Workflow: for Note-Taking and Studying

In this post I will share with you the workflow I’ve been using for years (with adjustments along the way of course) to take lecture notes and study for upcoming examinations. If lectures and exams are something that’s in your life, I hope this workflow can influence, inspire, or help you to create your own. It’s worked for me.

The workflow can roughly be divided up in three steps: acquisition, processing, and consumption. Let’s break it down.

Acquisition

The Structure

It all starts with actually gathering information from lectures. Before the beginning of the term I create a folder for each of my courses, usually with only their course codes as the folders’ names. Then, at the start of each lecture, I fire up iA Writer and enter the relative course folder. A quick keyboard shortcut (⌘⇧N) creates a text file on location, and the file’s first line will become the file’s name. I type in the current date1 and I’m ready to take notes. Inserting the date can be sped up with the use of text expanding software: in my case I use aText,2 thanks to which I simply type ddate which will be automatically expanded to 2019-01-11 or, well, that day’s date.

Taking Notes

During the lecture I try to jot down pretty much every single piece of information I can absorb. During this process I don’t discriminate a lot between potentially useful and useless information; I do throw away some chuff but in doubt, I type it in. I’ll process it later on. I like for my notes to be always under headings dividing up info in logical sections (much like this post). This is in fact one of the reasons why I love Markdown:3 it allows me to very quickly create lists and headings, both very useful tools to structure info “on the fly” as it comes to you during lectures. If you’re wondering what a typical note file looks like for me, here it is.

Markdown is pretty cool.

Processing

Collating

As the exam date approaches, say, the midterm for IR 236 is in two weeks, it’s time to actually do something with these notes. One thing I do is I create a file called ir236_midterm_notes.md in the course folder and I collate all of the course’s notes into that file. Now, this is not blind copy-pasting (otherwise I could have just directly typed them into this one file as the term progressed,) it is instead a process of filtering and rewriting. I essentially go over all of the term’s notes and transfer the actually useful information to the new file. My goal is for this file to become my one-stop shop for everything related to the exam: it should be, essentially, a complete and concise study guide. Sure, this is a lenghty process and it takes time, but this is when I feel I actually learn the information I have so far captured. By analyzing, selecting, and at times rewriting it to be “nicer,” that’s when I feel it’s actually entering my brain. I have tried different methods over the years, and this is the one which I found works best.

Outlining

Now that I have created this file containing everything I need to know for the exam, I process it once more. In this process, I distill the information into headings, and headings only. I make a sort of indented list, so to speak, in another file. It’s a lot faster than the previous process but no less useful, as it allows me to have a “bird’s eye” view on what has been done throughout the semester, which is incredibly useful while studying and revising. I use OmniOutliner to do this but honestly, any software which allows you to create indented lists works, Word and Pages too, for instance. I initially make big headings, like so:

Then, using the study guide I’ve just made as reference, I create sub-, and if necessary sub-sub- headings. That’s it. I’ll show you what a finished product might look like:

Consumption

This is the crunch just before the exam. I print out both the study guide and the outline, and read and re-read them. One thing I found useful is to go through all of my headings and just write about the heading until I feel I’ve exhausted all I know. Then, I look at the actual study guide to check whether or not I missed something. Rinse and repeat, until I feel confident enough.

Usually, the mere fact that I have processed the info into a consolidated “study guide” previously already makes this process perhaps the least painful of all, which is one of the things I like the most about my workflow. Come exam time, I am usually relaxed in the knowledge that I have actually “touched” every topic there’s to touch, and I have had experience with it more than once.

Conclusion

To summarise, we can outline the entire workflow like so:

  • Acquisition
    • Structuring (mainly the folders and how I’ll take notes)
    • Actually taking notes
  • Processing
    • Collating
    • Outlining
  • Studying

I hope this window into how I work inspired you to maybe create or adjust your workflow, or, the opposite, made you think of a way in which you believe yours is better than mine: if that’s the case, please do contact me.


  1. I highly suggest using the YYYY-MM-DD format as it can be ordered alphabetically and still retain its chronological ordering
  2. Its price is a fraction of the alternatives and it provides, for all intents and purposes, the same features as the rest.
  3. If you haven’t heard of Markdown before, I highly recommend spending 10 minutes learning it (as that’s all it takes,) maybe here. I promise this time investment will yield a great return.