Smart notes

on May 14, 2021. in BlaBlaBla. A 4 minute read.

Often times when I get an idea, I would twist and turn it in my head for a while. The idea would stay with me for days, sometimes even weeks, until I eventually forget it. By the time I realize I should do something with the idea, it’s gone. Even if I remember some parts of it, I lose a big chunk of the context that surrounded that idea. What made me think it? What was my first reaction to it? What other possibilities would that idea unlock? No idea, it’s gone.

Sometimes I would be smart enough to write it down. In notebooks, on small pieces of paper, in different applications either on my phone, or on my laptop. Should I have a wiki for these things? Or are text files in Dropbox better? I had so many different note taking systems that I can’t find 90% of them now. Those I can find, I have no idea what the note is about.

“Readable code takes time” tagged with #blog. That’s one note I found. Why did I write this down? When? What did I do that made me write this down? I assume I wanted to write a blog post about it…

There’s a book to help with that

By chance, or the suggestion algorithms are sentient, I watched some random video on youtube. Probably on productivity. What better topic to watch while you procrastinate, right? And in it they mention a book called How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. Eh, let’s give it a read.

And I’m happy I did.

My main takeaway from this book is not where I write down my notes, but rather how I take notes. More important is what do I do with the notes once I write them down. It mainly talks about the Zettelkasten method, which I took and after some experimentation made it work for me.

A note to be useful needs to be formalised, needs to be permanent, well written, well thought out, and possible to connect it with other notes.

How I take notes now

I keep temporary notes in Google Keep. It’s the app that I have easily accessible both on my phone and on my laptop. It’s quick to load, quick to add a note. Then, a few times a week I sit down and turn these temporary notes into permanent notes, using an app called Obsidian. In the first few days I went through three or four different setups before I ended up with this.

A graph view of all of the notes I have and their connections

Turning temporary notes into permanent ones is a deliberate process. It’s not just copy pasting the note from one place into another. The permanent note needs to be coherent, void of any grammatical errors. It needs to provide context about the idea that it can be understood on its own. Just like well written code, we should be able to understand a well written note even if we read it a year after we wrote it. A temporary note is usually a only a sentence, sometimes two. The permanent note is two or three paragraphs.

Once I have a “critical mass” of notes, I’ll sit down once again and connect them into a topic. I have topics on ideas themselves, on note taking, on writing, on working… And a good number of the permanent notes are connected to several topics. Because they are more than just a single sentence, they can be used for more than one topic. The important thing to remember about this is that connecting notes is a separate process from writing.

In about a month I have written around 110 permanent notes, organized and connected. This is the second blog post I’m writing where I’m using the notes I have, putting them in order that makes sense for this post, rephrasing a sentence or two, and that’s it. The act of writing a blog post would usually take me anywhere from a day to a week, I wrote this one in less than an hour. Sure, I spent hours on taking the permanent notes that made this blog post possible, but I can reuse those notes for other things as well, like writing a new talk.

If you don’t have a note taking system that you’re happy with, or think you could do better on that front, I highly recommend reading the “How to take smart notes” book.

Happy hackin’!

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