How I take notes (4 apps, 5 journals, 12 angry men)

red notebook in a dark green background

No angry men in here, I just had the strong urge to include that in the title. Watch the movie if you haven’t, there’s a reason it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

It’s very early and I’m at one of my favorite places, Tirana’s artificial lake. Granted, I don’t find it amusing that one of my favorite places is literally artificial. (Is it a metaphor???) I’ll stick to the lake (liqeni in Albanian) which is what us locals call it.

A lot has been said about empty city streets as the sun is rising and how surreal that is so I won’t wax poetic.

However, it would be sacrilegious not to mention what my best friend would say at this exact moment.

Years ago, I gave her my journal, mostly so we could commiserate over our confusion and heartbreak. I thought she’d say she found herself in my poetry and that it was beautiful.

Instead, she has been making fun of one of my lines for years.

The streets are empty, but they’re also not.

No, I don’t blame her in the slightest.

I got to Liqeni as the sun was rising. Ordered an espresso and water (my usual) and opened my laptop.

I write a new article on the first Sunday of every month. For the first time in months (maybe ever?), I’m starting it a week ahead. Often, despite my best efforts, I start writing the week of. I stopped writing every week so I would avoid this, alas… 

This month, not only am I starting ahead of time, but I’m actually writing a second article–this one you’re reading. I ended up writing the one I will have published by the time you’re reading this “on accident.” I went to a coffee shop to get some work done, but the words just started spilling. One thing led to another, and Lies, Albania, and online reviews was born.

Since I wasn’t in a rush, I took it slowly. I’d write about whatever would come to me.

Obviously, because our brains really like rest (see: Internalized capitalism- In defense of boredom), I got an idea. As I was working on that, I got another idea.

Today, I’ll be talking about notetaking! The journals and apps I use, how I take notes, usual and unusual ways I use notes, and whatever else comes up.

Notes apps & journals

I use 4 platforms and 5 journals.

I’m a fake minimalist, I know, I know. Kristen Leo, I have failed you.

Apps:

  1. Google Docs
  2. Gmail (yeah)
  3. Evernote
  4. Notes (the iOS app)

Every platform serves very distinct purposes.

Disclaimer: These purposes may be very distinct in my mind. You might really enjoy this article if you’re interested in other people’s processes generally and notetaking specifically. However, this might be “too niche” for you. That’s okay. Honestly, I don’t know what this disclaimer is even about. You do you, I think, is the main takeaway.

How I use Google Docs for notetaking

Almost all of my notes in Google Docs are work-related.

I would divide my Google Docs notes into 3 buckets.

1. Notes I take during meetings

Google Docs has recently added an integration that automagically creates a “Meeting notes” doc for every meeting you’re in. This is accessible on the meeting link invite whether you’re meeting on Google Meet or Zoom. You just click that button instead of having to open the Google Docs homepage, create a new doc, add info about the meeting, share it with the person (or people) you’re meeting, and make sure it’s in the correct folder… Just realized mid-sentence that the last part doesn’t happen yet.

It would be cool if “Meeting notes” docs were automatically added to the relevant Google Drive folder. For someone like me who uses Google Workspaces and works at an agency, it’d be useful to be able to integrate calendars, Docs, the project management tool we use (Teamwork), the time tracking tool (Harvest), and Google Drive.

E.g., in Teamwork, each client has a separate project with tasks and subtasks. HR is the project and “UX interviews” is the task. The task is added as the tag. Every tag informs which Google Drive folder a Meeting notes doc is saved in (HR). Imagine all the context someone could have just by exploring the Drive folder. The task is “linked” to the PM tool and the time spent on that meeting (30 minutes, 1 hour, etc.) is tracked under the relevant task (UX interviews).

Okay. Having said all that, I don’t even use Meeting notes that much. During work meetings, especially client meetings, I open a new Google Doc and write down:

  • things that caught my attention
  • data that I might want to refer to later
  • any links that were mentioned
  • info I might need to share with someone who wasn’t in the meeting
  • industry-specific terms/acronyms I’ll need to Google after because I have no idea what they mean

2. Catchall doc / “Unofficial” or old versions of stuff I’ve worked on, all starting with my name in all caps so I don’t share with the client on accident

I’m a bit of a digital information hoarder to a healthy extent. This is partly fueled by my unhealthy conviction that one day, a client will ask about something I changed 2 years ago and I won’t have it. Besides old versions, this doc basically has everything word-related I’ve worked on for a client, everything I’ve noted about their business and goals. If I think a Slack message a colleague has shared is especially relevant, I’ll add it to this doc.

This doc is titled something like “DLF Microsoft all” or “MINE all Microsoft.”

3. Information that isn’t relevant now, but will be later

This note usually includes things that were mentioned in close proximity with words like “post-launch,” “after the MVP is done,” next year, etc.

Post launch = relating to or occurring in the period following a launch
MVP = Minimum Viable Product / a version of a product with just enough features to be usable by early customers

Again, this subsection is itself divided further into 2 subsections:

  1. the What – actual content we’ll be using in the future
  2. the How – links to tools/examples/internal docs/previous similar work we did that I believe will be helpful in figuring out more quickly how exactly we’ll do the thing that was suggested and more importantly, the best way to do it for the client’s specific needs

How I use Gmail drafts for notetaking

My Gmail drafts are a bit of a mess. I would divide my Gmail notes into 3 buckets.

no vibes, just buckets

1. Notes I take during meetings

I use Google Docs for meeting notes when the actual deliverable I’m working on will be presented or shared in Google Docs.

For weekly syncs, 1:1s, and meetings where we’re discussing non-Google Docs-deliverables with the client, I use Gmail drafts.

2. Information that isn’t relevant now, but will be later

Explained above.

Again, most of the information I store in Gmail drafts is information that (if shared) will be sent in email format.

These can look like “templates” for specific email comms, responses to common questions, etc.

3. The mess before the send (The calm before the storm)

I have the feeling that most native English speakers won’t relate to this one. This may also not be something I should be sharing, but hey, we’re all about honesty here.

Almost every time I want to send a message that’s longer than a sentence (30+ words), I don’t type it in the messaging platform I’ll be sending it in (Slack, Google Docs). I first formulate it in Gmail drafts.

I have an irrational fear that it takes me longer to formulate a thought than it takes a native English speaker, so I choose not to let people see how long I’ve been typing.

Granted, my fear is based on a somewhat objective truth– it might take me longer, but that is irrelevant and something I’ve been actively trying (and succeeding) to get over.

As long as I’m able to advocate for my work and myself, explain, convince, even—if I dare say so myself—delight, who cares if it takes an extra second or 2?

Another semi-sad confession: I sometimes use Ludwig.guru to figure out if the way I’m phrasing something is correct. It’s almost always correct, alas the thing I’m asking is: “Would a native English speaker say this?” rather than “Is this grammatically correct?”.

Once I’m sure, I paste and send my message in Slack.

How I use Evernote for notetaking

Evernote is my one true love when it comes to note-taking.

I’ve always said (see: I’ve said it 4-5 times) that if I ever considered a career as an influencer, Evernote would be my dream collaboration. It’s one of the very few things I’d be happy to promote. I’ve been using Evernote for years and I love the product despite its shortcomings.

I’m literally writing this in Evernote.

On my birthday a few years ago, I wrote about how I use Evernote, mostly referring to the Medici Effect:

Frans Johansson dubbed “the cross-fertilization of ideas” the Medici Effect.

Apparently, the ability to combine unusual associations is a compelling creativity determinant. 

This past year, I was finally able to make all the unusual associations I’ve wanted to make for years. That’s because of the 10 MB text-only document that’s making my Evernote struggle.

Whenever I’m writing or researching a topic for work, by searching for the term on Evernote, I can quickly assess all the views and things I found intriguing throughout the months, and as of now, years.

If I’ve thought of this unusual connection between laptops and chocolate, but I can’t put my finger on it or clearly articulate it, going through the note with a simple search command gives me clarity and insight.

How I use Notes (the iOS app) for notetaking

Rather than how, this one is more about when, and as you might expect, I use Notes when I’m drunk.

I get random ideas that I’m scared to dive deeper into when I’m intoxicated so I save them to return to them in a calmer, less courageous state.

Sometimes when I’m doing a guided meditation, I’ll open my eyes and the Notes app to write down a good point the meditation teacher made.

Being drunk is similar to meditating in that way. I get a lot of my writing/life ideas while meditating. Since I feel like I can do anything when I’m meditating, I write down my ideas to return to them in a less calm, more down-to-earth state.

I also use Notes for random things: one-time passwords, phone numbers, addresses, art recommendations, and dog names. Oh, and déjà vu-s.

In January 2020, I started noting down every time I experience a déjà vu.

Mostly for fun, but also slightly with the hope that I’ll be able to spot a pattern.

I haven’t been able to note down every single déjà vu (when I was in a meeting, when I couldn’t reach my phone, didn’t want to ruin the moment, etc.), but still noted quite a few of them.

If you’re curious, I haven’t examined the data that I have yet. As you can see, I only have 30 data points and I’m hoping to get to at least 100 before I 🤓🤓🤓.

And that is that. I’ve learned that this is called “personal knowledge management” and there are apparently hundreds if not thousands of people who, like me, think a lot about categorizing their thoughts (meta!), taking notes, and optimizing their note-taking process. Jorge Arango, an information architect and author I follow and enjoy is writing a whole book on it: Duly Noted.

I’ll try to treat this page like a living, breathing thing and water it often (aka update it)… or something like that. Metaphors are weird.

Ohh, and the 5 journals I use:

  1. Work agenda – This is a leather(ish) notebook my best friend got me that is just so fantastic! I like bringing joy into my work day with small things like that so I had to use it for work. I have been working on some incredibly cool projects, so hey, it’s only fair.
  2. Ex work agenda, current monthly goal tracking & planning – I’m a Lavendaire girl.
  3. Tiny, velvet, maroon notebook with yellow pages for random thoughts/memories throughout the day – Wrote about it a while back. If I had to choose one word to describe the usage of this, it’d be oops.
  4. Thiccc green notebook for everyday journaling – word to describe the usage of this: oops
  5. Pocket-friendly journal (it has a cute little knot!) that my best friend got me during the weirdest (worst?) week of my life. If I had to choose one word to describe the usage of this, it’d be oops. This is the same best friend that makes fun of my “The streets are empty, but they’re also not.” line. I love her.

The Paradox of Choice, am I right?

If you liked this, I think you’ll also like:

Do you take notes regularly? What do you use?

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