December 8, 2020

How to take notes and make them work harder for you

Mindmaps, the QEC method, and a five-minute morning trick to make your unconscious work for you.

How to take notes and make them work harder for you

I had just finished Marteen Vandoorm’s reading guide.

It was packed with practical tips on how to use mindmaps, bullet lists and how to exploit your scribbles in the margins for writers and researchers.

Here’s how to make your notes work harder for you 👇

When and how to use mindmaps.

  • Use them to create an overview of an idea’s core concepts.
  • Use keywords, colours, symbols, draw pictures and connect ideas with arrows.
  • Keep to words or phrases. No sentences. Remember, core ideas and concepts only.
  • Always ask yourself what the mind map is for. That way, you only keep what’s relevant.

How to actively recall what you’ve learned from a book chapter.

Use bullet lists.

  • After reading a chapter, make a bullet list of only the things you want to remember.
  • Try to visualise or build a vivid mental image of whatever you are learning.
  • Connect the bullet points to what you already know in your head.
  • Review your chapter bullet lists for immediate key insights.

How to get the most out of reading dense material e.g journal articles:

There are two ways:

  • The QEC method
  • Marginalia

Academics who pore through papers daily may find these 2 ways life-changing. Note that these two methods are time-consuming and require high mental effort.

I decided to give it a go. Why? I was already spending hours poring over papers everyday. Might as well get more dividends out of my time.

The QEC Method

First, the Question-Evidence-Conclusion (QEC) method. Essentially, you reconstruct what you’re reading into this format:

  • Question: What question is the info answering?
  • Evidence: What examples are used to answer the question?
  • Conclusion: What is the answer?

By breaking the info down into Question-Evidence-Conclusion, you’re doing the mental exercise to digest whatever info you’re ingesting. This helps with understanding and retention.

To go one step further to make the evidence work for you,

  • Draw your own conclusions based on the question and evidence.
  • Ask your own questions and answer with the provided evidence.

Exploit marginalia.


  • Scribble in the margins on a separate piece of paper/ document.
  • Write down keywords, connections, questions, objections, or whatever strikes you as important.
  • After you finish the paper/ book chapter, do not chuck your marginalia aside and move on to the next thing.
  • Go back to it immediately.
  • You must work out your loose thoughts, draw connections, make clarifications and correct mistakes at once.
  • Then, review the next day with fresh eyes and highlight the key connections you’ve made the previous day.

Why am I convinced to work through my marginalia?

Here’s a quote from Marteen:

“Some thinking sessions for working out marginalia have lasted hours and resulted in pages of golden connections. These breakthrough moments have me living on a cloud for days.”

That’s why!

Lastly, a 5-minute morning trick to make your unconscious work for you.

This kind of blew my mind.

I’ve heard of taking solitary walks to ponder a question, or intentionally carving out time for quality leisure, but not this! Marteen was inspired by Emerson: “Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.”

Here’s how to do it:

  • Every night, take out an empty piece of paper.
  • Jot down thoughts and a follow-up question about what you’ve been trying to understand.
  • The first thing in the morning the next day, revisit the question and “harvest the fruits of your unconscious”.

Marteen had gotten many of his deep, original, compounding flashes of insight from this practice.

I had just refined my Roam Research workflow for taking notes after learning from Anne-Laure Le Cunff of Ness Labs, Ramses Oudt and Shu Omi since I’ll be doing more research work this winter. Marteen’s piece was the ultimate icing on the cake.

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