I’ve finally figured out notes

I tend to take a lot of notes, and as a result, they get saved in several places. Over the past seven years, I’ve been on a quest. My goal has been to develop a workflow that would give me maximum flexibility. I don’t always have a paper notebook or a device with me, so a single application won’t cut it. Instead, I experimented with several strategies for organizing notes and tested several apps until I found an approach that worked for me. I went into this project willing to spend a little more of my time curating and organizing notes since it’s an essential component of my career and hobbies. The time invested is worth it if the strategy pays me dividends over the long term. My goal for this post is to tell you what’s worked for me since I think that – like most people – staying organized is paramount. Furthermore, any organizational strategy should be accessible. If you’re spending more time curating your notes than producing ideas, the system doesn’t work.

The “productivity guru industry”

Evernote 2017 productivity books of the year
(Image taken from Evernote’s 2017 productivity books of the year post)

Before I dive into the nerdy aspects of note-taking, I’d like to make a few comments about productivity in general. My goal regarding notes was purely personal, but it coincided with an explosion in what I call the “productivity guru industry.” I’m neither for nor against any books that address productivity. Like every fad, there is good and bad advice. As far as I can tell, productivity books started to make best-seller lists around 2014 and they continue to trickle out to this day. David Allen, and his 2001 book Getting Things Done, was the progenitor of the productivity guru movement. Based on my reading, Allen inspired the current generation of academics, social critics, and amateur sociologists who are now developing their methods. These gurus propose an array of productivity “hacks,” often tying them to personal fulfillment and meaning. Even The Minimalists (whom I admire for their pushback against thoughtless consumerism and advocacy for having less “stuff”) have drifted into the productivity/self-help genre. I’m not here to bash this industry by any means. Many of these productivity titles are worth your time, including Cal Newport’s books (especially Deep Work), Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and the works of Steven Pressfield – most notably The War of Art and Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be. These are excellent works from which I’ve benefitted. Other titles I’ve read have been less valuable.

This tangent about productivity is relevant because a subset of the productivity fad is dedicated to perfecting note-taking. Since 2017, I’ve seen countless blog articles and YouTube videos about note-taking to develop a “second brain.” On the far end of the spectrum, there seems to be a theory that creating a vast personal archive of your notes will unlock hidden insights. On the more moderate end of the spectrum, the revived interest in note-taking seems to be mostly about helping people become more organized which I’m all in favour of. Speaking from personal experience, if something is written down it’s not taking up room in my mind. In this respect, note-taking serves a similar purpose to journaling. The Zettelkasten method is an example of this. This pre-Internet system has been implemented by many intellectuals, but the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann is probably the best-known figure. (I discussed this method in Ep. 34 of the EdTech Examined Podcast). If you’re interested in this concept, you can check out https://zettelkasten.de.

What I use

As I mentioned at the start, it’s not practical for me to rely on one “super system.” Not all notes need to be saved. Some you will want to keep indefinitely, while others have a limited shelf-life. How and where you store these different notes should be appropriate to your needs.

As an office worker, I write a lot of things down. Plus, I move around a lot. I’m sometimes in my office, but I’m often in the classroom with students or attending meetings somewhere else on campus. I take notes with whatever tool I have on me at the time. So far, I’ve been able to limit my note-taking to four places.

  • Obsidian (macOS and Windows program)
  • Apple Notes (iPhone, iPad, and Mac)
  • Notability (iPad with stylus)
  • Paper (a high-quality notebook that I take with me)

Why have so many places you might ask? First, this is a huge improvement. As a serial app tester, I have crap everywhere. As an inherently suspicious person, I don’t trust any single application to not lose my notes, nor do I trust myself to never lose a paper notebook. I had to be diversified, which is the opposite of what many productivity gurus will advise. If I’m out for a walk and I didn’t bring a notebook or larger device, I have no choice but to take notes on my phone. If I’m in a meeting and I don’t want to look like I’m texting someone, I use paper or an iPad with a stylus. Social situations sometimes dictate how we work. Second, not all notes are created equal. Again, this goes against the grain. If you’ve taken a certification or a course, you might want to take notes in a format that will give you long-term access. Other notes are temporary, are at least don’t fit under the categories of work or professional/personal development. Therefore, where these should be stored might be different and the format and “archivability” is less important. Third, different methods of note-taking provide different affordances. Many of the best practices I’ve read advocate for one method that you enforce no matter what. This seems both silly and painful. Why be limited to one system? I use all the tools available to me. As long as you can keep track of your system, it works. Let’s not pretend that you’ll be donating your notes archive to your local museum or passing it down to your kids. They’re just notes. But we all need to stay organized.

Now I’ll explain how I use these tools.


Obsidian is a multi-platform open-source application that syncs with iCloud (and presumably other cloud storage solutions) which is great for accessing notes across devices. Obsidian is designed around the Zettelkasten method I mentioned above, but I don’t use the program to its full extent. Zettelkasten was originally a print solution, and it has one key differentiator which I found helpful – the ability to connect notes. Niklas Luhmann used an index card system. He would give each note a unique ID (this could be a precise time stamp such as 202212071025) in addition to a title. The reason was that he could reference his notes in other notes, like an analog hyperlink system. Using an ID took up less space on a note card than a title, and unique IDs can only be assigned once – reducing confusion. Given that we live in the digital age, I don’t rely on unique IDs because search and tags work fine for me. I’ve experimented putting IDs at the end of a title which doesn’t hurt. If you think you’ll have notes with similar titles, or maybe you don’t want to have descriptive titles at all, IDs are a good solution. What matters is being able to create my little wiki among notes. Obsidian makes it easy to self-reference. This is a great tool if you’re writing an article or a book because you can link your notes to your manuscript.

Obsidian only holds things I want to keep for the long haul. I use the program exclusively for summarizing books and articles I’ve read (or listened to), key ideas from podcasts and other media (including social), and notes from courses I’ve taken or conferences I’ve attended. Original ideas (particularly “ah ha!” thoughts) also get saved in Obsidian. I use Obsidian purely for educational material. Because they’re important I can’t afford to have them locked behind some proprietary format. What’s critical is that all the notes can be written in Markdown and saved in .txt format. That means that my notes are not locked into a program that uses a proprietary format, or a program (like Apple Notes) that exports to PDF only.

Obsidian example
(Obsidian interface)

Like the Zettelkasten method, the notes fall into one of three categories. I take notes in Obsidian, or on paper, while I’m reading something. These are called “fleeting notes” (or “working notes”). I convert these fleeting notes into “literature notes,” where I try and condense down the ideas in my own words. (I include a full citation in each note). “Permanent notes” (which could be called “my ideas”) are ideas or conclusions I’ve reached based on the things I’ve read. Thanks to the ability to link notes together, I can include citations from other notes. This strategy might sound complicated, but it’s not. It’s just a locally-hosted wiki.

Some potential alternatives to Obsidian might be Notion (needs an Internet connection), The Archive (too complicated for me), and Click Up (never tested it).

Apple Notes

You might be wondering “why are you using Apple Notes if Obsidian is so great?” Yes, Obsidian is on all my devices so I could easily pull up my phone to use it. But, not all notes deserve to be archived. I’m a big reader and I work in a university as an academic librarian, so generating ideas to be published isn’t out of the ordinary. But, even if I worked retail I’d still use Obsidian because I find it helps my memory. A training course where I learned workplace safety is something I took useful notes on. The act of condensing something I’ve read into my own words is very helpful, and I can keep a record of what I’ve read which I like to reflect on.

Apple Notes example
(Apple Notes)

Apple Notes is more convenient, however, and it tends to work well with a voice assistant like Siri. Also, I keep lots of notes that I don’t want to be mixed up with things I intend to keep. I may use Apple Notes to jot things down, but I make a habit of converting ideas worthy of preserving to a program that uses a universal format (.txt).

The notes I keep in Apple are all working notes such as budget information, gift ideas, to-do lists, personal routines, shared notes with family, etc. They’re extremely valuable but utilitarian and often temporary. I regularly cull these notes. Apple Notes is a great app, and it serves a valuable purpose. If Apple closed the app tomorrow I would lose some useful stuff, but I wouldn’t be devastated.

Handwritten notes (paper and digital)

A device isn’t always available, and writing notes by hand is often more effective when summarizing or for promoting memory recall. In my bag, I always have a travel notebook and I’ve used a variety of brands over the years. As long as the pen doesn’t bleed through the paper, I don’t have that many requirements.

Since 2016, my primary mobile computer has been an iPad Pro. It’s a simple device that’s more than adequate for answering emails and writing. The introduction of the Apple Pencil stepped up my handwritten note-taking game because it made using multiple brush strokes and colours much easier. My app of choice is Notability, though Good Notes and Microsoft One Note seem like equivalents. No longer do I have to carry around an artist’s pen set. Not to mention, digital notes with a stylus is my preferred way of annotating PDF articles which I read a lot. The ability to draw (and easily erase) diagrams and mind maps has benefited my work. This strategy has helped me break the bad habit of taking too many typed notes. I’ve seen people typing vigorously in meetings and during class, but I doubt most individuals revisit these notes. I find that I can listen or write, not both. I don’t believe typing a live transcript of what someone is saying in a meeting or a lecture hall qualifies as “notes.” A stylus and tablet are a better method of jotting down what’s essential. But I realize an iPad is expensive, so handwritten notes on paper will be preferable to many people.

Notability example

My handwritten notes are either shredded (or deleted) or archived. Notes that have limited value get tossed. Notes that I wish to preserve are trickier. Reviewing all my handwritten digital notes and retyping them into Obsidian or Apple is neither feasible nor necessary. If the note pertains to something I read or listened to, then I might condense it into prose in Obsidian. I also attach the original note as a PDF. I use the same strategy for Apple Notes, except I’m not as much a stickler about retyping my ideas and instead will just attach the digitized note with a title, and perhaps add some tags. The majority of my paper notes are ideas such as research topics I’d like to explore, future blog articles, or ideas for personal projects. These types of notes may or may not be of long-term value, and it would require too much effort to painstakingly sift through them. Several years ago I came across the app Scanner Pro which I use to digitize my old notebooks. (I’ve also used this app to digitize all sorts of other things like old elementary school projects and high school papers). I flip through the notebook, scan the important pages, and save it as a single PDF file to my Mac. I make sure the file name includes the date range. The notebook itself eventually gets shredded.

(Pocket Batman Moleskine and Uniball pen)
Scanner Pro app example
(Scanner Pro: Image from MacStories)

Scanner Pro is great, but I’m not sure it’s at the top of the heap anymore. I just use it because I’m familiar with the interface. Some alternatives include Microsoft Lens, Adobe Scan, and Swift Scan. The New York Times Wirecutter site has a great page (that gets updated) which compares all the options.

Concluding thoughts

I chose to share the methods I’ve developed not to inspire others or for you to copy. I wanted to demystify some of these note-taking methods. My needs were practical. I take a lot of notes and my physical location changes frequently, so I have to a) use what I have on me and b) develop some consistent guidelines. I headed out on this personal quest because I was losing notes which I felt was unacceptable. I’m going to assume others have been in this situation.

Throughout this intellectual pursuit, I’ve been amazed at how note-taking has become evangelized. There are subreddits, social media groups, websites, countless custom apps, and productivity gurus (often YouTubers) flaunting their perfect “system.” Concerning the latter group, there is some good advice out there. Many students and professionals have made a side gig by selling their processes. I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to side hustles, but I’m not sanguine about it either. If the YouTuber is successful in something else besides having a channel about productivity hacks, then I’m more inclined to give it a pass. But, many of these self-proclaimed productivity gurus haven’t done much except use these productivity hacks to develop their productivity-focused YouTube channel. In contrast, Cal Newport – who will forever be Mr. Deep Work – was an excellent student and is a prolific academic in the field of computer science.

Ultimately, I’m just an individual. I’m a professional librarian, and former IT person, who has a job that requires me to take a lot of notes. Not to mention I have a lot of personal interests. After speaking to friends and colleagues (often to learn about their processes), I discovered that many people struggle with similar organizational problems. I wrote this post to demonstrate what I do, but also how I made other peoples’ advice work for me. The rise of productivity gurus tells me that individuals have both a desire for self-improvement, but also a lack of confidence. Take their (and my) advice with a grain of salt. Be bold and develop your processes. I can do it, and so can you.

The Rogers Communications outage and the need for offline functionality

Image by IO-Images from Pixabay

I recently published a piece about the lessons we should learn from the Rogers Communications outage. The way I see it, the outage underscored two facts

  1. We are incredibly dependent on the Internet. 
  2. The importance of preserving offline functionality

Offline functionality means having devices that are functional without an Internet connection.

What I took away from this outage (I wasn’t affected thankfully) is that offline functionality in my devices is critical.

I’m from a generation (maybe even the last generation), that remembers when personal computers were primarily offline devices. It’s not my intent to scold younger folks, nor am I suggesting that I was born during a better time. It’s just a fact that most home computers from the 1990s – which were generally shared by all family members – were offline most of the time. As a result, our sImage by IO-Images from Pixabayoftware was designed with offline use in mind. Budgeting, word processing, and gaming were all done offline.

Continue reading on Tech Bytes

The professional vs the amateur

CC image by Alan O’Rourke from Flickr

I get a lot of questions about productivity from my students and colleagues. I suppose by being relatively well read on the subject of productivity, and by being “perceived” as productive, I have brought this on myself. I could easily channel the advice of Cal Newport or David Allen, but I want to discuss a less regimented and more philosophical approach to doing work.

One of my favourite books is Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work which provides a template for how to battle “Resistance.” Pressfield argues that there is an internal force – a part of our ego which he describes as the dragon – that is holding us back from doing creative work. He is very clear that Resistance is an internal force, not an external one. The dragon represents our fear of failure and our sense of self-doubt. The more we give in to our anxieties, the stronger the dragon becomes. Each time a writer, a painter, a scholar, a scientist, or a musician sits down to work on their craft, their inner knight does battle with this dragon of Resistance. It’s a battle that’s fought every day.

Pressfield discussing how to overcome Resistance

The metaphor of Resistance has always stuck with me because it’s true. I love to write. I love to play the guitar. I love to lift weights. I love to do chores (believe it or not). But I procrastinate like nobody’s business because there’s a voice in my head constantly pushing feelings of fear, guilt, or excuses.

Pressfield’s book has had such an impact on me that I started reading through his other titles about writing. The War of Art, which is probably his most famous book on artistic productivity, covers much of the same ground. While Do the Work provides a battle plan for each creative session, The War of Art takes a step back and outlines not only the internal struggles that artists face but also how to conduct oneself professionally as an artist.

Pressfield makes a hard distinction between the professional and the amateur. But, the distinction is not based on financial success. He identifies several aspects of the professional. The following list includes many, but not all, of the “professional” qualities.

• The professional shows up to work every day no matter what (in sickness or health).

• The professional stays on the job all day. He helps the customer, answers the phone, and puts in the time required. It’s his duty.

• The professional is in it for the long-term. Professionals understand that there will be good days and bad days, but they keep on trucking regardless.

• The professional is patient. They understand that success takes time. This is similar to David Goggins’ theory that life requires “reps.”

• The professional seeks order. I love this one. Professionals make sure their house is in order (literally and metaphorically) so they have a proper work environment for the day. My Dad, who was a writer, used this strategy. The floor is swept and vacuumed. The bathrooms are clean. The dishes are done. Your workspace is organized. This habit makes a world of difference.

• The professional doesn’t make excuses. They own up to their mistakes and they strive to learn from each experience. The day of full of hills and valleys. When something goes wrong a professional sees it as his/her responsibility to correct the situation.

• The professional is prepared. Whether it’s getting up early to work out before you hit the books (like Pressfield does), cultivating a pre-work coffee-making ritual, or planning your weekly tasks every Sunday afternoon, professionals have a system that sets them up to succeed.

• The professional doesn’t show off. They are humble in their successes and resilient in their failures. Because professionals are in it for the long-term, they take only take a couple of minutes to be proud of their accomplishments and then start working on the next project.

• The professional reinvents himself. Pressfield worked in advertising and was a screenwriter before he was a novelist. Artistic endeavours, even within the same general field, can lead to different paths. Professionals are willing to take risks and reinvent themselves in the face of success or failure.

The amateur, not surprisingly, is characterized as having the opposite traits. Amateurs don’t treat their work with the same respect. They don’t show up to the “job” every day no matter what. Instead, they make excuses about why they didn’t get to it. Pressfield sums up the difference beautifully by describing how professionals and amateurs are connected to their work. A professional’s ego isn’t tied to the work. This is important because the professional realizes that any given work is just one expression, one example, of what they’re capable of. The amateur, in contrast, is too emotionally tied to each work. Failure leads to depression and success leads to euphoria.

Pressfield describes how Hollywood screenwriters insulate themselves from this amateurish nature by creating a corporation of one. By self incorporating, you can wear two hats. There’s you the individual and you the professional. Your professional self has separate credit cards for business expenses, separate stationery for notes, a separate workspace, etc. You hire your professional self out to “get the job done.” This professional persona keeps on plugging away regardless of a work’s success or failure. The professional self is bullet proof. In other words, the professional treats the art like a 9-5 job. There is no task or contract below the professional; this is the person you call when you need to sell your skills.

Furthermore, Pressfield also says that becoming a professional is a decision. It can just be made. As long as you act like a professional, as described by the points above, then you are a professional. Financial success might never come, but that doesn’t matter because you walk the walk.

The lessons that Pressfield outlines are incredibly practical and widely applicable. They are not that different from what I’ve told students for many years. Treat your studies like a 9-5 job. Learn from failures. Keep plugging away at the work. Much of the advice in The War of Art is geared toward writers, but I think it holds for anybody doing a challenging task – bodybuilders included.

The War of Art isn’t new. This title was published in 2002. But, the advice is as true then as it is today. When I think back to the 5000-word papers I wrote for university political science and history classes, I can recall the ups and downs during each session. I remember working on a paper on the second floor of the university library during one particularly cold November. I had my Mac laptop in front of me with a mile-high stack of books on each side. Everything was crammed into the small brown wood veneer cubby I was inhabiting. I must have sat in that chair for six hours. And, during those six hours I lived several lifetimes. I experience joy, loss, resentment, exhaustion, and exhilaration. I remember experiencing that session over and over again throughout my university career. Each paper I had to write was an epic battle between my inner knight and the dragon of Resistance. Every day I showed up like a professional and got my work done.

It’s a cliche to point out that we live in an “age of distraction,” but it’s true. Focus and gratitude are in very short supply in today’s society. I get a question from all my students: “How do I get started?” This could apply to any project they’re working on – whether it’s a paper, presentation, or lab report. I always give them the same answer: “Start now.” Saying you’ll start later isn’t going to cut it. Sit down and get right into it. If you can suffer through the first two or three minutes, you’ll be on your way to battling Resistance that day and acting like a professional.

A productive update: Impressions of the 2020 iPad Pro

What better time to launch a new iPad than during a global pandemic. Am I right?

In this article I provide my take on the new 2020 iPad Pro features, based on other hands-on reviews from around the web. While this is a fairly minor update, there are a few interesting tidbits to be found – specifically the increase in RAM and new lidar camera system.

Full article link

Bane, blessing, or just something different? iPadOS for multitasking and productivity (Tech Bytes post)

With the introduction of iPadOS, the iPad is now a viable productivity machine. But, its approach to multitasking and gesture controls are starkly different from the Mac. In this article I examine two things. iPadOS has been characterized as considerably more complicated than previous iPad versions of iOS. I compared iOS 12 and iPadOS to see how much gesture complexity has been added to the iPad platform. I also broadly compare the iPad and Mac’s multitasking gestures, number of keyboard shortcuts, and overall approach to app windowing to answer the following question. Is the iPad (and iPadOS) a capable productivity platform when compared to traditional desktop operating systems (OS), or is it simply a different take on how work should be done?

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