In which I acknowledge that a key to happiness, for me, is taking notes.

One of my idiosyncrasies is a compulsion to take notes. I’m always copying down quotations, making odd lists, gathering examples in strange categories. I have a huge document in my computer: “Notes.”

It takes a lot of time and energy, and I used to discourage this impulse in myself. It seemed pointless and self-indulgent. But following my first commandment to “Be Gretchen,” I started to let myself take notes–and take pleasure in it.

One reason to allow myself to do it is that I enjoy it. For some reason, I like acting like I’m working on a permanent research project. Also, taking notes helps me read better, with more focus and retention.

The crazy thing is that once I said to myself, “Okay, Gretchen, take all the notes you want, it doesn’t matter if you need those notes for anything,” I realized for the first time how USEFUL these notes have been.

How had I convinced myself otherwise? My first book, Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide, grew out of my huge body of notes on these subjects. When I had a chance to write Profane Waste about my obsession with people’s destruction of their possessions, the only reason I could pack it full of fascinating examples was that I’d been taking notes for years.

So I’d been very foolish to tell myself that I was wasting my time. Note-taking just didn’t look “real” to me, so it didn’t register as valuable, despite the ample proof that it was.

Here’s an example of the kind of notes I take. One section of my notes is a reaction to an observation by physicist Niels Bohr: “There are trivial truths and great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”

I started playing with this idea.

–Out of sight, out of mind. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

–Birds of a feather flock together. Opposites attract.

–You’re never too old to learn. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

–“Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” Lord Chesterfield
“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” G. K. Chesterton

Then I took some of my favorite “truths” to see what their opposite would hold.

–“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy.

–“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21.

–“It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” G. K. Chesterton.

–“There is no love, there are only proofs of love.” French saying? (That’s what I remember, but haven’t been able to track it down.)

–“Happy wife, happy life.”

And look, I’ve found another way to use my notes: for my blog. Zoikes, why is it so hard to “Be Gretchen”?

Most people might not necessarily expected to be interested in a blog called Exceptional Dental Practice Management — Linda Zdanowicz’s blog about her thoughts on her life and work as a dental practice administrator. But I love reading Linda’s reflections on trying to be a better person and a better dental administrator. Her thoughtful examples are drawn from the world of the dentist’s office – which is familiar enough to be understandable, but exotic enough to be interesting. Reading her blog really gives me a boost to try harder to do better, myself.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • KCCC

    That quote by Bohr is one of my favorites. It changed my perspective on the world, because I see the most contentious debates/issues of our time as “opposing great truths.”
    Instead of seeing these issues and actions to take in response in terms of either/or, I now frame them as “balance points” between great truths.

  • Hey, I take notes too! I don’t think it’s too unusual, that’s for sure. My strange compulsion is starting new notebooks before the old ones are anywhere near finished. I just got this cute pink leather-bound one, though, so hopefully that’ll last me.

  • I’m another note-taker, although these days a lot of that note-taking happens while I’m online, and Google Notebook has become one of my best friends. But I have to admit that part of the reason I do it is self-defense against distraction and memory failure.

  • I like to take notes in the car, while I’m driving to work. Is that wrong? 🙂
    I was just thinking about this this morning and reminding myself about Commonplace Books.

  • You know, I NEVER KNEW the definition of “commonplace book.” If I had, maybe I would have felt less illegitimate — because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. So exciting to have a term for it. I’m very attracted to all the beautiful journals, but my handwriting is illegible, even for me, so I’m stuck typing. I don’t dare even EXPERIMENT with Google Notebook, because only the labor involved in typing keeps me in check at all. If I could cut and paste, I’d have a million volumes and no life whatsoever.

  • Natasha

    Hey, Gretchen! We are so alike. I take notes all the time. I also used to think of taking notes as being self-indulgent. But it’s just so normal and feels so good. As long as you keep your notes organized there’s no problem. I have a journal that I keep mine in. Good job, Gretchen.

  • Just one question. How do you keep your notes organized so that you can find stuff again?
    I stopped taking notes because too many times I know I wrote something down somewhere but I can’t find it again.
    I thought computers would help but looking at a folder full of cryptic file names makes me despondent.

  • Susan

    Il n’y a pas d’amour, il n’y a que des preuves d’amour.
    It’s by Pierre Reverdy, I don’t know what your French is like, but you could check out for more info.
    Sunny greetings from Algeria. Still enjoying my daily happiness fix from your blog, Gretchen!

  • jasmine

    I would also like to know how you organize your notes so that you can access them as needed.

  • Ah, how satisfying to know the origin and proper wording of that quotation! thanks so much.
    Here’s my secret to organizing my notes: I DON’T. I just throw everything into one massive document and use the search function to find what I’m looking for. The problem is that I forget what material I have squirreled away, so from time to time I zip through the entire thing to refresh my memory. This is tremendously thrilling and satisfying — I like coming across things I forgot I had.
    This system might not work for everyone, but I have a “keyword” sort of memory, and can usually remember a distinctive word or phrase to take me where I want to go.
    I do the same thing with my Happiness Project research. I have a document called “categories1” (don’t even remember why it’s called that) which is loosely divided into categories of my happiness research — but which I access by search function much more than by organization.
    Working on a computer means I don’t get to use the lovely notebooks — but now that I’ve discovered the marvelous, I can print out my commonplace books and have a hardbound copy.
    The search function! How I love it!

  • lol… I’m on notebook number five of notes… big thick notebooks… Ive kept quotes, jokes, ideas, lines from books, movies, etc etc…it took an incredibly long time to transfer the hard copy to word documents… but I update frequently so I can search for related ideas, and materials… Im glad it’s not just me

  • Don’t organize, just put it all in one big file. Now there’s an idea I never thought of.
    Sometimes the best solutions are so…simple!

  • adora

    Happiness for me is also taking notes!
    I’ve been using Filofax since 16. It’s all my life in one folder. One day the accounting department people says, “you’re not really busy because you’re not using a PDA. You can still fit everything on paper!” Out of dismay, I bought a PDA.
    It’s nice to be able to fit it into tiny purse, but it’s really not my style! I take notes in drawings, graphics & flow charts. It is how I digest words. Sure, I can store images in there, but the pen is slippery on the screen. The files are organized in linear storage, it’s hard to make sense of them. It’s so hard to look up information. I usually use ended up deleting everything.
    To be myself, I’m taking notes on paper again.

  • Laura – @not9to5

    I think that jotting down notes as you read helps you to take it all in as it forces you to process the inormation and think about it in a new way in order to precis. It’s a skill we practice at school but lose as we get too old to be a student :o)

  • Hi, Gretchen. There is a fun app on the Mac called nvAlt — an alternative version of an app called “Notational Velocity”. It’s oriented to creating & searching “titled” notes. The notes are stored as text files. A lot of people sync their notes collections through Dropbox. I don’t know if it would be as satisfying as searching through1 big document, but it’s a worth a look.

  • Cheryl Gerson

    Your notes make me think of artists’ sketchbooks — full of random faces and scenes, all grist for the mill of the next oeuvre!