Note taking: the why what, and how.
Note-taking is a popular topic for bloggers on the internet because Tiago Forte completed his 12th cohort of Building A Second Brain Course. For Tiago’s course, note-taking is the beginning point for the enhancement of his creative output. He is building a body of ideas that he will use in the future to produce a creative output. His system is the PARA system. Here I examine note-taking the why, the, what, and the how as an introduction to notes and my digital brain.
Note-taking and PARA as we are going to see here is just a part of the Personal Knowledge Management System (PKM) that we are going to build. Not all note-taking has Tiago’s endpoint in mind. You may take and save notes to pass a course. Store documents that you want to find easily in the future. Or you may simply be a digital hoarder, never wanting to throw anything away. Being just a digital hoarder so you never lose an idea or document is more about storage and retrieval than a gathering of ideas to enhance your future creativity. Both are valid reasons for your note-taking.
In my case, I am going to talk about note-taking concepts that enable me to create enhanced output. My digital brain and note-taking have the same goal as Tiago’s course. We end up at the same place with a process for capturing, storing, and retrieving ideas from our digital brain.
Storing your notes in a digital brain is necessary because the main reason we take notes is so we can remember something. And after 18 years of school, and numerous classes since then my brain, although arguably big enough, has better things to do. My first brain does my thinking about what is going on now and how to keep me safe. My second brain keeps all the little odds and ends of ideas that I have had and accumulated over several decades. You will be surprised how quickly your digital brain can grow if you only save three ideas a day
Saving notes from classes and being able to retrieve them is also important for me as a blogger and writer. But in today’s age of the flood of information, I can’t possibly keep everything in my biological brain. I have notes from over 4000 articles, more than 150 books, and documents that I have saved over the last 7+ decades. As you can imagine, for a blogger and writer that is an immense reservoir of ideas that can be combined and related to each other in an uncountable number of ways.
Notes are many things.
A sentence from a movie, podcast, or tv show that struck you.
Documents that are important to you.
Notes on articles.
A dictation from something you thought of while taking a walk.
Blogs you like.
Newsletters you like.
Wedding, Birth, and death announcements.
and the list is as long as your imagination takes.
My note-taking Process
Step 1. For me is the raw notes phase or my hoarder phase.
In this step, I take everything I read (books, articles, quotes) and highlight the parts I want to keep as I read them. For a 300-page fiction book, I may only highlight a few sentences. This is what goes into my second brain as a part of my digital hoard.
Step 2 Read the highlights and bold the most important words.
During this step, I am going through the highlights and searching for the nuggets. The keywords or phrases that speak to me.
Step 3 Look at the bolded sections and pick out keywords to use to link to other information in my hoard
Some examples of keywords would be mindfulness, meditation, goals, quotes, wisdom, justice, truth, citizenship, etc. Once I do this, I now have linked each note to all the other similar notes.
For most of my notes, primarily because of my age, that is as far as I go. You can stop at this point or go on to the following steps.
Step 4 Summarize the bolded portions in your own words as Fleeting Notes.
The fleeting note is a term from the note-taking Philosophy called Zettelkasten. I have to say what I am doing is just getting started with this concept so if you want to do this, I highly recommend this article and the book, how to take smart notes. I will write more on this as I understand his distinctions better.
Step 5 Summarize and make permanent notes
This step is about putting the notes into your own words. When you do this, you
.understand the concept and ideas in the underlying steps.
Store your notes in your digital Brain
Because of the volume of my notes, I store them in my digital brain
As you live long and prosper (saw star trek yesterday), you will accumulate a large number of notes. You can easily see that you need a way to store them so you can find them.
Historically, we kept notes in file folders and filing cabinets. Color-coded systems were in place so we would be able to find what we were looking for easier. But, to tell you the truth, on my last project we had files that extended five shelves high and four 5-foot sections wide times four rows. Just imagine how much fun it was to find a particular memo you wrote in this filing system. Luckily digital systems have helped a lot.
A new way of filing and retrieving our notes has emerged in the last few years, the network approach. Rather than filing in a hierarchical structure, you simply file your notes into the system, and it links notes to all other similar notes. When we get to the blog on storing, we will go into this in greater depth. But remember that there is no perfect digital system and if you don’t understand it, it won’t work for you. But let’s finish this blog with the why and how of note-taking.
Why do we take notes?
Well, the easy answer is that our future self may need them. Secondly, it is because we want to remember something for the long term. It could be an elegant sentence. A quote that resonates with you. For example, last night on a tv show I was watching the actor said, “growing up everything seemed so big, going back everything seems so small.” We have all experienced this when we return to our hometown or the last place we lived after an absence. It is never the same as we remembered.
One of the most popular books on note-taking is How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens. is inspired by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. If you want to seriously get into the philosophy of note-taking, I highly recommend a careful study of this book. For mere mortals and college students, I recommend the article The best note-taking methods for college students. The author talks about the outline method, the Cornell system, the boxing method, the charting method, and the mapping method. My preferences are either the Cornell method or the mapping method. Whichever method you choose, stick with it until you become prolific with it. Enough for the why and how.
“You have to make your own condensed notes. You learn from MAKING them. A lot of thinking goes into deciding what to include and exclude. You develop your own system of abbreviations and memory methods for the information.”- Peter Rogers
“Very often, gleams of light come in a few minutes’ sleeplessness, in a second perhaps; you must fix them. To entrust them to the relaxed brain is like writing on water; there is every chance that on the morrow there will be no slightest trace left of any happening.” ― Antonin Sertillanges.
I have listed the titles of the next four articles below. These are the steps with the 5 above in the middle that help you build a digital brain that will be useful for you. I am going to fit in a discussion of digital note-taking apps along the way.
Capturing your notes and ideas
Organizing your notes and ideas
Storing your Notes in your digital Brain
Retrieving your notes