Stories about Software


The Case for a Digital Notebook

I have a lot of different posting threads that I try to juggle simultaneously, but one that I’m thoroughly enjoying and should probably try to do more of is the reader submissions.  A while back, I added a resources page (since removed) to the site and made brief mentioned of it.  That prompted this reader question:

I read your post on Resources and picked up some valuable tools I am now using. Specifically, Toggl and Synergy.
Like you, I am a paid Sublime Text user and love Trello for managing my projects. I use Visual Studio for my C# work and WebStorm for all my JavaScript work.
I was surprised that you made no mention or recommendation for a digital notebook. I have used Evernote in the past and Ecco before that. About two years ago I switched to OneNote and never looked back. I find it to be much better and go to it numerous times each day now that it also works on the Mac and Android. I even kept formatted code snippets in OneNote which I am moving to GitHub Gists. Do you use a digital notebook?
Thank you for the very useful Resources post.

There’s been some elapsed time since that post and now, since I wasn’t entirely sure how to make the answer to this into a full-fledged post.  I’m still not entirely sure, and must admit I’m winging it a bit, but I think I can expound a bit on this.

The short answer is: “yes, and the tool is One Note.”  The longer answer is going to take a bit of a dive into the life of a free agent/billable consultant as compared to, say, a W2, salaried programmer.


Time Accounting and Accountability

There aren’t necessarily a ton of these, but one of the things I liked about the W2 world was that the arrangement was more or less, “spend your days charging up hills that the company cares about, and we’ll mostly trust that you’re doing something that has value.”  You could spend a week or three at a time coding away and, when asked to account for what you’d been doing, “working on the upcoming release” would be sufficient, provided you had a track record of being competent and conscientious.

If you work for a consulting firm in a non staff augmentation or protracted kind of role, this gets harder.  You tend to have to do stuff more in daily or even hourly increments (I even once encountered a shop that modeled this in 15 minute increments, which was sort of Dilbert-funny, in a sad way).  The feedback loop gets a bit tighter, so might you replace “nothing” with something like Toggl, which makes it easy to ballpark the time you spend on things and to add a note about what you did.

But if you work for yourself, and there’s a billable component to what you’re doing, even that becomes insufficient.  The main reason is that I don’t just need to understand what bucket I was working in, so to speak.  I need to understand a lot more details about what I did, and why I was doing it.  Reason being, you’re not a developer/consultant cranking out some front end logic because the boss or PM told you to.  You’re doing the work and managing the project and the relationship.

4 weeks from today, a client is going to be processing an invoice I’ve sent and call me up with a question. “What’s this line item about adding validation around the read from the data warehouse — I don’t remember asking for that.”  If all I’ve got is time tracking, I’ll only be able to reply with, “well, it says here that I added validation around the read from the data warehouse.”  Maybe, if I’m lucky, there’s an email trail or a voicemail or something.  But if I make a regular practice of typing a few paragraphs per day detailing what I did, for whom, and why, I’ll have a much better answer.

Learning, Sorta, and Avoiding Obtuseness

Several years ago (and prior to my pure free agent days), I wrote a post about starting a developer journal.  At the time I wrote that, I took notes a lot more extensively than I do now (and hadn’t yet switched to using One Note).  It’s not that I don’t think taking more extensive notes could be beneficial, but that I’ve refined my process to be the lightest touch that serves me well.  Given the volume of work I do, I try to keep overhead of any sort to a bare minimum; I don’t spend a ton of time taking notes.

There is one situation, however, where I do tend to ramp up my use of One Note as a digital notebook, beyond simple time accountability.  This is when I’m meeting with clients or in a situation where someone is showing me how to do something.  In these contexts, I take notes liberally because I’ve found that almost nothing torpedoes people’s opinions of you faster than needing to ask them to repeat something they’ve explained to you.

Thus the digital notebook/journal graduates to repository for code snippets and procedures when it’s important that I demonstrate impressive recall.  I use it in much the same way I’d use a physical notebook, but without the waste of paper and with the ability to do automated searches.

Personal Touch of Written Notes?

I’m a huge advocate of all of things digital, but I must admit that there’s a certain stigma in meetings to taking notes on a laptop or tablet versus on a piece of paper.  The latter assures your conversation partners that you love their words so much you want to immortalize them.  The former makes them wonder if you’re playing addictive games and tuning them out.  For this reason, I frequently see even the most ardent technologists carry around small notebooks or index cards.


However, I’m willing to live with the stigma, personally.  I’ve found it can be heavily mitigated by angling your laptop to partially face them so they can see that you’re taking notes.  It can also be mitigated by asking them if they’d mind if you take notes.  This is also a good strategy on phone calls so they don’t hear you blacking away on your keyboard and assume that you’re IMing someone about dinner plans while they talk to you.

Maximizing Recall

One last thing that’s probably been conspicuously absent here is talk about how to manage my own sense of recall.  If I’m figuring out some arcane process that I’ll need to remember for later, doesn’t it make sense to record this in a notebook, digital or otherwise?  I used to do this, either as a blog post or in One Note.  But these days, I’m finding it increasingly valuable in a variety of ways to reach not for those tools but instead for Camtasia (my screencasting tool).  I actually make a video of what I’m doing and keep it or even upload it to youtube.  There’s nothing quite like seeing it in action.

And recall is really the essence of why one might keep a digital notebook.  I need to recall the “what, when, and why” of things I did for clients.  And I need to recall things people have taken the time to show me.  I need to recall how to do things.  I don’t know whether a digital notebook is the ideal solution, per se, but I do know that it’s an excellent place to start.

If you have a question you’d like to submit, please feel free to ask:

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Matt Keen
8 years ago

I know lawyers who record their time in 6 minute increments! I’ve always wondered if they ever record how much time they spend recording time… I’m also a fan of OneNote. I’ve been using it to write most of the content for my blog posts. What was the real winner for me was being able to write away on my phone in the cramped condition of the london underground, and then have it seemlessly sync to my desktop to carry on when i get home. I tried a few bits of note taking software but none of them were quite… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
8 years ago
Reply to  Matt Keen

I’ve never tried One Note on my phone — I’ll have to check it out. But the pretty seamless offline/online switching in general is a big draw for me.

And, wow, 6 minute increments. That’s pretty hard for me to fathom. I wonder if they were doing a lot of rote work.

Tom Lassanske
Tom Lassanske
7 years ago
Reply to  Matt Keen

For government contracting, you also need to use 6 minute (tenth of an hour) increments. At least it improves your addition and subtraction skills (for increments of 6, at least)!

Mike Loux
Mike Loux
7 years ago

I would be lost without OneNote. Especially since my meeting schedule has tripled in the past month. Being able to click a button in Outlook and have it create a meeting page in OneNote where I can check off the attendees, and have a copy of the meeting agenda. Priceless.

If I had to write all that down by hand, I would: 1) not get half of it down because I can’t write that fast, and 2) not be able to read it an hour later. So, if people think I am playing games or something during a meeting, whatevs.