Speedy note taking with concurrent topics

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In a recent Systematic with Brian Alvey, he shared with me that he takes all his notes during interviews (and podcasts) with pen and paper. I decided to try it out, and found that there were solid benefits to the method. First, it was quiet. Second, it allowed for freeform organization of notes without having to mouse or keyboard around. The latter was a compelling benefit to me.

I used to take all my meeting notes (back when I took meeting notes) on index cards (specifically Frictionless capture cards) for similar reasons. It makes a lot of sense to be able to quickly capture multiple topics instantly. However, I type faster than I write, and my penmanship is awful, so I decided to look into accomplishing a similar method digitally.

In general, I keep three or four sections going in my notes during a podcast:

  1. Things I need to link afterward
  2. Potential topics and thoughts I want to return to later in the conversation
  3. A section for spur-of-the-moment thoughts that don’t pertain to the current guest or conversation, such as topics for future podcasts or guests
  4. A general notes scratchpad

The solution would need to be something with at least four “cards” or panels that I could flip between without any more than one keystroke. Mouse taps take too long to focus and click, and my Magic Trackpad is louder than I like for podcasting when the click resonates on my desk.

There are note programs for iPad that could make this work, but I type much faster on my Mac, so I decided to focus there. Mind Mapping is my usual tool for gathering multi-topic notes like this, but navigating multiple branches via keyboard or mouse takes more time than I wanted, too.

One solid option was Curio and a freeform layout with multiple index cards, but it still required a mouse action to switch topics, and that wasn’t as fast as I wanted it to be.

My solution at this time is Sublime Text. Vim aficionados will immediately note that you could do the exact same thing in their chosen editor (and probably Emacs, too), but I’m faster in Sublime Text. You can do this in any editor that allows multiple panes and keyboard switching, though.

Basically, I set up a Sublime Text window with four panes (or “groups”). I’m currently using four vertical columns (⌘⌥4) because it’s easiest for me to visualize the numeric shortcuts in that format, and I’m generally making lists, so taller columns make more sense than a grid format. I hide the sidebar, the minimap, and the tabs at the top.

I start a new Markdown GFM file (MarkdownEditing) in each column, give it a header that includes the column number and a title so that I don’t have to think at all when switching by number. Then I start a new list below that with a single hyphen and a space, leaving the cursor after the space.

Now, Control-[1-4] jumps me between columns in one keystroke, and I can just start typing the new item. At the end of the item, I hit Return and it begins the next item with the cursor ready to go. Jumping to another column and back retains the cursor position, so I can just hit the Control-X combination to get back to it and start typing. Of course, I have standard Sublime keyboard shortcuts for quickly re-ordering the notes, indenting and outdenting for outlining, and the MarkdownEditing package shortcuts for bolding notes that I want to highlight in the moment. I can even add GitHub-style checkboxes to items and cross them off as I cover them1.

To make life easier, I wrote a script that starts up a new Sublime Text project and workspace with 4 columns, numbered titles, and first list items already in place, as well as hiding superfluous interface elements. You’ll need to have MarkdownEditing installed (see Package Manager). It doesn’t create any permanent files (yet), but lets me set up for note taking with a single command. You can find the source here.

There are a lot of great note-taking apps on the Mac, but I don’t know of any that handle this kind of concurrent note-taking with rapid keyboard switching. Do you? Leave me a note in the comments. I considered creating my own that would allow you to create a workspace, add as many columns as you wanted, and automatically assign something like F1-F12 to them. Add nvALT-style Markdown tools and the ability to save it as a project, export to text files or OPML (for converting to mind maps, etc.), and it would be a pretty handy tool. Maybe someday.

  1. Another option would be to use the PlainTasks package instead of MarkdownEditing to create everything as a TaskPaper-formatted list that could be easily checked off and manipulated.