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Taking Note

Today, while browsing Hacker News I came across this article1 on how to take smart notes by Tiago Forte. As someone obsessed with note taking and organizing things, I found the 10 principles in the article very insightful. The author wrote his post as a summary of Sönke Ahrens’ How To Take Smart Notes2. Since this is a book I always wanted to read, I was even more interested in the article. As a meta-step, I started taking notes while reading the article. 😁

Over the years, I’ve been developing a system to take notes through org-capture3 and have been trying to find a balance between paper and electronic note taking methods. Here are the parts I found really interesting:

Clutter

An undistracted brain and a reliable collection of notes is pretty much all we need. Everything else is just clutter.

Personally I’ve found it hard choosing between electronic and paper based note taking. Both have its pros and cons. For example, making copies, indexing and searching comes for free with electronic notes, while with paper notes, you can draw, scribble and experiment with ease. Writing \(\LaTeX\) while working out some Deep Learning equations is not really my idea of mental focus. I wonder what the author thinks about the electronic vs. paper trade-off in note-taking.

Context

The primary question when deciding where to put something becomes “In which context will I want to stumble upon this again?”

This was particularly insightful. I’ve been guilty of making the mistake or organizing notes by topics and not by the context in which I will stuble upon it again. A good takeaway here is to carefully think about what would make you search for a particular note and then title it accordingly.

Librarian vs. Writer

instead of filing things away according to where they came from, you file them according to where they’re going. This is the essential difference between organizing like a librarian and organizing like a writer.

This makes sense. As a writer, think about which “idea-sink” or project area will best benefit from this note vs. where this content came from.

Dealing in scraps

Writers don’t think about a single, “correct” location for a piece of information. They deal in “scraps” which can often be repurposed and reused elsewhere.

I find that electronic note taking is best suited for creating redundant copies, hyperlinking and moving these “scraps” around with minimal effort. In the mid nineties, it might have been difficult for Niklas Luhmann to take full advantage of this. The zettelkasten technique mentioned at the start of Tiago’s article leverages old-school hyperlinking and indexing, but considering Luhmann had 90,000 slip notes, I wonder how he tackled the search problem in the middle of deep work. This, I feel is best handled by electronic notes, but again, unless it is simple text, with electronic notes, it is hard to draw, scribble, write quick math and move things around without getting disctracted from what you were initially doing! I don’t know what’s the answer here, but that’s something interesting to think about. Maybe some day Deep Learning will flawlessly index all our paper notes!

Sustainable Work

we must spend as much time as possible working on things we find interesting. It is not an indulgence. It is an essential part of making our work sustainable and thus successful.

Just Find. Interesting. Work. Or find a way to make it interesting.

Choosing work

when we have a choice about what to work on and when, it doesn’t take as much willpower to do it.

I found this research insight very interesting. I believe people get bored in corporate settings because more often than not, they work on the same problems for years. Maybe there is something in here for HR to consider. If organizations can make work more interesting for employees by letting them choose what to work on, say for example, by rotating employees between projects and teams without it impacting their performance reviews, it will bring novelty into their careers. They won’t leave the company saturated working on the same problems. Google’s 20% time comes to mind, but they don’t do that any more. Wonder if any companies allow employees to freely switch projects and teams with frictionless transfer processes.

Knowledge

Ultimately, learning should not be about hoarding stockpiles of knowledge like gold coins. It is about becoming a different kind of person with a different way of thinking.

This is the best piece of advice and a very interesting perspective on knowledge and learning in general.

Hope you enjoyed reading my meta-article on notes from notes about smart notes! Do check out the original post from the author too! A Manifesto of Human-Centered Work4 also writted by Tiago is a beatiful idea and is worth checking out.


  1. https://praxis.fortelabs.co/how-to-take-smart-notes/ ↩︎

  2. https://amzn.to/2vAQoFB ↩︎

  3. https://orgmode.org/manual/Capture.html#Capture ↩︎

  4. https://praxis.fortelabs.co/a-manifesto-of-human-centered-work-76060e51d0c8/ ↩︎

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