At Work

Make Yourself Note-able

Make Yourself Note-able

Posted by Andrew Malcolm, SVP Marketing, Evernote on 10 Jun 2016

Posted by Andrew Malcolm, SVP Marketing, Evernote on 10 Jun 2016

Each year at high school graduation time, as another freshly-minted generation of teenagers begins adulting, I always reflect on two memories that have stayed with me from my graduation:

  1. The cringe-worthy pictures of the overly-gelled hair that I sported for much too long. Thanks, Julie Greenspoon for still going to Freshman Homecoming with me!
  2. The moment when the principal announced that I would be attending Harvard and my precalculus teacher said: “I just didn’t think you were that smart.”

Andrew Malcom with a really unfortunate hairdo

The implication that I had risen past the point of my own incompetence before even getting to college might have insulted some people, but not me. I pride myself on being an overachiever. I never crushed the standardized tests, and I certainly never had a photographic memory. What I had done well, though, was develop a system for learning that I still use today.

The Plan: Get Better Grades, Remember Less Stuff

I realized very early that if I wanted to overachieve, I needed to reduce the number of things I had to remember. Here was my initial plan:

  • Take notes that identified the major themes for each subject. If I knew the main ideas for a class, I could always weave in whatever details I could remember.
  • Create footnotes to connect ideas from different classes. For example, if I could apply a theme from an English paper on Native Son to a history test about Civil Rights, that meant I had one less fact to remember.
  • Use my own shorthand so I could do visual searches for symbols quickly: triangles meant “change,” asterisks identified things to follow-up on, question marks highlighted things I didn’t understand yet.

I couldn’t find any of my original paper notes from school, but I still use that shorthand and make these connections in my business notes today:Malc notes

Malc notes 1

At the time, I thought I’d created a competitive advantage. Years later, I discovered this system was called Cornell Notes, and it was invented in the 1950s. (Why hadn’t anyone ever told me about Cornell Notes?)

Some notes about notes

For all the importance we place on education, schools don’t teach us how to learn, and research has confirmed we aren’t very good at it. College freshmen capture only 11% of the major themes covered in lectures, so maybe my “system” gave me a bit of an advantage.

Now technology has made this advantage available to anyone who wants it. I’ve replaced hundreds of binders with bibliographies in the back of each one with Evernote, an app that I live in and for which I am the passionate SVP of Marketing. Instead of inserting footnotes, now I let machine learning alert me to other notes with content related to what I’m working on. I still prefer to write by hand because I find typing leads to transcribing rather than understanding, but instead of searching for my shorthand symbols, optical character recognition finds words in my handwritten notes. Notes were my last daily task to be disrupted by technology, but new pen technologies combine the pen and paper experience with the digital benefits of saving, searching, and sharing.

My approach isn’t for everyone, and part of the reason that there’s no class on learning is that we all do it differently. Richard Branson takes prolific notes on virtually any piece of paper nearby, including menus and napkins. Mark Twain carried a pocket notebook everywhere he went, and Stephen Colbert records his thoughts in Evernote. You’ll have to experiment to discover what works best for you, but some common principles underlie most approaches:

  • If you want to achieve something, make a note of itStudents who take notes are seven times more successful than those who don’t, and people with written goals are almost twice as likely to accomplish them. Achieving a few of your goals will quickly erase any embarrassment about carrying around a notebook or pulling out a phone to take a note.
  • Revisit and revise—Unfortunately, the human brain is made to forget and approximately 40 percent of what you hear is gone within 20 minutes; two-thirds thirds is gone at the end of one day. Consistently revisiting your ideas allows you to evolve them with new content. You never know where your next big idea will come from, but nothing will come from a lost idea.
  • Train your brain—No one I respect has ever judged me for capturing something they said or for being curious. In fact, learning helps you grow brain cells. So experiment to find your way of capturing ideas (mind mapping, outlining, taking photographs, bullets, etc.) and keep doing it.

My note-taking has improved more than my hair has in the last 15 years. Sticking to these fundamentals allowed me to adapt to new needs and continue to do things beyond anyone’s expectations. Today, my goal isn’t retention of facts like it was in school, but instead, to communicate my own ideas. I spend a lot of my day in meetings with tons of data and little time to reflect on them. By listening for what matters, I can capture, organize and synthesize thoughts in real time so that I can connect projects my team is working on to one another, just as I did in my classes. I still take notes in virtually every interaction, but now the purpose is to ensure that I recall what we need to do, not what somebody else already did.

I’m always looking for ways to learn more about how to make the most of my ideas, so please share in the comments below! And if you’re looking for other thoughts, here are some of my favorite self-productivity blogs:

  1. Michael Hyatt: 5 Reasons Why You Should Commit Your Goals to Writing
  2. Dr. Daniel Levitin: Ten Tips on Organizing Your Mind
  3. Timothy Ferriss: How To Take Notes Like An Alpha Geek

Evernote Premium

Upgrade for features to help you live and work smarter.

Go Premium
View more stories in 'At Work'

11 Comments RSS

  • Samir Shah

    I also believe in taking notes by hand, but find that difficult in Evernote. I use a Thinkpad Yoga running Windows 8.1. It has a stylus. However, Evernote does not pick up that Stylus pretty well, even with Skitch. OneNote however is great. So I take notes in OneNote and then either import them into Evernote as a pictures, or export them from OneNote as PDFs that I then import into Evernote. People love what I do and I’ve taught others to do the same using OneNote.

    • Tracey Smith

      I am in the same situation as Samir. I have a Lenovo Yoga running Windows 10 and while I can technically take handwritten notes in Evernote on my tablet, I haven’t been able to find an effective stylus that will allow me to truly use the handwriting feature as Id like to. I do often type notes into Evernote, but as you said in your article that often leads to simply transcribing and not REAL note taking.

  • kita

    Evernote is nothing like taking notes on paper. Paper is simple, instant and works. Evernote is too bloated and I feel like they still don’t understand this since they launched. I hope the new CEO understands this and looks at simple note taking apps like Google Keep and Simplenote for inspiration.

  • Tricia

    There IS a class on learning on Coursera called Learning How to Learn taught by Dr Barbara Oakley. It’s one of their highest attended (and completed) courses. It’s eye-opening and filled with insights and ideas and specific, proven techniques. Highly recommended.

    (Love Evernote. Need to learn how to use it more effectively, but that’s on me.)

  • Pascal Depuhl

    I love the intersection between analog and digital that Evernote gives us. I carry a Moleskine Evernote notebook to every meeting and agree with you that writing by hand helps me remember.

    I run a small business, so any hack I can use to save time (like your having to remember only one fact for two assignment) is always very welcome.

    I (finally) figured out how to use the Evernotes Post It notes to automate my client intake workflow, by snapping a photo of a note into Evernote and making that automatically created note trigger a bunch of actions through Zapier and IFTTT to create all the digital assets I need. Evernote saves me that time and lets me rest assured that everything is right were it’s supposed to be when I need it.

  • Bea

    For quite a long while now, I’ve been in the look as to how to get more our of the tons of notes I’ve taken for learning about my business and self-development! Thanks for what you share! I fould some ideas I can apply. I’ve also used some “codes” like an i with a lightbulb for an idea, a T for something I need to do, etc. However, they get lost together with my notes…
    What I found, reading you, is that I’m not that crazy in believing I can improve my note taking and that I can get much more out of my notes.

  • Erwin Boonk

    Used it for years. Pitty it’s only free for two devices. They lost me. Google Keep won..

    • prosen

      It is free for two devices AND the web version, so you can also use it on computers and laptops in addition to your two devices. Hope that helps! -Pam R

  • Alma lunca

    I have this feelings long time ago but its too late.

  • Margit Bauer

    Thank you, I just started Evernote. And I’m surprised about the features. I’m an enthusiastic sketchnoter, – all the time. And starting to do this more digital. So let’s try.

  • Terry Dunlap

    Like so many, I wanted to be able to write notes by hand, directly into Evernotes. Then, along came the boogieboard sync for around $100. Now, I can take notes and upload them. It’s great.