A Quick & Dirty Guide to Perfect Digital Note-Taking

All things being equal, I’d choose handwritten notes over digital notes any day of the week — but all things aren’t equal. While I love the feel of pen, pad, and paper, the truth is that digital notes are way more convenient in this modern age.

There are several downsides, of course, and we’ll address them throughout this article, but the biggest problem is that it’s hard to be efficient as a digital note-taker. It’s just not as easy or fluid as traditional notes — that is, until you learn how to take notes the right way.

Here are some of the most effective tips for becoming a digital note-taking pro, and they’re so useful that you may even end up preferring digital over handwritten!

Choose the Right Device

When we talk about digital notes, most people immediately jump to “laptops” as the device of choice. And while there’s nothing particulary wrong about using a laptop for notes, most people don’t realize that some laptops are actually better (or worse) at note-taking than others.

digital-notetaking-netbook

For example, consider the netbook. These tiny laptops debuted in 2007 and typically have a screen size between 5″ and 11″. Unfortunately, because they’re so small, long-term typing can be a pain as typos are far too common and your hands are likely to get cramped.

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And then you have notebooks and ultrabooks. “Notebook” can refer to any traditional laptop while “ultrabook” refers to notebooks that are particularly thin and lightweight (the name actually means “ultra-portable notebook“).

digital-notetaking-notebook

With a name like “notebook”, you’d probably think these are good at taking notes — and you wouldn’t be wrong. They’re pretty much the choice for all-around productivity, and that includes notes, email, web browsing, chatting, and all that good stuff.

The only problem is that notebooks and ultrabooks can be relatively painful on the wallet, so we might recommend going with a Chromebook instead. They’re incredibly cheap but highly versatile, and Chromebooks have improved a lot over the years.

digital-notetaking-tablet

Tablets can be a good choice as long as you hook up a tablet keyboard. Long-term typing is almost always a burden, but it’s made much worse when you’re stuck with a touchscreen as your only option. Don’t torture yourself.

Or, if you want to hand-write your notes directly into a digital format, a tablet-plus-stylus can work well, especially if the notes are more than just words (e.g. diagrams, graphs, equations, etc). Smartpens are a better choice for that authentic analog feeling, but can be somewhat pricey.

Use the Right Software

Once you’ve decided on hardware, it’s time to look at software. It’s certainly possible to record all of your notes in plaintext using something like Notepad — and I do that more often than I’d like to admit — but your life will be much easier if you use an interface that’s optimized for notes.

Fortunately, there are several modern note-taking apps available and they’re all quite good. Which one should you use? Check them all out, but honestly, just use the one you feel most comfortable using.

digital-notetaking-evernote

Evernote has long been the king in this arena, mostly because it comes with a handful of awesome built-in features. For example, once you’ve taken a lot of notes, it can be difficult to go back and find the exact note you need at a later time — unless you use one of Evernote’s many different ways to search.

Other important features include easy Evernote backup methods along with several ways to cleanup Evernote clutter. These are all crucial functions for any serious note-taker.

digital-notetaking-onenote

OneNote is Evernote’s biggest competitor, and now that OneNote is truly available for free, there’s no reason not to use it. I find that it beats out Evernote when it comes to user experience, but your mileage may vary.

If you do go with this one as your primary app, be sure to check out our essential OneNote tips for maximum productivity. In addition, OneNote templates are great for organization and you should learn how to use them to your benefit.

Lastly, OneNote is flexible enough that it can be used for all kinds of organizational tasks beyond simple note-taking, and you might just find that it changes your life for the better.

digital-notetaking-scrivener

There are dozens of other apps worth mentioning, but I want to highlight Scrivener in particular. Most people assume that Scrivener is only good for writing novels and research papers, but it’s awesome for taking notes, too.

For one, you can import all kinds of documents and media into Scrivener, and Scrivener makes it easy to keep them all organized with folders, index cards, and outline formats. It also has a built-in snapshot feature that lets you revert documents to a previous saved version.

These are just a few reasons why Scrivener is the best writing program for both Windows and Mac.

If none of these suit your fancy, we recommend looking into personal wiki software. These are wiki-like notebooks that reside locally on your computer and make it easy to organize and interlink the notes that you take down.

Develop New Techniques

The key to effective note-taking is being able to write down thoughts as quickly as possible but staying coherent enough so that when you return to your notes you’ll be able to recall 100% of what you intended to put down.

As you probably already know, this is not easy — but it is possible. One way to do it is to develop your own shorthand.

There are dozens of shorthand variants available for hand-written notes, and you can learn about these all over the web. Many of them don’t translate well to a digital format, but some of them do.

digital-notetaking-text-expansion

Shorthand is all about cutting unnecessary words and developing shortcuts for oft-repeated words. Hand-written shorthand replaces words and phrases with symbols, but when you’re working digitally, you can use text expansion software to automate it.

Also, using an outline format makes it easy to group ideas together and see how each note relates to the bigger picture at a glance. And because outlines require nothing more than simple indents, this system can be used in any software — even Notepad.

digital-notetaking-mindmaps

Mindmapping is a more effective alternative, but it’s a bit slower than simple typing (and has a bit of a learning curve when you’re new to it). But don’t let that stop you. Mindmapping is great and is a skill that everyone should eventually learn.

That being said, if your biggest note-taking bottleneck is typing speed, consider learning how to type faster. Not only that, consider switching from QWERTY to Colemak. Colemak is a different keyboard layout that’s designed to boost your typing speed.

Synchronize to Cloud Storage

Unless your notes are highly sensitive and confidential, there aren’t any compelling reasons to keep them only on your local machine. Not only do they take up valuable storage space, they’re vulnerable to hard drive failures and can clutter up your folders.

So, we recommend storing your notes on the cloud.

Cloud storage can be useful for lots of purposes, but the key benefits are two-fold: 1) cloud files are basically backups of your local files, and 2) you can access your cloud file from anywhere. As far as convenience goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.

digital-notetaking-cloud-storage

One big concern, however, is that the cloud isn’t always secure. It’s always possible for hackers to intercept your files, so make sure to encrypt your cloud files whenever possible.

Also be aware that cloud services are never guaranteed to stay open. If they shut down, it’s possible for you to lose your data without hope for recovery. This means that cloud files can be one form of backup, but should never be your only form of backup. Backup your files properly!

Not sure which cloud is right for you? Check out our comparison of cloud hosting services to get started in the right direction.

How Do You Take Notes?

Obviously everyone has their own way of taking notes, and what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. Still, we hope that the tips above will help sharpen your note-taking skills and make you more productive.

Have any tips of your own? What tricks do you use to improve your note-taking efficiency? Share them with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Man Using Netbook by Robert Kneschke via Shutterstock, Typing on Laptop by Eugenio Marongiu via Shutterstock, Stylus and Tablet by Somboon Srisart via Shutterstock, Web Apps Mindmap by Lars Plougmann via Flickr, Dropbox on Mobile by Ian Lamont via Flickr

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