Productivity Self Improvement Windows

A Quick & Dirty Guide to Perfect Digital Note-Taking

Joel Lee 25-08-2015

All things being equal, I’d choose handwritten notes over digital notes any day of the week — but all things aren’t equal. While I love the feel of pen, pad, and paper, the truth is that digital notes are way more convenient in this modern age.


There are several downsides, of course, and we’ll address them throughout this article, but the biggest problem is that it’s hard to be efficient as a digital note-taker. It’s just not as easy or fluid as traditional notes — that is, until you learn how to take notes the right way.

Here are some of the most effective tips for becoming a digital note-taking pro, and they’re so useful that you may even end up preferring digital over handwritten!

Choose the Right Device

When we talk about digital notes, most people immediately jump to “laptops” as the device of choice. And while there’s nothing particulary wrong about using a laptop for notes, most people don’t realize that some laptops are actually better (or worse) at note-taking than others.


For example, consider the netbook. These tiny laptops debuted in 2007 and typically have a screen size between 5″ and 11″. Unfortunately, because they’re so small, long-term typing can be a pain as typos are far too common and your hands are likely to get cramped 5 Things To Consider Before Buying A Netbook Read More .


And then you have notebooks and ultrabooks. “Notebook” can refer to any traditional laptop while “ultrabook” refers to notebooks that are particularly thin and lightweight (the name actually means “ultra-portable notebook What Is the Difference Between a Netbook, Notebook, Ultrabook, Laptop, and Palmtop? The term "laptop" encompasses so many different types of laptops these days. Here are the important differences between them all. Read More “).


With a name like “notebook”, you’d probably think these are good at taking notes — and you wouldn’t be wrong. They’re pretty much the choice for all-around productivity, and that includes notes, email, web browsing, chatting, and all that good stuff.

The only problem is that notebooks and ultrabooks can be relatively painful on the wallet, so we might recommend going with a Chromebook instead. They’re incredibly cheap but highly versatile, and Chromebooks have improved a lot Chromebooks Don't Work Offline? Debunking the Myths One of the biggest criticisms aimed at Google's Chromebooks is that they are online-only machines – ergo, no Internet, no point. How true is this statement? Read More over the years.



Tablets can be a good choice as long as you hook up a tablet keyboard Need An Affordable Keyboard For Your Tablet? Here Are Some Good Options If you're getting a fair bit of use out of your tablet and looking for a keyboard to go with it, you may have no idea where to start. There are plenty of options out... Read More . Long-term typing is almost always a burden, but it’s made much worse when you’re stuck with a touchscreen as your only option. Don’t torture yourself.

Or, if you want to hand-write your notes directly into a digital format, a tablet-plus-stylus can work well, especially if the notes are more than just words (e.g. diagrams, graphs, equations, etc). Smartpens are a better choice for that authentic analog feeling, but can be somewhat pricey.

Use the Right Software

Once you’ve decided on hardware, it’s time to look at software. It’s certainly possible to record all of your notes in plaintext using something like Notepad — and I do that more often than I’d like to admit — but your life will be much easier if you use an interface that’s optimized for notes.


Fortunately, there are several modern note-taking apps 6 Modern Note-Taking Apps to Keep Your Thoughts Organized Ever had a thought slip away and wish you had written it down? It won't happen again when you have one of these modern apps at your fingertips. Read More available and they’re all quite good. Which one should you use? Check them all out, but honestly, just use the one you feel most comfortable using.


Evernote has long been the king in this arena, mostly because it comes with a handful of awesome built-in features How to Use Evernote: The Unofficial Manual Learning how to use Evernote on your own takes a long time. This is why we've put together this guide to show you how to take full advantage of the most important Evernote features. Read More . For example, once you’ve taken a lot of notes, it can be difficult to go back and find the exact note you need at a later time — unless you use one of Evernote’s many different ways to search 20 Evernote Search Features You Should Be Using It's one thing to use Evernote, but it's entirely another thing to master Evernote. If you’re new to Evernote, I don’t want to come across like it’s something complicated – it’s not, in fact, it’s... Read More .

Other important features include easy Evernote backup methods 3 Ways to Backup Evernote (and Do You Need To?) Unlike, say, Dropbox, Evernote does not offer a revision history, your content all syncs as-is. This means you could potentially lose any note you accidentally delete from the trash, or any content you accidentally delete... Read More along with several ways to cleanup Evernote clutter How to Clean up Evernote Clutter for Cleaner Note Taking Evernote is the junk drawer of our digital lives. Like the junk drawer in our homes, we have to clean it out and organize it every so often. Here's a master strategy. Read More . These are all crucial functions for any serious note-taker.



OneNote is Evernote’s biggest competitor, and now that OneNote is truly available for free OneNote Is Now Truly Free With More Features Than Before Evernote no longer rules the roost of note taking apps. Microsoft recently announced OneNote would be more free than ever before. Let us show you what this means in terms of features and functionality. Read More , there’s no reason not to use it. I find that it beats out Evernote when it comes to user experience, but your mileage may vary.

If you do go with this one as your primary app, be sure to check out our essential OneNote tips 10 Awesome OneNote Tips You Should Be Using All the Time Microsoft OneNote is just as good as Evernote. OneNote is the digital equivalent of a binder, giving you more organizational control. We show you effective note-taking tweaks you'll love. Read More for maximum productivity. In addition, OneNote templates are great for organization How to Use OneNote Templates: Everything You Need to Know OneNote templates are essential for true productivity. Here's all you need to know to edit and create your own OneNote templates. Read More and you should learn how to use them to your benefit.

Lastly, OneNote is flexible enough that it can be used for all kinds of organizational tasks 10 Unique Ways to Use Microsoft OneNote OneNote is one of Microsoft's most underrated apps. It's available on almost every platform and can do many tricks you wouldn't expect from a note keeping app. Read More beyond simple note-taking, and you might just find that it changes your life for the better.


There are dozens of other apps worth mentioning, but I want to highlight Scrivener in particular. Most people assume that Scrivener is only good for writing novels and research papers, but it’s awesome for taking notes, too.

For one, you can import all kinds of documents and media into Scrivener, and Scrivener makes it easy to keep them all organized with folders, index cards, and outline formats. It also has a built-in snapshot feature that lets you revert documents to a previous saved version.

These are just a few reasons why Scrivener is the best writing program Scrivener: The Best Writing Program for the Mac and PC Scrivener has been around since 2006, and it is a favorite application amongst novelists and screenwriters. Scrivener is not a desktop layout application like Word and Pages, but it helps you organize and export your... Read More for both Windows and Mac.

If none of these suit your fancy, we recommend looking into personal wiki software 4 of the Best Personal Wikis to Keep You Organized What if there was wiki software designed to help you out on a personal level? You could use it for anything, for example to outline your novel, keep track of home improvement projects, or plan... Read More . These are wiki-like notebooks that reside locally on your computer and make it easy to organize and interlink the notes that you take down.

Develop New Techniques

The key to effective note-taking is being able to write down thoughts as quickly as possible but staying coherent enough so that when you return to your notes you’ll be able to recall 100% of what you intended to put down.

As you probably already know, this is not easy — but it is possible. One way to do it is to develop your own shorthand.

There are dozens of shorthand variants available for hand-written notes, and you can learn about these all over the web. Many of them don’t translate well to a digital format, but some of them do (broken link removed).


Shorthand is all about cutting unnecessary words and developing shortcuts for oft-repeated words. Hand-written shorthand replaces words and phrases with symbols, but when you’re working digitally, you can use text expansion software What Is Text Expansion & How Can It Help You Save Time? If you could save yourself even a small fraction of the time you spend typing, you could save hours of your time every week. That's exactly what text expansion is for. Read More to automate it.

Also, using an outline format makes it easy to group ideas together and see how each note relates to the bigger picture at a glance. And because outlines require nothing more than simple indents, this system can be used in any software — even Notepad.


Mindmapping is a more effective alternative, but it’s a bit slower than simple typing (and has a bit of a learning curve when you’re new to it). But don’t let that stop you. Mindmapping is great and is a skill that everyone should eventually learn 5 Technology Skills You Should Actively Encourage Children To Take Up Crayon drawings still have their place, but technology is no longer only the future. Tomorrow's world is today.Which are the creative technology tasks we should encourage children to take up? Maybe, these five... Read More .

That being said, if your biggest note-taking bottleneck is typing speed, consider learning how to type faster Learn To Type Really Fast With The Intelligent Touch Typing Tutor TIPP10 [Cross Platform] Learning to type fast is almost a survival skill in the Darwinian digital jungle. It’s directly related to saving time you put into a work and improving your productivity. You just need to be methodical... Read More . Not only that, consider switching from QWERTY to Colemak Curious About Colemak? Learn The Best Keyboard Layout Easily Your keyboard sucks. There, I said it. Don't take it personally -- you're not the one who invented the QWERTY layout. Read More . Colemak is a different keyboard layout that’s designed to boost your typing speed.

Synchronize to Cloud Storage

Unless your notes are highly sensitive and confidential, there aren’t any compelling reasons to keep them only on your local machine. Not only do they take up valuable storage space 6 Ways to Free Up Space on Your Windows Computer Clutter can be a big downer on productivity. Over time, files get lost, programs go unused, and suddenly, your once spacious hard drive is packed with useless things and you have to clean it up.... Read More , they’re vulnerable to hard drive failures How to Care for Your Hard Drives and Make Them Last Longer Sometimes an early death is the fault of the manufacturer, but more often than not, hard drives fail earlier than they should because we don't take care of them. Read More and can clutter up your folders 3 Better Ways to Store Your Files Than on the Desktop The Windows desktop isn't meant to be a folder for your files. Here are some of the better options to store your files. Read More .

So, we recommend storing your notes on the cloud.

Cloud storage can be useful for lots of purposes 10 Ways to Use Your Cloud Storage That You May Not Have Thought Of When we talk about cloud storage, it usually revolves around backup and collaboration. So, let’s try to find some more interesting ways to fill up all the space they give us for free. Read More , but the key benefits are two-fold: 1) cloud files are basically backups of your local files, and 2) you can access your cloud file from anywhere. As far as convenience goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.


One big concern, however, is that the cloud isn’t always secure 3 Tips To Stay Safe From The Dangers Of Cloud Computing Cloud computing is the big buzz these days and we have more choices available to us now than ever before. How many of us use Dropbox, SkyDrive, or Google Drive on a daily basis? How... Read More . It’s always possible for hackers to intercept your files, so make sure to encrypt your cloud files Securing Dropbox: 6 Steps To Take For Safer Cloud Storage Dropbox isn’t the most secure cloud storage service out there. But for those of you who wish to stay with Dropbox the tips here will help you maximize your account’s security. Read More whenever possible.

Also be aware that cloud services are never guaranteed to stay open. If they shut down, it’s possible for you to lose your data without hope for recovery. This means that cloud files can be one form of backup, but should never be your only form of backup. Backup your files properly! 6 Safest Ways to Backup & Restore Your Files in Windows 7 & 8 By now, we're sure you've read the advice over and over: Everyone needs to back up their files. But deciding to back up your files is only part of the process. There are so many... Read More

Not sure which cloud is right for you? Check out our comparison of cloud hosting services Dropbox vs. Google Drive vs. OneDrive: Which Cloud Storage Is Best for You? Have you changed the way you think about cloud storage? The popular options of Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive have been joined by others. We help you answer which cloud storage service should you use. Read More to get started in the right direction.

How Do You Take Notes?

Obviously everyone has their own way of taking notes, and what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. Still, we hope that the tips above will help sharpen your note-taking skills and make you more productive.

Have any tips of your own? What tricks do you use to improve your note-taking efficiency? Share them with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Man Using Netbook by Robert Kneschke via Shutterstock, Typing on Laptop by Eugenio Marongiu via Shutterstock, Stylus and Tablet by Somboon Srisart via Shutterstock, Web Apps Mindmap by Lars Plougmann via Flickr, Dropbox on Mobile by Ian Lamont via Flickr

Related topics: Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, Note-Taking Apps.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Anonymous
    August 28, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    Great post and interesting thoughts.

    I'm coming back around to using paper and then using Evernote's Scannable to digitise them. There are too many advantages to using paper to ignore.

    I wrote about the drawbacks of going paperless here:

    • Joel Lee
      September 2, 2015 at 5:34 pm

      Thanks Nick. I've heard many valid arguments for paperless, but not many against. Going to read your post now. :)

    • Anonymous
      September 2, 2015 at 9:58 pm

      I've tried to get away from paper if I can (most regularly Notability), but honestly nothing will probably ever be quite as fast and accurate as just putting it on paper. Scanning it in to a program like Evernote is great because it does a wonderful job of OCR'ing your text (as long as it is at least somewhat legible). Biggest hassle is either taking a picture of it or scanning it after the fact, which isn't a huge deal...just an extra step and an inconvenience depending on the situation.

      • Mihir Patkar
        September 3, 2015 at 7:14 am

        What about something like a Galaxy Note with a stylus?

        • Anonymous
          September 3, 2015 at 2:05 pm

          I've never used a Galaxy Note with a stylus, but would love to try one. The one quirk I don't like about writing digitally is that you tend to have to write BIGGER than you normally would if you were writing on paper. The stylus on the Note (which I think has a small, firm tip), might feel more natural than the squishy stylus that is commonly used but that squishy stylus makes you have to write large, which doesn't work well on a cramped phone screen (and I'm saying cramped on my iphone 6+). Writing on my ipad mini though is more natural feeling because of the extra space. I've used an Adonit Jot Script which has a hard tip and feels better when writing but got annoyed that it turns off to save battery in a meeting where there is a lull in writing you have to turn it back on before you can start writing with it.

          I feel like I've over analyzed this way too much.

        • Mihir Patkar
          September 3, 2015 at 2:51 pm

          Hahaha there is some overanalysis, but I never realized the part about writing bigger till you pointed it out. You're totally right on that. I wonder why we do that.

        • Anonymous
          September 8, 2015 at 10:26 am

          Nope - you haven't over-analyzed! I go back and forth all the time. I tried a LiveScribe pen at one point, but it didn't feel write(!) Writing with a pen and paper is just so intuitive I'd rather stick with that and *then* digitise it.

          I do mark up PDFs on my iPad with Goodreader. I like underlining and scribbling marginalia digitally, just not the more creative stuff.

        • Mihir Patkar
          September 8, 2015 at 11:49 am

          Nice write-up there, Nick!

  2. Anonymous
    August 27, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    After many tries with both smart pens (live scribe) and apps such as Evernote etc, I eventually settled on Notability. It feels pretty close to writing on paper (if you have a decent pen for touchscreens) and it can record the audio which is extremely handy if you are the person tasked with taking notes as well as participating in the meeting since you can go back later and fill in notes that you may have missed while participating.

    • Joel Lee
      September 2, 2015 at 5:32 pm

      Recording audio *while* taking notes, so smart and yet not so common. Thanks for the mention on Notability. I'm not an Apple user so I wasn't aware of it, but a lot of our readers are and I'm sure you've helped out a number of them, Michael. :)

  3. Anonymous
    August 26, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    I use three apps for my note-taking, and they are all available either offline or in the cloud, so I can access them from any of my devices (Android watchphone, Android tablet, Windows 10 desktop). None of the three apps have been mentioned here so far:

    1) Cozi for my shared family calendar - it has a desktop Android widget, and it can stay on a virtual desktop in Windows. I can always see my and my wife's appointments and share updates when I'm online.

    2) Pocket for reading-it-later, maybe an article pertaining to Windows that I stumble upon while I'm on my tablet, or the other way around. Searchable and tag-able notes.

    3) Keep - for short notes or reminders, to-do/checklists, colour-coded and searchable, on- or off-line.

    These three apps follow me everywhere, and I use them every day.

    • Joel Lee
      September 2, 2015 at 5:30 pm

      Thanks for your input, Jeff. Shared calendars and read-it-laters are a bit beyond the scope of this post, but your mention of Google Keep is a good one and I definitely should've mentioned it somewhere. That being said, I think I'll try running a shared calendar with my fiancee. Seems like it could be very helpful!

    • Anonymous
      September 8, 2015 at 10:25 pm

      Jeff, I'll second you there on Cozi, even though it's not a traditional note taking app. But whatever works, eh? My wife and I recently adopted it for a unique purpose...we're planning our 25th wedding anniversary in October, and we're using it to plan. It may seem odd to some, but we're taking our son, daughter, and son-in-law along as a sort of family celebration. Our daughter and her husband live about 30 miles away, and Cozi is great for spur-of-the-moment ideas for our itenary and such.

      Yes, you can do such with email and texting, but it's nicer to be able to jot a note on an idea for a show to see (for example) into an ongoing list, formatted and organized for everyone to see at any time, than to scroll back and forth through messages.

      Google Keep has been a mainstay of mine for note taking and list making for a couple years now, but I find myself wanting a deeper level of notebook-section-pages than what Keep can provide. Tags are great for searches, but I'm a visual guy, and so I'm heavily experimenting with OneNote.

      We won't get into the reason why I've tried nearly a hundred varied note taking apps over the last year and a half. I won't name names, but its initials are Springpad. :D

      • Anonymous
        September 23, 2015 at 3:47 pm

        Kelsey, I used Evernote for 2 years, and eventually changed over to OneNote, after trying out a number of different apps, incl. wikis, though I did not try quite your number.
        I am very happy with 1N: for my use case it is superior to EN. Only negative point: its web clipper is crap compared to EN's. So if I want to clip something special I use EN's web clipper & transfer the result to 1N.

        • Anonymous
          September 24, 2015 at 12:49 am

          Peter, I also used Evernote for 2 years, and was actually using it alongside Springpad. SP was for the fun, the nice-looking, the constantly moving stuff, and EN for the long-term practical storage. It worked fairly well, but I wanted one app to do everything.

          As I got into Springpad more I realized it could do everything I wanted with it, so I weaned off Evernote. I never thought the 60mb per month upload limit was realistic. I hated how difficult it was to transfer notes from EN to SP. There was a cludgy email method of transfer, but that was limited to 25 total emails per day. Wut?!

          There were various and sundry other reasons EN gradually p-d me off, which I often discussed at length on Art Gelwicks' excellent Springpad G+ community (now named Productivity Springboard), but which I won't get into here. The reason I tried so many apps wasn't by my own enthusiasm. There is a young lady in that community who made it her mission to try EVERY app out there so as to give all of us reviews of a sort. We were a desperate bunch after SP died!

          I eventually began levering Google Drive and Docs into a system to accomplish what I'd been doing with EN and SP, and up til a month or so ago (read: about a year a half total) it performed fairly well. But I'm very visual, so I decided to go back to ON after breezing over it back in the beginning (Spring '14) and finding it too convoluted for my tastes. I found that there's a sort of learning bump where when you climb over a little peak, it's all downhill from there.

          I'm thoroughly enjoying it now, after resolving some sync issues, and I wish I'd done this much earlier. As for the web clipper, I DID agree completely with you because the EN clipper has many more visible functions. But after tinkering with the ON clipper with several sites, I've grown to like it a lot. It has more power than it initially seems to, and there have only been a very few times I've had to do as you did and go to Clearly to clip something.

          As I stated somewhere else, Microsoft hasn't put nearly the effort into the clipper (or the phone apps) as Evernote has. But for me the ON desktop beats the EN desktop hands down. :)

        • Anonymous
          September 24, 2015 at 10:30 am

          Hey Kelsey, thanks for your detailed reply. We got to the same conclusion, though via different routes :-)
          I am intrigued by 1 of your comments about the 1N web clipper: "it has a lot more power than it initially seems to", you say. I assume you are talking about version 2. V2 is a lot better than v1:
          the pictures get clipped, so does the text, but the formatting does not. With the EN clipper it all there, in other words WYSIWYG, literally.
          Have you been able to tinker with the code of 1N's clipper v2? If so, has it improved?

          We are getting out of the scope of this article, so perhaps you can drop me a line to discuss this. My email address is


          Cheers for now.

  4. Anonymous
    August 26, 2015 at 6:57 am

    I like WorkFlowy , because it is really fast and easy to navigate with keyboard shortcuts.
    Speed is key.
    By the way is handwriting OCR good enough?? What are you using?

    • Joel Lee
      September 2, 2015 at 5:28 pm

      Wow! How have I never heard of WorkFlowy until now? I just checked it out and it's AWESOME. It's perfect for the way I take notes. Thanks so much, Bruno. :D

      As far as OCR, I don't have a scanner so I can't attest to how good or bad it is, but I've heard good things about it.

  5. Anonymous
    August 26, 2015 at 6:09 am

    I use a Windows 10 Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga with the digitizer pen. It works great with OneNote, and I can really write on the screen like paper, making abstract concepts like Chemistry a bit easier to take notes on.

    • Joel Lee
      September 2, 2015 at 5:26 pm

      The digitizer pen looks great from what I can tell. It's too bad that Lenovo has gotten so much bad press lately regarding malware and sneaky firmware. I wonder if there are any other workstations that can match the ThinkPad + digitizer pen?

      • Anonymous
        September 2, 2015 at 5:35 pm

        The bad press is unfortunate. I bought it before the whole Superfish Scandal, but the good thing is that I bought the MS signature edition, which came clean of bloatware :)

        The only other type of machine that has a digitizer pen to my knowledge is the Surface Pro.

  6. Anonymous
    August 25, 2015 at 6:26 pm

    I had a device that I got from Kick starter, named the Equil smartpen. I did not see it in the stores ever, but I actually like it. You clip a piece of plastic on the top os a sheet, andpress a button. You can write on it, in several colors, actually, and everything is recorded in the clip. You can then transfer the writing to an Android device (or iOS). There is a function to convert your writing to actual characters, unless you're so bad your writing is unreadable. I actuallylike it very much.

    • Joel Lee
      September 2, 2015 at 5:25 pm

      Awesome! It's good to hear positive feedback on smart pens, as it seems like they're still too rare and not many people even know they exist. If you lost your smart pen, would you spend the cash to buy another one? How much would you be willing to pay?

      • Anonymous
        September 2, 2015 at 6:16 pm

        I paid about $130 for the initial kit through Kickstater some time ago. I would expect such kits now to be available at $100. If I lost it, I would get another one The nice thing is that the Equil smartpen2 when in its storage device is a bit big, so it takes place in a bag, but easy to find, and hard to forget / loose. Equil also has hooks onto Evernote, so that whatever you note, through their software, can get sync'd with Evernote. And you can also use the pen by itself, just like any other pen on regular paper. So when someone asks you for a copy of working docs you drafted in a meeting, you just give the paper away, keep everything in your device.

  7. Anonymous
    August 25, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Typing notes in a meeting is fine if you are charged with documenting the meeting and not heavily involved in the discussion. I always feel like the device somehow ends up between the note taker and the rest of the people in the discussion. I stick to a pen and a 5"x8" notebook with easily removable pages for my notes. I then scan the note pages to Evernote. It may not be able to OCR my crappy handwriting but the notes are available at any time on any device that I use.

    • Joel Lee
      September 2, 2015 at 5:24 pm

      There's definitely something about handwriting notes that feels better. But I don't have a scanner, and transferring to digital is a pain without one. :(