Notes to my (forgetful) future self

A few of my hobbies require quite a bit of research – hobbies like hardware tinkering, programming, installing stuff on a Raspberry Pi, building a 3d printer, coffee roasting, cooking… And since there are so many topics but only limited space in my head for quirky stuff, I started the habit of taking extensive notes. They became quite a lifesaver since I often have to put things aside for a while – for example when “regular” life happens. Strange, I know.

If you care about note-taking, take note (pun intended) and consider reading on. 

Currently, I use two apps, both running on Apple hardware. The (built-in) Notes app and an app called GoodNotes. Before, I tried various other things: paper notebooks (and a lot of note-taking systems), a mixture of analog and digital (e.g. Rocketbook, the Wacom Bamboo, …), and one or multiple text files, and way too many apps and online services. But all these options fell short one way or the other. This is what I consider to be important: 

  • Notes should be always at hand.
    (And therefore synced across my hardware. One reason why I moved away from paper.)
  • Notes can be a mix of typed and handwritten text and sketches.
    They can also contain links, images, source code, and other attachments.
  • Notes should be shareable.
    In most cases a simple export function is sufficient but sometimes giving someone access to the note itself would be nice (to be able to annotate or to give feedback).
  • I want to be able to group notes (which I rarely do) and I need a good search.
  • And last but least, the workflow of taking notes, sharing, and updating them must be decent – good usability is needed, as I use these tools frequently and small annoyances will stack up.

These are not a lot of requirements but doing them well, seems to be quite hard. But I think, they are pretty well covered by GoodNotes and Apple’s Notes app. 

The Notes app contains notes (surprising, I know) about single topics (e.g. a microcontroller) or parts of them (how to flash this controller, how to turn on over-the-air updates for this controller, …). It is a mix of links, commands, notes, and images – it is my outsourced active memory of stuff I should know. I created a few folders for different topics but I rarely sort the notes in there. The search works well enough for me. So does the sharing option. Currently, there are 200+ notes in there, ranging from electronics to ongoing projects, links, shopping lists, etc.

The GoodNotes app serves two different purposes: it is a sketchbook/notebook (using the Apple pen on the iPad) for planning and ideation, and it is project documentation, containing the final sketches, photos of a project, and its steps (cooking recipes also fall into this category).

I keep handwritten notes in there and revise and update them as I work on a project. After the project is done I revisit them and clean them up and add some more details. As I learned the hard way, very brief notes and abbreviations only make sense for a very short time… This becomes the project documentation for my later self.

Since all sketches are done digitally with the Apple Pen revising and editing them is easy. Also moving things around and reordering pages while working on a project is nice and a feature I often use.

But revision also happens quite a bit in the Notes app: I start by collecting links and images on a certain topic and after a while, I reorder them and delete some, add descriptions and structure the content of the note little by little. Freshly drafted notes look quite different from well-aged ones. This allows me to judge by looking at the structure how well I should know the topic.

Even though cleaning up and revising and polishing notes sounds tedious, I find it quite satisfying to turn draft notes into their final version. It allows me to revisit the project and look at the things I did, the mistakes I made, and see what I learned along the way. It also provides some closure to a project. And badly written notes will make you quite furious at yourself – trust me on that one. So it’s better to be diligent and don’t annoy yourself down the road.

Happy note-taking…