Writing can improve our thinking. I know it has improved mine. But do we know what parts of the writing process that helps us think better? Can it be done systematically? What are the traits of a good note-taking process that lead to better grasp of ideas and concepts? This has been my question for many years.
You may use your note-taking system for non-idea kinds of things like managing projects, writing todos, sharing standard operating procedures… These are not the types of notes I’m talking about here. I’m only talking about notes we take when we are consuming interesting information that contains ideas we want to learn from, and other kinds of ambient consumption. What do you retain from reading a book, listening to a podcast, or watching a video?
I love learning. Since I was young I was taught that writing and note-taking was an integral part of the learning process. However, I never felt I was getting the most out of my notes. In search of a better system, I’ve tried many note-taking methods throughout the years, with mixed results.
I’ve come a long way since then and only recently did I finally find traction on my note-taking. Here are some beliefs on note-taking that I carried for a long time, but that changed over time.
Assumption 1: I need to take notes.
Actually… Not everyone needs to take notes. For instance, I think the writer David Perell takes way less notes than you think. There is a small population of people who do not need to do the intermediary step of writing down stuff in order to make mental leaps towards better thinking. The extreme of this is Stephen Hawking. This is a really really small percentage of the population, and it comes down to knowing yourself and your capacity for abstract and conceptual thinking.
If you can do what Stephen Hawking does, you could probably also stop reading this now lol. But if you’re a commoner like me, taking notes can be incredibly useful in bridging the gaps of mental leaps.
Assumption 2: More notes is better
Nope. I have been a prolific note-taker in my life and while my notes flourished, my free time drastically diminished. I found myself spending more time organizing my notes than organizing my thoughts. Why? Because somehow, more notes translated into more elaborate administrative systems to organize them. Some overcome this shortcoming by using the Search bar very well. But generally speaking, I found that more notes don’t correlate with better ideas.
Assumption 3: All the notes I take are important
Also no. Your notes are not precious, it’s the ideas within them that are. This important distinction I learned through the Zettelkasten method. There is a type of note called “Fleeting Notes” which is basically equivalent to chicken scratch notes that are hastily taken to capture a thought, and then later discarded after they’ve been transcribed into a more long-lasting form in one’s proper notes. It was such a relief for me to learn that it’s ok to discard/retire notes once they’ve been replaced by better, clearer thinking.
Assumption 4: If I do it right, my notes will reach a state of perfection
Oh goodness no. This was my mindset, and frankly the mindset that many note-taking systems instilled in me as I was learning them. Just look at the offshoot bullet journalling #BuJo community which is focused on creating beautiful layouts on paper. This is equivalent to pegging your own self worth to the unrealistic and misdirected standards of beauty presented by Hollywood actors and models. Scrolling #BuJo on Instagram and looking at other perfect PKMs that use emojis and custom themes made me disappointed in myself, and made me averse to working on my notes when they were anything less than perfect.
Assumption 5: My notes should directly feed into the topics I determine I want to publish on.
You could do this… but what you’re doing is severely limiting the scope of your note-taking to only serve the thing you think you want to publish on. It’s very similar to the old university-thesis model that encourages students to pick a hypothesis first, and do the research later. The problem is that you have no idea if it’s a good direction to begin with. Why make assumptions on how the things that interest you will inform future essays? While I ultimately want to write about cities, I found myself interested in human rights, human needs and human behaviours too. I am also interested in learning about how humans learn stuff. Had I fenced my notes to only pertain to cities, my notes would never be in harmony with the way that my brain worked, and my work on cities could never be informed by obscure things from other interests of mine.