A Few Notes about Note Taking
Wisdom is applied knowledge, therefore memory is the foundation of wisdom.
The physical act of taking notes enhances memory encoding and storage. Reviewing notes increases the amount and breadth of information retrieved.
Keeping notes is a useful practice with a number of benefits, some of them even monetary. The following activities are driven and enhanced by good notes.
- Solutions log: How often do you find yourself trying to remember how you fixed this problem the last time? If only you had a full-text searchable log of all those Little Wins. StackOverflow itself is like one huge collaborative notebook filled with solutions.
- Daily retrospective: I don’t consistently practice what I preach here, but writing a summary of the day’s accomplishments and struggles is a very useful practice. You reflect on what worked and what didn’t, improving your response the next time you’re faced with a similar situation. (Wisdom again!) You are also able to set yourself up to hit the ground running the following day/week.
- Content creation: As you accumulate fixes and lessons learned, you start to realize that a lot of these notes would make good material for some published content, which can even make you money.
So what’s the best way to keep your notes? First consider characteristics that are important for any note-taking system.
The anatomy of a good notes system
Experience has taught me that a good system for taking notes has the following features.
You need to be able to take notes anywhere, as well as take your notes anywhere. :-) If you use a notes app, it should work on as many devices as possible, so you never feel locked-in to a specific vendor.
Even a read-only view could suffice on the go, as you could email yourself notes to be added to your main notes library when you’re at a computer.
When it’s time to jot down a note, it’s time to jot it down. Devices or apps that take several seconds to open are getting in the way.
The same goes for searching for a note. Full-text search should feel instantaneous.
What’s the point of keeping a solutions log if you can’t find your solutions later? And unless you want to take lots of time making keyword-laden titles and lots of tags, the search should be full-text.
Plain text with markdown
Binary formats are great… until your notes app goes out of business and you need to move to another app. Then it’s not great. Sticking with plain text and markdown is an investment in your future.
Plain text notes means no handwriting support and may preclude pictures, but those nice-to-haves are two-edged swords:
- Despite advances, the OCR in most apps still isn’t very good.
- Handwritten notes can be hard to read later.
- All those image fields bloat your notes database and make it slow over time.
Encrypted at rest and in transit
People have been encrypting their diaries, even if it’s just ROT13, for a few thousand years. There’s probably a good reason for that. Now there’s an even bigger reason: our data is under constant attack from threats from around the world, not just a nosy brother. Anything you write can and likely will be used against you by an attacker.
A solutions log may have technical details that seem harmless now but could give an attacker a nice overview of your network, tools, and methods, helping them plan their next ransomware attack.
Your data should be your data only. That means you should own the encryption keys. Whether it’s stored on the cloud or on a flash drive, it should be a pile of gobbledygook when it’s discovered by an attacker.
Your notes are like your diary. In fact, maybe your notes are your diary. You don’t read people’s diary. And you definitely don’t read people’s diary and pitch them products based on what they write about.
Some notes apps try to bundle to-do list features along with the notes. However, they rarely if ever do this well. In my opinion, notes are notes, and TO-DOs are TO-DOs. They work better as separate tools.
Another popular feature is automatically snipping content from the web into your notes. Honestly though, how often do you ever review that content? If the purpose is to learn and remember something, you don’t want a process to be too seamless.
An app could tick all the above boxes without being open source, but without seeing the source will you really know if it’s secure, respects your privacy, and properly encrypts your data?
Is the build reproducible? Can you compile it yourself so that you know the binary you’re getting matches the source?
If it’s not open source due to business concerns, periodic code review by a trusted third party is helpful for building trust.
Good notes solutions
Here are my opinions of a few apps I’ve seen. Note that I have no business relationship with any of them.
Pen and paper
Pen an paper ticks a few of those boxes so it’s worth mentioning. It’s really fast to write your notes and it’s somewhat portable, at least the most recent notes. If you take copious notes, you may need to invest in a little red wagon to carry around your pile of notebooks.
Unfortunately paper-based searches are slow to search as well, so you’ll have to come up with your own indexing system.
Paper notes aren’t easy to encrypt, and even tougher to decrypt on the fly in your head.
Plain text files
A step into the digital realm could be organizing your notes in in plain text files (
*.md). You could stick everything in one file, or use a one-note-per-file option, using the file system of your computer or a text editor like Emacs, Vim, or VS Code to organize and search your notes.
It would be up to you to ensure that notes are properly secured and encrypted by using an encrypted file container or encrypted file system.
Full-text searchability would also need to be implemented separately from your notes, perhaps by your operating system’s full-text indexing feature.
Portability and quick access could suffer when you’re on a mobile device.
You would have to figure out how to securely sync your notes across devices — would you use cloud storage like DropBox, GoogleDrive, or OneDrive? But how securely do they store your notes? Another option for synching across devices without a Big-Cloud intermediary could be Syncthing .
|App||Hot take||My Rating|
|Evernote||The OG of notes apps, with loads of features. I used it years ago but found it to be buggy. Maybe it’s better these days.||⭐⭐⭐|
|Joplin||Joplin is like an OSS clone of Evernote. A common complaint is that the sqlite database isn’t encrypted. Data is encrypted in transit and on the sync server, but the local sqlite database is not encrypted. The developers expect you to keep your device secure. Advantages to this approach is that the app is faster and full-text search is smooth as butter in summer.||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Microsoft OneNote||A really good notes app. My main complain is that it gets slow as it bloats with your notes, and that notes are stored in a binary format. And how private and secure is it?||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Org Mode||Many people swear by Org Mode. It’s plain text, secure, and respects your privacy. Some feel it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of infinite tweaking||⭐⭐⭐⭐|
|Standard Notes||This is a really solid, basic, encrypted, privacy-respecting notes app. It ticks most of the boxes. A common complaint is the price, but in my opinion the price isn’t that bad for what you get.||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐|
There you have it, my notes on the taking of notes. I guess I should add blogging as a form of note taking as well. 😊