A notebook is an essential part of exploring and developing new ideas. Keeping notes about a new subject you’re studying should not be optional.

Length: 1445 words, 8-10 minute read

Subject: I discuss how essential note taking is to learning and how it can be used as a source of practise for multiple skills.

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You can tell a lot about a person from a notebook. Imagine you find a jacket, abandoned on a train, with a notebook stuffed into the inside pocket. A collection of loose papers covered in scribbles would hardly inspire a grand image. But a leather bound book filled with detailed notes and annotated drawings is something awe inspiring. We know we’re looking into the mind of a genius and getting an insight into the way an impressive person sees the world.

Da Vinci notebook

A page from Da Vinci’s notebook

The notebooks of geniuses like Da Vinci are almost a work of art themselves and it seems to be the case that the most interesting people keep the most interesting notebooks. But making notes is about more than just producing an object filled with interesting drawings and observations.

A notebook is an essential part of exploring and developing new ideas

Keeping notes about a new subject you’re studying should not be optional. There is no value in trying to learn anything new without making your own notes. Even if you are able to retain information that you hear in a lecture, tutorial or online video, you are simply remembering and not learning.

Ever meet someone who seems really knowledgeable about a subject, but when you ask a specific question to probe a bit deeper, they’re totally lost? I’ve experienced this even with teachers that are supposedly masters of their subject!

The problem is that these people simply memorise and regurgitate facts, without developing and integrating their own ideas. Poor school systems are often to blame for unproductive learning, but once you leave school, it’s your own responsibility to find an effective learning method.

Your goal when learning should be an intuitive understanding of the fundamentals that goes beyond an academic understanding. You are learning a skill, not memorising the information required to describe the skill. For example, if you are starting to learn to draw, don’t start studying the specifics of form, perspective and value before you’ve even picked up a pencil.

 

Speed up learning without copying

Not only can you use a notebook to make learning more effective, you can also use a notebook to make learning faster. This is due to a cognitive bias I covered in my article on Anki, the self generation effect. In short, this bias means that information we write ourselves (self generate) is easier to remember.

So rather than reading a paragraph of information and trying to memorise it, instead rewrite it, ensuring you keep the essential information the same. And rather than looking at an anatomy book to see how to the skull is structured, make a quick sketch and annotate the important parts.

The act of trying to express what someone else is saying in your own style is intrinsic to effective and fast learning. But copying is the antithesis of this. If you simply copy down text, or even reproduce images and stick them into your notebooks, you’re missing out on a big learning opportunity. Never will it be so clear as to what you understand and what you don’t as when you try to explain the concept in your own words.

Note taking is practise

Time for practise is hard to come by. We’d all like to be better artists, writers and thinkers. We all want to have notebooks that look like Da Vinci’s, or the Codex Seraphinius. But that would require writing and drawing every day, and who has time for that?

Note takers do.

It perhaps takes only 5 minutes to make a quick sketch and note of something in your notebook. But in that time, you have considered an idea and pared it down to its essentials, then expressed those essentials in your own form. This is the very essence of good writing.

Likewise with drawing. In learning how to take down a form quickly, you’re learning the fundamental landmarks that make up the form and understanding it better than you did before. I’m a big advocate of making relevant sketches even if you “can’t draw”. You’d be surprised the leaps your skills can take with just 5 minutes of practise each day.

Filling the small gaps in your day with practise is the key to rapid improvement. 5 minutes of something per day is miles more effective than 1 hour a week. And it’s that much less likely to get dropped when things are too busy. Maybe you can’t spend that 1 hour this week, but it’s hard to argue that you can’t find 5 spare minutes a day.

 

golden boy notebookKintaro from Golden Boy (image right) is another person who uses notebooks in this way. In the series, Kintaro travels from job to job, mastering the skillset with incredible pace and usually solving some major problems along the way. His notebook is essential to his process.

The 6 episode OVA adaptation from the 90s is worth a look to appreciate Kintaro’s approach to learning. He treats each new subject as something intriguing and exciting, a new problem ready to be solved. He approaches the work with the mindset of a beginner – despite being very intelligent, Kintaro doesn’t presume to know how anything works. And he closely studies and follows the masters. Whoever has been there doing the job the longest, Kintaro latches onto and learns from.

The author manages to capture the Japanese spirit towards work ethic and learning that lead to their massive economic boom in the 80s and the work is worth exploring purely for these insights. Not to mention some great gags and artwork.

A notebook can be used to record and review the past

We like to believe that something, once learned properly, is retained forever. But read through an old notebook and you’ll be surprised by how little you remember writing at all.

Rereading old notes is an essential part of the notebook learning process. As I’ve covered in other articles, learning occurs when neuronal connections between ideas are strengthened through energy passing through these connections. This is called the testing effect.

By rereading our notebooks, we’re utilizing the testing effect to gain better understanding of the material and to be able to access it more readily in our minds.

Even rereading notebooks that contain only information you’ve already integrated can be useful. It’s a great insight to be able to see the thoughts and feelings of our younger selves. It’s a great joy to be able to see your drawings, writing and ideas improving as you move from notebook to notebook. And occasionally you’ll find an idea that you might be able to make use of, something that you couldn’t use before.

Using a notebook is a great way to form complex original ideas

Ever have a great idea for a story setting, character element or even a dialogue snippet, but didn’t have an appropriate project for it to fit into? But it’s so exciting that you start to build a project around it and suddenly lose interest in the thing you were working on before?

Often when these ideas appear they can distract us from our current projects and we must either decide if we want to stop working on our old ideas to pursue a new and exciting one, or throw out the new idea and stay the course with our current project.

But by making a note of these ideas we can often get the best of both worlds. We’re able to get the idea out of our head, realizing it in some form and making a note of it to allow us to continue with other projects, but also creating a large reference book of ideas that can be dipped into when we start a new project. Notes like this are a godsend when you’re experiencing writers block on a new project.

 

That about covers all I have to say about my notebook learning process. To summarize:

  1. Take notes about the subjects of your study (or just observations) as often as possible
  2. Rewrite (or redraw) information in your own style for better retention
  3. Review old notes whenever possible to restrengthen neuronal connections
  4. Combine and collate ideas to make stronger ones

P.S. If you’re curious, I’ve personally always used Moleskine notebooks for my important notes. They’re rugged and contain high quality paper without too high a price tag. Below is an image and an Amazon link, in case you’d like the same one.

My notebook

Buy this notebook on Amazon