234. Notetaking

December 14, 2021

This week on The Rabbit Hole podcast we are joined by two of our favorite guests, Sophie Creutz and Raymond Lam, to discuss note-taking! When you’re working on software development for eight hours plus, you’re more than likely to lose track of everything you’ve covered and learned. In our conversation, we discuss our approaches to note-taking and how they support long-term memory integration, lifelong learning, and giving feedback during standup meetings. We discuss the plethora of apps that are available for all your note-taking needs and measure the benefits of different types of note-taking, like physical writing, typing, and even recording voice notes. Hear about the different methods for note-taking, like the Zettelkasten method, Flow-based note-taking, and the Cornell method, and what we love about each of them. Tune in to discover the best options for note-taking, how to keep track of it all, and more!


Key Points From This Episode:

  • Introducing this week’s topic: our strategies for taking notes in our everyday software development.
  • Why note-taking is useful for software development.
  • How taking notes helps Dave organize information and improve his recall.
  • Learn about the Zettelkasten method for note-taking.
  • Why the Zettelkasten method is described as “atomic note-taking”.
  • How Raymond keeps track of a myriad of small notes.
  • Discover why Raymond indexes his notes by date and time.
  • Learn about the various digital and physical options that are available for note-taking.
  • Sophie shares the variety of systems that she uses for taking notes.
  • The flow-based note-taking approach and how it supports long-term memory integration.
  • William’s three types of note-taking.
  • The benefits of different types of note-taking, namely, physical writing, typing, and voice notes.
  • Hear about our recommended tools for transcribing voice notes.
  • And much more!


If you are a software developer or technology leader looking to stay on top of the latest news in the software development world, or just want to learn actionable tactics to improve your day-to-day job performance, this podcast is for you.

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Transcript for Episode 234. Notetaking


[00:00:00] MN: Hello, welcome to The Rabbit Hole: The Definitive Developers Podcast, live in large in New York. I'm your host, Michael Nunez, our co-hosts today.

[00:00:08] DA: Dave Anderson.

[00:00:10] MN: And our producer.

[00:00:11] WJ: William Jeffries.

[00:00:14] MN: Our esteemed guest.

[00:00:16] S: Sophie [inaudible 00:00:17].

[00:00:17] MN: And our special guest.

[00:00:19] RL: Raymond Lamb.

[00:00:19] MN: And today, we'll be talking about software development and notetaking.

[00:00:24] DA: It's a full house,

[00:00:26] MN: It's a full house, baby,

[00:00:29] DA: The gang is all here.

[00:00:30] MN: The gang is back online. At the same time, we're talking about different strategies that we use to take notes in our everyday software development lives. I think, in a previous conversation, as mentioned, you're working eight hours plus, how do you remember all the things you did within the eight hours? And how do you remember what to say and stand up the next day? Because I often forget. So, I have to use some of these tools we'll talk about to remember these things. I guess I'll ask, Dave, why do you take notes?

[00:01:07] DA: Why do I take notes? I take notes, not so much. I can look at them later, but so that like I can kind of organize the information in my brain and have a better recall later. So, I don't think if I have like a bunch of note cards on my desk, and I throw them all away, I'm not really too sad. But I think I could do better. I think there could be something that's like more permanent, and like more of a reference, which I hear that some of us actually have some some good systems in place for their note taking.

[00:01:47] MN: Yeah, because if you ask me what applications I would use to take notes, I would have told you VS code. If I was on the Windows machine, I would probably would have been notepad. But there's also different – I know individuals who use other piece of software. I know there are people use Notion. But in writing up this outline, we found that Raymond is a specialist as I would say, better than me, of course, and note taking. And there's a method that is used, which is called – and someone correct me, the Zettelkasten method. It is the Zettelkasten method. Raymond, what is what is the Zettelkasten?

[00:02:30] RL: The Zettelkasten method is a way for us to break down our notes into atomically sized ideas and topics. And then we can rearrange them, and systematically organize important information, so that we can find these or reference these notes like years later. So, think of it like as a big journal of atomic notes that you could reference to each other, and link to each other. And it helps us synthesize new ideas so that you can generate, new questions, ask new questions. You can create sort of these new topics, and you can find really divergent ideas and bring them together. And then, ask new questions and around those ideas, but it's an integrated system for dealing with the knowledge in your life, and they act as an amplifier for your endeavors.

The reason I take notes is not so much as for a reference, it's more for so that I have an easier way to access information. I think of it as like a cash system. I just want to find things that I need as soon as possible, right? So, it just takes just like a search bar, you just need to search that one particular title of the notes or particular topic of a note, and then it's going to pop up right away, I don't want to be buried under you know, Wikipedia and just looking through all these other things while I have a shortcut.

[00:04:07] DA: I was surprised to read about this note taking system and see that it's actually has a good amount of history to it. In terms of like just taking notes on index cards, and then putting them basically in shoe boxes, which seems the most chaotic way to take notes possible. How do you make make sure that like when you're taking all these, like small notes that they still maintain a cohesive relationship? And you can still find something in it?

[00:04:43] RL: What I do is I index it by the particular date. And the way I reference the notes between them is using this index on a particular date at a particular time. So, say for example today, at 9:45 PM or 9:45 AM, I created this note and I have a specific title on it. I reference it with that particular timestamp, on this note. And then I can reuse this sort of index on another note. That's how I make those connections. So, there's backlinks to between them, and then you can have links around like a chain link of all your ideas, and then you can follow through like, “Oh, what is my thought process? What is my train of thinking?” And that's what led to me like developing and studying this sort of Zettelkasten method. And it really makes me think, why am I thinking in a particular way? Yeah, it's not for everybody. But the physical form of taking the notes in the Zettelkasten method is, like you said, is using index cards, but digitally, we would be using some software like obsidian, or some people prefer Rome research or some other type of virtual Zettelkasten notetaking app.

[00:06:07] DA: I'm really amazed by the sheer number of options that are available to take notes today. It's something that, seems like it's a really took off. I kind of remember, like back in college, like discovering OneNote, like Microsoft OneNote. And it was like, “Oh, wow. This is kind of revolutionary. It's not just notepad.” But it's really come quite far from that, like with all these different markdowns driven note taking systems.

[00:06:40] MN: Sophie, you have any particular pattern you follow when you're taking notes? Are you an index card person, i.e. me, who keeps a pile and never referenced them again, until I have to throw them out? Or do you have a much better system in place?

[00:06:57] S: Oh, gosh. Well, I think I use a couple of different systems. Similar to your index card approach, I do sometimes use Post-it notes. And the use case, I would say for Post-it notes is as scratch paper, for instance. You need to kind of work something out real quick, write it down on a post it note, and that reminds me of the flow based note taking approach, which is one of the methods that we found in our research.

Basically, the idea is that you're using the flow-based notetaking approach to get something out of the session in which you're taking notes, and like you’re learning into long term memory better. So, it's not so much the kind of note taking where you're going to actually come back and reference it again. But it's to be used in the session itself. So, it's a little bit like just a natural like thought progression you're writing down you're thinking, what you're learning in that moment. And then potentially, using a different note taking system to reference back to it later, which in that case, I might use something like the Cornell Method. Are you familiar with that?

[00:08:10] DA: Yeah, I had done some research on the Cornell Method awhile back, and it was something that I really wanted to try, because it seemed like a kind of sustainable method where like can have like more unstructured notes. Like you kind of divide the page up into different quadrants. And so, the majority of the page is like for stream of consciousness. As you go, taking notes, and then you pull out in a left margin, the main thoughts and then at the bottom of the page, you summarize each of those pages as you're going. I kind of like that, like, how it kind of builds up on to each other. I'm always jealous of people who have beautiful notebooks and like, it just comes out fully formed. And they have like this pie chart, and like a graph and, they have proper margins around things, they're using whitespace. I just want to use every inch of every card, which I think is a little self-defeating. I think that using the whitespace and like kind of blocking out different areas is helpful for making it useful as a reference.

[00:09:28] S: Reminds me of when in high school or middle school or whatever it was, they used to make us get out the ruler and then like measure two inches from the right side of the page or something like that.

[00:09:42] DA: Yeah, your notebook will be graded.

[00:09:47] S: Got to get back college ruled.

[00:09:52] MN: William, you're a man who who's moving around a lot. I bet physical notetaking is something you probably do and probably have to keep up in your luggage and stuff as well. Are you a physical writer? Digital writer? And what are some –

[00:10:07] WJ: So, I think of notetaking, the kind of notetaking that I do falls into one of basically three categories. There's organizing ideas, like if you're starting a new project, and you for that I usually will have either just a Google Doc or maybe a collection of notes in like an Evernote notebook, or some of the more traditional notetaking tools that you might have learned in school. Same for future reference, just another category of notetaking, where I feel like the the tools that I was taught in school seem to work relatively well. But there's a third kind of notetaking that I think I was never really prepared for, and that's for keeping track of the stack. 

When we're programming, we tend to build up these very deep stacks where it's like, “Okay, I need to build a login page. So first, I need to set up a package that is going to handle my login for me, but in order to do that, I need to update my package manager. But in order to do that, I need to upgrade my version of the language. But in order to do that, I need to –” It's like, you end up so deep down into the stack, that you can end up forgetting what it was that you were doing in the first place. Now, I'm really deep into researching different language version management tools. And so why did I need to do it? That's right, I have a story I'm working on.

[00:11:36] MN: That’s the classic that needs shaving somewhere down there.

[00:11:39] WJ: Exactly. Why am I shaving this yak again? That’s right. So, what I find is that note taking can be a trail of breadcrumbs to lead you back to what it was you were working on in the first place. And those periodic checks where you think to yourself, okay, big picture, what is it that I am trying to accomplish? What have I tried so far? And what remains to be tried so that periodically, you can check and say, “Is this a valuable rabbit hole to continue to explore?” That, I think, is something that note taking can add to your your programming toolkit, especially if you do a lot of pair programming, because as navigator, that's kind of an important part of your job, making sure that the rabbit hole that you're currently in, is promising. And knowing when to call it and say, “We need to find a new rabbit hole to fall down.”

So, what I like to do is have a kind of a stream of consciousness that I keep running, not just if I'm a navigator, but also if I'm soloing and it works sort of like a rubber duck, whereas you're programming, you're taking notes on what it is that you're doing and what it is you're planning on doing next. And then periodically, you can have that, check in with yourself. As an added benefit, at the end of your work day, if you look through your stream of consciousness, which can be very messy, you can go ahead and summarize that into a few bullets that highlight everything that you did that day, which can be really difficult to remember at the end of the day. And that's a good thing to share out to your colleagues, and it's also really useful for putting together your stand-up updates.

So, on the projects where I have been good about leaving that trail of breadcrumbs for myself, I have been able to come up with some of the cleanest, most concise stand-up updates on the team.

[00:13:33] DA: Which is pretty draggable. People are like, “Wait, like this guy's just getting shit done.”

[00:13:42] S: Maybe this goes without saying. But another implied question here along with all these different systems is, do you type your notes or do you write your notes? Or do you take voice notes? What do we use here?

[00:13:55] WJ: I have a really hard time with written notes because I'm left handed, so I smudge everything as I go. My handwriting is so bad that even I have a hard time reading it. It's just really painful. So, even though I will admit that it is really good for memory reinforcement, I personally prefer to use a keyboard. Or if I'm on the go, then I will do voice notes. I do think voice notes can be really valuable. Do you do voice notes, Sophie?

[00:14:21] S: Sometimes I do, maybe especially when I'm like practicing something musically. But yeah, I use that sometimes. I also have thought that maybe I would achieve ultimate note taking power if I just took notes on a typewriter, but I have yet to confirm this.

[00:14:43] DA: That would be so hipster if you're like pairing with someone and like, they got their clicky keyboard and it's like, oh, wow, so satisfying. Well, I’m not going to touch my keyboard. I'll touch my typewriter and then you're just like – I love that. I want to live in like this steampunk world where everyone's taking notes on typewriters, maybe like prints at a punch card in the end.

[00:15:14] S: Absolutely.

[00:15:19] MN: I actually have not used the voice recording method. I feel like for me voice recording is like recording a video of when you're at a concert. It's great when you're recording the video, but I never look at that video again. I feel like the same thing that's going to happen if I listen to the voice note. At least with the index cards, it’s a mess around me and I have to address this sooner or later. But voice notes is just like, it's saved somewhere, and then I don't listen to it. I don't call back to it.

[00:15:51] WJ: Well, if you if you have them automatically transcribed, I think that would be easier.

[00:15:55] DA: There are really good transcription programs, I think. I think the Android voice notes automatically transcribe now and there's Descript, I think, that seems like such a cool tool. I haven't given them any my money yet. But I always think about it.

[00:16:15] WJ: Yeah, I actually use the Apple Siri to actually transcribe my notes into notes. And then I just rip that out of iCloud and then straight into Obsidian afterwards. Because when you're driving and you have like these weird ideas, you need some – you don't have a person next to you when you're driving sometimes. So, you just have to pull Siri up and ask her a question.

[00:16:38] DA: Sometimes like those notes can get like really wonky, you're looking back at like what it thought you said, and it's like, that's insane. But I do love that. That's like, “Hey, Siri, I know I'm driving here. But like, bear with me for a moment, I got a crazy idea.”

[00:16:56] MN: So, it sounds like there are many different ways and types to note take. You can write notes for future you, in a system that allows you to call back to those things. I think Raymond had called that with the Zettelkasten method. There's the flow-based writing that was mentioned before, alongside with the stack writing and knowing where you are in the stack to keep yourself in tune with the work that you're doing.

I definitely will try my best to do some more research on the Zettelkasten because that's another application I can install into my laptop that'll cause it to slow down. But hopefully, for good a cause. May you all write awesome notes, and if you have any more interesting notetaking strategies, feel free to hit us up.

Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear, give us a five-star review and help developers just you find their way into the rabbit hole. Never miss an episode. Subscribe now wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host Dave Anderson, and me your host Michael Nunez. Thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


Links and Resources:



Roam Research

The Cornell Note Taking system




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