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I'm trying to figure out the best way to manage all the ideas related to a project (drawings, text, pseudocode, etc.). Until now I tried:


  • Pros:
    • Cheap
    • Easy to use
    • Hard to change
    • Easy to draw
  • Cons:
    • Doesn't give the ability to 'move stuff around'
    • Doesn't give an overview of everything
    • Hard to share


  • Pros:
    • Cheap
    • Easy to use
    • Easy to move around (small distances)
    • Quite easy to change
  • Cons:
    • Hard to transport
    • Takes a lot of space
    • Small surface might be a problem
    • If moved to often they need to be redo because they don't stick anymore
    • Hard to share


  • Pros:
    • Lots of space
    • Fun
    • Easy to share with a few people
  • Cons:
    • Not really cheap
    • Space is limited and old information is lost
    • Not easy to make big changes
    • Takes a lot of space

Software (like OneNote or wikis):

  • Pros:
    • More expensive than paper (depends)
    • Medium ease of usage (no touch screen)
    • Easy to move/change
    • 'Infinite' space
  • Cons:
    • Might or might not give an overview (depending on screen size)
    • Requires extra screen if you want permanent overview
    • Alt-Tab to view notes is killing me
    • Hard to draw
    • Multiple docs => no easy way of merging the information

So, I wasn't able to find a solution that works for me :( Post-it seems the most appropriate but it takes a lot of space. I realize that is no perfect solution but I'm still looking for one that has only few limitations.

How do you take notes and how you deal with limitations?

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migrated from Nov 2 '11 at 1:54

This question came from our site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development.

Why is being expensive a pro? – mathepic Sep 19 '10 at 20:47
How many monitors do you have? Your extra screen comment makes me suspect less than three, in which case that's your answer. If you keep meetings small a second monitor on a laptop can work, but if you need a projector that gets ugly... meeting too large, it's a presentation not a discussion IME. FWIW I have a monitor and USB graphics device from home at work because the two low-res monitors work provides are not enough. – Мסž May 27 '11 at 1:22

11 Answers 11

Personal Use

3x5 cards and binder clips have been a part of my "portable" kit of idea capturing and organization--they're more durable than Post-It notes. Always write on the fronts of the cards only so that you can tape or glue them into my other more permanent kit data storage, the composition book. 3x5 cards and composition books are ubiquitous--you'll almost never be able to buy them. These are only going to be for your direct personal use--for collaboration, you'll need to escalate to something else.

Group Situations (In Person)

Besides Post-Its, 3M makes giant "Easel pads"-- and these are far superior than trying to use a whiteboard for group brainstorming. When you're finished with your room and meeting, you can take them with you to summarize into some other system--maybe something as simple as a digital camera and a tripod to digitize them.

Group Situations (Virtual)

This is where things get tricky. I have never seen a digital whiteboard system that effectively captures the spirit of interaction between people in the same room. (Plus, they're expensive.) Not everyone can be on the same platform and owning the same software or hardware. It really depends on how interactive your communications are. If everyone's spread out across 5 wildly different time-zones, you'll need something like e-mail or wiki to keep interactions asynchronous. A collaborative blog can be useful. If you're lucky and everyone is within the same realm of time, Internet Relay Chat or some other group-chatting system (as long as you can archive it) is good. In the end, with a virtual situation, you need to pick and solidly decide on which particular protocols or applications you're going to use or your ability to keep attention on what the group is doing will be hopelessly fragmented.

K.I.S.S. and K.I.C.S.

Everyone's heard of K.I.S.S, I'm going to add K.I.C.S. to the mix: Keep It Consistent, Stupid. There's a theme here: do the simplest thing that could possibly work and stick to it until it doesn't work. It is far too easy to fall into "yak shaving" trying to find the best tool for the job by trying out all of the New! and Exciting! and Technologically-Sweet! tools the come around the bend. Do that in your spare time (like you have any). Everyone has e-mail and everyone has a web browser. Paper requires no software, batteries or training. Well, maybe not so much on the training. :)

Digital Paper is an Abomination

3x5 cards or composition books... what about this digital stuff, it sounds great-- a special pen, special paper, special software. It is not cheap however, the cost of paper being orders of magnitude more expensive than ordinary paper and in addition, you must use a special pen to write with (what happens when a friend annotates your paper with their favorite Zebra pen? Now you'll have to scan your paper again or trace their handwriting with your special pen--this is "simpler?"). Let's not get into the can of worms involved with privacy--since all digital paper on the market today seems to be systems to uniquely assign ownership to tiny areas of virtual paper-space. Stay away from digital paper systems, they're not KISS/KICS.

On Organizing Ideas

Capture. Review. Summarize. When capturing, date-stamp your notes with a brief title on why you were writing them. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing your own handwriting describing an idea and not understanding why you were writing about it. Write down the questions and goals or missions you're considering. You may not have any thoughts on them today, but days after you have captured your questions or ideas, review them, because you're likely to have new view points on them. Repeat this process until you can summarize the intents of your idea or inventions--now is the time to bring it to others for out-of-singular-mind brainstorming. [Or not, some ideas are just inherently bad. Keep them to yourself. ;) ] The beauty of using paper is it will never distract you with red squiggly lines of spell checking or frustrate you with ham-fisted mouse-drawing limitations because you don't own a graphics tablet. Just draw it. It doesn't have to "look good" until you understand it intimately and you're ready to share it with others. Sharing comes after understanding. Keeping things dated and sequenced properly helps you review and discard the old notes. Don't be afraid to re-write them again forward in your notebooks if it helps you consolidate the amount of paper you need to manage (notebook defragging).

Overcoming the Limitations

No one sits down to write the Lionel Gelber Prize-winning tome in one perfect marthon session, so you shouldn't expect your programming notes to be instantly perfect the first time you write them on paper or share them over e-mail. The more hours you exercise your mind upon the paper, the better you'll become. They say that for writers to become better writers they must write. For a programmer to become a better organizer you must, organize. For me, all too often, it's easier to do it on paper than to do it on a machine. Management of ideas to me is all about the distillation and summary of those ideas. You can't manage something you don't understand. Don't worry about wasting paper--because turning back the pages you've written before is nothing other than paper's implementation of ^Z.

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I think "yak shaving" is more about accidentally getting bogged down with endless dependencies, than, say, "pointlessly" trying 10-out-of-10 new tools instead of just the top 3. – opyate Jan 25 '12 at 12:22

If using Emacs does not pose a barrier, definitely try Org-mode - it has the Pros of the software solutions you noted, while mitigating or removing many of the Cons.

For example, it provides very flexible tree/hierarchical overviews with quick folding and unfolding, tagging, archives, dated entries, linking to other files/websites, and more. You can also draw simple diagrams like entity-relationship diagrams using Emacs artist-mode, and export them to nice-looking graphics with ditaa, all with just a few keystrokes from Org-mode. And since it's all plain-text, it's easy to share, send, and version-control.

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Is there anything Emacs can't do? – TheIndependentAquarius May 16 '13 at 4:26

I like wikis and onenote (and I get onenote for free), but for organizing project ideas - especially in early stages, I prefer mindmapping. I use mindomo, but there are plenty of other options.

I use it the same way I use a whiteboard, but since I work in a number of locations, it's like taking the whiteboard with me.

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I also get OneNote for free (mostly sure from the same source as you do) but still I find it hard to use. Especially all that switching between apps. About mindmapping/mindomo, I will take a look. Maybe is what I need... – Victor Hurdugaci Sep 19 '10 at 21:11
I also find mind mapping very useful in terms of organizing thoughts and ideas. – Otar Jun 20 '12 at 11:22

Mind Manager is a place to put every unstructured irregular information that I can use in future, including my ideas.

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A journal and Post-its!

You got to have a consistent way of jotting down your notes that makes sense to you, keep it organised on paper.

It's just that simple, sure I look like a dork with my Journal but I'm an organised dork =)

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I noticed that most of my notes have a hierarchical structure, that's why I love outliners. The best one I've used so far is definitely OmniOutliner, in fact it was the main reason why I switched to Mac. Nowadays I use The Vim Outliner. It's very basic but I like the fact that the data is stored in plain-text and I can make use of my Vim fu.

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I'll need to try again, but I couldn't get VIM Outliner to work on my Windows machine. – projecktzero Sep 30 '10 at 18:32

Notepad or simple Text editor

Why? Because its easy! You can put down all of your idea's, have notes, comments, everything you wanted in one simple file. No software to install, no website to install, no setup, no anything. Just create and go.

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I love creating text files in Vim Outliner. As for heterogeneous files (images, etc), I haven't found anything more intuitive and elegant than Xmind.

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If you're on Windows I would recommend KeyNote 1.6.9. This compact free software truly changed my life and ability to organize and remember ideas. It is essentially a lightweight (Delphi) TreeView control with RTF notes attached to each tree. The tree nodes can be Bolded, or their background color highlighted, to indicate particularly important nodes, and/or hierarchys.

I could not live without this software! Rearranging trees is as easy as holding Shift and using the arrow keys to move the nodes around.

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I use Evernote to keep track of everything. The added benefit of that is that I can access all my notes also on my mobile device, so I'm not dragging around tons of maps the whole time.

But "keeping track" can mean different things:

  • a link to the github repo where the code is residing
  • some pictures of the notes scrabbled in a brainstorm
  • a checklist with to do items linked to notes describing better what they are (I use a GTD-like structure in my Evernote)
  • a note telling me where all the maps are

I like Evernote because you can keep everything together in a Notebook, and you can add additional structure with nested tags. The big advantage of this approach is that I can just add a tag to the next item on my to do list within a project, and it appears automatically in my "next actions for the day" list. So when I arrive at the office in the morning, I have immediately an overview of the next steps in every project I'm involved with.

So in essence I'm using a software application that allows me to scribble on paper endlessly without losing track of which notes went where.

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Segregate your ideas in terms of nouns and verbs, and try to maintain a table of contents using any simple tools like Microsoft word. This is more from the perspective of how complex software is designed.

The advantage is that your ideas will not only be captured systematically, but also they will eventually be easily related to other similar ideas thus allowing you to pick he best idea upon comparison with their competing alternatives.

The cons is that, you might have to put some mental effort to organize hem every no and then, but I am sure, that will also save you a lot of time while referring to them, systematically, at a later point of time

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