Gretchen Rubin

A Question I’m Often Asked: What’s My Process for Taking Notes?

A Question I’m Often Asked: What’s My Process for Taking Notes?

One of my favorite things about myself is that I often become obsessed with certain subjects. I’ll do countless hours of research to learn more about these subjects, sometimes over the course of years.

For instance, some of my obsessions have included: color, clutter, the placebo response, the sense of smell, dogs, the Eleusinian Mysteries, Winston Churchill, the question of why owners would destroy their own possessions, and happiness.

Some of these preoccupations turn into books; some burn themselves out. But whatever happens, I love discovering a new passionate interest – all of a sudden, an unfamiliar area of the library becomes extremely important to me.

When I read, I take notes. Many people have asked about my process, so here it is:

When I read, I’m always looking for passages that I want to note. I mark them as I read – either by putting in a sticky flag if I’m reading a library book, or by marking the page if I own the book. Side note: for books I own, I mark them up a lot – it’s faster, plus if I’m looking through a book later, those marks help me find the passages that I found most notable.

Then, when I’ve finished reading the book, I go back and copy the notes into my computer.

If it’s a particularly beautiful or thought-provoking passage, I copy it into a document called "Quotes2006+." This is a giant trove of my favorite passages – favorite either because they’re beautifully written, or because they capture an idea that I want to record.

If it’s a passage that also happens to relate to happiness or human nature, I add it to the list of passages that I use in my free "Moment of Happiness" email newsletter, where each day, I send out a great quotation. (If you’d like to get the Moment of Happiness each day, sign up here.)

If it’s a passage that relates to a subject that interests me enough to deserve its own notes document, I’ll copy that passage there. My notes documents include "happiness," "color," "Winston Churchill," and something called "Essential Placebo." (Long story; stay tuned.)

As I’m taking notes on a subject, I don’t worry about organization. That comes later, when I’m ready to outline a book.

I depend on the "search" function to find what I need. To help organize my thoughts later, and to find what I’m looking for, I tag a passage so that I can "search" to find it. So, for instance, if I’d copied a passage that related to an interesting accountability strategy that an Obliger used to help himself take medicine regularly, I might type "Obliger accountability health medicine" after it, so that later, if I’m looking for health-related material, I can find it.

As I take notes, I also add any question that occurs to me, or any conclusion that I think I might forget.

If I do decide to write a book about a subject, I go through my notes repeatedly and think about my own analysis about what I’ve learned. I begin to see where I disagree with others, where I think that certain points haven’t been emphasized enough, where I think new vocabulary is needed, how I would present a subject to make it clearest.

For almost all my books, the structure was very, very difficult to create. Which isn’t obvious from looking at those books – if you look at The Happiness Project, say, you’d think, "What could be a more simple and straightforward structure?" And yet it took me several false starts to come up with that framework. Structure is so, so, so important – and the structure must serve the meaning. So I can’t figure out my structure until I know what I want to say, and I don’t know what I want to say until I’ve amassed hundreds of pages of notes.

One advantage of this form of note-taking is that when I start a book, I never start with a blank screen. I start with hundreds of pages of notes to inspire me.

I love taking notes, but while it might seem like a passive, easy task, but it’s actually very challenging. One benefit of note-taking is that it forces me to review all the most important parts of a book, and to decide what’s worth copying out. That takes concentration. This process helps me remember what I’ve learned, and find that information later, and for that reason, it takes a lot of time and mental energy.

I often think I should print out my troves of notes in some attractive way, so that I could leaf through them for pleasure. I do love looking over my notes from previous projects, but I also find it exhausting. I can’t help but analyze, process, and criticize all over again.

I always type my notes, because my handwriting is terrible, and I can type so much faster than I can write.

Do you take notes while you read – and if so, how do you organize them?

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