Taking Notes While Driving: Three Ways to Clear Your Mind

As I’ve discussed the multithreaded life at various conferences and how to hack your commute, one common concern people have is the inability to take notes while listening to audiobooks on the road. This was a struggle for me too until I came up with a system. Taking notes is an excellent way to make the information that you’re hearing stick. So when you hear a key point that resonates, it’s important to pause the book and get the information recorded. The question is, how and where?

Typing on your phone while driving is dangerous and should not be attempted. But you need not type to take notes with today’s smart phones. Here’s three approaches I’ve found useful.

1: Voice to text

Android, iOS and Windows Phones all do a decent job of recording your voice and converting it to text. It’s not perfect, mind you, but I find it’s typically good enough to get the point across until I arrive at my destination and clean it up. The big benefit to this approach is you end up with typed notes that are 90% accurate. And of course, that means the downside is your notes are 10% inaccurate! You’ll notice this option struggles with proprietary jargon and homonyms, but I find it’s reliable enough that it typically only requires spending a few moments later cleaning up the mistakes. I’ve found it does help to do this cleanup as soon as possible since some mistakes are hard to decipher later. It’s also a good chance to add any other idea that have come to mind after re-reading your notes. This option also stuggles with topics that don’t translate easily from voice to text like equations. And the final downside is voice to text requires a network connection which can be spotty while you’re driving. So this approach is useful, but it’s not a universal solution.

There’s a variety of apps that will pull this off for you. Basically any application that allows you to enter text will suffice, since you simply need to use the voice entry feature on your smart phone’s keyboard to make this work. To use your voice to write something, open any application, find a text field and bring up the keyboard control for entering text. I use Evernote for Android which is also available for iOS and windows phones as well. I create a dedicated note for the audiobook I’m listening to and create a one click shortcut on my homepage. With this setup I can start doing voice to text in two steps:

  1. Tap the shortcut to open the note
  2. Tap the microphone button on the keyboard to begin recording.

The translation to text isn’t flawless, so be sure to review it quickly once you stop driving so you can fix any issues while the ideas are fresh in your mind. Regardless of which app you choose, it’s important to create a shortcut on the home screen so that it’s easily accessible while driving.

2: Phone Voice Recorder

If the downsides of voice to text make it unappealing for you, then there’s a variety of voice recording apps available for the major smartphone operating systems. iOS and Android ship with voice recording apps built in. iOS Ships with “Voice Memos”, Android ships with “Voice Recorder”. And of course another popular option that’s available on popular smartphone platforms is again Evernote. I highly recommend Evernote for keeping track of all sorts of different data in your life, but it’s also useful for voice recording since it offers a simple widget for creating new audio notes with a single tap on the microphone button that sits in the Evernote widget.

3: Go Dedicated

If you want the best sound quality and greatest simplicity, then consider a dedicated digital audio recorder. These devices are simple to use and often require nothing more than a stab at the record button to get things rolling. I recently purchased the TASCAM DR-05 for recording the audio portion of my Pluralsight courses and have not been disappointed. If you’re not as concerned with recording quality, there’s a variety of cheaper options out there like the Olympus VN-702PC or Sony ICD-BX112. Regardless of which one you choose, a dedicated device is a great option for those with a lock screen on their phone. Fumbling around with passwords and swiping while driving is a recipe for disaster. So if you’re not comfortable disabling your lock screen, consider springing a few bucks for a dedicated solution!

Have other ideas on how to handle notes while on the go? Chime in via the comments.

One thought on “Taking Notes While Driving: Three Ways to Clear Your Mind

  1. Livescribe is also a great note taking device that adds audio to your notes. Not for use in a car, obviously, but fantastic for remembering what your notes actually mean

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