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Note taking basics


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This guide walks you through the basics of good note taking. This is a skill that is crucial to any type of learning. Whether you're a student, a knowledge worker, or simply want to understand something - being able to take good notes will help you internalize the information and remember it better.

Understand the purpose of your notes

Good note taking starts by understanding why you're taking notes in the first place. Note taking isn't an end in itself, it's a process that will help you achieve some goal. That can be taking notes to learn a subject and pass a course, or to understand a problem that you then have to solve, or to organize information that you want to learn.

So consider the purpose of your notes before you start taking them. This will help get you in the mindset to capture the relevant information. Generally when you're taking notes, it's simply not possible to capture every last bit of information, you have to pick and choose what to keep. By understanding you end goal, you'll be better prepared to recognize relevant information when you see or hear it and ignore the rest.

Focus on the key ideas and words

As we mentioned before, unless you're copying and pasting into your notes, you'll have to decide what to write down and what to ignore. Whether you're taking notes while reading or while someone is speaking, try and get an idea of the overall context. Ask yourself what the main ideas are in the information being presented.

Don't worry too much about capturing the key ideas the first time around, remember that you're working in a digital medium so you can easily reorganize things if you feel you've made a mistake along the way. The important thing is to pay attention and capture what seems relevant to you based on your end goal.

You're probably familiar with taking notes in a linear way, using heading and subheadings to indicate key points and new topics. While you can certainly do that in Workflowy, we suggest you take advantage of the infinite nesting feature and capture your notes using the outline method.

The outline method

Workflowy is perfectly designed to help you with this style of note taking. The idea of the outline method is to organize your notes in a hierarchical structure. The top level of the outline are the key ideas or points, and then the details and sub details are nested beneath those key ideas.

Structuring your notes this way has the added benefit that you can then expand or collapse the information in Workflowy depending on the level of detail you want to focus on. This is especially useful when reviewing your notes.

The way you do this in practice is to create a new note in Workflowy and give it a descriptive title so it'll be easy to find later. Next you create your first bullet point with the first key idea or topic. Then as you read or you hear details you think are relevant, you add those as indented subitems. And if one of those items has more details you want to add, you indent it under that.

Once the reading or discussion no longer fits under that first bullet because the topic or key idea is different, you create a new top level bullet with the new topic or key idea and repeat the process. At the end of that you should have a list of key topics making up the top level of your outline with notes and sub notes nested under each of those.

Organize your notes

Once you have a couple of notes it's a good idea to organize them. How you decide to do this depends on what you're taking notes for in the first place. If they're notes on meetings, it might make sense to group them by day or week. If your notes are for school, it makes more sense to group them by class. And if you're simply learning about something, grouping by topic could be a good option.

A second layer of organization we can add to our notes is to use tags. Tagging notes allows us to more easily group pieces of information that might be spread out throughout our notes, for example when a topic is covered in multiple classes or when a project is mentioned in many different meetings. The simplest way to get started is to tag items based on topic.

Once you've tagged your notes, you can simply click on any of your tags and you'll see only those items that share that tag. This is a useful way to bring information together and spot connections or relationships you might otherwise miss. Basically, tags allow you to bring together disparate pieces of information spread out across time and space.

Review your notes

It's important to regularly review your notes, especially if your goal is to learn something. This doesn't just help you remember the information but it also helps spot gaps in your notes or where something doesn't make sense. We recommend you do this actively and not just scan over them. This means highlighting and refining as you review.

As you're going over the notes you want to review, use the highlight feature to really focus on the key passages and words. The idea behind this is that by actively reviewing your notes, you're strengthening the connections in your brain around that information and you're much more likely to retain it. You're essentially reminding yourself of what's important and how it's connected to the rest of your notes.

Workflowy lets you filter by highlight color so you could also highlight for different purposes. For example, you could highlight notes you're having trouble understanding or remembering. That makes it easy to then return to just those notes when you review again. The highlight color could also signify where something doesn't make sense and you need to research more.

And those are the basics of taking good notes. Being mindful about why you're taking notes, focusing on key terms and ideas, organizing those notes and finally reviewing periodically are the steps to ensuring you're getting the maximum benefit for your efforts. If you're diligent with your note taking, you'll be able to use all your old notes as a vast resource you can call upon at any time so it's worth making the effort to do it right.

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