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Just a few phrases on taking notes

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Just a few phrases on taking notes

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Illustration of taking notes

As we’re about to begin the planning conferences for 2024 at AWS, I’ve been pondering rather a lot about how I take notes. In the identical vein, the method of placing collectively a re: Invent keynote takes months, and it signifies that I’m assembly with plenty of good people doing analysis and constructing wonderful merchandise. And at each assembly I’m taking notes — numerous them.

The earliest recollections I’ve of taking notes are in major college. I’d copy word-for-word what the instructor would say or write on the board. Issues like definitions and multiplication tables. Then I’d go house, research what I’d copied, and ultimately take a take a look at. In observe, I used to be studying to encode, retailer, and recall info. When you concentrate on it, it’s a bit like S3.

However this was memorisation, not synthesis.

As I continued alongside my academic journey, and the subject material grew to become more and more extra advanced, it pressured me to rethink observe taking. It was much less about being a scribe, and extra about listening, observing, and comprehending what was being taught. For instance, the youthful me could have copied the next definition verbatim: “The traditional function of mitochondria is oxidative phosphorylation, which generates ATP by utilising the power launched throughout the oxidation of the meals we eat.” And when finding out, I’d have dedicated this to reminiscence with out essentially understanding the way it truly labored. What would have been extra useful would have been to learn the definition, then write it out in a manner that was significant to me, resembling: “Mitochondria are the energy plant of the cell. They generate many of the chemical power wanted to energy the cell’s biochemical reactions.” Possibly even diagram the method within the margins. That is synthesis. This denotes understanding.

And there’s analysis to again this up. Particularly, that verbatim observe taking simply isn’t as efficient if you’re making an attempt to study and retain new info.

Pen and paper

To today, I nonetheless take plenty of my notes by hand. It helps me to take care of focus and internalise the necessary bits. It’s unimaginable to jot down as quick as folks converse, so I’m pressured to jot down down what I believe is most necessary or make observe of what I don’t perceive in order that I can ask questions.

A stack of notebooks
The pocket book archive view from my desk…

The Cornell Technique

I’ve spent fairly a little bit of time over the previous couple of months studying about and relearning totally different note-taking approaches. Every part from outlining to thoughts mapping to charting. And what’s labored fairly effectively for me is the Cornell Technique. A easy strategy that has you break up a pocket book web page into 4 elements: 1/ title, 2/ notes, 3/ key phrases/questions, and 4/ abstract. And no, it’s not as a result of I labored at Cornell for the higher a part of a decade, however as a result of this methodology encourages you to doc your thought processes (i.e., ask questions), synthesise what you’re studying in real-time (i.e., take notes), and summarise all of it after the actual fact (i.e., write a succinct abstract).

What I wind up with are structured notes which can be simple to learn, organise, and revisit, as a result of it’s extra than simply writing one thing down, however having the ability to return and assessment questions and problem assumptions.

Illustration of the Cornell Method
Credit score: https://www.flexcil.com/suggestions/cornell-note-taking/

A current research by Kuniyoshi Sakai, titled Paper Notebooks vs. Cellular Gadgets: Mind Activation Variations Throughout Reminiscence Retrieval, truly confirmed larger retention and recall for topics that used pen and paper versus a keyboard, or pill and stylus. Nonetheless, there’s broad settlement that taking notes, in any type with any enter, helps with encoding, retention, and recall.

As you may see from the picture above, I’m a giant fan of analog note-taking. For me, analog helps with memorising, synthesising, and summarising. As quickly as I write one thing down with pen and paper, it additionally appears to search out its manner into my mind – one thing that doesn’t occur with digital. I even use the Cornell methodology when making ready for conferences; I summarise the briefing doc in my pocket book, and it instantly sticks. The truth that you might be energetic with the textual content as an alternative of simply studying it drives this course of.

Utilizing ML and generative AI

There may be plenty of worth within the act of taking notes and actively synthesising info. However we dwell in a world with extra information than we might ever moderately anticipate to comb by. That is an space the place ML and generative AI will play an more and more necessary function. Just a few examples that come to thoughts are:

  • Utilizing a transcription service with speaker identification to complement the notes you’re taking throughout a gathering.
  • Utilizing pc imaginative and prescient and optical character recognition (OCR) to transform your handwritten notes into docs that you could simply share with others or retailer in a central location. (Assuming that you simply’re not already utilizing one thing like Kindle Scribe).
  • Close to-instant summarisation.
  • Iterating over a complete corpus of notes utilizing an LLM to establish themes, tendencies, and necessary folks throughout tons of of pages from conferences, lectures, doc opinions, on-site visits, and so on.

I see this like studying a map. Should you return 20 years, studying a map was a reasonably frequent talent. You’d plan a route, take some notes, then attempt to navigate it. And when you took the route sufficient instances, you’d recall it. You’d bear in mind a fountain or the color of a particular home alongside the best way. You’d know when and the place there could be visitors or building, and the alternate routes to get round it. However as of late, we simply use our telephones. We observe turn-by-turn instructions from street-to-street with no need to commit an excessive amount of to reminiscence.

It’s useful. It’s simple. That’s probably not up for debate. However studying a bodily map remains to be a really helpful talent. There’ll inevitably be instances that you simply don’t have cell service (otherwise you lose your telephone, or perhaps you wish to disconnect from expertise), and understanding the place you might be and tips on how to get the place you’re going are necessary. And similar to taking notes by hand, it lets you take away a few of the noise created by expertise, and to concentrate on the necessary bits.

I’m genuinely curious to see how analysis will evolve within the subsequent 10+ years as we proceed to review what works greatest for digital natives.

Take notes, numerous them

I’ll depart you with a quote from the author Anne Lamott: “[…] one of many worst emotions I can consider, [is] to have had a beautiful second or perception or imaginative and prescient or phrase, to know you had it, then lose it.” My recommendation: take notes, numerous them.

Now, go construct!

Be aware: I’m genuinely curious how my readers take notes and synthesise info. Should you’re doing issues in a different way than me, let me know on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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