Bill Gates Takes Notes by Hand in All His Meetings and in the Margins of the Books He Reads. The Reason Is Backed by Science

  • Gates says that handwriting notes in the margins of books and in all his meetings is one of his secrets to retaining knowledge.

  • Handwriting activates areas of the brain related to learning and memory that aren’t activated when typing on a keyboard.

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Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has been leading multimillion-dollar projects for over four decades. He first built his tech empire with Microsoft and then devoted himself full-time to running the billionaire philanthropic foundation that bears his surname.

His efficient senior management skills have positioned him as a leader in productivity and resource management. In fact, in a recent episode of his podcast Unconfuse Me, Gates confessed that his interest in the workings of the human brain has increased since his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. From time to time, the billionaire shares some details of his techniques for remembering data or clarifying concepts in his mind.

Gates’ secret to remembering things: taking notes. For Gates, one key to not forgetting things is to write them down. However, this goes beyond making a grocery list.

In a recent post on his LinkedIn profile, the Microsoft co-founder wrote, “You won't catch me in a meeting without a legal pad and pen in hand–and I take tons of notes in the margins while I read. I’ve always believed that handwriting notes helps you process information better, but it’s fascinating to learn the science that explains why.”

Taking notes by hand helps you with understand and organize information. In his LinkedIn post, Gates confirms that he makes notes in the margins of the books he reads. A joint study by Princeton University and the University of California in 2014 found that taking notes by hand improves conceptual understanding because it helps to organize ideas.

Famous writers like Neil Gaiman, known for books like American Gods and comic books like The Sandman, are known for writing by hand. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Gaiman mentioned that he “bought a fountain pen and a big notebook and wrote it by hand to find out how writing by hand changed my head.” As a matter of fact, he found that handwriting forced him to structure his ideas better.

Writing by hand “wakes up” your brain. “Handwriting is probably among the most complex motor skills that the brain is capable of,” Marieke Longcamp, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at Aix-Marseille University, told NPR.

According to Longcamp, the simple act of writing is “a complicated task” because it involves applying pressure to the pencil with your fingers, following specific lines, and varying pressure when drawing letters. The brain is simultaneously processing concepts and organizing them to create a meaningful and often beautiful story, particularly in literary works. This requires the coordination of the brain’s motor and visual systems, involving creativity and information analysis.

Not the same thing. While both typing and handwriting aim to help people remember ideas, there are differences in their cognitive and analytical impact. Earlier this year, researchers at the neuroscience department of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim discovered that handwriting activates areas of the brain related to memory and learning, which doesn’t happen when typing.

In the 2024 study, psychologist and co-author Audrey van der Meer suggests that handwriting is a more neurobiologically enriching process and may offer cognitive benefits for comprehension and learning.

The capability of synthesis. Another advantage of handwriting is that, since it's a slower process, it encourages the optimization of resources and enhances the ability to synthesize ideas and concepts. Conversely, typing notes often results in a more literal transcription.

“[When typing,] you’re not actually processing that information–you’re just typing in the blind... If you take notes by hand, you can’t write everything down... You make the information your own,” Van der Meer told NPR, adding that it helps people understand concepts and retain them better. However, she acknowledges that, at times, efficiency wins: “When you’re writing a long essay, it’s obviously much more practical to use a keyboard.”

Image | World Bank Photo Collection via Flikr

Related | Jeff Bezos Is a Master of Productivity Because of This Secret: Starting Off Slow in the Morning

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