a short summary of what we’ll cover:

  1. The Outlining method – traditional yet simple. Good for most kinds of note-taking.
  1. The Charting Method – good for categorizing information.
  1. The Cornell Method – a proven method for educational note-taking and learning.
  1. The Mapping Method – good for creating associations in your notes.
  1. SQ3R – a method of note-taking suited for learning and studying.
  1. Daily Journaling – great as a daily note-taking practice.
  1. The Zettelkasten Method – fantastic if you have a networked note-taking app.
  1. The PARA method – an organizational format for people working on many projects.
  1. Evergreen Notes – good for building lasting knowledge.
  1. Bullet Journaling – great for journaling and task management.
  1. AI Note-taking – something everyone should now be doing.

How to choose a note-taking method

A variety of note-taking methods have been developed to help us learn and think better. We are all different people with different preferences and lives. We all need a slightly different system.

Technology, particularly recently, has transformed note-taking from a static to an interactive exercise. With new tools like AI and backlinking, we’re interacting with our notes in ways that were previously impossible. This evolution is happening at a faster rate now than ever before.

Note-taking methods provide a blueprint for structuring information within digital tools, enhancing their overall effectiveness. We’ll cover everything from the Zettelkasten method to Mind Mapping, dissecting exactly how they can be applied to modern note-taking tools.

Traditional note-taking methods – adapted for 2023

The Outline note-taking method

You probably remember learning the Outline method in school. The simplicity makes it a great place to start if you’re trying to get in the habit of taking better notes. It involves creating a structured, hierarchical form of notes using indentation to denote different points, sub-points, and details. You’ll want to make sure your note-taking app handles lists well for this.

How to take notes using the Outline method:

  1. Start by writing the main topic at the top of the page.
  1. Below the main topic, write the main supporting points using numbers or Roman numerals.
  1. Below each main point, write sub-points using bullets. Indent these slightly to the right.
  1. If there are additional details related to a sub-point, list these under the corresponding bullet. You can denote these with letters or symbols if that helps make it easier to read.
  1. Continue this pattern as necessary.

The Charting Method

If you find the Outlining method a bit dull (or have PTSD from school),one step down is the Charting note-taking method. It’s useful for information that fits well into categories.

How to take notes using the Charting method

  1. Start by identifying categories relevant to the information you're taking notes on.
  1. List out headings on the note with a category and create it as a backlink.
  1. As you receive or read information, fill in the relevant details under the corresponding category in the chart.
  1. Go through and organize/re-order the points.
  1. If your note-taking app allows it, it can be useful to pull them up side by side to compare and contrast topics.

The Cornell Method of taking notes

Developed by Walter Pauk at Cornell University, this system involves dividing each page into three sections: Notes, Cues, and Summary. This helps with recalling, reviewing, and summarizing notes efficiently. Given its start in academia, it’s great for lectures and educational videos.

The Cornell Method was developed for handwritten notes, but it can easily be applied to your note-taking app.

How to take Cornell Notes in a digital note-taking app:

  1. Create a note and give it a title. Divide the note into three sections: Cue, Notes and Summary. Make each one a heading that you can take notes under.
  1. Take notes in the “Notes” section while learning, reading or brainstorming.
  1. Afterwards, fill out the "Cues" section of your note with questions or keywords that relate to the notes. This is a great place to add tags if your note-taking app allows.
  1. Summarize the main points under “Summary” to quickly access the information later.

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Copy a template of the Cornell method of note-taking here.

The Mapping Method of note-taking

This is a visual method of note-taking that requires you to draw diagrams of the ideas being discussed. We’re discussing it here with regard to modern digital note-taking because, if you use a networked note-taking app with a mind map feature, this will exist automatically.

How to do the traditional Mapping method:

(Assuming your note-taking app does not have a built in mind map feature)

  1. Start by writing the main idea in the center of your paper.
  1. Draw branches from the main idea to the main supporting points or themes.
  1. From each supporting point, draw additional branches to related sub-points or details.
  1. You can use different colors, symbols, and illustrations to help visually differentiate and organize ideas.

If you have a networked note-taking app, you don’t need to worry about drawing or making connections. Just create backlinked notes, and you’ll see how they are all interconnected. In apps like Reflect the supporting points will be pulled in automatically

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You can try this out for yourself with a free 2 week trial of Reflect. Check out what this looks like below.

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SQ3R Method of note-taking

Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.

This is more of a studying method but it’s good for any type of learning. This process encourages you to interact with your notes to understand and retain the material better. It takes a bit more time and engagement but solidifies the information solidly in your mind (and notes).

How to take notes using the SQ3R method

  1. Survey: Skim the material to get an overall picture. Look at headings, subheadings, and highlighted words. No note-taking yet!
  1. Question: Before you start reading, ask yourself questions based on your initial survey. What do you expect to learn? Write these down.
  1. Read: Now read the material carefully, looking for answers to your questions and creating new ones.
  1. Recite: After reading a section, try to recite the main points and answer your questions from memory into your notes. Then check the text to see if you were correct.
  1. Review: After you've finished reading, review your notes. This reinforces what you've learned.

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See a SQ3R note-taking template here.

Modern Note-Taking Methods

Daily Journaling method of note-taking

Daily Journaling involves having an ongoing Daily Note from where you base all of your note-taking from. Each day has a new page in the ongoing note where everything in your day goes. Each element is backlinked out to a page where you can provide more information.

The Daily Journaling method is more suited for overall knowledge capture than a method for studying a specific topic. With backlinking, it’s a great way to build up a second brain over time.

How to apply the Daily Journaling method to your notes:

  1. Create an ongoing note. If you use a note-taking app that uses the Daily Note format, you won’t need to do this step. It will already be created for you.
  1. Each day, create a page with the date on top (also backlinked).
  1. In each day’s note, start by writing everything that happens. Backlink all people, places, things and ideas you have. Record your meeting notes. Write your to-do list items. Everything!
  1. Easily search and find things. Because your notes are filled with backlinks, you’ll be able to make new associations. You’ll also know exactly what you did on each day.
  1. If future to-do items come up, write them in the daily note in the future.

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You can watch a video on how to setup a daily Reflection in your notes here.

The Zettelkasten note-taking method

Some might consider the Zettelkasten method as traditional, with a resurgence in the digital age. The method involves creating a web of notes that are all linked together. Tools like Reflect, Roam Research, Obsidian, and RemNote facilitate this method well.

How to take notes through networked note-taking (i.e. the Zettelkasten method):

  1. Create a new note for each Idea: Whenever you encounter an idea you want to remember, create a new note. The note should be self-contained, so it can be understood without referring to any other note.
  1. Write the note in your own words: Don't simply copy and paste from your source. Write the note in your own words to aid comprehension and retention.
  1. Give the note a unique identifier: Each note needs a unique identifier to make it easy to refer to.
  1. Link your notes together: When you write a note related to a previous one, create a link from one to the other. This creates a network of interconnected ideas, rather than a hierarchy.
  1. Create an index note: Having an index note provides a high-level overview of your notes and their connections. This can be organized by topic, by date, or in another way that makes sense to you.
  1. Regularly review your notes: The Zettelkasten method is designed to be an ongoing conversation with yourself. Regularly review your notes, add new ones, and build new connections.
  1. Use tags or keywords: Tags can help group related notes together, making them easier to search for and find. They can also show up in backlinking, further strengthening the network of related notes.

You can watch a video of how to easily apply the Zettelkasten method below.

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Tiago Forte's PARA method (from Building a Second Brain)

PARA is a key component of Tiago Forte's "Building a Second Brain" methodology. The acronym PARA stands for: Projects, Areas, Resources and Archives.

  1. Projects: A project is defined as a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline. You can create a separate note or folder for each project you are currently working on. Each of these should be something that you can feasibly complete in the near future. If your note-taking app supports it, you can give it a PARA tag.
  1. Areas: Areas of responsibility are parts of your life that need continuous maintenance and oversight, without a specific end date. Examples could include health, finance, career, or relationships. You can create a note or folder for each area and add relevant information as you come across it.
  1. Resources: Resources are topics of ongoing interest that you reference often. These could include anything from personal interests (like photography or cooking) to professional skills (like marketing or data analysis). Resources don't have specific outcomes or deadlines attached to them, but they're topics you consistently return to and learn about over time.
  1. Archives: Anything that no longer falls into the above categories can be moved into Archives. This keeps your current system clean and focused, while still maintaining a record of past projects and interests.

Here's how you might use PARA in Reflect, for example.

  1. Projects: Create a back-linked note called "Projects". Inside, make additional back-linked notes for each of your current projects. Each note should contain all the relevant information for its corresponding project.
  1. Areas: Make another note called "Areas". Again, create a separate note for each area of your life that requires continuous maintenance. These notes should contain relevant information, tasks, and observations about their respective areas.
  1. Resources: Create a "Resources" note where you'll make separate notes or pages for each topic of ongoing interest. You can add to these notes over time as you learn more about each topic.
  1. Archives: Finally, create an "Archives" note. When a project is complete, move its note from the "Projects" notebook to "Archives". Do the same for areas and resources that are no longer active.
  1. Once you have all of these 4 created, pin the notes or save them somewhere easily accessible.

By sorting your notes into these categories and regularly reviewing and updating each one, you can create a system that makes it easy to keep track of the different aspects of your life and work. It will also make it easier to find and use the information you've saved when you need it.

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Evergreen Notes

This is a concept related to Zettelkasten, but specifically emphasizes notes that are written and organized in a way that they are always useful and can be built upon. These notes are often atomic (focused on one idea) and heavily linked.

How to apply the Evergreen note-taking method:

  1. Create atomic notes: Each note should contain a single idea or concept that you want to remember or think about further. Keep it concise and self-contained.
  1. Develop full thoughts: Don't just jot down ideas or facts. Expand them into complete sentences or paragraphs that reflect your understanding of the topic.
  1. Link notes: Whenever you create a new note that's related to a previous one, create a link between them. This forms a network of thoughts and ideas that are easy to navigate.
  1. Regularly review and revise: This isn't a "set it and forget it" system. Regularly look back over your notes, update them with new insights, and ensure that they're as valuable as possible.
  1. Avoid transient information: Evergreen notes are meant to be long-lasting and always valuable. Avoid including information that will quickly become outdated or irrelevant.

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You can view a template to use for the Evergreen note-taking method here.

Bullet Journaling

This system was developed by Ryder Carrol, the inventor of the Bullet Journal. While it is known as a manual journaling and task management method, it can also be accomplished digitally. It uses symbols to categorize entries into tasks, events, and notes.

How to apply to Bullet Journaling method to your notes:

  1. Index: This is essentially your table of contents. Create a note or a page at the beginning of your journal where you'll keep track of where everything else is.
  1. Future Log: This is a place for events or tasks that are happening in the future, beyond the current month. You can create a note or page for each month or create a single note with different sections for each month.
  1. Monthly Log: At the beginning of each month, create a new note. On one side, write down all the days of the month and next to them write any events or tasks happening on those days. On the other side, write down your tasks for the month.
  1. Daily Log (or Daily Note): Each day, create a new note or section within your Monthly Log. Here you'll use the bullet journal symbols to keep track of tasks (•), events (O), and notes (—).
  1. Collections: These are notes or pages on specific topics that you want to keep track of. They can be anything from books you want to read, to project ideas, to shopping lists. Create a new note for each collection and remember to add it to your Index.
  1. Migration: At the end of each month, look over your tasks. Any that weren't completed either need to be "migrated" forward to the next month (if they're still important) or crossed out (if they're no longer relevant).

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See templates for the Bullet Journaling method here.

AI-Powered note-taking

AI-powered tools like Reflect can do incredible new things. They can automatically transcribe and take notes during a meeting, organize those notes for you and list the key takeaways. AI allows us to capture thoughts with less friction than ever before and then effortlessly organize them. It’s less of a method, and more of a tool.

How to take notes with AI

  1. Tools like Reflect that use Whisper can transcribe speech in real time with human level accuracy. See how to do this here.
  1. Using GPT-4, you can do all kinds of things with text in your notes:
    1. Create summaries from text
    2. List key takeaways and action items from your notes
    3. Rephrase your writing in the tone of another author
    4. Conduct research and gather information
    5. Translate things into another language
    6. Have AI come up with counter examples or factual evidence
    7. Have the AI act as a copy editor
    8. Get a working Executive Assistant in your notes
  1. You can actually combine these features as well.
    1. For example, you could ramble about a topic you are interested in, have the AI turn it into an article outline that you can edit and then write around. After writing you can have the AI assistant rephrase parts you don’t like to get the perfect article.

If you want to learn more about how to use AI to take better notes, check out this video:

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Try out different note-taking methods and stick with a system

The benefits that come from adopting a note-taking methodology into our professional and everyday lives run deep. When we combine proven methods with new note-taking technologies like backlinking and AI, real magic starts to happen. Our notes become a superpower!

Technology around note-taking will continue to advance at a breakneck pace. New strategies being imagined, reshaped, and reinvented to better cater to our ever-evolving needs. It's likely that in a short while, we won’t even be taking notes by typing anymore. Still, fundamental note-taking methods and strategies will remain. Re-imagined perhaps, but the same in their core function.

Note-taking methods: Strategies for taking better notes (2024)
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