How to Take Notes Like an Alpha-Geek (Plus: My $2,600 Date + Challenge)

I take notes like some people take drugs.

There is an eight-foot stretch of shelves in my house containing nothing but full notebooks.

Some would call this hypergraphia (Dostoevsky was a member of this club), but I trust the weakest pen more than the strongest memory, and note taking is—in my experience—one of the most important skills for converting excessive information into precise action and follow-up.

Simple but effective note taking enables me to:

-Review book highlights in less than 10 minutes

-Connect scattered notes on a single theme in 10 minutes that would otherwise require dozens of hours

-Contact and connect mentors with relevant questions and help I can offer

-Impose structure on information for increased retention and recall

I fashion myself a note-taking geek of the first class. How dare I self-appoint myself into this priesthood? Relax, script kiddies. I’m using a much broader definition of “geek,” this one borrowed from “Understanding Geeks” in the current issue of Inc. Magazine (that said, I was recently on Geekbrief.tv, birthplace of the ubercool iYule.tv):

“Someone with an intense curiosity about a specific subject. Not limited to tech–there are also gaming geeks, music geeks, etc.”

Here are a few recommendations from inside the world of a compulsive note taker, including both the macro (books and notepad principles) and micro (page features and formatting):

1. Create an indexing system:

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Indexing AJ Jacobs’ latest book (click to enlarge all thumbnails)

Information is useful only to the extent that you can find it when you need it. Most of us have the experience of note proliferation—notes on the backs of envelopes, billing statements, hotel paper, etc.–that somehow never gets consolidated. Consolidate and create an index.

My favorite notepads (covered below) generally don’t have page numbers off the shelf. Here’s how you progress with a non-paginated pad:

A. Put page numbers on the upper-right of each right-hand page but not on the left (e.g., 1, 2, 3, etc.). I do about 30 pages at a time, as needed.

B. Whenever you complete a page, put the page number in an index on the inside cover (front or back) and a few words to describe the content.

If it’s on the left-hand page, just take the prior page and add “.5” to it. Thus, if you flip over page 10, for example, and write on the back, that second page is “10.5” in the index.

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Brainstorming blog post topics and paginating on the right-hand pages

The page numbers in the index do NOT need to be in order, as you’ll be scanning for content, then referring to the page. If you write on the same topic again, simply put that page number next to the previous index entry.

Creating an index like this for non-fiction books I read allows me to refer back and review key concepts in 5-10 minutes without rereading the entire book and searching for underlined sections.

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Notes from “The Biology of Sleep” at Stanford University (Notice the bottom-right square allocated to follow-up questions, which is standard)

2. Choose the Proper Pad for the Job:

notepads.jpg

My current repetoire of active notepads.

Not all notepads are created equal.

This doesn’t mean that one is better for all things, just that you should match the form factor and durability of a notepad to the content.

Below is a photo of several different notepads I use:

-I use the big notebook, which contains graph paper, for larger projects such as future books, TV programs, feature-length articles, LitLiberation, conference panel notes, etc. I don’t want to turn 10 pages to get an overview of all the pieces of a single topic/event. Cons: terrible for traveling and intimidating for interview subjects. The larger the pad, the more reserved interviewees will be.

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Notes from my first SXSW (Notice the bottom-right follow-up, in this case, people to contact)

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SXSW panel titled “Blog to Book”; Notice the bottom panel and how I number the participants so I can just label comments/notes with each respective number. No spacial guessing required.

-I use the hard-backed red rectangular notebook, bought in Milan, as a default notepad. It is the perfect fits-in-ass-pocket checkbook size. Telephone interview notes, lists (dreamlining, asset assessment, cash-flow projections), projects requiring less than 3 hours to complete, random observations about emotional state or internal problem solving, random silliness like songs (think Adam Sandler), etc. Here is one beauty, written at 4am during an airport layover after a sleepless red eye:

Triple Threat

The fattest midget I ever met

Some called him the triple threat

Ugly, dirty, and smelly yet

The fattest midget I ever met.

Hey… if you’re bound to have rare flashes of insight/stupidity, you might as well capture them on paper.

-The flexible softcover moleskine is excellent for interviews, especially if you are in motion or in the field. I’ve found, however, that if that is the only notebook I carry, I put in material I would prefer to preserve for months or years, and the soft moleskine gets ripped to pieces in backpacks, luggage, and pockets over just a few weeks. There are hardback versions, but they tend to be square-ish and fit poorly in pockets. I limit this format to interviews, contact info when on the run, and temporary to-do/not-to-do lists.

I don’t use digital notetaking tools. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve noticed that some of the most innovative techies in Silicon Valley do the same, whether with day-planner calendars, memo pads, or just simple notecards with a binder clip. It’s a personal choice, and I like paper. It can be lost, but it can’t be deleted, and I find it faster.

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Odds and Ends: My $2,600 Date and a Challenge

The $2,600 Date:

So, what happened after I auctioned myself off for literacy fundraising on eBay?

Quite a few of you have asked, so here’s the scoop. The $2,600 date took place this past Saturday, and we had an AWESOME time. I promised I wouldn’t show pictures, but the smart young lass looks a lot like Natalie Portman, so the night immediately started off on a much-relieved foot. She’s a veeeery pretty girl.

Big smiles all around.

Festivities began at the famous Alfredo’s Steakhouse in SF, where Marco made the meal one to remember. The delicious medium-rare Chicago steaks were matched with wine I brought along, in this case, a particularly sentimental and special bottle: Rombauer Vineyards’ Proprietor Selection 2004 Zinfandel (think of it as this wine on steroids).

Bigger smiles all around.

Once full and well buzzed, we set off for the beginning of entertainment: seats 10 feet from the main platform at Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. It was incredible, and as an acrobatics fetishist, it was in seventh heaven. Hard drumming, aerials, gainers, wheels of death… Here’s just a taste of what we feasted our eyes on:

After Cirque du Soleil… well, I’ll leave the rest of the date to your overactive imaginations! It’s entirely possible nothing happened, but if it had, I wouldn’t be one to kiss and tell. Some things are more fun left unexplained 🙂

The Dream Date Challenge:

What would your dream date look like?

Pick a city anywhere in the world, and for a budget of no more than $500, describe your dream date in 300 words or less (bullet points are fine). My favorite 5 will get at least 12 copies of the 1st printing (it’s now in the 25th) of The 4-Hour Workweek to give away as X-mas/Festivus presents.

Be specific… but go nuts!

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with over 400 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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249 Replies to “How to Take Notes Like an Alpha-Geek (Plus: My $2,600 Date + Challenge)”

  1. I guess I would take advantage of the false attribution error and do something really exciting. the idea is to escalate slowly and gradually come back to normal

    1. having dinner in a teppanyaki restaurant involving a lot of open fire and knife throwing

    2. leave the restaurant and grab a cab to a nearby airport (no questions allowed)

    3. go into a plane and get ready for parachuting

    4. jump out of the plane and land on an open field located near a outdoor cinema

    5. let the evening come to an end while watching a movie together out of a car old-fashioned style

    🙂

  2. You state that you do not use digital note taking tools. However, I recall on many of your podcast recommending Evernote. Do you use Evernote?

  3. My dream date by Christian the Great:

    • With a beautiful Norwegian girl with a stereotypical Scandinavian side braid in her hair.

    • In the city of Berlin at Umami in Prenzlauer Berg, eating super fresh Vietnamese rice paper rolls and drinking Moscow Mule cocktails made with their house made brown rice vodka

    • Afterwards head to the mysterious Tausend bar under a bridge, knock on the non descript door and talk our way past the super German bouncer and proceed to consume more delicious beverages among the beautiful people of Berlin.

    • And finally: Go home and read the 4 Hour Workweek together while looking deep into each other’s eyes 😛

  4. I’d give the money to Jamie Foxx and ask him what he could organise with a 25% bigger budget than he had for one of the greatest parties ever held.

  5. You should really consider Microsoft OneNote for note taking. It’s searchable, so you don’t have to wade through 8 feet of paper to find your info. I wish I had it in college!

  6. My dream date is that I’d wake up from a nightmare. Laying next to me is Charlize or even Michelle Pfeiffer (love older women). She wakes up and we…I don’t kiss and tell either.

  7. 48 Hours in Rio:

    1. Base Jumping off Christ the Redeemer

    2. Ayahuasca journey

    3. Scuba diving/snorkeling/water skiiing

    4. Viewing the sunrise or sunset on the water.

    5. Possibly schedule dates to experience the carnival or New Years there.

    6. Meditate in Jardim Botânico

    7. Sneak into the 2016 Olympic games.

  8. Dream Date

    – We would start by going to Alinea for dinner. Probably have to be a Thursday night for budget purposes.

    – After dinner we would have over to Longman & Eagle to enjoy the vibes and chat over some bourbon.

    – Before we left longman I would buy a bottle of bourbon and sneak into Adler planiterium. Once we are in, we would enjoy bourbon and the best view of the city.

    – Good eats, Good Vibes, Good Bourbon

  9. I’m split between using steno pads because of their dual columns and size and Noteworthy on the iPad for a paperless option. My biggest issue is taking that data and acting on it. With multiple meetings I’ve yet to find a good way to make sure I go back to that data and it just doesn’t sit on a shelf. That could be a better use for the digital side, to index the indexes into actionable items. “Create Article on sleep: Book 5, Page 10.5”.

  10. Link exchange is nothing else however it is simply placing the other person’s webpage link on your page at appropriate place and other person will also do same in favor of you.

  11. Hi Tim, I have a fuzzy memory of a picture of you writing in a giant composition notebook. Did I imagine this? If not, where can I get one? If anyone else knows where I can get giant notebooks, say 16×20, I’d be grateful… –Danny

  12. City: Angkor, Cambodia. Dream date: visiting Angkor Wat and learning about the lifestyle of ancient Cambodians whilst admiring the architectural design of the temple. Afterwards, dinner at a fancy restaurant and a night of relaxation at the hotel room.

  13. Dream Date:

    It will be in NYC, where I live. Begin on a Sunday morning with a shower together and laughter (priceless and free). Perhaps get into a small pillow fight. Morning aerial yoga class ($30) together followed by guided meditation. Share a tea and a great conversation ($15). Try some vegan lunch? ($50) Walk around Soho, hold hands, kiss… Buy something for $180.

    Walk into Strand Book Store and spend a whole hour in an unfamiliar section. Exploring what we don’t know. Choose books for each other. ($40)

    Pop into a fortune teller or a psychic shop together (agree not to take it seriously though) ($50). Go to a spa for a foot massage ($100), watch a movie at Lowes Union Square. Buy groceries at WholeFoods and head home. Make a healthy dinner together. Candles, quiet music (he will pick) and true connection. Read our books to each other (1-2 pages), scratch his back and fall asleep hugging.

  14. Tim, would love to see an update on this (e.g. how your notetaking has/hasn’t evolved in the context of Evernote-type options, etc). Love your work, man!

  15. Ideal date? Here’s how it would go: Barcelona, Spain. The afternoon is a hodgepodge of excitement: the rival football team, Real Madrid, is in town for a match tonight. My lovely date and I, along with the city at large, prepares in the traditional fashion with food and drinks for an hour or two beforehand. This of course leads us to making a few friends before, and(with language skills augmented by your process, Fluent in 3 months, and Duolingo) we can really appreciate the food and culture and the excitement. The game begins and it’s tense- Real Madrid starts up. They barely lose in the last minutes of stoppage time. The crowd(along with my date and I) go nuts! We go out for dinner and more drinks to celebrate the fun, and it’s my first taste of Catalonian cuisine-perhaps some seafood dish? I might be even more daring and ask the waiter to bring us his choice off the menu.. When dinner’s done we’ll take a walk through the beautiful city and talk about the success of the night…and possibly continue that success back at the hotel 🙂 but to take a leaf from your book, I’ll end the story there.

  16. Ok nuts ?

    We meet at my vehicle of choice for the evening: a Saturn V space rocket, then fly to the ISS to have a dinner prepared by … maybe Jiro Ono? (i really love sushi, and i think it might be a good zero gravity meal)

    Of course we are having dinner in front of a big-ass window, because you need some romantic vibe at a date, and try to beat that sky full of stars!

    Maybe also have some music from the cinematic orchestra (arrival of the birds)

    Yes, that sounds really good for me.

  17. Ah… We’d end up in Paris. As I had my wedding anniversary last Monday, I might end up executing this one a few weekends down:

    We go to the Musee d’Orsay to spend some time looking at Monet’s waterlilies and a few other paintings we like. Then on to our favourite restaurant there, which is a fabulous walk 1.5 mile along the bank of the Seine. The restaurant is called L’AOC. We’ll eat freshly made homemade terrines and other cuisine du terroir based great food. Then we stroll to a hotel nearby. We’ll both be extremely happy and fulfilled.

    Gas $100, tickets $40, dinner $200, Hotel $150

  18. Hello Tim!

    My dream date would be set in Osaka. Dressed in comfortable clothing, equipped with coins, we would visit a suitable gaming arcade and rotate through the selection of dance dance revolution-, FPS- and classic videogames. Fuelled by japanese sweets and drinks neither of us want to know the actual content of, we would spend a couple of hours here before making our way to a nearby bathhouse. One that allows men and women to go in together. After relaxing, maybe getting a massage and getting dressed, we would head to a small, local diner or bar that serves simple dishes and bar-snacks. Here we would spend the night drinking umeshu and eating and talking to the locals in broken Japanese. Of course, this bar is also a karaoke bar and when the time is right, we take turns with the other guest singing our hearts out (again, in broken japanese…). Everyone is having a lovely time and new friends are being made. After shutting the place down, we would take the long walk home to experience Osaka by night (and also, to sober up), before heading to our separate hotells. And the next day, we would do it all over again.

    それはいい夢ですねえ ^_^

  19. My dream date starts off in a helicopter where we soak up an aerial view of the city. Cruising high above the hustle and bustle of people and low over the serene waters where the dolphins playfully poke their heads above the surface, we weave below bridges and above skyscrapers until the colors are a blur and the topography is indelibly imprinted on our minds.

    Then we proceed to a stunning maison on a hillside overlooking the water where a chef waits to design and create a gastric delight *with* us. We prep, cook, learn and then dine on a warm outdoor patio overlooking the water with mischievous birds begging to steal a bite.

    The laughter and dialog flows freely as does the “yummms and ahhhhs” at nearly every delectable bite.

    After dinner we stroll down to the beach and walk as long as we desire before deciding how we want to end the evening.

    P.S. I would loooove the Tools of Titans book instead… just sayin’. 😉

  20. Thank you for this wonderfully interesting article.

    Ready for THE Dream Date ? I mean, really ready ?

    Ok, let’s land in Switzerland, in Geneva to be more specific. Don’t forget your swimsuit as we will be swimming in the wonderful Geneva lake by this late summer afternoon. Then, let’s have a paddle board tour [30$]. The lake is still, serene, cristal clear and the landscape is amazing, the blue sky contrasting with the everlasting snow on the Alps. After our tour, we will have a drink at the UN (United Nations) beach [20$], watching the sunset on the Mont Blanc, before heading to the Bain des Pâquis, to eat one of the best and unforgettable cheese fondue with local wine [80$]. You will see, the ambiance here is wonderful, it’s like all happy people living here gather there to spend time with friends. After this, we will enjoy a wonderful classic movie screened outside, close to the beach, while comfortably lying on a deck chair under a warm and cosy blanket [0$]. And we will be laughing, knowing that we have 370$ left for many other unforgettable evenings 😉

    Didier.

  21. San Fran this June after “escape from Alcatraz” triathlon. First trip in a long time without kids with none other than my beautiful wife as my travel partner. Did I mention without kids….

    I’ll be exhausted but exhilarated and proud by accomplishing one of my to do list life items. I imagine it will take just a few sips of whatever drink comes our way and I can already feel the ‘relax’ coursing from my neck to my toes.

    It seems to me, a drink is always best when it’s earned.

    I’m getting really good at enjoying the now, whether it lasts four hours or just a few minutes and San Fran at the start of summer…excitement and energy whatever direction we turn.

    Cliche’d maybe a bit but true nonetheless, my wife and I can easily make this a perfect date In a great city after a magical day.

  22. Hey Tim! I noticed some notes with Biblical references and theology and always thought it would be really interesting to have you put Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbytarian, NY) on the podcast. He’s highly intelligent and makes it a point to avoid using “churchy” language. At the very least, he might provide you with some well articulated insight on the topics you’re researching. I think you guys would get along.

  23. This will decrease the weight of items to become moved and reduce the cost of move. It would seemingly take a moment, settling in as a family inside new settings. These packers and movers companies also provide services for international relocations.

  24. This is a comment on the “How to Take Notes Like an Alpha-Geek ” part of this post… Id be interested in how you use technology with your note taking. It seems with a good indexing or classification scheme you could use Evernote or something like that to quickly take and organize notes. Then retrieving information becomes much quicker. Plus you get the added benefit of all the metadata/statistics on your notes such as quantity of notes on a topic over time, relations to other topics (in the sort of “Freakonomics” way). But the crux is coming up with the system that works with Evernote (or whatever note taking app you use). You could have someone transcribe your notebooks into the new system then do some data analysis to discover, perhaps, topics for which you have a lot of information but maybe have not yet taken the opportunity to develop a bloggable story around. Could be interesting.

  25. Tim, I am curious about why you number your journal pages using “1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, etc.” – do you start “new” subjects on the 1,2,3… pages and leave the back of each for follow up notes?

    Also, for your index, do you reserve a fixed number of pages at the back or work backwords?

    Finally, how do you get your finished pages into an Evernote type system? Do you rip out pages and put into a scanner or just take snapshots of each page with your phone? Does Evernote OCR work well on handwriting? Does your penmanship reflect that you will need to scan it eventually?

    Thanks!

  26. Pretty rusty at this: married 32yrs: previous a dream date was any night that the kids went to bed and stayed there! But here it goes:

    Full Moon weekend – spring through fall: Brunch in Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) Kresge Court and then wander around a bit and take in what ever special exhibition they have at the time. Drive over to Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters (south and more downtown) for a coffee/expresso then out to a favorite restaurant Loya Organic (Mediterranean) in West Bloomfield for an early dinner. Then over to the Heavner family’s Canoe rental at Proud Lake Recreation Area in Milford to participate in the Moonlight Paddle: paddle west into the sunset on the Huron River into Milford (about 60 minutes of easy paddling), leave the canoe in central park, walk into town* for fries and then ice cream or frozen yogurt. After sunset and as the full moon is rising paddle back to the livery without any lights…under the moonlight. There is usually a pan flute player entertaining along the way from an unseen position. If the weather cooperates and the evening chills a bit you will get mist rising up of the water…magic. Bonfire afterwards always.

    Note*: precious are the few towns do not flinch at a hoard of people traipsing though town wearing PFDs and carrying dry bags! : -)

    NOTE: no where near $500 required. A dream date need not be complicated.

  27. This is great. Thanks Tim. Any thoughts on doing an updated version on YouTube? Would love to know how you use tech to keep track of all your notes and how you organise your digital life.

  28. Awesome post and just what I needed. I was also wondering, as a few others are, about more detail on your system of the actual note details such as the bottom right corner showing a list of follow up names, the rectangles around the “To Do” items, etc. Thank you!!

  29. I use paper for my morning pages, a white board and photos for brainstorming, but regular daily notes go into my phone, often in gmail. My handwriting is uber illegible, even to me and often moreso with wine or beer. Notes from a lecture or class go in the laptop. I can type way faster than I scrawl. YMMV

  30. I know you said that you don’t do digital note taking. I prefer not to as well. Instead I e found a work around that allows me to keep all of my notes and “notebooks” without driving my wife crazy with the sheer amount of them: the Rocketbook. It allows you to take notes on paper just as you would normally, then you can scan them in, erase the pages, and start again fresh. There are of course cons to it such as leaving it in a hot car will erase or fade the pages but if you take care of it and the pens, you can definitely get more than bang for your buck. I have a notepad sized one that fits in my back pocket, a day planner style that has note pages in it, and a regular 8×11 sized notebook with both graphing and lines pages.

  31. I am always interested in learning better ways to take notes especially for self help books (biographies etc.) and then finding better ways to log them in notebooks and then index to find them in other books. Is there any chance you would put together a YouTube video or a video and go more in-depth into your system?? If you can do it through a book great (I’ll buy it), but if not a video would work for me and I would even pay to learn from system. As others say why try reinvent the wheel, go to the expert And learn from them.

    Thanks. Brook

  32. Hi Tim, I’m in the US but used to live Melbourne, Australia for a few years. I think a great first date would be to donate the money to a wildlife or firefighters organization to help with the current crises they are experiencing, and then take my date to help volunteer. I think this act shows the kind of people you are. It sounds great on paper, but when it’s time to roll your sleeves up and get dirty you can tell a lot about the person.

    This way you get to help, learn and connect with your date on a deeper level and it gives you great stories to chat about later but opens up possibilities to other interesting dates. The point of dating is to find some great who is someone you want to share your life with and being comfortable with them when you are outside of your comfort zone.

    PS – I own all your books (and have read most of them in their enirety) except for The Four Hour Work Week. I have yet to read, but it’s definitely on the list. Thanks for sharing your process.