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”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.