Effective Notes

Some things we want to remember are rather trivial to store in Evernote and actively review using Revunote. A lyric, a poem, a quote, a joke, a martial art technique. Easy. Other things are more complicated. Here are our tips on structuring your notes in Evernote. Writing good notes is important because it forces you to understand the material in the first place. All the studies on recall take for granted that the material you are trying to learn is understood. Note that the following tips all require intelligent application (so you would apply them differently if you were studying chemistry than if you were studying psychology, for example).

Here are some tips together with some illustrative examples based on notes taken from a chapter on Persistence in a book on Positive Psychology. Further examples are based on notes from a TedTalk by T. Boone Pickens on Natural Gas as an alternative to fossil fuels.

If you use these tips, you can run through a mental checklist when actively reviewing your notes: definition, purpose, process, people, places, things, activities, examples, images etc…

Use the 4MAT system
Many trainers use the 4MAT system to structure their trainings. The 4MAT system is based on the theory of Learning Styles and that some people want to know WHAT something is, others want to know WHY its useful (or what they can do with it) and others want to know HOW to do it and, preferably, get stuck in right now. Accordingly, you can include information in your notes on definition, benefits (utility, purpose) and process.

Definition (What)
Peterson and Seligman (2004) define persistence as “voluntary continuation of a goal-directed action in spite of obstacles, difficulties, or discouragement”. The word is roughly synonymous with perseverance and industriousness.

Purpose (Why)
Perseverance (persistence) was identified as one of six “success attributes” (along with self-awareness, proactivity, appropriate goal setting, effective use of social support systems, and emotional stability).

Process (How)
If you do fail, make an honest assessment of how hard you tried and whether your ability matches the demands of the goal. If you DID try as hard as you could, consider your options: getting help, accepting the situation or trying again.

Apply the low level taxonomy: people, places, things, activities
Include information on all of the following: people, places, things, activities (or time). This provides many more dimensions to the information and helps engage the autobiographical memory (which is concerned with time and place). Notice how the following begins to resemble a story

In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were climbing the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. On the descent, Joe slipped and broke his leg…

Use Story
People are very good at remembering stories.

Will Smith’s Dad tore down a brick wall and told Will (12) and his younger brother to rebuild it. They said it was impossible. It took them 18months. His Dad said “Now don’t you ever tell me there’s something you can’t do”.

Use Metaphor
Metaphor taps directly into how our minds work. You can use metaphor to help you soak up information like a sponge rather than leak it like a sieve.

Persistence is like wind or water erosion

Use Contrast
Another pattern a trainer will use is to define, not only what something IS, but also what it is NOT. One contrast is with the opposite of the concept at hand. Another is with things that are different.

  Opposites of Persistence:Apathy, Procrastination.

Link to other items
Explicitly identify links to other topics. Linking to other topics, including to things we already know helps to make information more meaningful.

Persistence is linked to optimism. When progress toward one’s goal is blocked, an individual must decide whether to engage or disengage; this is determined at least in part by whether a person believes the desired goals are attainable. Optimistic people believe these goals can be attained and are more likely to be persistent in working toward the goals they have set for themselves.

Use Examples (and Exemplars)
Examples are a little like stories and they help to make something real. An abstract definition of ‘Persistence’, say, is much easier to understand with respect to an example that many have already come across:

Andy Dufresne in The Shawhanke Redemption spends 20 years burrowing 10ft through the wall of his cell a hole he can crawl through. Using a spoon.

Use Quotes
A good, punchy, quote instantly lends weight to your understanding and recall because it can help you enrich your memory with a a face and a voice.

“They said I was the fighter who got knocked down the most, but I also got up the most.” Floyd Paterson (World Heavyweight Champion, 1959)

Relate to your own experience
Tying in a topic to your own personal experience makes it much more relevant to yourself. And when its relevant, your brain takes notice.

In 1985, I was travelling to a job interview when my car broke down. I had to hitch 5 miles and hike across a field to get to the interview.

Use Visual Imagery
Use Evernote’s ability to store multimedia and paste pictures, images, slides, screen captures into your notes. A picture says a thousand words and, as long as you keep them as small as is consistent with being legible, they do not take up much space/bandwidth. You will find the icon displayed in Revunote is a valuable trigger to your recall.


Identify key assertions
An assertion is an objectively verifiable fact like ‘it is raining’. It is something that cannot really be disagreed with.

The USA uses 20m barrels of oil per day, imports 12 and spends $1bn per day on oil. Transport accounts for over 70% of USA oil usage.

Identify key assessments
An assessment is an opinion, something that cannot be verified objectively and is quite possibly a point of contention. Typically, an assessment will be supported by assertions and logical arguments, and ultimately, the chain of argument can get quite complex. This simple assessment relies on one of the statistics given above.

If you want to reduce the consumption of oil, you have to address the consumption of oil for transportation.

Highlight important phrases
The act of highlighting (bolding, underlining, using italics or color) helps you to extract important points and it acts as a visual marker or checklist you can use when it comes to recalling the information for active review. This can be important for using the Link System.

The concept involves two vectors: effort and duration. Persistent people work hard to achieve their goals, and they persist in these efforts until they achieve the goals they have set for themselves. 

Use organising principles
Grouping like things together allows us to use the principle of chunking whereby we remember one thing that reminds us of several other things. For example we could group together all the exemplars of Persistence rather than spread them out throughout our notes. In effect, we are then using the organising principle of ‘Category’

Exemplars of Persistence are: Joe Simpson (Touching the Void), Chris Gardner (The Pursuit of Happyness), Maggie Fitgerald (Million Dollar Baby), Rocky (The ‘Rocky’ Movies), Andy Dufresne (The Shawshanke Redemption)…

Some other organising principles described by Barbara Minto, in her book ‘The Pyramid Principle’ are:

Time. Describes the sequential order of things.

Structure. The structure you see when you have visualised something. This could be an organisation chart or a map showing the geography.

Ranking. Orders things from most important to least important.