From Taking Notes to Making Notes

I’ve recently been spending time in the online community at Ness Labs, launched by Anne-Laure Le Cunff. She’s been writing about topics that sync up with my interests in knowledge work effectiveness and has collected a really interesting collection of fellow travelers. Recently, she piloted a short online course called “Collector to Creator.” Way above the average online course both in terms of content and community. You should keep an eye out for future iterations. 

This was part of my ongoing efforts to reexamine and retool my knowledge work practices. Much of that has focused on what happens between a germ of an idea and a worthy finished product. And rethinking the role of notes has been both a central focus and a central struggle as I work at designing and then grooving in new habits and practices. Some wayposts in that journey include:

During one of the sessions Anne-Laure introduced a one-letter distinction that has opened up a new line of thinking and development. She differentiated “note-making” from “note-taking.”

The most obvious aspect is a shift from a passive to an active perspective. I hadn’t actually thought much about the passive nature of “taking” until I had “making” as a contrast.With it, I can see how much of my note-taking habits and practices were intellectually passive; I was taking notes to capture someone else’s words or thoughts. This was certainly the case in most of the settings where I was in a student role. 

Now that I have the distinction, I can revisit and reinterpret some of my practices. I never acquired the habit of working with index cards, so I never got the sense of ideas as discrete chunks of text to be manipulated. I did use hand-drawn mindmaps (that being the only option at the time) to work out structural connections and relationships. But my focus was generally on the big picture of whatever deliverable I was working on. Even when I was immersed in the literature of a field, I tended to think of ideas as being embedded in and tightly integrated with the journal articles and books I was reading. I thought of ideas from others as something to be transferred (taken) more than as something to be transformed (made). That’s to the extent that I thought about this level of thinking explicitly at all. 

The transformation, connecting, and reconnecting of ideas into a new deliverable was something that took place either in my head or in the multiple iterations of creating a specific deliverable. I struggle with advice about how to work at the level of ideas that haven’t found a home yet. This distinction of making a note promises to be a path into making more sense, more systematically, of that middle space and time before I know what the destination might be. 

This one-letter distinction may not be a full 80-IQ point change in perspective, but it’s clearly worth enough to be a keeper.

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