Sometimes, the most mundane habits are the most useful. So it is with note-taking.
The note-taker spectrum is broad: You might be a distractible doodler, an ambivalent-but-obliged recorder, a hyper-efficient graphomaniac, or a steadfast abstainer. While the devoted declare themselves by proximity to a favorite notebook, the reluctant might log random dates in Notes.
(Almost) regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, note-taking is an important aid to comprehension and a surprising access point to power. You don’t have to adhere to the Cornell Method to gain these benefits. Even if your style is more jot-down-a-word-and-circle-it-three times, project-oriented note-taking serves important functions.
First, note-taking breaks down a subject into its parts, allowing a more intimate approach to analysis: When we take notes, we get a lot closer to our subject.
Second, and counterintuitively, note-taking forces us further from our subject: When we take notes, we insert ourselves between our subject and our sense of our subject. The resulting space offers—and sometimes forces—a broader perspective.
Although note-taking fosters both intimacy and distance, both close comprehension and prodigious perspective-taking, its most crucial function isn’t the taking but the notes.
When we take notes, we accumulate records of the things that mattered enough to us to be retained. Our notebook or app becomes a storehouse of observations to be consulted, used as evidence, or considered a provocation for current or future work. It doesn’t really matter if the notes are clear or confusing: The simple act of retention invests our fleeting observations with the potential for future meanings.
Consequently, taking and keeping notes is incredibly useful. It’s useful for everyone, but it’s especially useful for those of us working on big or complicated projects. The practice might be an aid to productivity, but it will also provide past evidence for future meanings.