Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Just a few phrases on taking notes

Illustration of taking notes

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

The earliest reminiscences 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, examine what I’d copied, and finally take a take a look at. In observe, I used to be studying to encode, retailer, and recall data. 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 turned more and more extra advanced, it pressured me to rethink word 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 basic function of mitochondria is oxidative phosphorylation, which generates ATP by utilising the vitality launched throughout the oxidation of the meals we eat.” And when learning, 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 method that was significant to me, akin to: “Mitochondria are the energy plant of the cell. They generate a lot of the chemical vitality wanted to energy the cell’s biochemical reactions.” Perhaps even diagram the method within the margins. That is synthesis. This denotes understanding.

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

Pen and paper

To at the present time, I nonetheless take plenty of my notes by hand. It helps me to keep up focus and internalise the essential bits. It’s unimaginable to jot down as quick as folks communicate, so I’m pressured to jot down down what I feel is most essential or make word 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 Methodology

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 little thing from outlining to thoughts mapping to charting. And what’s labored fairly effectively for me is the Cornell Methodology. A easy strategy that has you cut up a pocket book web page into 4 components: 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 technique 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 might 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 evaluation questions and problem assumptions.

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

A latest examine by Kuniyoshi Sakai, titled Paper Notebooks vs. Cellular Units: Mind Activation Variations Throughout Reminiscence Retrieval, truly confirmed greater retention and recall for topics that used pen and paper versus a keyboard, or pill and stylus. Nevertheless, there may be broad settlement that taking notes, in any type with any enter, helps with encoding, retention, and recall.

As you’ll be able to 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 seek out its method into my mind – one thing that doesn’t occur with digital. I even use the Cornell technique when getting ready for conferences; I summarise the briefing doc in my pocket book, and it instantly sticks. The truth that you might be lively with the textual content as a substitute of simply studying it drives this course of.

Utilizing ML and generative AI

There’s plenty of worth within the act of taking notes and actively synthesising data. However we reside in a world with extra knowledge than we might ever fairly anticipate to comb by. That is an space the place ML and generative AI will play an more and more essential 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 laptop imaginative and prescient and optical character recognition (OCR) to transform your handwritten notes into docs you can simply share with others or retailer in a central location. (Assuming that you just’re not already utilizing one thing like Kindle Scribe).
  • Close to-instant summarisation.
  • Iterating over a whole corpus of notes utilizing an LLM to establish themes, traits, and essential folks throughout lots of of pages from conferences, lectures, doc critiques, on-site visits, and so on.

I see this like studying a map. In case you return 20 years, studying a map was a reasonably widespread ability. You’d plan a route, take some notes, then attempt to navigate it. And for those who took the route sufficient occasions, you’d bring it to mind. You’d keep in mind a fountain or the color of a selected home alongside the best way. You’d know when and the place there could be site visitors or development, and the alternate routes to get round it. However today, we simply use our telephones. We comply with turn-by-turn instructions from street-to-street without having to commit an excessive amount of to reminiscence.

It’s useful. It’s simple. That’s not likely up for debate. However studying a bodily map continues to be a really helpful ability. There’ll inevitably be occasions that you just don’t have cell service (otherwise you lose your cellphone, or possibly you need to disconnect from expertise), and understanding the place you might be and methods to get the place you’re going are essential. And identical to taking notes by hand, it lets you take away a number of the noise created by expertise, and to give attention to the essential bits.

I’m genuinely curious to see how analysis will evolve within the subsequent 10+ years as we proceed to check what works finest 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 data. In case you’re doing issues otherwise than me, let me know on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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