There are many guides out there on how to take good notes. The first thing I will say is that choosing the right system comes first, and selecting the software and/or paper tools come second. Implementing and consistently using a good note-taking (and accessing) system simplifies the task of writing and doing all sorts of work immensely.
Figuring out a sound note-taking system is one of the major factors that enabled me to go from being an “average” student to a “straight A” student when I was in college, with only a slight increase in the time spent reading, studying, and completing assignments. Taking notes after each “chunk” of reading or creative activity allows me to assess my comprehension and reflect on what I’m reading (or doing) and make connections as I go and share insights, questions, and summaries with my future self. I learned to take good notes when I was an undergraduate from John Nowak, a friend and philosophy student who got an A in every class he took, and I was so impressed by his meticulous, detailed notes that contributed to his academic performance. Shortly after I took a Cognitive Psychology course, so practice became informed by theory.
To make a long story short, I recommend the book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking by Sönke Ahrens. It provides a comprehensive guide to a widely-used and effective note-taking technique called the Zettelkasten (this link provides an online introduction if you prefer that over a comprehensive book), simply described as a personal tool for creating a web of associations between thoughts to assist in writing, creative thinking, and all sorts of project work. Another good resource on this topic is Notes on Note-Taking: Review of Research and Insights for Students and Instructors (PDF) by Michael C. Friedman.
Once you have a system, then comes the question, what tools to use? My favorite note-taking tool is a Moleskine notebook, these come in a wide range of styles and sizes, I prefer the 13×21 cm soft cover 192 page plain notebook and start a new book each semester. For in-person meetings, a large whiteboard and lots of post-it notes can be productive. For a Zoom meeting, a Miro board or a Google Doc is a good way to capture notes when working with others in real-time. This is where many of my notes start. I keep an index on the first few pages of the notebook so I can find things quickly, and add post-it notes to mark pages I need to get back to or enter in my digital notebook.
The key to making the most of your notes is to build your own Zettelkasten, and there are many apps available for doing this, each with a loyal following and providing an endless source of YouTube videos on the perfect note-taking system and the tools to go with it. An excellent app to start is with SimpleNote, a free and straightforward note-taking app I use to maintain access to often used notes across my desktop, laptop, iPhone, iPad, or any web browser. It is a solid note-taking system if you are OK with text and link only notes, and you’ll never be locked into it as you can easily export the notes in a standard format that you can import into other tools if your needs grow in the future.
EverNote offers a more complete note-taking system in comparison to SimpleNote. The free version provides synchronization between two devices and 60 MB monthly uploads; however, for unlimited synchronization, 10 GB monthly uploads, due dates, reminders, and notifications with your tasks, along with offline access on mobile and desktop apps, these added features will require a monthly subscription. I use EverNote for projects that require the use of images embedded in notes and I like how it works across my desktop, laptop, iPhone, iPad, and via a web browser, but it is quite a departure from the elegance and simplicity of SimpleNote, but if you need a lot of bells and whistles, EverNote certainly has them.
Another popular tool among serious note-taking folks is Obsidian. I have not used it, so I can’t say much about it, but it has a loyal user base, as does Notion. I found Notion interesting, but I did not find a compelling reason to switch from my current combination of SimpleNote and EverNote. I stick with SimpleNote for most notes and EndNote when I need to mix images and text in my notes.
I’ve also used The Archive, but since it does not work across desktop, web, and mobile, I can’t recommend it as a general note-taking app, but it is perfect if you have a specific project for which you don’t need to access it away from your laptop or desktop. This need not be the case, however, as it simply gives you access to notes in a folder, which you could access with other tools on other platforms, but it’s not an integrated solution. The Archive has a clean, efficient interface. I have used it for a couple of projects, but its use is limited for me without access across desktop, web, and mobile.
One method I use across all of my notes (even paper notes!) is hashtags to connect notes that should or could be connected (e.g., #editing for notes about video editing, #narrativeTheory for notes about narrative theory, etc.), using camel case for multiple word tags. I try to limit notes to one idea and use hashtags to connect numerous related ideas. I often make links between notes. When it comes to writing or completing a project, it’s about going through the notes and thinking about structure and order, which can also be encoded by using what I call cluster notes, which are notes that have a collection of links to other notes, providing a sequence of ideas that flow from one to the other.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to methods as the best system is one you reshape based on your working style and objectives. One last piece of advice: make sure the note-taking system helps you get your work done and does not become a monster that requires more feeding than it is worth.
You are my hero.