Note Taking Reimagined

I am a religious note taker. When I was a freshman engineering student in college one of the first things they taught us to do was to start to keep a journal. Tracking when you invent something is very important. When I was an intern at Motorola, one of my favorite days was the day I was able to request and receive my very first engineering notebook. Those notebooks lead to 25 patent applications, 15 patents issued, 10 of which I was named co-inventor.

Note taking has always been a big deal to me. If you have ever seen Neil De Grasse Tyson’s notebooks from college1 they look like works of art. Of course, Leonardo De Vinci’s notebooks are art.

I always knew that if I took good notes, I recalled material better. I mean handwritten notes. Typing was a poor substitute, but longhand worked wonders. There’s some science behind2 summarizing what you know that helps improve retention. If you can make your notes visual3 all the better. A huge chunk of our brain performs visual processing.

To that end, I started Sketch-Noting4 a couple of years ago, and it has transformed my note-taking. Sketch Notes are very visual notes that incorporate colors, different fonts – heck it’s easier to see than to explain.

Well, this past August a friend of mine blew my mind when he introduced me to the ultimate note-taking app. We were at a conference in Salt Lake when he comes up to me.

He says, “You take amazing notes, but you have to see this new system I have.”

“What’s so special about it?” I ask

He answers, “Don’t get me wrong. I love notebooks, but the problem with notebooks is that you are limited to the book. If you take notes on the same kinds of projects, the notes become interleaved.”

I nod in agreement. “Yeah, and then you have to go back and index them when they are full.”


“And that’s a pain in the ass,” he adds. “Plus, a new idea can be captured between two lists or meeting notes. When you come back to flesh out the idea, you have to put it in another place in the book, or a different notebook altogether.”

I knew what he was talking about. “And keeping different notebooks doesn’t work,” I said.

“Right! Too big and clumsy!” He agreed. “And it seems like you never have the notebook you need.”

“So what’s the answer?” I ask, completely hooked.

The Tool

He pulled out a custom made Italian sleeve from his bag and showed me four things.

  1. An iPad Pro. 12.9” Model
  2. An Apple Pencil
  3. An app called Notability
  4. A screen protector called PaperLike

I used to have an iPad Pro 12.9” model and apple Pencil. I sold them. I had found them unwieldy, and I didn’t know what to do with them. At first, I was thinking, what could an app and a screen protector do?

The answer? Change Everything

Notability has changed my note taking life. It is flat out the best handwritten note-taking app I have ever seen. I have used quite a few. As an “Every New Thing Now Guy”, I try lots of stuff. Somehow I had missed this. Notability is great.When you cover the screen of the iPad with a paper-like screen protector, however, it gets even better. It feels like writing on paper. And the tracking of the apple pencil is the best stylus available. Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. The Microsoft surface and google pixel book don’t compare (and I have tried both).

Notability goes beyond merely drawing on the screen, however. They try to simulate paper. They even have PDF templates you can import into the app and use. The folks at Ginger Labs killed it.

They even allow you to create your own ink colors. So what did I do? I used the iPad camera to take pictures of my inks (I collect fountain pens, and fountain pen inks) and I used the eyedropper to sample my favorite colors. Now I can write in my colors.

But it is the digital extensibility Notability brings to your journals that I find most valuable. First, the app can search your handwriting. You can also insert images, or web clips and draw right on top of them. The power of the tools is genuinely astounding. Everything you write is a vector, so you can move it, resize it, copy it and paste anything you draw or write.

Words do not do it justice so I will provide a video demonstration. (See below)

Perhaps the most useful part of the application is that each note is infinite. You can organize the notes into notebooks by topic, and then carry them all with you.

Of course, you can also type with a keyboard – but I find the text editing sub par. That’s okay; I have 20 bazillion ways to type text, but I have yet to see anything as intuitive as Notability for note taking.

Oh yeah, Notability can also record audio in a note. So if you are in a meeting, or listening to a lecture, you can record the whole thing while you are taking notes and go back and check the recording! How awesome is that!?

I started to play around with this on a smaller iPad Pro and Apple Pencil 1. I found I loved the app but discovered that it scaled my writing from the 9.7” to 11” piece of paper. I felt like I was writing on a notepad, but my handwriting ended up 13% bigger, which does not sound like much, but for something as personal as handwriting, my notes looked strange when I printed them. That was why I just decided to get a larger iPad. I wanted to get closer to a piece of real paper.

For me, that’s the magic of the 2018 iPad Pro 12.9”. It is not a small tablet, but it is significantly smaller than the first generation iPad 12.9. They shrank the bevel, but kept the screen size mostly the same. It is as close to a piece of paper as you are likely to find. I feel like I am writing on a letter size notebook.

Bonus

After I switched to analog-digital note taking, I learned I could also record live whiteboard talks. Using the latest iOS, you can not only record your screen, but you can also record yourself talking as you write on your screen. The iPad Pro has become my top content creation tool.

The four components (iPad, Pencil, App, & screen saver) combine to create the most powerful system for creating and capturing notes I have come across. I still use real paper and fountain pens for morning journaling. For absolutely everything else I use the iPad.

I highly recommend it.

Example – Live Capture From iPad

I recorded a short video to demonstrate Notability with Apple Pencil on my 2018 iPad Pro 12.9. The “scratchy” sound as I draw withthe Apple Pencil comes from the PaperLike screen protector.

Video example of using the tools

Tools Recap

  1. An iPad Pro. 12.9” Model
  2. An Apple Pencil
  3. An app called Notability
  4. A screen protector called PaperLike

Books and Resources


  1. Neil DeGrasse Tyson Fountain Pen Addict Interview ↩︎
  2. Smart Thinking by Art Markman ↩︎
  3. Unlimited Memory ↩︎
  4. Sketch noting by Mike Rohde ↩︎

Year in Review Game

A Fast, Fun Way to Get Ready For New Years With Your Family

I call this game “Love, Learn, & Grow.” It is a modification on my son’s phrase, “You live, you learn, you grow.” I got the idea when I looked at my stack of journals from 2018 and thought – No way. Tim Ferriss, in his blog, talks about how he goes through his journals and catalogs a variety of things to help him plan for his next year to have a better year.

In typical Tim Ferriss fashion it is brilliant, over the top, and completely overwhelming to pull off. I have tried three times to do this myself, and I rarely get past ¼ of a year. This year, I decided to do something different.

I also wanted to do something that involved the rest of my family. Piling through a year’s worth of journals can be a lonely exercise. With everyone home from school, I suddenly remembered the “Prompt Questions,” we use in our Entrepreneur Meetings. When we open a forum meeting, we often ask a question to generate more sharing. I liked this idea but how could I apply it to a year in review?

I decided to simplify and streamline. Thus was born Love, Learn, and Grow.

Here’s how it goes.

  1. I made 12 cards with the name of each month on them. I grouped the cards into 4 piles of 3. Each pile represents a quarter (and roughly a season).
  2. I then made three cards for each family member (total of 15). There is one Love card, one Learn card, and one Grow card for each person.

I made all the cards by hand using 3×5 index cards.

We spread the month cards out on the dining room table, and I distributed a Love, Learn, and Grow card to each family member. We then took turns placing cards and sharing our memories from 2018. It was magic.

Here are the rules if you want to do this yourself.

Rules

  • Everyone gets three cards.
  • There are 12 months
  • Play one card at a time, in any order that makes sense to you. Place the card on the month you most strongly associate with that memory.
  • Tell your story and share

How to Play

  1. Layout the 12-month cards in 4 columns of 3 (or 3 rows of 4) in the middle of the table so everyone can reach them.
  2. Make sure everyone has a love, learn, and grow card.
  3. Start play to the dealers right.
  4. A player chooses one card to play. She may pick any card she wishes. She may play the cards in any order.
  5. The player places the card face up on top of the month he most strongly associates with his memory.
  6. She shares her memory.
  7. Play advances to the next player.
  8. The game lasts precisely 3 rounds until everyone has played his last card.

Some Extra rules:

  • You win by participating
  • You win because you will take away more than you brought
  • Be supportive
  • Be authentic
  • No criticizing, judging, or haranguing.
  • This isn’t a game as much as it is a coordinate set of prompts. The intention is to cultivate memories, reflection, and sharing.

Variations

  • If you can play more than one round you want.
  • You can also try to cover all 12 months before any cards double up on a single month.
  • You can have everyone play in the same card sequence (All the Love, All the Learn, all the Grow)
  • You have a rule that everyone must alternate cards (Can’t play a Love after a Love, etc.)

Year Cards

The year cards are four sets of three.

  1. January, February, and March in blue (for winter).
  2. April, May, and June in Green (for spring).
  3. July, August, and September in Brown (for summer).
  4. October, November, and December in Grey (for fall).

The Love, Learn and Grow Cards

There is one of each, for each player. Having only one card of each type keeps the game manageable and short. Asking people to reflect on a whole year can be intimidating. There is also a secret to the cards. I’ll tell you what it is after I explain them.

The Love Card

The love card is pink with a heart in the middle. The rule for this card is: Pick a memory from the past year that you don’t want to forget. This is where you loved, or you felt loved. The Love card is about connection, purpose, and relatedness. It is not limited to romantic, or family love. It represents the well being that comes from being connected to other people you care about and who care about you.

Play the card on the month you most strongly associate with that memory.

Examples include:

  • A romantic weekend with a spouse
  • A night out with friends
  • An adventure that caused your team to bond

The Learn Card

The Learn card is purple with a book in the middle. The rule for this card is: Share some wisdom you discovered over the last year. This wisdom can be a discovery, a skill, or a situation you want more of in the future. This card could be a practice, habit, or technique. It is something you can share with others.

If possible, select a lesson that you chose to learn.

Examples Include:

  • Learning to bbq
  • Learning how to shuffle a deck of cards
  • Learning the secret to managing a complex project

The Grow Card

The Grow card is green with a leaf in the middle. The rule for this card is: Share a memory where you grew as a person. Choose a memory or experience that made you better. Your memory should be personal to you. You feel better about yourself, you have added to your capability.

Examples Include:

  • Losing weight
  • Doing something that made you uncomfortable but you got through it.
  • Stepping up to a big project and handling it well

The Secret of the Cards

These memories were explicitly selected to map to the three domains of intrinsic motivation — the Love card is relatedness. The Learn card is autonomy, and the Grow card is mastery. Here’s a tip, when you choose to do things that make you stronger as a human being in service of people you care about, it can make your life feel… well meaningful. So when you look back over your year, it doesn’t hurt to remind yourself that you love, learn, and grow. And if those three things line up all the better.

The Intent

I intended for the game to bring our family together so we could share memories from the past year. I wanted everyone to feel encouraged and good about themselves. I was pleased with how everyone listened to each other and how diverse the interpretations of the cards were yet still fit the intention.

Conclusion

The game did not last long and was not intimidating, and everyone seemed excited to share their stories. Everyone felt heard. We played this game over dinner, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed it way more than plowing through a pile of journals. Give a spin, let me know what you think.

A Useful Coach?

How Can I help…

I have thought about this a lot lately, and the answer is important because it’s going to shape most of my conversations with you, the reader. Specifically, I want to know how can I add value for you? I believe one aspect of a good coach is to help someone else achieve their goals. Could I do that? Could I help you?

Perhaps.

I place a high premium on the utility of ideas. However, I don’t just want to give advice.

Why?

Two reasons.

The problem with advice

In her excellent book Stop Being Lonely Kira Asatryan gives some excellent advice, about giving advice. I paraphrase her excellent text to convey the following warning:

There is a time and a place for giving advice: when you’re an expert in a certain field, when you’re a teacher or consultant, and so forth. But where two parties are equal, advice fosters distance. You can’t give unsolicited advice without implying, “I understand the situation better than you do.”

The Entrepreneurs Organization, of which I am blessed to be a member also cautions against advice giving. One reason among many is that advice conveys expectations. The receiver is expected to follow the advice and report back. Who needs that kind of stress?

Therefore, I believe the most effective approach may be in the one used by Colin Powell in his excellent 2012 book, It worked for me: in life and leadership. This is what EO calls “Gestalt”, or experience sharing. EO is based upon the idea of equals helping equals.

For the purpose of this blog then, I am going to assume that while we are not the same, we are equals. We are equal in our desire to do right by the people we love, and the people who count on us. We are equal in our desire to find better solutions to achieve better outcomes.

Sound reasonable? Great.

So here’s how I see it working. I will share different situations I have encountered in my career, as an executive, entrepreneur, and coach. I will tell you what I was aiming at, what stood in my way, and what I did about it. Finally, I will let you know how it turned out, as far as I am able. I will also try to make it clear what tools, methods, and approaches I used. Then you can decide if they have any utility for you.

Like any good movie, I think I’ll start where the action is, in the middle.

The Challenge: It’s Time To Go

My dream job, General Manager of a fast growing video game studio, turned into a nightmare. In trying to make everyone happy, I made no one happy. So I did what any sane, rational human being would do. I resigned.

Did I mention I did not have another job lined up when I did this?

You might ask, “What happened?” The same thing that happens every time you try to pave a road with good intentions between two opposing groups. It doesn’t matter as much why I left, more that I left. It’s kind of like they tell you in safety training. You make an orderly exit from the building. What they don’t tell is you is what happens once you are outside.

The Tool: The Engineering Problem Solving Process

Being an engineer has always been a blessing for me. Not so much because of what I know, but because of how they trained me to think. Engineers are trained in the Engineering Problem Solving Process. There are six steps in this process. They are:

How Engineers Think

  1. You identify the problem
  2. You explore and find out what has been done before
  3. You design a solution from what you learned
  4. You build the solution
  5. You test the solution
  6. You improve the solution, and go back to step 3.

The problem as I laid it out was pretty clear. I’d jumped out of my career airplane without a parachute. Now I had to find out to do about it. So I read, and I researched, and I read some more.

Leads to a Tool: The Flower Diagram

The book that seemed to hold some quality answers was called: What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles. Turns out it is still called that. Parachute is the manual for anyone changing careers and continues to be one of the top selling career advice books of all time. In that book I came across an interesting exercise.

It’s called the Flower Diagram.

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say this one exercise changed the course of my life and benefitted millions of children over the last decade. I think this is a pretty great tool.

The idea is to see yourself as someone growing, someone still becoming. Hence the flower. The flower has 7 “Petals” (you can find the diagram here). I won’t go through the whole exercise, but at the core of the flower, on Petal 1 They ask you to list:

My Favorite Knowledge Areas or Fields of Interest

I listed three things on my diagram.

  1. Coaching kids
  2. Managing people to success
  3. Video games

Why was this a big deal? Because the core of those interests lead to the creation of GameTruck. GameTruck included video games (obviously) but it was also about working with kids (coaching), and as a franchise company I could help other people get into a great industry and achieve success (Managing).

There were a lot of roads to go down between the flower diagram and the creation of an industry, but in the end the source was the same. I got clear about what interested me, and in trying to combine them, I created something that had never existed.

And more than a decade later I’m still trying to combine my interested in new and exciting ways.

It’s always tempting to look back at what you would do differently, but I honestly feel like if I hadn’t leapt, I would not have had the time (or the sense of urgency) to start a new enterprise. If I’d had an easier out, who’s to say I wouldn’t have taken it? What I do know was that the Engineering Problem Solving Process lead me to find new tools, and those tools lead me to find a solution that… (wait for it) worked for me.

As they say, your mileage may vary.

— Scott

Tools

  1. The Engineer Problem Solving Process
  2. The Flower Exercise
  3. Gestalt

Books

  1. What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles
  2. It worked for me: in life and leadership
  3. Stop Being Lonely by Kira Asatryan

Clear Thinking

I am a big fan of James Clear. He writes with a very strong and concise style. His articles often focus on scientifically proven methods for achieving better results.

I list him here for three reasons.

  1. I want to give you useful tools
  2. I need to test my new Zap linking my blog and social media
  3. All lists should have at lease three items.

#tools #mentalmodels