Or maybe I should just get an extra brain.
August 26, 2008 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Wannabe expert seeks efficient information recording/retainment/organization tools and techniques.

I have a couple of subjects in which I am extremely interested, and I want to become an expert on them. I've realized that I am procrastinating in proceeding to learn more because I haven't figured out a good way to take notes while reading and studying the materials. I have found several books written on my selected topics as well as websites, but I can't stand the thought of delving into them before I determine how to best organize the information. Also, I want the notes I will record to be able to available to me permanently, so I'm a little hesitant about storing it all online. I've tried Evernote and I like it but do not want to use it as my main resource. I'd actually almost prefer to go old school and print it out and/or write it all in a notebook, but then there's the issue of efficiency and time.

Would love to hear from others who "collect" information in a productive manner, and what tips and tools you would recommend. Many thanks.
posted by susiepie to Education (3 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Watching with interest. I've got a couple different methods under my belt and a couple more in mind, but I'm not satisfied with any of them. I'm seriously contemplating going round a couple of university departments and just knocking doors to ask scholars how they catch, store, and retrieve ideas in the course of their work.

There are books I study in which I make marginal notes, but this has two major problems: One, finding my idea requires finding the thing I was reading when I thought of it, and two, retaining all those notes means retaining the volume, even when eventually the spine cracks and the covers fall off. Eventually, means retaining multiple copies of the same volume, differing only in their annotations. Urrgh.

Lately in sundry computer programming projects I've been keeping a plain-text log file. It's lightweight, it's full-text searchable, and it tracks what I do, what I still need to do (in all caps), what I need to keep in mind, and how many hours I can bill for it. Which is all I need. I'm considering transferring my book marginalia to plain text too, for the same reasons. Possibly even mailing them to my Gmail account for the sake of backup and search.

I have read with interest Lion Kimbro's book How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think (interview with the author) but I don't know that I will ever undertake something so intense. I'm bad enough at just writing a regular journal. Kimbro mentions using a little set of icons to distinguish different kinds of thought (unanswered question, see-also, hazard, and the like): I haven't found the thought markup icons themselves anywhere online, but the classes of thought are here.

I'm having a long hard look at the Pile of Index Cards method, previously featured on the blue, because I've gotten benefits when writing from being able to shift around separate physical tokens of my ideas, and because I think the system's firm resistance to subject categories might be the answer to Lion Kimbro's "thought-freezing" problem. (Actually, I'm half done writing myself a capsule summary of all of Kimbro's methods and tricks, to see which of them might be used to improve the index card system. His use of color sounds like a likely prospect.) Once, when I had to produce frequent short papers on a subject (3 pages a week for ten consecutive weeks, and at least three sources cited in each one), I devoted a little keyring full of cards to the subject, and noted down any potentially useful thought or citation. I can't even tell you how much time and bother that saved me. So I am sanguine about the prospects for a multi-subject card file.

One thing to bear in mind through all of this, though, is that note-taking for later reference and note-taking for mastery of the material are different tasks. I have scads of class notes I seldom looked at, which were useful because writing something out can solidify it in your understanding (provided the writing doesn't distract you from what you should be listening to or the connections you should be drawing). I have no doubt that hand writing is better for this than typing.
posted by eritain at 1:01 PM on August 26, 2008

I would recommend some of the techniques in "The Memory Book." Many of them seem is application to be silly and time consuming and ineffective, but them if mastered have proved themselves strong and resilient ways to retain information. Also if you keep up with them they fade to inate scaffolding for memorization.
posted by phllip.phillip at 7:19 PM on August 26, 2008

It's a little late so you might not see this, but this article on the expert mind reminded me of this thread.
posted by hought20 at 6:10 AM on August 28, 2008

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