How to take notes when working from home
Can we agree on the fact that watching your phone or laptop while you are talking to someone is as distracting as utterly disrespectful?
That's a recurrent problem I have had in my career. In some companies I worked for, it was commonly accepted to have your laptop during meetings. While sometimes very useful, this had disastrous effects on focus and concentration.
8 years ago, I decided to rely on a small notebook that could fit in my back pocket and only take notes that way. In March 2020, when the COVID pandemic hit and we all went remote, I revised my workflow.
In this article, I'm going to show you how I take notes nowadays and how you could too leverage this setup.
Analog notes taking
Writing on paper is socially accepted. So much that I often made a show of it, laying the notebook for everyone to see and adding graphical elements visible from far away.
As fun and useful as it is, taking notes in a notebook has a few drawbacks, on top of which:
- The sequential structure of the notes. There is no continuity between topics. Weekly 1-1 Meeting end-up being separated by 10-12 pages of "other stuff".
- The lack of a search feature to quickly find something. This, coupled with point 1, makes using the notes for "detective" work quite hard.
- The inability to restructure at will. I used to finish my day with a quick review of my notes, and a report of the still open and important todos. This was a lot of manual work.
Going digital again
When the pandemic hit, I went 100%-remote, like the rest of the IT-world. Suddenly, my colleagues were faced with this view of my forehead... or hat. Not so sexy.
And then it hit me. When you already are in front of your computer, you can type while talking. Even better, if I bring my notes closer to the top of the screen, I will bring my gaze closer to the camera. Which is a nice way to show my counterparts that I am attentive to what they say. This is particularly important to me.
This problem is accentuated in my setup. I use a wide-angle camera (you can almost see the curve of the earth on those shots below 😁) and a very wide screen. So if I'm not looking in the center, right below the camera, I am definitely looking away from "you".
So I went full digital. Here's the outline of the following post:
- Structure the content: Markdown
- Structure the notes: Folder and Files
- Pros & Cons
Structure the content: Markdown
For the notes taking itself, I use Markdown. Markdown is a lightweight markup language, that allows me to write text and give it some structure at the same time, all the while without leaving the keyboard. It is standardized, easily readable, and supported in most IDEs.
I usually structure my notes as follows:
- Header 1: Date and a few keywords
- Header 2: Main Topics
- Header 3: Subtopics
- "Star Bullet points" for normal notes
- "Plus Bullet points" for pros
- "Minus Bullet points" for cons
- Numbered Lists...
- [ ] and [x] for todos
- [?] and [x] for questions
"to quote someone"
I love Markdown for its simplicity. The UI of my editor can remain clutter-free. And that I can copy-paste the formatted text in pretty much any other tool.
Structure the notes: Folder and Files
Since I am juggling with multiple clients, as well as responsibilities inside my own company, I created a folder structure that separates all this. Something like the following:
- My company
Then I created subfolders for different contexts:
- 1-1s (person-oriented)
- Meetings (topic-oriented)
- Groups (groups oriented)
There is always some overlap at some point, but sofar the structure holds quite well.
The notes themselves are located in documents. I either create new documents for each meeting or continue the same one, depending on... the weather. I usually stick with the same files for the 1-1s, since each meeting builds on top of the previous one. In other cases, I create new documents when I feel like it.
When I have multiple documents for the same topic, I prefix their name with a date (in ISO format so that the files are automatically sorted).
Obsidian as a tool
After using various IDEs for a while, I finally settled on Obsidian. Most of the markdown editors use a two windows approach. You type your notes in markdown in one window and preview it in another.
Obsidian merged the two in one. My blog editor, powered by Ghost, does it similarly. So I can type this text in markdown and see the changes right away.
Last but not least, I use Git and Github to back up the whole folder remotely. You never know.
- The notes are not sequential anymore, keeping related stuff close to one another.
- I can search quickly for related notes, and even make links between them. Obsidian has a few additional features in this regard, including a graph view.
- Reporting tasks is only a Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V away.
- It is easy to share notes, and I don't shy away from sharing my screen while I am taking notes since it is easy to read for everyone.
- This helped me trained my typing-w/o-looking-at-your-fingers-again.
- My Notebook has found a new purpose...
- One advantage of the paper notebook was that due to its sequential structure, I could easily review 1 month's worth of notes. I just had to go back to the date I wanted and read sequentially from there. I haven't found a smart way to do this so far.
- When life will go back to not being 100% remote, I will have a duplication-problem...
Now it's your turn. How do you take notes?