If you worked with me even for a day you must have noticed I am constantly taking notes – that’s because I believe note taking is the foundation to problem solving. Here’s how it typically works – when I am called in to solve a problem on an existing project or to help architect a new solution I’ve noticed three repeating Problem Solving patterns I tend to use:
- Prevention: if you avoid making a wrong decision in the first place it’s a way of solving a problem before it even occurs. And providing a solid example of what not to do is a great way to accomplish this.
- Awareness: if you are aware of the weak links in the chain and the symptoms they typically exhibit you can orient and find the culprit quickly.
- Profiling: if you profile the issue long enough, then overtime it becomes easier to identify the culprit by doing a pattern recognition exercise on the information you’ve gathered.
I can confidently say that all of the above techniques hugely benefit from careful note taking and note organization. And in this post I’ll explain how I manage my notes using a very simple method. Method that will help you organize notes and project files and help you find relevant information even years later by keeping the storage structure consisted from project to project.
Use Text Based Notes
I’ve tried popular apps like Evernote but eventually gave up on them because apps that store notes in non-plain text fail in one fundamental requirement I have – keeping my carefully crafted whitespace intact. Instead I use plain text with markdown syntax and can quickly convert any note to
Pick One Place to Store All Your Notes
It’s extremely frustrating when you can’t find the information you know you had. A solution I’ve adapted is to store all my notes in one top folder/directory organized by client/project. I even put my personal notes there under a client called
PERSONAL – that way if I am searching for something I wrote down – I know to always look there first regardless of the work/personal context.
Create A Centralized Searchable Index for all Projects
This is key to finding things years later – I have a special folder called
index and it contains a separate index file for each client/category combination that includes titles of every project under this particular client/category. For example if my client/category/project folder structure is:
clients ├── CLIENT1 │ ├── proj │ │ ├── x_Category_I │ │ │ ├── Project_A │ │ │ ├── Project_B │ │ │ └── Project_C │ │ └── x_SUPPORT │ │ │ ├── Ticket_1234 │ │ │ ├── Ticket_1235 │ │ │ └── Ticket_1236 ├── CLIENT2 │ │ ├── x_Category_V │ │ │ ├── Project_A │ │ │ ├── Project_B │ │ │ └── Project_C │ │ └── x_SUPPORT │ │ │ ├── Ticket_2234 │ │ │ ├── Ticket_2235 │ │ │ └── Ticket_2236
then the index files will be as follows:
index ├── CLIENT1x_x_Category_I.txt ├── CLIENT1x_x_SUPPORT.txt ├── CLIENT2x_x_Category_V.txt └── CLIENT2x_x_SUPPORT.txt
and within each of the index files the contents will be as follows:
CLIENT1x_x_Category_I.txt 20150205-14:14:32 CLIENT1/proj/x_Category_I/Project_A 20150612-12:09:49 CLIENT1/proj/x_Category_I/Project_B 20150706-22:27:29 CLIENT1/proj/x_Category_I/Project_C CLIENT1x_x_SUPPORT.txt 20150219-16:41:56 CLIENT1/proj/x_SUPPORT/Ticket_1234 20150307-11:45:55 CLIENT1/proj/x_SUPPORT/Ticket_1235 20150319-11:12:19 CLIENT1/proj/x_SUPPORT/Ticket_1236 CLIENT2x_x_Category_V.txt 20150520-12:21:14 CLIENT1/proj/x_Category_V/Project_A 20150528-15:54:25 CLIENT1/proj/x_Category_V/Project_B 20150609-18:28:16 CLIENT1/proj/x_Category_V/Project_C CLIENT2x_x_SUPPORT.txt 20150619-10:34:37 CLIENT2/proj/x_SUPPORT/Ticket_2234 20150624-13:36:46 CLIENT2/proj/x_SUPPORT/Ticket_2235 20150626-21:33:41 CLIENT2/proj/x_SUPPORT/Ticket_2236
I then use nvALT to index the
index folder and in turn it allows me to quickly answer the following questions:
- what did we do for Ticket_2236? – answer in
- what project did I start on 20150609? – answer in
Note that every client is suffixed with an
x and every category is prefixed with an
x_ – this ensures that when you search for a client or a category name and it happens to be a part of a common word the search results are cleaner. For example what if the category name is
DB – try searching for this in a repository full of database related topics – you’ll get everything, but when you change it to
x_DB – results are only filtered for that category.
index files are automatically maintained by the program I wrote (which I’ll share on my next post so stay tuned).
Rotate Long Term Project Notes on Daily Basis
We went over the client/category/project folder structure but what happens underneath that? It’s very simple – just plain text daily work notes that all share the name of the project and a timestamp of the day they were created on. For example under the folder
CLIENT1/proj/x_Category_V/Project_C I might have:
-rw-r--r--@ 1 mve staff 14126 Jun 9 21:04 Project_C_20150609.txt -rw-r--r--@ 1 mve staff 14689 Jul 7 13:04 Project_C_20150707.txt -rw-r--r--@ 1 mve staff 7314 Jul 10 17:33 Project_C_20150710.txt -rw-r--r--@ 1 mve staff 32269 Jul 10 17:25 Project_C_work.txt
Project_C_work.txt – it’s a special local index file where all daily work files check-in and where I can add project level information such as client contacts, key dates/deliverables etc.. At this point you might be wondering why I rotate project notes on a daily basis instead of having one single text file per project? The answer is simple – having daily work files allows for:
- better profiling – it’s easier to profile an issue when you can see how it progresses from day to day
- better searching – I use BBEdit as my text editor and it allows me to open all files under a specific folder at once so if I switch to
CLIENT1/proj/x_Category_Vdirectory and type in
bbedit Project_C– it’ll open all files under that project and keep them in the left pane of BBEdit editor allowing me to quickly switch from day to day and see what I worked on. Try to do this if everything is in one single file – not that easy
- automated daily status reports for my clients – because I use markdown format in my text notes I can quickly
^#(headlines) in the daily work file and it’ll give me all the headlines for the day. I then paste these headlines in an email/status report and my client gets a 30k ft view of the work done today. I also attach the daily work file to my customer support portal which I maintain for each of my clients on hashjoin.com and by doing so provide an ongoing knowledge base to them.
- Prevention, Awareness, Profiling are the three major methods used in problem solving.
- Careful note taking greatly benefits the above methods and improves your problem solving capacity.
- Adapting a repeatable Note Taking Workflow / Organization will ensure you can find relevant information quickly.
- Storing notes in plain text will ensure long term compatibility and preserve whitespace.
- Placing all notes (personal and business) in a single top folder ensures you’ll know where to find them later.
- Indexing the notes by client/category/project/date simplifies search.
- Rotating project level notes daily can help profiling, searching and status reporting on long term projects/issues.
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Vitaliy Mogilevskiy July 13, 2015
Posted In: Operations