Why You Should Take Notes on Everything

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes about what he calls “the slow hunch.” Charles Darwin didn’t wake up one day with the entire theory of natural selection worked out, for instance. It took him months to work out what his findings in the Galapagos meant, but first he had to write them down.

The American sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote an appendix to his 1959 book on society and the self, The Sociological Imagination, entitled “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” (scanned portion available here). So perfectly does Mills describes the value of keeping a “file” of one’s thoughts, ideas, and other intellectual ephemera, that I feel the only justice I can give it is to tell you to just read the damned thing and share two of my favorite highlights:

  • “You will have often noticed how carefully accomplished thinkers treat their own minds, how closely they observe their development and organize their experience. The reason they treasure their smallest experiences is that, in the course of a lifetime, modern man has so very little personal experience and yet experience is so important as a source of original intellectual work. To be able to trust yet to be skeptical of your own experience, I have come to believe, is one mark of the mature workman.” (p. 196, 197)
  • “…after a few years of independent work, rather than read entire books, you will very often read parts of many books from the point of view of some particular theme or topic in which you are interested and concerning which you have plans in your file. Therefore, you will take notes which do not fairly represent the books you read. You are using this particular idea, this particular fact, for the realization of your own projects.” (p. 199)

Whether your work requires you to learn how to lead a team, invent a new product, or write something that moves people, many of your best ideas are likely to come to you over time. Thomas Jefferson kept ivory tablets and charcoal on his belt for taking notes during the day that he would transfer in the evenings to his commonplace book. Emily Dickinson scrawled lines and ideas on salvaged scraps of paper. Whether you’re a Moleskine person, or you talk into a digital recorder, or you embrace one of the many great note-taking apps out there, we now have more tools at our disposal than ever before for keeping our own file—and keeping track of the thoughts and events whose value is yet to be known.

My friend Zack always says, “the best things in life almost don’t happen,” and our Senior Editor Rachel says, “You can’t predict which small thing is going to change the course of your life.” So when a thought comes to you while you walk to lunch, when you discover a quote that wholly captures the way you see things, when something makes you tilt your head up and to the left and say, “Huh,” write it down.