Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Lately I've noticed how very helpful notes are - not just notes I've already taken, but the writing of notes itself. Here are situations, some more common than others, in which writing notes helps me:
  • To-do lists. I don't write large or ongoing to-do lists and keep them for weeks, but I find them helpful for a few tasks I need to do within a couple of days.
  • Breaking down a task. Sometimes when I'm not sure how to tackle something, or just can't quite get myself started, I can write it down in tiny steps and get kick-started that way.
  • Handling confusion. When I get confused about a problem - at school or work - writing out my questions and concerns (neatly, in complete sentences, slowly) is often surprisingly helpful. I will either get an answer to my problems or great insights about how to approach them. (The picture with this post is an example of some of this type of note-taking; I took these notes a few minutes ago and they have jump-started a task I had completely stalled at.)
  • Reading difficult material. Recently, I've been trying to read some math journal articles. I decided that since I write down things like axioms and theorems when I take notes in class, I might as well directly copy them from journal articles as well. And guess what? It helps! A lot! I think the process of slowing down and being methodical makes me a lot more likely to understand material. I have also found this works wonders for reading math textbooks. It feels silly to copy out the exact lines of an example worked in the book, but it aids understanding immensely.
In general, I have found that all kinds of thinking tasks are aided by pencil and paper. I think I just find it much easier to concentrate on one thing at a time and work it out slowly and carefully if I am trying to create a written record at the same time.


Sally said...

Ditto on the math comment. I find this particularly helpful for examples in which steps have been left out, e.g. one line has morphed into the next through algebra, not due to something in the current section that I don't understand.

This is one reason I think the idea of the "paperless office" is both a stupid ideal and not going to happen until technology improves enough to have an effective substitute for writing stuff down to articulate your thoughts slowly. I don't think typing on a computer is a good substitute for this (though I find it sometimes a much easier way to write because it's so easy to erase the first 3 things that I hate and re-order the rest).

Debbie said...

I agree about typing, but I've found that I can proofread something I'm typing better than something I'm just trying to read carefully.