With Joe Wehbe Podcast Blog

Take Notes or Die Tryin’ – A nerd tells all on the priceless art of note-taking

Boring. Geeky. Vanilla. Yet, it is the very building block of your thinking and learning optimisation.


Welcome to the under-appreciated yet PRICELESS art of note-taking. 


Note: I would never have thought to make a post on this if it weren’t for the recommendation of Scott McKeon – so I have him to thank for this very public display of my nerdiness. 


I have a very unique approach to note-taking across many areas of my life, from reading to documenting events and stories… then using them in unusual ways going forward. 


Until Scott pointed it out, I never thought of the potential of this note-taking and documenting to be valuable for others. 


CAUTION #1: You might find it more valuable to develop your own methods and patterns of note-taking, rather than copy mine. 


CAUTION #2: Extremely high levels of nerdiness alert – may in fact be contagious – you were warned.


Ok now let’s get down to business… 


There are six elements to my note-taking that suit my life, and I’ll go through each of them in turn. 

  1. Organisational Note-Taking
  2. The Short Hand System
  3. Recording Funny Memories and Stories
  4. Reading and Encoding
  5. Recording and Storing Ideas
  6. Keeping a Journal/Diary


1) Organisational Note-Taking

You’d have to be something of a fool to trust your short-term memory. As a former psych student I’m somewhat biased, but I always get that sinking feeling when the waiter or waitress at a restaurant tries to take my table’s order without pen and paper. 


Too often they get it wrong, and no one’s impressed. 

One of the sayings I always repeat to myself is that the mind is made for having ideas, not holding them


I can’t remember where I first heard those great words, but I would like to add onto the end of them that’s for note-taking

I use two very simple tools most often – Google Docs, and Google Tasks.


Google Tasks

The Google Tasks are useful because they’re very convenient to use on the phone, as well as the desktop.

Desktop view of Google tasks

If I’m out-and-about and suddenly come up with an idea to put in my future sitcom or one of my book ideas, I just put it in the Google Tasks list. For example, I had an idea when going for a walk to write about ‘real’ vs. ‘fake’ jobs – so WHACK! – straight into the tasks on my phone it goes. 


 I let these build up, and then I deal with them in batch whenever I get a bit of spare weekend time. They’re often links to check out, books to add to my reading list, or ideas for blog posts. 

Google Tasks is good because I can open it inside a Google Doc and easily refer to it. 


Google Docs

Ah, Google Docs! Lord knows how many google docs I’ve created in my lifetime – whatever the number is, I’m sure it will shoot up exponentially before I kick the bucket. 


At time of writing I don’t use much else – no workflow apps or fancy integrations. I’m very minimalistic with my use of applications. As Docs do pretty much everything I need, I stick to them. 


Some of the things I use docs for include:


Systems of Thinking

What this ultimately comes down to is relying on systems rather than whimsical impulses. I listen to my gut for big decisions and directional changes, but on the micro level, for execution, I believe that systems deliver results, not individual intelligence or brilliance. 


So, my voracious and intricate note-taking habits are not a matter of simply jotting thoughts down. 

Far more significantly, they are the cogs of a very elaborate machine working over-time to allow me to work across a range of projects simultaneously


My checklists and procedures in particular save me hours of thinking time and prevent me from losing my place. They enable me to put one hat on, and another off, quite seamlessly. 

And my systems for being able to take down important thoughts anywhere prevent slippage, or any fish escaping from my net. If it’s important, you bet I note it down SOMEWHERE.  


2) The Short Hand System

The Short-Hand System is something I created quite recently to help me perform more effectively across a range of areas at the same time. 


I think this is useful because if you look at my friends Scott and Will for example at Espresso Displays, they’re talking a lot about ‘The Future of Work’ and ‘Work 2.0’. In the future, more people will work on projects the way I do – fingers in a few pies, in a range of capacities. 


About the Short-Hand System


This system is based on a simple idea of keeping my most important information, checklists and summaries in one centralised folder, shared across all my users, quickly accessible and discoverable at any moment. 


For example I have a document called “One-Liners and What’s-it-all-for’s” in the Short-Hand Folder. 

This document has a list of my projects and lists a one-liner description of the project, as well as the reason its work is important. 


I think this document is important because one of my mistakes in the past was not having enough clarity in my business and writing projects. If you can’t give a condensed, elevator-pitch-style summary of your business, then what hope do you have of being clear about what you offer? If you can’t explain your business or book clearly, how do you expect others to refer it to their friends via word-of-mouth?


At other times, I’ve gotten stuck remembering specifically why I set out to do something, like write a particular book. This sounds ridiculous, I know, but I think this is a universal experience. 


I think there are a lot of people and companies who get stuck in the execution, implementation and day-to-day, and lose track of what they really set out to accomplish. I think this trap is a real pitfall, so it helps to have poignant reminders close at hand!


So the most important procedures or checklists that need to be accessed quickly and/or frequently sit in the Short Hand folder, and I ensure that I do not crowd it with non-essentials.


3) Recording Funny Memories and Stories

I think the idea of making a sitcom came after sheer admiration for Larry David and his show Curb Your Enthusiasm. I was reflecting on the role of observational comedy, the sort rife in both Seinfeld and Curb, and how this is a much more effective way to critique society – through the Trojan Horse of humour. 


I see this as an essential role in our culture, as we are always slow to update our behaviours and rituals over time. We do so many things everyday just because 1) everyone else does them and 2) we’ve always done them – yet these things make no sense – like booking a doctor’s appointment only to be subjected to a first-come, first-served system in the waiting room. 


I was thinking about all the funny stories in-and-around my own life, and all the things I could poke fun at. So I decided,

I’m going to write a sitcom

No, not today. I have many other priorities. But I decided, I’m going to start writing notes and recording stories. These will accumulate over time. 


I’ve told all my family and friends about the long-term sitcom build-up, and they all love it. They all contribute stories! So my note-taking has begun a fun, shared experience.

 Many of my friends and family members are going to have whole characters dedicated to them – they simply warrant it!


I currently have seven pages of dot points annexing characters and stories to be included. Mark my words, there will one day be a sitcom built on the back of these notes, gradually acquired over time – and it will be great!


Given my experience of life and how many ridiculously funny things happen during it, I’ve come to the conclusion that…


Every person’s life is a sitcom – they just don’t see it that way.

They don’t record their stories. 

In old age, there is a good chance my memory will start to fade, as my grandfather’s did. What a joy it will be then, to read a document or watch a show re-exploring all those highlights from my life. 


Also, what a gift that I can enjoy with those people in my life, without risk of missing out on any of the best bits. All built on the back of note-taking… a whole sitcom! 


Take notes, or die tryin’. 


4) Reading and Encoding

The COVID-19 pandemic became one of the most positive things to ever occur in my small personal world. Like many others my business was negatively affected but I made some life pivots and developed new habits that were nothing short of revolutionary. 


One of these was the first ever solid reading-routine in my life. 

I’d always known the value of reading and voraciously read fiction in my youth, yet more disciplined reading escaped me ever since. 


After reading a couple of books really quickly I decided that I could reasonably knock off two books a week going forward – and I have been keeping to this system so far! (Yay for Joe!)


Now I’m not one for vanity metrics.

I’m not just reading lots of books so I can write about it in blog posts – I actually cherish this source of learning on a daily basis, and it opens huge doors for me in my life. 

I believe in consistency over intensity, but quality over quantity


And how do I consistently get a quality experience out of reading books? 

You guessed it. I take notes or die tryin’. 


Taking notes on books and things I read.


I have a whole folder of separate google docs for every book I read. I also include podcasts and other short texts I read whose information I want to harvest, encode more deeply and access easily in future. Here is a snapshot:

Just the beginning of the notes on books I’ve read


Writing notes helps you encode the information because it’s a more meaningful engagement with the information – far more powerful than simply reading something. 


After I write my notes, I normally review the notes document a week later so that by now, I’ve gone over the important ideas in a given book three times


Firstly by reading

Secondly by note-taking in a doc. 

Thirdly by reviewing after letting time elapse. 


Not only that, but as I have a blog, podcast, write books and have real life business projects where a lot of my learnings are relevant, I then apply a fourth level of encoding through deployment and implementationsee how all this writing helps me learn


Over time these book-notes become resources


When I’m writing everything becomes more easily accessible – I don’t have to trail through a hardcover, kindle or audiobook – I simply head to be reading / notes folder, open the document, and retrieve information. 


An ability I’ve long admired in Seth Godin’s writing, speaking and interviews is his ‘anecdote wealth’. He seems to have a quirky little story or real-world example for everything. I appreciate the value in this as having relatable, visual examples makes your communication easier for more people to understand. 


This makes you a better marketer because there is less friction on your good ideas spreading. You’ll notice in my writing I talk about Without-The-Box Thinking, The Iceberg Effect and The Ugly Truth About Superman. I try to use visual, relatable tools wherever possible. 


In each book I tend to find a list of interesting sub-stories and studies that are useful for my own writing, articulation and conversations. It is surprising whenever I review a note-document how many of these I’ve forgotten after reading a book. 


So, I ensure that I constantly Take Notes or Die Tryin’

Your notes on your reading and learning become far more than just ‘notes’ – they become monetizable resources. 


5) Recording and Storing Ideas

Every single person with an entrepreneurial bone in their body has what is called an ‘Ideas Journal’. This is all the cool and remarkable business ideas they think of that they don’t have time to implement at the moment. 

Because they’re entrepreneurial, they tend to have something keeping them busy already. So, the ‘Ideas Journal’ grows over time – and this is great. 


Not long ago, Scott McKeon and I realised that we could use our Ideas Journals to create education experiences for others. We thought, what if we get the cool ideas we don’t have time or can’t do on our own, and use them as an excuse to bring together a small group of people for a learning experience? We can focus on people who wouldn’t manage to be doing such a project on their own for some time!


This now exists and is called Doohat Labs. 

Even if you’re an author or creative, your unfinished drafts are important. I wrote almost a hundred summaries of film ideas when I was a teenager, but never a full script – but this is all part of the scrappy creative process. The drafts are necessary to bring out more thinking, more play, and more masterpieces. 


So whether it’s a cool business, a book idea, a film idea, a funny story for the sitcom, or a small gag, I write them down. I take notes or die tryin’, it’s that simple. 

The accumulation of ideas and drafts over time become resources if you know how to look at them correctly. 


If you don’t document these things, you simply won’t know what you’re missing out on. 


6) Keeping a Journal/Diary

Last but not least is the journal (or diary). I started a journal in and around 2012, some eight years ago, with the intention that I would never tell a soul and simply leave it behind in my will. The main reason for that – its contents are embarrassing!


Think about the impact that The Diary of Anne Frank has had on the world. It came to be a generational symbol of the innocence violated by Nazism and World War II. When Anne wrote her diary, she would have no clue what would happen in the future with this writing. 


None of us knows what will happen. And, none of us really knows each other. There is a line from Otto Frank, Anne’s father, that has always found a sombre note with me. He was the only survivor of his family in the Holocaust – his wife and two daughters died. He says, upon reading the diary: 


And my conclusion is, as I had been in very, very good terms with Anne, that most parents don’t know, really, their children.”


Very few of our journals or diaries will ever be published, but they are not for others. They are for us. Writing down your thoughts is therapeutic – it is not the same as thinking them in your head. Remember, 


The mind is meant for having ideas, not holding ideas. 


Tony Robbins makes all important decisions on paper and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square says that whenever you have a new idea you must write it out or draw it out – then it takes a very important step. It graduates from your chaotic mind to some flat surface in the real world. 


The point of using the concept of a journal or a diary is to do less thinking in your head, and more on paper


My notes, my-notes-my-notes-my-notes. 


Note-taking for me is a bland, vanilla name for something which is anything but a simple task. It is, for me, a way of life. 

It is not simply a process of scribbling something on paper – it is a system in my life that stores thoughts in a way that my brain cannot, so that I can maximise the living I get to do out in the real world. 


Short of being a hoarder – we can’t keep absolutely everything, but we should keep whatever we reasonably can written down somewhere. 

Remembering my six categories:

  1. Organisational Note-Taking
  2. The Short Hand System
  3. Recording Funny Memories and Stories
  4. Reading and Encoding
  5. Recording and Storing Ideas
  6. Keeping a Journal/Diary


I hope this helps you devise or compose a note-taking system that works for you – maybe you use more voice memos or video-based-journalling? Who knows, as long as it works. 

Regardless, I would emphasise once again that you should take notes or die tryin’.  


Who do you think of when reading this? Would this piece ‘open a door’ for someone you know? Share it with them. 

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