The ideal handling of notes

Guest contribution by | 23.06.2022

Have you ever not been able to find a note again?

Notes are something commonplace. Commonplace, to our chagrin, are often the following two experiences:

  • First, we often search for notes for a long time or in vain.
  • Secondly, it regularly happens that we no longer understand our own notes.

These are the moments when anything is possible – from an annoyed shrug of the shoulders to sweating, nervousness, or even heart palpitations, nausea and diarrhoea.

Fortunately, both problems are easily solvable. It’s just that hardly anyone knows that. It is rather the case that the condition is regarded as normal, or – sometimes with great effort – ever new attempts are made to better file away information.

As the self-proclaimed queen of notes, I would like to describe to you how the ideal handling of notes succeeds and how you too can find all your information quickly and easily with great reliability.

The very first question on the subject of notes

When I talk about note-taking, I am always asked first about my tool of choice. I recommend and work with Notion.1 In my opinion, this tool is better suited to creating effective notes than any other. Whereby: technology is only a means to an end. People are always the focus. However, it is like driving a car: The car alone is not much use. The first thing is to learn to drive and to observe the traffic rules. These are the prerequisites for reaching your destination without an accident.

Since your definition of notes and mine may differ, I will briefly explain what I mean by the term:

  • A note is any record that contains information. Be it in words, sounds or images.
  • All notes contain language. This means that a photo alone is not a note.
  • Often there is no predetermined structure, as we receive information in a wide variety of situations.

All my notes share one characteristic: the information they contain has the potential to serve me or other people. Whereby the time is usually uncertain.

I exclude notes that are not intended for reuse. For example, those in which one lets feelings flow out of one’s hand onto a piece of paper in order to burn it afterwards. Diaries can also develop in such a direction if one does not intend to process the collected thoughts later in the form of a book.

At the beginning of the chapter I wrote about “effective notes”. What do I mean by that?

The intended and actual effectiveness of note-taking

Please recall a moment when you wrote something down. What was your intention at that moment? It will have been something important; that much is certain, otherwise you would not have made the effort.

It is conceivable, for example, that your note was about an important business contact. Perhaps there was a conversation that contained details that you later wanted to process profitably for the further business relationship. At this point, your note has an intended effect.

I think we can assume that every note exists for a good reason and was not written out of boredom. And I am sure that every person intuitively correctly grasps what information is meaningful to them in the relevant context.

If your note is effective, then it will fulfil exactly the intended effect (or more) in the course of its life. And it can only do that if you have the note at hand at the right moment and understand the content so that you can take an appropriate action.

What if creating and retrieving notes were easy?

As already indicated, the reality is often painful. The moment comes when the offer is to be written or the negotiation is to be conducted. You want to prepare and the note has – darn it – disappeared. “Of course” you were sure that you had put the note [to the pile on your desk].

Please replace the square bracketed text optionally with.

  • written down in this notebook,
  • pinned to the screen,
  • saved in this app,
  • entered in the calendar,
  • sent to yourself in an email,

With so many options to choose from for capturing information, it can take a while of scrolling, clicking and searching to get your hands on the right note. Do you agree with me when I say that this is far from ideal?

It costs time and nerves. And much worse – if you go through this experience too often, it often leads to frustration and giving up taking notes in the first place. And that would be a great loss.

Would the opposite experience – that is, having the desired note ready in seconds – increase your note-taking? I know from experience that it does.

You can visualise this when you mentally handle a tool that simply doesn’t work well; a dull knife, for example. I think we’ve all pressed a groove into a tomato instead of cutting it cleanly in half, haven’t we?

Now imagine for a moment that you were holding a very functional and aesthetic tool. Would you prefer to work with it more often? Most certainly. Tomato salad for everyone!

The same is true for notes. The sharp knife in this metaphor stands for the right combination of tool and method. The next challenge is now to transform the found note into a corresponding action.

How does information become the intended capacity to act?

With very concise notes, this is sometimes difficult. Unless you have an excellent memory and have made the note yourself. There are people who, when they see a note, can immediately remember all the more extensive information in context. These added memories make the writing really informative. Otherwise, there is a lot of guessing and assuming. This too is an unsatisfactory feeling and, above all, an effect occurs that has been proven to take place in the brain and has led us humans on the wrong track many a time:

Our brain does what it does best: Fill in the gaps. For the same reason that optical illusions work, or that we have our comic book heroes in mind when we see simple stacked Lego bricks, “facts” suddenly emerge. These “facts” supplement our incomplete note. Only unfortunately, this has little to do with reality, even if it may feel like it.

LEGO - Who is Who

Please look at the picture with the LEGO figures and guess which comic characters are meant here.2 You will find that your brain makes all the necessary additions to answer the question. That is, of course, if you have watched the comic series enough times for the synapses to form. And a lot of imagination helps immensely.

Your notes, however, are all about facts.

Let’s summarise: For various reasons and in many cases, the actual effectiveness leaves much to be desired compared to the expected effectiveness.

With the right method, any kind of note is effectively captured

The aim of every note is to record information for later. This means that notes are usually in text form, because people think in language. But that is not the end of the story.

If the word “note” only brings to mind a coloured piece of paper stuck in a book or on a monitor, I would like to invite you to join me on a sightseeing tour through the realm of notes:

  • Let’s start in a lecture hall. Here, students take notes. These will later be used for learning. And perhaps the students will later become teachers who teach our children. Let’s continue.
  • On the right you see a musician singing a melody into his smartphone while thinking about the lyrics. Maybe one day we will hear him in the charts.
  • On the left, we pass a somewhat overwhelmed-looking person who is writing down quite a lot, because she has recently started a new job. She encounters many new situations, has many questions and is confronted with many answers. Perhaps she will soon become a highly respected head of department.
  • A writer meets us. She is writing down her thoughts and ideas for a new book. She likes to do this on the go. On her mobile phone. We see her dictating into the device. Maybe one day we will read her book and experience long-awaited aha moments.
  • A landscape architect will take photos and write suggestions for redesign. We might sit on that park bench and enjoy the fantastic atmosphere.
  • We meet a manager who is confronted with many questions from his employees every day and wishes his employees would take notes and share them with each other instead of asking him what feels like the same questions all the time.

Surely we can easily continue this sightseeing tour. What did our trip show us?

  1. Notes are multimedia, at least that is what we would encounter as beings with eyes and ears.
  2. They are thematically unlimited and pursue the most diverse intentions.
  3. Notes are not only taken at the desk but also on the road.
  4. They are not always written, often they are also spoken.
  5. Notes help to shape our world.
  6. Notes can make our lives easier.
  7. People’s genius is visible in their notes.
  8. Some notes can have a long life. Some remain in our memory as earworms for a lifetime


The critical success factors of notes

If you decide you want to use effective notes, you will face several challenges:

Technological diversity

Many people use too many different ways to take notes. The goal for maximum efficiency would be to limit yourself to a single option. This would allow you to answer the question of where you filed your documented thoughts and consequently search for something in a fraction of a second. This would already solve a major problem.

Diversity of content

As humans, we are used to being on the move in different situations and circumstances on a regular basis. Nevertheless, our notes must always end up in one place. Moreover, they must allow any combination of media with text. If you have chosen a tool that does not reflect this diversity, it forces you to use several tools. And so you lose the advantage of central note storage.

Location independence

No matter where you are and what device you have at hand – the note collection must be operable. If it is not, this will inevitably lead to scattered notes.


No matter how much time has passed, an effective note is understandable. If it is not, on the one hand you have wasted time and on the other you probably have the problem of having to obtain the information again, which also costs time. Alternatively, people simply forgo the advantage that a meaningful note would have provided. The value behind this varies in each case.


Since notes can become voluminous, it makes sense to manage them in a way that makes them digitally searchable. This sounds easy, because you know search functions from many areas. I will go into more detail later on about where the fly is here, because a simple full-text search alone will not help you in the long run. Filters, groupings and sorting must also be supported.

Basically, you now know what a tool must be able to do that you use to take your notes.

The criteria of multimedia and searchability have already put paper notes out of business. So that leaves digital tools. For every person who likes to handle pen and paper, let me tell you: there are hybrid solutions, digital handwriting recognition and subjects that can happily stay on paper. For example, if you are writing a diary and the process of writing is about personal reflection.

So the tool you are looking for is digital, multimedia, cloud-based and uses a database. Of course, there are numerous tools such as e.g.

  • OneNote,
  • Evernote,
  • Goodnotes,
  • Notes or
  • Trello,

which meet the first three criteria. My favourite, Notion, also supports criterion 4: database.

However, the best tool is of no use if the right method and the knowledge of how to use it correctly are missing. I would be happy to take you on a worthwhile journey for the consideration of behavioural psychology and appropriate methods:

Station 1: Why chaos breaks out sooner or later

Imagine you start – perhaps for the umpteenth time – with a new app or a new order, a new system for taking notes. What happens?

It quickly becomes confusing. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later. You experience this moment of uncertainty again and again. Questions and thoughts come up like:

  • Where is the best place to write this now? Here or there?
  • Where will I find this information later?
  • I’ll do it quickly this way and that, and later, when I have time, I’ll do it properly!
  • I was quite sure I’d find it here. Why isn’t it here?
  • Oh, I don’t really feel comfortable with this solution anymore, I don’t even know where to look.
  • I’m already using the search function, so why can’t I find it?
  • What was I trying to say?

Everything started so nicely and looked so logical and neat – until life took its course and the amount of notes increased.

The 3 reasons for note chaos:

  1. The system is too rigid for real colourful life.
  2. Lack of routine in using the technology.
  3. Lack of or inadequate method.

The journey continues. We are approaching the pudel’s core. Ourselves.

If we humans disregard the fact that we are fallible, forgetful and comfortable, and that we are also constantly changing, then any system that does not offer solutions on these points must fail.

Station 2: Life is colourful, filing systems are rigid – a dilemma

Do you realise that you are writing your notes for someone else, even though you think you are writing them for yourself? That’s right. It is rare that you write a note for yourself.

Here comes the explanation:

When you go to bed at night, your brain spends the rest period rewiring synapses. You never get up as the same person who went to sleep before. You are not a machine. Your brain is not a hard drive. Things change every day. The areas that matter a lot in terms of notes and that are subject to this constant change are your logic and your language.

In addition, your notes encounter different emotional and physical states in your future self. The tired, sad, distracted, hungry, angry, stressed future you wants to do something with your notes just as much as the good-humoured, fit, sunny and well-rested you.

As logical as this may sound now, many people neglect this fact when dealing with notes. They expect that a system of order they have set up today will still be logical and comprehensible tomorrow. But this is a fallacy.

A short excursion to tools:

Think of a folder system, as many filing systems offer. In such a system, the folders have names that correspond to certain subject areas. In a cupboard you would say drawer. They correspond to topics that are important to people. One Note, for example, works with such structures: there is the notebook level. And you can have several of them. Notebooks can contain sections and sections contain pages. You can subordinate the pages to each other. At first glance, this looks logical and tidy.

If you think you can do justice to our multi-networked brain with a good, but rigid, hierarchical structure, then you are sadly mistaken. In our analogue world, we were used to organising things in drawers. Consequently, notes can only exist in one place.

Station 3: The liberation from pigeonhole thinking

Surely you already have an idea of what I am getting at! Nobody is forcing you to apply this logic to digital notes! Why build yourself this rigid cage when technologies exist that can make working with notes much easier?

The secret is to follow a system that allows you to put a note in all the appropriate drawers at the same time. How often have you wanted to write something down and couldn’t decide whether one folder or the other was the right one? Both folders would have fit, right? So the solution is: you don’t assign the note to a folder, but you add suitable topics to the note.

The old familiar folders give way to “topics” or “categories” and you are able to add new topics super flexibly at any time and group topics as needed. This eliminates hierarchies and your filing system can practically grow into infinity.

As you can see, our journey is taking us ever closer to a people-friendly note-taking world. Now we’ll get to grips with another phenomenon: language.

Station 4: In Babel, not only were the world languages created, but also synonyms

What are synonyms? In the dictionary “Deutscher Wortschatz von 1600 bis heute” (German vocabulary from 1600 to the present day) I found a pleasantly understandable definition of the word: “Synonym, a word corresponding in whole or in part in meaning and usage to another”.3

Funnily enough, my 7-year-old son can’t stand synonyms at all and regularly raises serious objections. But sooner or later – like all of us – he too will acquire a vocabulary with many synonyms. On the one hand, that’s very nice, because what would our languages be without all the facets and creative linguistic alternatives? I would find them boring and unnatural.

But what does this have to do with notes? Quite simply: the circumstance described creates another dilemma!

Imagine that you have created a piece of information in your notes app that is as long as this text. Now imagine that you are a chemist and write down recipes for solutions. The word “solution” has appeared five times in this article so far. If you now use the full-text search function of your notes app, you will receive many irrelevant hits without reference to a solution recipe you are looking for, which you have to check and sort out individually by eye contact.

But what is the solution to this challenge? It is quite simple. With the right method, you and you alone determine which notes are to be found with which search words. So the search of the ideal notes app is a feature. You don’t want the search to apply to all notes, but only to a certain selection of so-called metadata. This way you can be sure that your notes can be found precisely at any time.

Of course, an additional full-text search function is still welcome.

I can imagine that at this point you might think that this is a lot of work and certainly not suitable for everyday use. Far from it!

Let’s move on to the next stop on our journey. This one deals with the effort you can reasonably put in to reach your destination. It is a matter of finding the information you are really looking for in a matter of seconds.

Station 5: It’s way too much work

I have to admit, this section of our journey could get bumpy. I remember little Mozart complaining about the long journeys in unsprung carriages over rudimentary roads across Europe. Well, it won’t be that bad, I promise.

I don’t know how you perceive it, but I find that when it comes to perfection, our culture is heavily influenced. Just don’t make any mistakes. Everything consistently ad nauseam. If you say A, you have to say B. You have to work hard. If you want to be beautiful, you have to suffer. And all that other crap.

We bid a friendly and polite farewell to this with a kipper and leave the venerable castle of Excellency “Perfection” backwards to slam the door from outside and hop across the fields full of high spirits. Life is much easier out here.

So how do we take notes? And I don’t mean the tool, but our head. We haven’t talked about it explicitly yet, but in my note-taking method we use what are called templates. Why, that is the topic of the next station.

What happens when you think about templates? Does form fatigue possibly come up? That would be perfectly ok. At least, if you decide to read on.

I want to use a metaphor here: There is a video on YouTube that has been viewed more than 20 million times. It shows how a portrait of Iron Man is drawn in three different qualities.4

The video shows that it is quite possible to draw a portrait of Iron Man in 10 seconds so that it is still recognisable. That is our model. That’s what we do in the notes method to save time. We fill in the template completely, but (!) only with the terms we can grab with a few seconds of thought. However, we always do this at the exact moment when the information content is fresh in our minds. Not later! We take notes immediately. This way, we effortlessly have the necessary details at hand that are needed later to understand the information. This also includes keywords.

Just ask yourself the question: What words could I use later to search for this information?

By doing this, you are only anticipating the effort you will have to make later anyway to find the note. These terms fly to us now without effort and can be held on to. We refrain from pondering, because that costs valuable time.

If a note takes on additional meaning later, you can add details every time you work with the information again. In this way, you breathe life into your notes right from the start. Get into the habit of only investing more effort in documenting your thoughts when there is a good reason to do so.

Many people put a lot of stress on themselves by sifting through, sorting, categorising, tagging and digitising ALL their old notes. The thought of this takes my breath away for a moment. If you want to use notes effectively in the long term, you should make it as easy as possible.

And that brings us to the last stop on our journey.

Station 6: A little structure for the brain

Would you have thought that it was unkind to the brain to put a white piece of paper in front of it and say: now write down your information?

Walter Pauk developed the Cornell Method5 around 1945 to help his students take better notes from lectures. In this method, the students divided a sheet into different sections in which the topic, the date of creation, open questions, the actual notes and a summary were recorded.

Cornel note composition
What does that have to do with notes in general? With Mr Pauk it was only about students, wasn’t it?

Counter-question: This piece of paper, on which there is only a number. Nothing else. The one you find among the other notes on the desk. Does it mean anything to you? Often not, right?

Every piece of information we write down is connected to other data in some way. At least a date, a time, an intention, a thing or a person, often a to-do. Accordingly, there is always the possibility – no, the necessity – to write down a bit more. Because how often do we “just quickly” write down something we want to do “right away” and then real life happens. Something comes up. It’s unpleasant when a few hours or days later you only know that it was important, but unfortunately that’s all.

Therefore, and in my trainer’s experience this is the aspect that many people find most difficult, there is at least a minimal structure in good notes. Depending on the purpose, you can expand this structure in a purposeful way. Basically, every note in my Notion contains the following sections:

  • title
  • category
  • keywords
  • creation date
  • last modification date
  • situation
  • content

If a collection of book recommendations is to be created, the template would contain, for example, the author and the ISBN number as well as a link to the shop and a book cover.

The use cases are practically unlimited.


Perhaps you are one of those people who often spend a long time looking for notes? And perhaps you also have problems now and then in keeping track of your documented thoughts. If so, you should do something about it. But possibly not just with a new filing structure or a relatively arbitrary alternative tool, as in previous attempts. Approach the issue of notes methodically. Unburden your brain with a bit of structure. Use a flexible app like Notion and use a template. Capture effective notes. And when documenting your thoughts, think about tomorrow’s you, because that me needs to be able to understand your note of today. The time is right for ideal note-taking. If needed, I will be happy to support you in this!


Notes (partly in German):

If you want to improve your handling of notes and make the various tips a habit, feel free to contact Joana Thebe on LinkedIn or via her website.

[1] Notion
[2] LEGO Comic Rätsel
[3] Deutscher Wortschatz von 1600 bis heute: Synonym
[4] Drawing Iron Man in 10 Minutes, 1 Minute & 10 Seconds
[5] Cornell Methode

Joana Thebe

Joana Thebe

Joana Thebe, the notes queen, was born in Berlin in 1982 and grew up in a very rural area of Brandenburg. Already tech-savvy at the age of 9, she rediscovered her passion for computers long after her commercial training. Confronted with the problem of knowledge transfer, she found a solution (KCS – Knowledge Centered Service) after many years in 2020, which she successfully put into practice with a small team of IT supporters. Since then, she has been developing her own note-taking method, which she imparts on a part-time basis.