Last updated: 8/10/21
If there’s one aspect of my personal system that’s gone through more fads and phases than any other area, it would surely be my note-taking methods. Note-taking is at the center of every organizational and productivity framework, and it’s important to get right because we do it so often across so many different contexts.
For this reason, I want to take a break from the normal sequence of my series in order to talk specifically about notes. We will explore several pragmatic strategies we can use for note-taking at home, work, and life in general. This will not be your typical survey of note-taking apps and easy-acronym methods; I intend to go as broad and deep as possible in order to do justice to the real, everyday problems that we face.
To get started, let’s look at a reminder of several scenarios where we tend to create and manage notes. I am sure you can think of many more besides the sampling that is listed here.
- making quick grocery or to-do lists
- writing a phone number on scratch paper
- planning our day, week, month, or year
- setting intentions
- jotting down insights we’ve overheard
- tracking habits
- capturing or brainstorming ideas
- externalizing our thoughts
- writing rough drafts
- outlining a talk or a paper
- working through feelings and emotions
- taking meeting notes
- collecting research material
- recording an interaction with someone
- summarizing other notes
- rewriting book excerpts into our own words
- building a reusable checklist
- documenting a process or procedure
Clearly even this small list demonstrates the vast diversity of use cases for notes. Let’s break these down and sift out what unique kinds of notes we’re dealing with.
Six fundamental kinds of notes
We can quickly become overwhelmed trying to manage hundreds or thousands of notes if we don’t have a dependable mental heuristic to use when creating and organizing them. Here’s how I think about the scope of note-taking:
- Jots and captures. Almost every note that I take in raw form starts as a jot or capture. These can be memos, quick lists, sudden ideas or insights, recommendations from others, shorthand meeting notes, “margin” notes taking during reading, or internal thoughts, feelings, and moods that I might have throughout the day.
- Logs and summaries. Nearly every note that passes from the jot/capture phase into the internals of my note-taking system is via a log entry. Logs are chronological and time-based, lightly clarified or summarized from their raw captured form. Meeting notes, people notes, daily setups (agendas), reviews, highlights and low-lights, memories, journal entries, and so forth all get logged. As time flows forward, so should your notes.
- Lists and collections. Some standalone items get lifted from the logs into a list or collection. This idea comes from the bullet journaling method. Items in the lists can be: things to do, places to go, people to see, apps or products to build, movies to watch, tasks, action items, and chores. Project-specific notes may also be indexed as part of their own collection (see #5).
- Bases and wikis. A relatively small handful of my notes are “promoted” into a base. These notes are so-called permanent notes and they are always refined and rewritten from their original form. A note goes into a base when it contains information or knowledge that I potentially want to reference, draw from, or expand upon in the future. Bases are destinations for my notes, but that doesn’t mean those notes stay static or unchanging. I keep bases for: people, apps and software, systems and organization (productivity), software development, literature and language, books and articles, and so on.
- Hubs and indexes. Navigation is critical to note-taking both for finding previous notes and for placing new notes within the system. Hub and index notes are meant to promote this lookup process. No matter whether I organize my notes in chronological lists, in hierarchical folders, or in connected graphs, I always index my notes to be able to find them later. Like the name suggests, these notes resemble a table of contents or an index. I use them only for logs and bases.
- Drafts and documents. Notes that accumulate toward some deliverable artifact (a report, essay, manuscript, blog, training, sermon) can be treated specially. Similar to bases & wikis, documents are edited in place rather than rewritten each time, because the purpose is not to create a chronological history but rather to produce some finalized output. Items in this category don’t necessarily have to be traditional or linear; for example, an artboard you’re building could be also considered a “draft.”
Problems and pitfalls
It goes without saying that “note-taking” apps have grown to be capable of much more than just taking text notes. Many are able to embed photos, scans of documents, and sketches; they can integrate tasks and calendars, attach entire files, and undoubtedly do even more in the future. If you’ve read any of the past articles in my series, it might not come as a surprise to you that I regard modern note-taking software as a double-edged sword.
Here a few of the “traps” created by note-taking apps that we wish to avoid:
- Note-taking apps do not distinguish between the most temporary or fleeting of notes and more permanent ones. Every new digital note, no matter how raw or short-lived, tends to get sucked in by the note-taking app. This encourages hoarding and quickly leads to unwanted cruft and clutter in your system.
- Note-taking apps cater to specific workflows and will inevitably feel restrictive in some contexts while remaining effective in others. For example, most cater either to linear thought (documents, outlines) or spatial thought (concept maps, diagrams, cork-boards). Very few successfully combine both types.
- Note-taking apps over-emphasize structure and organization. Apps that encourage placing notes into precise folders, categorizing notes within elaborate tag hierarchies, or creating dense inter-linked networks of notes soon lead to unsustainable databases, unless one is very experienced and disciplined in applying information architecture.
- Note-taking apps have weak “workspace” semantics at best. For example, if you’re the type of person who thinks best with several relevant notes and ideas spread out in front of you, but who also likes a clean and organized desk at the end of the day, then most note-taking apps will let you down.
- Note-taking apps that use the traditional long-form “document”-style modality (versus cards, bullets, etc.) may work well for writing drafts or articles, but they do not work well for managing ideas. Long-form notes are counterproductive to making atomic, self-contained notes that are easy to combine, split, move, rearrange, and relate.
- Note-taking apps have distracting user interfaces. Accumulated notes remain in view and create visual “noise tax.” Opening your note inbox, browsing search results, etc. shows you much more than you need or want to see in order to complete a given task. As a result, taking a new note without getting distracted or experiencing mental overhead becomes a challenge.
The capability and complexity of modern note-taking software can either be a curse or a superpower, depending on how prepared we are to handle them. In the case of note-taking, as with nearly every other complex process, sound information and foresight is what is needed in order to succeed.
Very important principles
In the course of my note-taking adventures, I’ve gather a few core principles that I consider highly important when designing a holistic note-taking system.
Digital vs. analog is a false dichotomy.
Most successful systems will tend to incorporate both analog and digital tools, since each have their strengths and weaknesses. We’ve already looked at some of the downsides of digital tools.
Analog tools are excellent for high-powered thought. If you need to do deep creative thinking with zero distractions, reach for a pencil and paper. The same goes for rough brainstorming or making lists. Paper is perfect for raw capture — during a meeting, for example — so that you can stay mentally present and engaged in the moment. It is much more effective to enter a summary of your raw notes into your log later, than to take down detailed logs in real-time.
If you work at a computer, keeping a flip-top notebook, journal, tear-off pad, sticky notes, and various other paper products close at hand can give you a great excuse to frequently take your eyes off the screen. The break is good for the eyeballs and neck but also feels good for the brain.
Digital tools fill important gaps. Having a device that can produce time-based or location-based reminders, set alarms and timers, and capture thoughts and ideas from anywhere is extremely useful. Devices help us communicate with others, share with others, manage digital-only artifacts (like files, documents, photos, music, and messages), as well as make it effortless to create copies and backups. Critically, computers can help us to externalize, synthesize, and store highly complex knowledge that’s too large to fit into any one mind.
Rather than stressing about how to “backup our analog notes” or “have everything always accessible in one place,” we should consider using the appropriate tool for the job. We could do with a lot less emotional attachment to our notes, too.
Most notes are transient and should be treated that way.
I alluded to this above, but try to emotionally detach from your notes. It will help you to think and create more freely, and to worry less about unimportant details.
Recognize that most notes are quickly thrown away, rewritten, or assimilated in another form into your system. If a note is worth keeping around for an extended period, either it’s part of producing an eventual outcome, or it’s knowledge you want to distill and incorporate into your note bases, or it’s a history of your thoughts and actions, etc.
Even so-called “permanent” notes will evolve and change shape over time. Take notes for the purpose you have in mind, then let them go. For more on the general philosophy of loose attachment to artifacts, you might want to refer to my Center of Gravity principle.
Rewrite your notes between stages.
Taking notes is one of those special exceptions within productivity where some built-in inefficiency is actually desirable. I almost never copy and paste notes. They are always rewritten between stages, because good things happen when I rewrite notes: the ideas get clearer, unnecessary details fall away, and I start to remember the important parts.
In practice, rewriting most often takes place between the capture stage and the clarifying stage, i.e. from jots to logs. But rewriting can show up pretty much anywhere: for example, when I’m rewriting a note in full sentences to add to my permanent note base, or when I’m “refactoring” my indexes, or simply when I’m transferring an action item captured during a meeting into a list or collection. In the last case, copying the task gives me an opportunity to clarify and reword it into the “next action” style popularized by GTD.
Read your notes often.
If I’m always taking notes but never revisiting them, then I’m wasting a lot of ink and forgetting information that I could retain and invest. It doesn’t take that much effort to get in the habit of revisiting your notes on a daily basis, at the very least while processing your logs at the end of the day.
When you read your notes, you may find yourself wanting to make revisions. I recommend when you do so that you create a new note while referring to the old notes. You can then link the new note back to the old note(s), or replace them entirely.
Have multiple tools in your kit.
To this day I’ve not found a single note-taking app that fits all of my use cases. I used to stress out about having to use multiple tools because it ended up generating a lot of notes that were stuck in different “silos” or app-specific containers. But when I adhere to the “don’t get attached to your notes” principle, I find I’m much more willing to freely experiment with apps to seek out whatever is the best tool for any given job.
My personal note-taking kit is made up of what I consider the best of each note-taking modality. They are intentionally diverse. For example: I use Dynalist or Trello for quick capture when I’m away from my desk, because they both support email-to-list and make it very easy to move items to a dedicated list or collection (or just cross out / delete the items). I make occasional use of Mymind for tossing dreamy ideas and digital nick-knacks into a “pool” that I can browse as a gallery, but I don’t put anything I need to process there.
For most of my work logging and task/project collections, I use a Leuchtturm1917 notebook and a Zebra Sarasa 0.5 gel pen, because I hate task management systems and I because I can organize my thoughts better on paper. (When I’m working on a large project and there are two many notes/ideas/tasks to manage on sticky notes plus a whiteboard, though, I fall back to Trello or Milanote.)
I bring in the “big guns” of digital note-taking tools like Roam Research when building out complex knowledge bases, such as the very “systems & information” graph that feeds this article series.
For building more traditional personal wikis or documentation-style note bases, rather than using Roam Research, I may end up with Notion or Evernote. These tools are good for long-form prose as well (though I currently write long-form content only here on Medium.)
Since these more carefully-curated, permanent notes and artifacts are more likely to remain important to me later in life, I will ultimately export content stored in tools like Roam Research, Notion, or Evernote to a backup/archival location.
The point is, as long as you have a trusted system, you are free to use whatever tool works best.
Assign only the metadata that you think will help you find the note later.
It’s all-too-easy to go overboard on organizing. If you’ve read previous articles of mine, you might have detected my recurring theme of “as simple as possible but no simpler” (a rule of thumb attributed to Albert Einstein).
Here are a few quick tips for choosing appropriate metadata.
- Use tags for simple, concrete nouns like people, places, dates, and signifiers (like importance). Heavily used topics are OK to tag, but see #2 and #3. Use abstract categories as tags very sparingly.
- Maintain an index of your most active topics, where a tag is assigned to each major topic. Keeping a note with a list of all topics will help you avoid unknowingly creating duplicate ones. If you’re adding a note on a fringe subject, consider whether you even need to categorize it. I no longer recommend using folders for topics (see #4).
- Realize that there is a difference between concepts and terms. A single concept can be called by many different names and labeled by many different terms, even though it’s the same essential concept. When you add a new topic tag, consider whether that “new” topic is really just an alias for an existing topic. This will help keep your topic tag set down to a minimum.
- Use folders only for huge, exclusive buckets. I would be comfortable using a folder for all my job-related captures, logs, and notes because I personally like keeping a wall between company-specific information and personal information. Similarly, projects that are self-contained enough can get their own folder. Topics, people, etc. would never get their own folder though, because mentions of an entity or keyword could occur anywhere in my system.
- Use simple metadata for status and/or priority, if appropriate. For example in my Roam Research graph, I use #TODO for any page or block that’s a work in progress so that I can see and navigate them all from one place, picking up from where I left off.
- Avoid creating hierarchies more than 3 levels deep except in extreme cases. This applies to both folder and tag hierarchies. It’s very hard for the average human brain to effectively manage such deep “trees” of information, especially when items tend to appear in more than one location. One surprising place where this principle can be easy to violate is when making outlines and mind-maps. Make sure that you have a very good understanding of the structure of any information that you’re attempting to organize more than three layers deep.
For more thoughts on metadata, you can refer to the last section of my first article.
Note-taking is a vast subject, but I hope that this article lays down a dependable framework that will help you keep your notes under control, as it has for mine. As I continue to learn and experiment I may revisit and update this article, so feel free to check back for updates. Cheers!