Congratulations! You’ve decided to finally get a little more self-sufficient with your computer, and have more fun with it. Before you do anything else, there’s one thing you can do that’ll make your progress way more speedy and pleasant. It’s amazingly simple, too:

Pick a reliable place to write stuff down.

What we’ll do on this page

I’ll briefly explain why you need to write down a few things, then offer a couple of suggestions for the perfect place to keep those notes.

Next, you’ll go ahead and get that repository for notes ready. It’ll just take a moment!

And finally, I’ll suggest the first bits of important information to place in those notes. Again, it’ll just take a moment for you to do it.

Once those simple steps are finished, you’ll be glad you took them. You’ll make progress faster, and will have peace of mind knowing where to find important information when you need it.

“What notes should I take?”

“I try hard and I do learn things, but I just don’t seem to make any progress in getting good at computer stuff.”

If that’s you, I’m willing to bet there’s a simple problem afoot: You’re not writing stuff down!

I see this all the time: Learners who ask the same “How do I…?” questions, again and again. It’s frustrating for the learners, and also for the helpers who have to explain some concept for the fifth time.

The learners are not stupid, or even “bad with computers”.  The problem is simply that forgetting stuff – especially “tech stuff” – is so easy. It’s so… human!

Me, I’d be a wreck if I didn’t write stuff down. So I’ve got loads of homemade tech notes that I can refer to. This means I have a great how-to manual, created just for me and my problems. Here are some of the things I jot down:

  • Interesting things I learn: How-to techniques, solutions to computer problems, new things I want to try out when I get time
  • Basic product information: My computer’s type and model number; serial numbers for my devices and software; any other special codes that are needed to use software (product activation codes, etc.); notes on my home network setup; similar information for the computers of people I help out
  • Shopping-related notes: Brands of computer-related goods (like printing paper and ink, and blank DVDs for creating my own video DVDs) that I found work well or work poorly; recommendations (from friends, product reviews, etc.) for tech products that interest me

Are you ready to start taking notes, too? Sure you are!

Let’s give your collection of computer-related notes a name. We’ll call it… umm… “Tech Notes”. (If you’ve got a better name, use that instead – and pass it along to me, too.)

Where to start jotting down your Tech Notes? Here’s my recommendation for you.

“What’s a good place to jot my Tech Notes?”

Option 1: There’s always paper…

Maybe you expect to hear, “Don’t use paper! That’s so old-fashioned!” Au contraire! Paper’s good. It works.

Just don’t expect perfect. In particular, don’t think you can rely on a motley assortment of notebooks, loose pages, and sticky notes that you’ll squirrel away… uh, here, in this drawer… and this note can go in this pile over here. And this print-out can go… in this filing case…

That sort of haphazard note-taking doesn’t work. Most of those notes might as well be lost forever; you won’t find them, or won’t bother to look for them, when you need them.

If you want to use paper, pick one notebook. Make it recognizable (a colorful cover, a big “TECH NOTES” scrawled on the front, whatever). Keep it near the computer. Use it exclusively for your Tech Notes!

It’s a fine solution. That said, though, paper does have its drawbacks. Before you procure a fresh notebook and sharpen up that yellow No. 2 pencil, consider using your computer itself for note-taking:

 Option 2: Taking notes on the computer

What could be more natural than using the computer itself as your note-taking device? All you need to do is pick one good note-taking application, and start jotting. Here’s why you might want to do so:

  • Many of the notes you’ll want to save will be things that you’ve received through your computer: how-to tips from a web-page, helpful comments that friends send you by email, and so on. By writing your notes on the computer, you can simply copy text that you want to keep, and paste it into your notes. That’s much easier than copying text by hand into a paper notebook!
  • Similarly, when you need to edit and update notes, doing so on your computer is easier than erasing and scribbling on paper.
  • You can tell your note-taking application to search through your notes. That’s a quick and easy way to find the exact note you’re looking for, when all you can remember is a key word or two.
  • If you use the right application (I’ll recommend a couple below), you’ll be able to take notes on your computer – and later read those notes on your computer, or on a mobile device (iPhone, etc.), or on another computer, without any extra work on your part. This means you’ll be able to get at your notes pretty much at any time and any place, and won’t be likely to “lose” them (unlike a paper notebook!).
  • If you’re new to computers, using the computer to take notes as you learn is perfect hands-on experience with writing and saving text.

Let’s do it!

I use my computer for my tech notes. I think that, in the long run, you’ll probably be happier doing the same.

So here’s a quick how-to on using your computer to take notes. (If you’re going the paper route instead, feel free to jump down to “Jot down these first few notes” below).

Pick an application for your Tech Notes

I noted above that using paper for your notes is fine, as long as you consistently use one notebook that’ll stay handy. The same goes for “electronic” note-taking as well: If your notes are scattered here and there inside your computer, they’ll do you little good.

So, first pick an application for taking notes. (Remember the golden rule of computer learning: You don’t “use the computer”; you use applications.) You’ll want to pick one application for your Tech Notes, and stick with that!

An ideal application would be easy to use, would be “light-weight” (something that opens and responds quickly on your screen, without making you wait), and would save your notes in a way that lets you get at the notes from other computers and devices. (The benefit should be obvious: If some big problem makes your computer unusable, you’ll have to get at them from another device!)

Here’s one more consideration. There are two broad types of application good for taking notes. Any note-taking application will save your notes in a file, but how the two types manage those files differs. I’ll make this brief:

A Tech Notes file (among a bunch of other stuff)

A Tech Notes file (among a bunch of other stuff), created with an app that creates and saves individual files (for you to manage)

The first type of application, like a typical word processor or text editor, creates individual files for you, but then leaves the management of those files up to you. You can easily create a file to hold notes, and name it “Tech Notes”. You can of course create more files as your notes expand, and give them names like “Tech Notes – Basic Information”, “Tech Notes – Troubleshooting Tips”, or whatever you like. But managing files like this on your computer – saving them in specific locations, and finding them again later – is something you’ll have to do, and many learners don’t like doing that.

An added point: While it’s possible (and not difficult) to make those files accessible from other computers and devices, doing so requires an extra step or few that you’ll need to take care of.

A Tech Notes file inside an note-taking app (that manages files on its own)

A Tech Notes file inside an note-taking app that manages files on its own

The second type of application creates individual files for you, and also manages them for you. That is, the application lets you create individual notes, but those notes “live inside” the application; the application shows you a list of your notes, and you simply choose one to read or edit. You don’t need to worry about where the files are saved (or even think of them as “files”; you can just think of each one as “a note” or “a page”). Just open the application, and there they all are. Even better, with the right “Internet-enabled” application, this scheme makes it simple to access all of your notes from other computers or devices.

I recommend the latter type. Here are two good candidates for your note-taking application:

The icon for the Evernote app (appearance may vary with version)

The icon for the Evernote app (appearance may vary with version)

Evernote: There are a lot of Internet-friendly note-taking applications; Evernote has duked it out to be one of the most popular. Actually, it tries to do a lot more than note-taking, tossing in features for audio notes and reminders and chat and I-don’t-even-know-what-else. But the important thing is that it stores and manages any number of individual notes, has powerful organization features (like “tags”) should you bother to learn those, lets you get at your notes from other devices (using the Evernote app on those devices) or from a web browser on any computer, and is free (only its optional “Pro” and “Business” features cost money). See details here: https://evernote.com

It’s a fine choice, though with so many features, it’s not the simplest choice, and a close look at Evernote is beyond the scope of this article. Furthermore, if you’re brand new to Evernote, you’ll need to download it and create an account – which isn’t difficult stuff, but it does create a “to do” item…

The short recommendation: If you’re already using Evernote, great! Make a new note called “Tech Notes”, and start jotting.

Otherwise, if you’re looking for a quicker and simpler choice, here’s my recommendation:

The icon for the Notes app (appearance may vary with version)

The icon for the Notes app (appearance may vary with version)

Notes: Notes is the not-so-creative name of Apple’s application for taking notes, included with every new Mac since 2012 (as part of the operating system called OS X 10.8 “Mountain Lion”). Notes is also included with every iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Like Evernote, it stores and manages as many individual notes as you want to create. It lacks Evernote’s fancier features, but is easy to use, fast, and free (it’s on every modern Apple device).

Another great feature: Like Evernote, Notes automatically saves your notes to your computer and shares them with your other devices, meaning that opening the Notes app on any Apple device will show you your notes. (A little more specifically: Notes uses Apple’s “iCloud” service to share your notes among any device that’s signed in to the iCloud service using your Apple ID. If that’s something unclear to you, feel free to ask me!) Or you can simply go to any computer (of any make; it doesn’t have to be from Apple), go to http://www.icloud.com in the web browser, and type in your Apple ID and password; you’ll then be able to read and edit all of your notes.

For a really simple place to keep your notes, with the added ability to access them from other devices, it’s hard to beat Notes. It’s so simple, in fact, that you likely don’t need any sort of primer to get started; just find the Notes application, start it up, and you’ll figure it out. But I’ll be happy to post a simple primer if people request it! (There’s only one piece of advice I can think of right now: It may not be instantly clear how to give a new note a title, like “Tech Notes”. The simple answer: when you make a new note in Notes, the first line of text you type into the note becomes its title.)

Jot down these first few notes

Basic information about your computer

To get started, write down your computer’s basic stats:

  • Where and when you bought it
  • Its model
  • Its serial number (often abbreviated to “SN”)
  • The name and version of its operating system (often abbreviated to “OS”)
  • Any warranty-related information (such as the period of warranty, or the name of any special warranty package or care package that you purchased)

This is important information if and when you need help with troubleshooting! (If you’re unsure of model, serial number, and operating system, here’s your simple guide to collecting that information.)

Basic information about other hardware

As above, write down the name, model number, serial number, etc. (if known) for other hardware, like printers or network equipment.

Special concerns

“Should I write down sensitive stuff like passwords in my Tech Notes?”

That’s a good question! Stay tuned for an upcoming simple primer on keeping your important passwords available yet safe.

“If I take notes on my computer, how can I read them if the computer stops working?”

This is indeed a problem. That’s why it’s good to take advantage of a recent bit of great technology: apps that share their data with other devices. With this technology, when you can’t get at your notes on your computer (either because of trouble or simply because you’re physically away from it), you can still view the notes on another device.

If there’s interest, a detailed how-to on this site is possible!

Questions for you!

Did this page make sense? Was there anything unclear (or worse, wrong)? What improvements would you suggest?

Just as importantly, what work best for you in keeping important information? What tips would you share with other learners?

Please share in the comments below!

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