How to organize notes: 6 methods you need to try

Learn how to organize notes so you can save time, reduce stress, and become more productive. Try these six methods now.

How to organize notes using colorful binders

Taking notes is a key part of any career, creative pursuit, or education. These days, information and inspiration come at us from all directions all day long, and it's easier than ever to take note of everything we want to remember.

However, just because we can take notes doesn't mean we know how.

Too often, we start out with great intentions of taking beautiful, well-organized notes that we can easily reference later — and end up with a jumble of scribbles that might as well be hieroglyphics. And if we can't find them anyway, what's the point?

Note-taking is a personal process, and your best system will depend on your individual needs and preferences. However, a few essential tips can help anyone learn how to organize notes more effectively.

Let’s review the importance of taking good notes and how we can organize them in six simple steps.

Why should you organize your notes?

How to organize notes: person using a pencil and a notebook

Have you ever needed a reference you knew you saved but couldn't find? If you're a student, you may have sat down to study for an exam only to realize your notes were pretty messed up, or worse — you couldn't even find them.

We can all relate to how frustrating it is not to be able to find something you need when you need it. That's why learning how to organize notes effectively is essential. Organizing your notes has several benefits, including:

  • Finding what you're looking for more easily
  • Reviewing your notes more effectively
  • Sharing them with others more easily
  • Having a record of your thoughts and ideas over time
  • Reducing stress and anxiety around note-taking

All these benefits are significant, but perhaps the most crucial reason for taking the time to learn how to organize notes is that it will help you understand and retain information more effectively.

When your notes are well-organized, you can review them more quickly and identify patterns and connections that you might have missed otherwise. Your understanding and memory of the material will improve as a result.

How to organize notes: 6 tips to optimize your note-taking system

Colorful notebooks, pencils and sticky notes neatly arranged on a table

Organizing notes is an essential skill for students, employees, and self-learners. With a bit of practice and helpful hints, it's easier than you might think. Start by trying these six tips.

1. Choose a proper note-taking method

Organizing your notes begins with choosing the note-taking method that works best for you. Everyone learns differently, so what works for a classmate or coworker might not be the best for you.

Consider your learning style and what will help you keep track of information effectively. If you know you're a fast typist, for instance, you may find that typing your notes is the best way to go. Or, if you find it difficult to remember information you've read, you might benefit from drawing visual notes. Research has proven that doodling can aid in memory and retention.

Experiment with a few note-taking strategies until you find one that feels comfortable and efficient. Some popular options include:

  • Taking handwritten notes in a paper notebook or bullet journal
  • Typing digital notes on a laptop or computer using Google Docs or templates
  • Using a note-taking app like Evernote on your iPhone or tablet
  • Drawing visual notes using mind maps or another visual note-taking method

Ultimately, the most important thing is to find a method that helps you learn more effectively and fits seamlessly into your existing study habits. You can write the most perfectly organized notes using the outline method, but they're pointless if you never use them. The latest note-taking iPhone app might seem super cool, but if it's not going to help you learn, it's not worth your time.

2. Optimize your note-taking process

Once you've chosen a note-taking method, it's time to optimize your process. This means streamlining how you take your notes to make them easier to organize, store, and use later. Keep the following in mind to help you take better notes:

  • Keep it simple. When taking notes, resist the urge to write down everything you see and hear. This will just overwhelm you and make your notes more challenging to organize. Instead, focus on writing down only the key points and ideas.
  • Be consistent. If you start with the Cornell Method, for example, don't switch to the outline method later. Being consistent will not only make your notes neater and easier to read, but it'll also be much easier to find key information when it's always in the same place.
  • Use visual cues. Using headers, lists, and bullet points to structure your main topics and subtopics makes them easier to scan. Annotating your text with highlights, underlines, and symbols can help you identify the most important points and locate them more quickly.
  • Prioritize readability. If you can't read your own notes, you won’t be able to organize them, much less actually use them. Make an effort to write (or type) neatly and legibly, using language you would understand if you were reading it six months from now.
  • Include key information. Every time you take notes, include the date, main topic, page numbers (if you're using a textbook or other resource), and other relevant information (like the course or client name) at the top of the page. If you need specific information later, this will save you a lot of time.

If remembering to include all this information sounds daunting, try using a note-taking template. Many are available for a variety of note-taking methods. With this hack, you can ensure that all the essential details and techniques are always in your notes.

3. Define categories

Once you have a handle on how you're going to take your notes and what information you need to include, it's time to start categorizing them. This will make it much easier to store and organize your notes later on.

To do this, start by identifying the main categories you need in your note-taking system. For example, if you're a student, your categories might be classes, professors, or assignments. If you're taking meeting notes, your categories might be projects, clients, or deadlines. You might use categories like travel, hobbies, or projects for your personal knowledge management.

You can further organize your notes by subcategories if needed. For example, if you're categorizing by class, you might have a subcategory for each lecture. If ordering by project, you might have a subcategory for each task.

4. Create a filing system

With defined categories in place, you're ready to file your notes in a system that works for you. How you organize your notes will depend on a few factors, including how often you need to access them and what types of notes you take.

If you take physical notes, you might try:

  • Paper notebooks. A paper notebook is an excellent option if you prefer taking physical notes. You can use one notebook for all your notes or have a separate notebook for each category. To further organize your paper notes, you can use dividers to section off each category or color-code each topic.
  • Folders and binders. If you need to access your notes often or share them with others, storing them in folders or binders is a good option. Keep all your notes in one binder or have one binder for each category. If you go the folder route, color coding can help you keep track of each category.

Digital note-takers might consider using:

  • Note-taking apps. If you prefer digital notes, there are a variety of note-taking apps available that can help you with organizing information. Most of the popular apps, such as Evernote and Microsoft OneNote, have hierarchy structures — for instance, folders and subfolders to store your notes, and tag and search features to help you find what you're looking for quickly.
  • Folders and naming conventions. If you take notes in a text editor like Microsoft Word or Google Docs, you can use folders and naming conventions to organize them. Make a folder for each category and subcategory, then name each file accordingly. For example, students might name their lecture notes using the date, topic, and page number (e.g., 2022-09-12_ClassNotes_Lecture1_p.25).

No matter how you organize your notes, finding the note-taking system that works for you is important. It's less likely that you'll use it regularly if it isn't easy, quick, and intuitive.

5. Create a table of contents

Making a table of contents can be incredibly helpful for taking notes. A table of contents can help you quickly find what you're looking for, especially if your notes are long or contain complex information. It's also beneficial to see the big ideas in your notes and get an overview of your stored information.

A table of contents can be as simple or complex as you need it to be. For paper notes, it might be a handwritten list at the beginning of each notebook that includes crucial information like the date, topic, and page number of each entry. A table of contents for digital notes might be a document that contains links to each folder or file. If you're using a note-taking app, it may have a built-in table of contents feature that you can use.

Creating a table of contents can be especially helpful if you need to share your notes with others. With a well-organized table of contents, it will be easier for your audience to find what they're looking for.

6. Review and revise regularly

Once your organized note-taking system is up and running, regularly review and revise it. Schedule a time (monthly or quarterly) to review your notes — you can add this task to your to-do list or to a task-batching session.

During your review, take some time to reflect on how well your organization system is working. As your needs change, your system should change with you. If you're no longer using a particular category or subcategory, get rid of it. Your file structure or table of contents may need to be changed if you're having trouble finding what you need.

Learn how to organize notes and take charge of your note-taking system

An effective note-taking system can save you time, reduce stress, and help you be more productive. Organizing your notes is an ongoing process, but it's worth the effort. Take some time to brush up on your note-taking skills, find a system that works for you, and then stick with it. With a bit of practice, you'll be an expert note-taker in no time.


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