Printed 2017/01/19 08:22AM

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.


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