Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.

Solutions for Taking Notes When Listening to Podcasts

Annotation of podcasts is problematic. I’m an avid podcast listener but haven’t yet found a satisfactory system for note-taking while listening to podcasts. I treat podcast listening as a form of education, learning and idea generation. Because of this, I want to be able to effectively capture interesting ideas I come across (see my article on writing down your ideas). When consuming podcasts I want to:

  1. Capture ideas from or related to a specific podcast episode so that I won’t forget the idea and can make use of the idea in the future.
  2. Ensure that capture is as frictionless as possible (otherwise I won’t do it consistently).

Note that in this post I'm talking specifically about one-off, ad hoc notes. I haven't yet figured out an efficient method for annotating entire podcast episodes (this also presents an annotation problem, but is beyond the scope of this article).

When capturing these ad hoc notes, there are two key pieces of information that I want:

  1. A citation of the source material (so I know where the idea came from and can find it again).
  2. My thoughts about the material (insights, connections, etc.).

In-app note-taking is the ideal solution. Amazon’s Kindle and Audible applications solve this problem effectively for ebooks and audiobooks respectively. The Kindle Reader allows users to highlight book passages and add comments. Audible provides analogous functionality; users can “clip” an audio passage and add accompanying notes to the clipping. The clip works like a bookmark or a Kindle highlight.

Kindle and Audible provide useful annotation features. What about us podcast listeners? Unfortunately there’s no mainstream, free, popular podcast app that I’ve found that provides note-taking features analogous to Kindle and Audible (I primarily use Pocket Casts but have tried most of the other popular podcast apps for iOS). Given the lack of in-app solutions[1], here is a shortlist of viable options available for taking podcast notes. In all cases I assume the user is listening to the podcast via their smartphone:

  1. Pause the podcast and use a note-taking app like Evernote, OneNote, or even emailing yourself (cumbersome).
  2. Pause the podcast and use a voice memo/dictation app (underrated as an option).
  3. Pause the podcast and use the podcast app’s sharing feature; some podcasts allow you to share a bookmark to a specific time-position (only captures timestamp, not accompanying comments).
  4. Pause the podcast and take a screenshot of the episode and time position (only captures timestamp, not accompanying comments).
  5. Use a digital assistant to facilitate any of the above methods (I found Siri unreliable for this purpose).
  6. Use a paper notepad or other external device (not an option if exercising or driving).
  7. Use the official podcast transcript or show notes (transcripts are not universally available and podcast show notes vary in quality—they’re usually only reliable for referencing books, articles and other media cited in the show).

I am usually multitasking when listening to podcasts: running, cooking, driving a car. Because of this, some solutions are less attractive than others (like using a paper notepad). For a long time, I used the first option: emailing myself. The goal was to capture just enough information so I wouldn’t lose that thought and could return to it later and then properly process and organize that note within my note-taking system. Naturally, if I’m on a 5-mile run, this requires me to stop running and briefly record that note. Not ideal.

Here’s the workflow I’m currently using. It uses the Pocket Casts app and an email utility called Mail Notes. Mail Notes lets you setup a single email address that you will send messages to. This speeds up the emailing process because you don’t need to enter a target email when sending a message. I also have a dedicated gmail address for all the notes I mail to myself. I do this so I don’t have to wade through extraneous emails in my inbox. I treat this as a holding pen for jotting quick ideas to myself that I will later flesh out and organize.

This method is far from perfect, but I’ve been experimenting with it and it’s working out better than my prior method. It uses aspects of #1 and #4 from above: emailing yourself a note in conjunction with a screenshot. Here are the steps:

  1. Pause the podcast.
  2. Display the “Now Playing” screen. This screen shows the podcast name, podcast episode and time location in the episode.
  3. Take a screenshot.
  4. Click on the onscreen screenshot thumbnail.
  5. Click on the sharing button and select Mail Notes (which has been set as a favorite sharing option so I don’t have to scroll).
  6. This opens a modal window you can type a short note into and send to a predesignated email address (no need to enter the destination email with the Mail Notes app since it only sends messages to a single location).
  7. Delete the screenshot.

Cumbersome? Yes, especially when exercising. But, it’s better than listening to a podcast, hearing something really interesting and then wracking my brain later desperately trying to recall it.

What all of this really points to is how nascent the podcasting space still is. The tooling is still underdeveloped. I’ve already highlighted the issues with podcast discovery in another post, but annotations are another (don’t get me started on podcast community and user dialogue, that’s a third area that is woefully untapped). Hopefully these shortcoming will be addressed someday by clever entrepreneurs. In the meantime, enthusiasts like me will employ our suboptimal, but practical workarounds.

Update: I have posted a new article on this topic that looks at iOS apps with podcast note-taking capabilities: More Solutions for Taking Podcast Notes: An App Overview.

[1]. Notecast and Airr are two of the podcast apps I encountered that make an attempt to provide annotations. Notecast requires a subscription. Airr is still in beta testing.

I found precious little on this topic online. Here are the other posts I found on podcast note-taking: