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Many a times, I study some topic or research paper and make my own notes (it could be figuring out the math in paper, or something else). But after say 7-8 months, these notes just pile up on table and when I look at them I don't think I will be using them for any future work. But I also feel like I'm trashing my study, and the effort was pointless if I dispose of it. Is it okay to dispose of them? What strategy do you have about disposing of written notes?

  • 2
    Get a filing cabinet, or some bank boxes, and a couple of packages of manila folders. (Unless you want to scan everything, as others have suggested.) You will feel better if you hold on to your notes, and you may want to go back and consult them later. – aparente001 Dec 22 '15 at 7:40
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    Your notes are not your study: your study is your study. – gented Dec 22 '15 at 13:46
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    Do your notes electronically. – Ben Crowell Dec 22 '15 at 15:16
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    you may want to go back and consult them later — Or you may not. I've been writing notes into research journals for decades. The act of writing is immensely helpful for organizing my thoughts, but I honestly don't remember ever looking at anything in these journals more than a couple of weeks after I wrote it. Once I admitted this to myself (and got over the "sin" of actually discarding a book), I started recycling each journal almost as soon as I fill its last page. (On the rare occasions that I think I have a good idea, I latex it up. Those notes I do look at later.) – JeffE Dec 22 '15 at 22:29
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    Quick rule of thumb: Keep papers for a number of weeks equal to the amount of minutes it takes you to reproduce the document, or about a year of shelf-life per hour of work. Adjust as necessary. – jvriesem Oct 22 at 21:31

15 Answers 15

53

It may help you to understand that much of the value of those notes has been the very act of writing them. As such, you may find that you have less compunction against throwing them out.

Personally, I maintain an "aging pile" for notes, in which I keep them until they stop feeling relevant. For some things, that's a week; for others it was a box in my closet and a decade. You can also remove the physical clutter aspect by scanning and archiving in something with cloud storage: you'll be trading physical clutter for electronic clutter, but I at least find that electronic clutter is much easier to ignore.

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    Electronic space is cheaper and generally easier to index/search than physical space. – Roger Fan Dec 22 '15 at 5:11
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    And, I find that my notes rapidly become less useful over time. If the point was to work something out 'properly' and I can't quite remember how, generally the only way to figure it out is to do it again so it is all fresh in my mind. For class notes back in the day, well, the value truly was in the writing and I never would go back to review them - I just tossed them at the end of the semester. The clutter on my desk is more from laziness than anything else. – Jon Custer Dec 22 '15 at 14:32
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    Regarding the article you mention, it is possible to take "handwritten" notes with an electronic tablet and stylus, which would thus retain the aspect of forcing students to synthesize and summarize concepts in their notes, while also retaining the advantage provided by electronic devices, namely, that storage and organization of files is much cleaner and more efficient. Thus one may not ever need to consider giving up on old notes, since the "clutter" they produce is minimal. – Reinstate Monica Dec 22 '15 at 20:29
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    I have taken extensive notes with a tablet and stylus. It certainly saves on weight, clutter, organization, search ability, and cost of paper. At the same time, it has never been the same visceral writing experience, and can sometimes be quite frustrating. It seems in most situations, taking notes electronically would require accepting the bad along with enjoying the good. – Todd Wilcox Dec 23 '15 at 3:23
  • Good point on the act of writing... When learning another language, its useful to write the word repeatedly to help in learning the translation, method of writing etc. Yet there would be little need to save half a page of the same word, when you could just save the word once. – user-2147482637 Dec 24 '15 at 8:38
24

You could always scan them and store them electronically if you feel that some of these notes may be beneficial in the future.

I personally kept the notes that I felt would be beneficial. Classes related to my major and classes I had taken an interest in, I would keep. Notes I had that didn't seem useful long-term, I would recycle. I would use this same strategy for your notes for papers. If it could be useful for a future paper, keep it. Otherwise, dispose of it.

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    +1. Find a scanning machine with an automatic feeder, scan to a pdf, then save to Evernote or another service. Some will even use OCR to let you scan the pdf for keywords. – tonysdg Dec 22 '15 at 4:19
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    One of my friends would use one of those big paper cutters to cut out the pages of all his notebooks and scan them once he was done with each class. Nowadays I wish I had started doing that earlier. – Roger Fan Dec 22 '15 at 5:10
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Scan whatever you may need again at some point so you have an electronic copy. If possible, OCR it so you can search.

This point has been made by others before, but here's what I would do going forward: try to take as many notes as possible directly in a big txt file, so you don't need to scan and OCR it afterwards. You can always search for relevant keywords in your txt later.

And you may want to browse through Personal Productivity, specifically its note-taking tag.

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    If your handwriting is amenable to OCR I salute you. Mine, like that of most people I've met in academia, can be a mystery even to me. – Chris H Dec 22 '15 at 9:14
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    In my experience OCR that is accessible to the average consumer is next to useless on handwriting. There may may be some academic products or expensive products that can scan hadnwriting though. – DetlevCM Dec 22 '15 at 11:06
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    text file? I strongly recommend using a wiki such as gitit, which not only allows for typesetting equations (I'm a Physicist) via LaTeX-math embedded in Markdown (let alone Markdown's simple txt-ish syntax which yet allows for good structuring including an automated TOC) but also automatically keeps track of previous versions – Tobias Kienzler Dec 23 '15 at 10:04
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    OCR is useless on my handwriting now. But part of my hope in scanning and archiving all my notes is that some day, OCR will be up to the job, and then I’ll have all my old notes suddenly searchable! – PLL Dec 24 '15 at 11:40
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    @TobiasKienzler The gitit link looks essentially dead. I think github.com/jgm/gitit is what you were shooting for. – a CVn Sep 23 '16 at 20:04
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When I make notes on a paper that I've printed, I make them on the paper. This means in the margins, on the backs of sheets (single sided printing has its uses). I haven't had to but extra sheets can always be added to the back. Then I can file the paper in some way (normally a disorganised folder on a particular topic).

The equivalent if I'm working electronically (not preferred, but useful on a train) is to maintain a text file (which would proably start as .txt, but if any complicated equations are required, would contain LaTeX and would only need a few lines to be compilable. This would be stored in the same folder as the .pdf and the .bib for the paper. Even though I might be reading the papwer on a tablet and making notes on my laptop, papers are stored on dropbox, so everything is kept together.

I'm naturally disorganised, a piles-of-paper sort of person and this works for me. Sketched-out ideas have to be typed in or photographed for long-term storage or I'll lose them.

  • If you read a paper as a .pdf, you can also annotate that for example with xournal (xournal.sourceforge.net) to keep your notes right on the paper. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Dec 22 '15 at 20:39
  • @Sumyrda,I've tried xournal, and if I have to take text only notes in the pdf prefer acrobat (for Android). I don't like either very much. Xournal might be ok with a pen interface but I don't have one. – Chris H Dec 22 '15 at 20:50
  • I haven't tried acrobat for android yet, thanks for the hint. I use Xournal on my laptop without a pen interface, but I use it mostly for proofreading. That said, I hate having to keep track of two files (a .txt or .tex and the corresponding pdf) and I prefer pencil on the printed document above all the electronic alternatives - because in the end you're right, the electronig ones are all kind of tedious. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Dec 22 '15 at 21:05
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    Too bad that margin was too narrow... – Tobias Kienzler Dec 23 '15 at 10:07
6

I left academia some years ago. When I left university, my notes were all neatly stored in folders and then boxed up.

I never looked at any of those notes again. Eventually, I just decided that they were pointless clutter and dumped them in the recycling.

These days, if you need to know something, it's easier to look it up (in a book or on-line) than it is to wade through a pile of scribblings you did several years earlier.

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    +1 for it being easier to look it up fresh these days. Unless your notes storage, archive and search system is better than Google (mine certainly isn't!), it's almost always quicker to use Google. – Smalltown2k Dec 23 '15 at 18:55
5

Start the process of reviewing your notes and manually entering anything that you find useful electronically.

This is the only really viable way to get your handwritten notes into the computer. OCR is unlikely to help with handwriting, and scanning the notes as images just creates a "pile of papers" on your hard drive instead of on your desk. The information isn't any more accessible than it was before.

I did say start the process of manual review, not complete the entire process. After doing this for a short time, you might find that the review is quite useful and important ideas are jumping out at you. If so, keep on going. But you might find that it is a big waste of time. In which case, just throw away the pile of papers.

Do try to go digital in the future.

  • Yes, somehow I didn't notice this answer when I thought to throw in my advocacy of consideration of typing-up... But/and, again, it's gotta be an on-going thing, since typing up 10-20 years of handwritten notes is not a task that can be sanely, much less critically, much less while doing other more-primary projects, in a short time... – paul garrett Dec 23 '15 at 23:34
4

This doesn't help for the past, but in the future write your notes in a journal. And put them on a shelf when they are full. For important notes, use colorful page markers so you can find them later. If you no longer feel that a topic is important, just remove the page marker.

I picked up this habit from my husband, who startet doing it during his PhD. I found it very helpful during my masters and I continue to use it at work outside of academia.

edit: When you run out of shelf space, throw out the oldest journal that doesn't have any page markers.

3

I think most people here have said what I would say too, scan them.

The rationale behind scanning the notes is that they then are not lost in case you do want to get back to them, however, as others may have indicated, you should consider keeping the notes that you deem important on paper as it makes them a lot easier and more comfortable to read.

The other point people did not mention - when scanning, get a document scanner. Even a small document scanner will be a lot faster than a flatbed which would drive you insane. I have scanned many of my own notes - without my (Fujitsu) document scanner that would not have happened as not only is it faster than a flatbed, but it can do double sided scans too, effectively, put in a stack of papers, press a button and done. (Unless a problem occurs in which case the scan is interrupted and you are informed of the problem.) I would advise you to read reviews and compare different models before making a decision.

Some people have mentioned OCR: This is only practical for already a priory typeset and printed material. I have not seen nor found affordable OCR software that can understand handwriting. It may exist as a research code or maybe as a more expensive code but this is of little use to the more average consumer, plus you cannot be sure it will read notes correctly if they contain mathematical notation or similar (this would also apply for prints though).

Something I didn't do in my scans - but you should consider - is organising these in a coherent manner. Obviously use multi-page PDFs where content belongs together and possibly use folders/directories in the same way that you would use physical folders to help you find documents later on should you need to seek out any page.

1

In addition to other good answers... and as I intermittently sift through hand-written notes going back 35-40 years... :

Some things will have been truly, clearly superceded. Recycle.

Some things' disposition is less clear. One thing to do is to allocate some regular time to "reconsider/edit" such notes by typing them up (TeX, or whatever). And then you have an economical electronic (searchable!) copy. Then double-check that your typed version captures everything in the hand-written, and recycle.

Another point is that often organization by date, not by purported "topic", may work best. Or at least having things set-up so that it's easy to search by date... since often I realize that temporal proximity is more relevant than what I thought at the time about causality.

1

I am used to writing notes on different supports: post-its, text files... taken at very different moments (bedside, bus). Although I have a pretty good memory (with respect to most of my colleagues), I am amazed by how "a new thought" had appareared several times before in my notes, sometimes in a slightly different form.

Reading them again both refreshes and strenghtens those silent, unconscious cognitive processeses, described by many scientists, like J. Hadamard's The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, or H. Poincaré, that sometimes lead to those rare eureka or aha! moments.

I displine myself to always have something to take note (thoughts do not warn), to decorate my notes with a time and date, descriptions, mood, attitude and sights (was it rainy? what did it smell) to help me revive the moment when I read the note again, in a synesthetic manner. And I do my best to reopen old text files, to rebrowse old post-its once in a while, randomly.

I do not know if it is really effective, but I use it as a comforting ritual, for instance when I am not in mood to do real scientific work, and it does work as least like a placebo effect.

At least, I know it worked with dreams: taking notes of dream details in the morning helped me remember them more accurately, and dream them again with even richer details. It helped me getting rid of recurring nightmmares, by somehow completing them progressively, like one finishes a level of a computer game.

0

There have been some general remarks about scanning things in and digitization, but here is a system that I used when I was taking paper notes.

I had a manilla envelope for each project that I was currently working on - I might have had 2-3 irons in the fire, so to speak. I kept the most recent material to the front of the folder. Eventually the project would wrap up (or I went and got a better job ;)

At the end of the project, I would go through all the screenshots and annotations that I had made. I would have a lot of duplicates and a lot of information that was no longer relevant. This got discarded. Most of the other information I had already digitized (e.g. if I took Sketchnotes at a meeting, or added cases to our issue tracker). If I found any information that still needed to be digitized, I'd add it to a Wiki, issue tracker, or email, and then I'd move the folder to a filing cabinet or drawer.

It seems like this (or a similar process) would work for you.

0

Recycle the lot, now, without grief. The effort of reading / indexing / typing would overwhelm you, and squash whatever creativity you might still have. The act of taking the notes might have helped, but that is long gone. If you need the facts again, consult google / wikipedia / mathworld / whatever.

There is a narrow exception to this: keep unique records of (say) the medical histories of very unusual patients, or tasting notes of very rare wines, or whatever is the equivalent in your field. But if you aren’t Oliver Sacks, this won’t apply. In which case, the recycling calls.

  • I am not too sure you are supposed to keep records of (say) the medical histories of very unusual patients as your personal notes. – scaaahu Dec 24 '15 at 2:46
0

My strategy is to honestly assess the importance and use of the notes to myself and to others.

As an undergrad,

I kept my notes for some of my advanced physics, astronomy and math classes for grad school. Several of those notebooks were helpful, others were not. I kept my other notebooks for a year or two, but recycled them when I moved to grad school. After taking grad-level courses, I was able to condense and/or recycle my undergrad notes. Most of what I have left now are a couple essays or projects I'm really proud of, a few interesting "summary sheets", some thought-provoking handouts, and similar things -- maybe 5% of what I started with. (I lean slightly towards being a sentimental hoarder.)

As a grad student,

I kept the notebooks from several of my grad classes to review for my comprehensive exams and in case I'd ever need to teach a class on that topic someday. I also kept some things I was proud of from grad school and undergrad, as well as other things that were particularly interesting. I still occasionally refer to these, but it's becoming less and less often.

As a grad researcher,

I also kept a file with most of my dissertation research: key derivations (though most of these are in *TeX on a Git repository), meeting notes, a few key papers with my notes, a few super-useful diagrams, and some other things.

As an early-career scientist,

I have 3–4 bushel boxes in my basement with 15–25 notebooks or binders from undergrad through grad school, plus a few key reference textbooks. I may use them someday to help me teach a class or help a student I'm mentoring, but I generally don't use them. They're "archived", pending an office.

I really should have a place for research notes, but I don't. What I've done in the past is kept them in one of 2-3 modest piles and then gone through them all in a year or two. At those times, I have to be ruthless about what I'm really using.

As an instructor,

I sometimes make some notes to myself for a given lesson, but rarely keep these more than a day or two. I have to be super-organized with student papers, so I reserve certain drawers for different kinds of papers, and let those build up till the end of the semester. I also archive certain student papers (e.g. exams) for a certain university-mandated time (usually 1–5 years).

How might you apply this?

  • What is the nature of the notes?
    • Are the notes inherently valuable or important (e.g. contracts, stock certificates)?
    • I keep key derivations for my most important work
    • I keep some articles I've found to be meaningful to me.
    • I keep some helpful summary sheets (e.g. list of trig identities or vim commands)
  • What is the likelihood that you will use the notes?
    • Know yourself. Be honest with yourself. Be ruthless when you need to be ruthless.
  • Is there a chance that somebody else will benefit from your notes?
    • I keep tax documents, but not shopping lists....

I periodically go through some of my papers and try to reduce the number of things by something like 90%. That seems to work for me.

Personal Organization

I use index cards in my pocket, sticky notes on my desk and apps on my computer (e.g. Outlook, Apple Reminders, or Google Calendar) to remind me of meetings, to-do lists, shopping lists, and so on. I generally dispose of these within 0–3 days of not needing them, so these don't really build up.

Rule of Thumb

Keep papers for a number of weeks equal to the amount of minutes it takes you to reproduce the document, or about a year of shelf-life per hour of work.

Obviously, adjust this rule of thumb based on things like the value of the notes, how much space you have, your reluctance to part with notes, the relevance of the notes, and so on.

0

I'm surprised that none of these answers recommend the Zettelkasten method for knowledge management. This is an approach for creating a note repository, in which every note represents one piece of information. Notes can reference one another, and eventually a Zettelkasten (repository) will have enough content that one can use the Zettelkasten to discover new links between concepts. This can be a digital system (there are some apps designed for this specific approach to simple note-taking), or an analog system. The 'original' Zettelkasten was a system using index cards, developed by sociologist Niklas Luhmann.

Here is a blog post that discusses the situation in this specific question: starting with many old, unorganized hand-written notes, and distilling information into usable digital notes for your future self. I recently started reading about Zettelkasten methods a few months ago, and even with very imperfect implementation, I've been able to increase the usability of my older notes, and have been taking more effective notes in general.

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I have notes going back about 20 years. (Notes means daily logs, [like a daytimer] and all of course work as a college student.)

I save everything, first because it was easy, and I liked having access to my info, though, like others, thought I'd really never need it.

Then my second reason arose when I needed the info itself, or needed to show when certain concepts were originally documented by me.

Make it easy on yourself. Take everything related to one project/study/class and put it in a pile. Don't sort it, don't make it all face the same way, don't fuss with it!

Give this pile a name. "Trigger Study - Small Mammals"

Take a ziplock bag and using a thick black permanent marker, write the name of the pile (BIG) just under the zipper.

Put the whole pile into the ziplock bag, zip it and stand it up in any long term storage container of your choice.

Walmart has clear Sterilite-brand tubs that work fine; clear helps you to see contents without manhandling it down off a shelf.

I use 2 gallon freezer bags... they hold about 400 pages. You can either break down any monster sized pile into multiple bags, or order zippered bags any size you can imagine. I use U-Line, but there are others.

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