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by Jacob O'Bryant

Why I don't take notes

I took copious notes when I started college. By the halfway point, I had completely stopped taking notes. I found that taking notes didn't help me learn; it was just a distraction that made it harder for me to comprehend the lecture. I graduated almost three years ago, and so far I still thoroughly enjoy not taking notes on anything.

Yet, "take notes" is a common piece of advice, so I thought I'd try to unpack it a little. Should you take notes?

The first consideration is "do you need to recall the exact information being transmitted?" Some people seem to take this question for granted, as if not being able to answer "what did you learn from X?" means you didn't learn anything from X. But that's not true. I think Paul Graham put it well in How You Know:

Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you've lost the source of. It works, but you don't know why. ...

This is one of those things that seem obvious in retrospect. But it was a surprise to me and presumably would be to anyone else who felt uneasy about (apparently) forgetting so much they'd read.

"Training my model of the world" is usually my primary concern when consuming information, so I don't worry about taking notes. This worked well in school too since most of my classes were computer science and math, where understanding the concepts is most important.

On the flip side, I'll soon be doing some pair programming sessions to help someone learn a web framework I made. I'm planning to take notes so I can remember what improvements I should make to the framework and its documentation. I can imagine other scenarios in which one would want to take notes, for example, if you meet a lot of different people regularly and want to remember details about their lives/what they're working on/etc. I suspect that note-taking is more likely to be useful for those on manager's schedule.

The other main consideration is "does taking notes help you, specifically, to think?" I mentioned above that taking notes for me is usually a distraction. But my squishy lump of gray matter is no doubt far different from your squishy lump of gray matter, and perhaps taking notes does help you train your model of the world. Maybe you even like taking notes. So note-taking isn't necessarily an abomination for you. I certainly won't look down on you for doing it.

Just don't try to force your note-taking dogma on me.

Published 19 Oct 2020

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