Take notes like Paul Halmos

Tuesday November 24, 2020

Paul Halmos recommended taking minimalist notes and then later expanding the notes from memory. This lets you pay more attention in the moment and then exercise your recall afterward, which is good for memory. Paired with speech-to-text transcription, you can also avoid the risk of missing anything.

Here's how Halmos explained note-taking in his automathography:

"Lecture courses are a standard way of learning something–one of the worst ways. Too passive, that's the trouble. Standard recommendation: take notes. Counter argument: yes, to be sure, taking notes is an activity, and if you do it, you have something solid to refer back to afterward, but you are likely to miss the delicate details of the presentation as well as the big picture, the Gestalt–you are too busy scribbling to pay attention. Counter counter-argument: if you don't take notes, you won't remember what happened, in what order it came, and, chances are, your attention will flag part of the time, you'll daydream, and, who knows, you might even nod off.

"It's all true, the arguments both for and against taking notes. My own solution is a compromise: I take very skimpy notes, and then, whenever possible, I transcribe them, in much greater detail, as soon afterward as possible. By very skimpy notes I mean something like one or two words a minute, plus, possibly a crucial formula or two and a crucial picture or two–just enough to fix the order of events, and, incidentally, to keep me awake and on my toes. By transcribe I mean in enough detail to show a friend who wasn't there, with some hope that he'll understand what he missed." (Paul Halmos, "I want to be a mathematician")