Jordan Nielson

Reflecting on the impact of Note-taking

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In this post I'll be sharing some thoughts I've had over Q4 2020 and January 2021 as they relate to my experiences taking notes most working days for Q4 2020.

The goal

For Q4 2020 I set a goal to "End most days writing some notes that capture (at a high level) what I did that day and what I learned". I had been inspired by the "Today-I-Learned" community to try and keep better track of what I was learning as I worked on the two client projects and random other things I had slated to do for Q4.

The process

For my note-taking I utilized Obsidian, and had a page per month for Q4 in order to keep the notes somewhat organized. I allocated 5-10 minutes each working day to taking these notes, which was usually sufficient. A typical day's notes might look something like this:

My notes for December 1st

Generally speaking I tried to extract 2 or 3 small notes to myself for each day. I didn't worry about "duplicate thoughts" or things like that, since I figured if something showed up in my notes multiple times that would actually be a useful indicator of it being something I should spend more time learning/writing about/doing.

Goal achieved?

I ended up taking notes around 30 of the "working days" in Q4. Considering how many days were holidays or I was on PTO, that was "most" days in Q4, so I accomplished the goal! To what end though? That's why I'm writing this post. The next sections will break down the thoughts I have looking back on this experience and looking forward to where I go from here.

Looking back

Looking back on my note-taking last quarter there's 3 main things that it impacted:

  • Working habits
  • Blog post motivation
  • Reflection

Changing my working habits

Taking notes (and the reflection that involved) adjusted how I work in a number of subtle ways:

  • I cared more about what I was doing and why so that I'd have something to write in my notes
  • I tried to keep tasks I was working on scoped to 1 day or less, and communicate clearly if something was taking longer, to help my notes have variety so it wasn't "I worked on the same thing I did yesterday all day today"
  • I reached out for help more since I wanted to work more collaboratively and it's far easier to take notes about a day when there's been conversation throughout the day to look back on
  • I thought more about the process and overall technology and less about the specific project, making it easier to be excited (which makes for more useful notes) even if the project was moving slower than I wanted

Blog posts motivation

Taking notes is a perfect way to have more things to write about, something that I want to do more of in 2021. I was able to utilize some of my notes from the past few months in writing my first impressions of Postgraphile post. Taking notes motivates me to write more blog posts since the provide fodder for things to include in posts in addition to getting me writing regularly. It's far easier for me to write blog posts when I have prior writing to work off of, so notes fill the role nicely.


Taking notes regularly helps me reflect more frequently, leading to things like this post where I'm effectively reflecting on this single aspect of the entire last quarter. Daily notes help me reflect on each day, and occasionally I would reflect on the entire week with my Friday notes.

Looking forward

Looking forward there's 3 topics with question marks in my mind:

  1. More note-taking
  2. Public notes
  3. Outside of work notes

More note-taking

At the time of writing we're a couple weeks into Q1 2021, and I haven't yet taken any notes this year. Part of the reason for that is I wanted to take a bit to reflect on the experience and make sure that it was valuable enough to keep doing. I am also considering what weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly type "notes" might look like, since one of my struggles with the daily notes is how difficult it is to sift through them and find the "gems" that are worth writing more about. There could be some definite value in regularly reviewing of the notes in order to roll-up and create summaries and even higher-level notes for these other time periods.

Looking forward to this year, particularly for Q1, I'm planning to reboot note-taking with a focus more on the roll-up summaries that I just mentioned. I think the notes I took last quarter had real value, but that value is harder to find since I didn't regularly review and summarize the notes into a manner that makes it easier to drill down and find what I have notes about.

One consideration with this is having more "topical" notes instead of "time" notes, which is something I want to explore as I do these roll-up summaries. I think the goal with the daily notes is getting something out of my head each day and onto "paper" (digitally) so I've tried to avoid requiring the time to sort it into different topics. But, I think something interesting to do would be during the roll-up summaries for each week/month include a more "topical" analysis/breakdown/link system since that would help create longer-term value from the notes.

Public notes

As I've been writing this post, a question I've had for myself is why my notes are private and should they continue to be private? In the overall scheme there is definitely a place for private notes, more of a journal style. I don't think that the notes I'm going to take this year need to be that style though, which means I could feasibly make them public throughout this year. I'm not going to make promises about when that will happen, since my current site isn't really ready to handle the setup I'd want for those so I'll likely stick with Obsidian for now at least.

Outside of work notes

Looking forward I think there could be value in being more "me" in my notes, by including topics outside of work in them. Doing this would make it easier overall to take daily notes, as I'd be able to have a more defined habit of doing it everyday regardless of what I did that day. One consideration with this is as I mentioned in the last section these aren't my "journal" so notes for some days might shake out to being about something I learned/noticed while hanging out with family or while playing games.

Wrapping up looking backward and forward

In this post I've worked through a number of thoughts I've been having relating to note-taking. I hope it helped you if you've made it this far! I think having a personal system of documenting the things I notice or learn in a day is really helpful in seeing the progress I make throughout a week/month/quarter/year/etc, since without documentation I end up like the people described in the Book of Mormon:

"For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; [...] I say unto you, my sons, were it not for these things, [...] that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites, who know nothing concerning these things..."

Mosiah 1:4-5, selected portions

I'm excited to get going on these habits in 2021. Thanks for reading!

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