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How to Take Memos That Actually Work

Here’s an exercise: try imagining every class that you’ve taken since your first year of university in order. 

Then, try writing out the things you learned, realized, or felt in each of those classes. 

If you felt that the above mentioned task is a bit difficult, or seems difficult, this article is for you. 

This article is about the habit of taking “memos” that I formed to better retain and internalize information from classes, movies, books and other interactions. 

To state my argument, a memo isn’t just the process of writing things down.

It’s the four step process of writing, reflecting, organizing, and rereading.  


The Importance of Memos

Memos are important. This is because retaining all information without jotting any of it down is nearly impossible. 

This is why I’ve learned the practice of taking memos in school since I was young. 

I would prepare a notebook and copy down everything that the teacher would say and write on the chalkboard. 

This is what most people would think of when they hear the words “taking a memo.”

In truth, I took notes in this way for a fairly long time even after entering university. 

But one day I realized, this method lends itself to no use except for memorization. 

Up until high school, we were evaluated on the basis of how well we memorized the information we were taught verbatim. 

There was no need to interject our values or feelings. 

But university is different. 

Because I had no plans of studying abroad, I took courses for the purpose of expanding my knowledge and personal growth. 

Rather than studying to get a high score on tests, I would emphasize breaking down the lessons and internalizing them for use in my everyday life. 


However, this was not something that I could accomplish with the same note taking method that I had been using since high school. 

I then decided to develop a personal memo method through reading books on how to take memos and participating in seminars. 

Through this process I learned that there are four vital steps in note taking: writing, reflecting, organizing, and rereading.

Of the books on memos that I liked the most, each would focus on certain steps of the four memo processes, even if the language or technique differed. 


① Writing記録する

The first is obviously, to write. 

The best practice is for each person to use a method that they are used to, that works for them. 

However, there is a caveat. 


That is to “always have a method of writing on hand.”


There are numerous opportunities to take memos in everyday life.

Without a way to write down a memo in that very moment, there is no use. 


② Reflecting

It’s important to include this moment of reflection in the memo process. 

You may not be used to doing this since it was unnecessary up through high school, but without this step, your memo will be useless.  


To explain it more thoroughly, the first step of “writing” is the “facts” of the memo, while the second step of “reflecting” is the “meaning” of the memo. 


For example, you read in the news that in 2019, Japan’s rank in the Gender Gap Index is 121 out of 153 nations.


When you write “in 2019, Japan’s rank in the Gender Gap Index is 121 out of 153 nations” in a memo, this becomes a mere cataloguing of fact, which is not so useful.


So, in addition to the fact, writing reflections such as 

“I didn’t find this to be particularly low,”

“Why is Japan ranked so low?”

“What was the ranking before 2019?”

“How is the Gender Gap Index even calculated?”


can allow you to internalize the information as your own knowledge or opinions. 


③ Organizing

In order to further reflect on the information catalogued in ① and ②, we must organize it physically and mentally. 


In physical organization, we need to decide where to keep the memo and to what category it belongs. 

For example, you might keep notes from class in a box at home labeled “University Classes- Spring Term Sophomore Year.” 

If you realize something while watching a TV commercial and jot it down on a sticky note, you could keep it in a file labed “Everyday Relizations.” 


Without this process, it becomes difficult to reread these memos later—in fact you may not think to reread them at all. 

It’s like how you wouldn’t step foot in a library where every book is chaotically strewn about. 


Mental organization is also necessary. 

In order to make use of numerous memos in your mind, it is important to keep your mind in shape. Make sure to get sufficient meals, exercise, and sleep. 


④ Rereading 

It’s difficult to memorize something just by seeing it once.

This is why it’s important to reread your memos. 

Commit the information to memory through the process of rereading. If step three is done well, the process of rereading can be done efficiently. 


That’s it for the general explanation of memos.

Lastly, I’d like to explain how I take my own memos. 


I use the app Evernote for my memos.


My reasoning for this is because

・I can access my notes from any device. I use my iPhone, Mac, and iPad. 

・All of my information is in one place. Everything from small memos to lecture notes and calendar events can be kept. 

・There are numerous shortcuts that make notetaking more efficient. 


Give it a try. 

Of the books that I read, I found “The Magic of Memos” and “思考の整理学” to be the most useful. 

Many of the tips in this article were informed by these books, so give them a read if you hope to learn more.

Articles anonymously written by HCICU Contributors. 
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