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Using Google Docs for Note Taking

I've admittedly been a terrible note taker growing up. Throughout most of school, I've always been able to remember everything that was said in lecture, at least long enough to complete the class. When I did take notes, I did so haphazardly and incompletely. The reason was simply because I didn't need them. That all changed when I got to the South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Mathematics for my junior year of high school. That's when I ran into Dr. Carlanna Hendrick for American history. The sheer volume of details she was putting forth in class made me realize immediately that I had better improve my note taking abilities, and fast. I did, but that wasn't sufficient. We (her students) ended up pooling our notes together in small groups and coming up with master note sets for each group. And about midway through the first semester, it wasn't unusual for groups to trade their group notes around to make sure we didn't miss a thing. Dr. Hendrick takes her history seriously. Even though we were at a school primarily for science and mathematics, American history was a workout as a result. And I'm better for it. When I got to The Citadel, I ran into teachers like Dr. Jane Bishop, and the ability to take notes at a Dr. Hendrick level served me well.

But you know, I still find myself slacking when it comes to taking notes, especially with respect to things that I read. I shouldn't, because often I'll see a point and say, "I should remember that." And I do, but only for so long. It's not something I can necessarily refer back to a couple of months and especially not a couple of years later. A mentor of mine, Dr. Tom Fillinger, is very purposeful about his reading. He takes notes on just about everything he reads and he has a system for doing so. It has served him well, as he is able to retrieve information from books and papers and articles a long time after that read. I know I need to be more purposeful on my note taking, so I've decided to begin again with a system that I've had in the past. The main difference is I'm going to use Google Docs to store the notes.

The first step is to build an organization system. While I can search through all the docs easily, if I know that I read something regarding time management, and I know exactly what the source was, but I can't recall exactly what was said, I can get there quickly. So here's a quick and easy folder organization system:

This isn't just to help me locate the document later, either. As I'm reading a book, it helps me navigate to the notes very quickly without a lot of fuss. Since I'm typically reading several books at the same time, I want this level of organization. While Google Docs allows me to see all my documents and all my recent documents, it's a few seconds to set up this structure. Now once I have the structure in place, the next step is to actually start taking notes. I'm going to organize my notes by the book title, because not all books are conducive to a chapter by chapter note taking system. Getting Things Done isn't a good example, as it is organized well, but I want to make sure my system works for all types of books.

And once I have the document, it's a matter of putting down the notes. I'm keying on things I feel are important, quotes I might want to use later, and the like. I'm not writing paragraphs here. These are notes. And so my notes from the first chapter of the book look like so:

As to why Google Docs? Because as long as I have Internet access, I can get to it. I switch between computers constantly, and carrying around a USB key is fraught with danger. This ensures I don't have that issue. It also ensures that I don't have to deal with document compatibility issues. Yes, I will eventually backup the documents that are important on a regular basis, because I won't trust Google, who is providing this service free, to always maintain restore capability. But that's another post for another time.


K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Steve Jones on 17 December 2009

That sounds like a good solution, Brian. I've taken a different approach. I like One Note and it's free form way of taking notes. I can add pictures, etc. easily in there. I have all my notebooks in a folder and then I have those sync'd across Live Mesh to give me changes across all three of my machines with a few minutes of making changes.

Posted by K. Brian Kelley on 17 December 2009

I would do OneNote as I personally love it, but if I'm on my wife's Macbook or on my kids' Netbook or on one of the church computers, I don't have access to OneNote. And I don't necessarily have access to Office. So the Google Docs is the best solution in my case. If I could manage a similar build like you, OneNote all the way.

Posted by Dugi on 18 December 2009

Yea very nice job from Google. But also the Windows Live developed the Office Live Workspace - Documents where you have many possibility to create Word docs, Excel and PowerPoint docs, also Notes, Lists and folders to organize files, and much more with tasks list, events list, contact lists and all these things can go in one workspace to organize your docs-notes as you wish. It has workspace templates like Project Workspace, School Workspace, Meeting, Class, Event etc etc. Did you try it, it works very nice, but still it is Beta version!

Posted by willspurgeon on 23 December 2009

Thanks for validating this approach. I actually keep my whole bag of programming tricks in Google Docs now, with separate folders for .Net, SQL, etc. In addition to scripts, like "SQL Utility - Shrink Log", I also keep book notes ("SQL Book Notes: Pro SQL Server 2008") and general overviews of specific SQL topics ("SQL Performance") with hyperlinks and key points. An increasing number of links are to SQL Server Central articles ;)

I've also started keeping just a loose "SQL Learnings Log" for short, less structured notations. Having just a little journal encourages me to go ahead and jot helpful things down even when the content doesn't justify a whole document on its own. This helps avoid that annoying instance where you know you've read something very clever about X topic, but you can't remember where it was, and somehow all your googling just isn't finding that gem article.

I appreciate that you all take time to comment on some of these other "side tricks" that aren't really SQL specific but that do make us better at our jobs.

Posted by SQLPhone on 24 December 2009

Brian: in addition to being useful for future reference, writing notes also helps you transfer information to your long term memory storage. You will have a much greater chance of remembering things you wrote than you things you just read/listen even if you never refers your notes again....

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