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How To Create An Elite Note Taking System
It starts by building a second brain to free your mind
Note taking is a skill everyone knows about, but is not serious about. Most white collar jobs now require some form of notation in order to keep up with the various meetings and ideas that spawn out of the daily churn. Susie needs the TPS report tomorrow, a planning meeting results in a goal to migrate a data center service to the cloud and we need detailed tasks written out, or you need to prepare a PowerPoint on sale figures for some execs by noon tomorrow and you need to include key data figures to satisfy them. All these things are on you to track, handle, and execute on in your daily job while not missing critical details as time goes by. How does one keep track of all this madness while also managing personal projects, achieving fitness goals, managing a family among many other things?
You need a system to live by that not only handles this chaos, but improves your productivity!
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Jotting down notes on a legal pad or putting sticky notes on a computer monitor is something, but it’s not a system.
The System I am talking about is your own note taking and task tracking solution that you build and foster over time. Notes and tasks are highly correlated. Tasks often require notes to execute, where as notes are generally helpful, but their value is truly unlocked when applied towards a unit of work, such as a report, book, video, or blog. Building these two together will allow you to get a strong grasp on all the work you must do in life while also having the knowledge easily recalled when needed.
So why build this? The System creates a second brain for you that removes information overload and places it into a neat and organized repository that you reference on the fly without needing to rack your brain. It’s too easy to forget tasks especially if you have multiple contexts you work within (personal, work, side project, volunteering, etc..). Anytime new info or tasks come up, you put it into your note application, apply the proper metadata and state, and now the progress of the item lives fully within there. This not only releases stress on your mental state, but also gives you the power of technology to further enhance your productivity. Combining your real brain with your second brain allows you to accomplish much more in an organized fashion.
What is the System and where can you get it? Well here’s the rub: the system is the one that works best for you. I know that sounds like a cheat but it is the truth. Each person has different levels of recall, brain storage, note taking preferences, software choices, tasks to do, and so on. The way a scientific researcher, a software developer, a business exec, and a blogger all operate are all different. Prescribing a singular system to you all is silly, but there are general guidelines I can provide to help you build your own system.
Truthfully, you will probably go through multiple iterations of the System before you find something you like. The System itself is evolvable as you yourself grow with it. Often you’ll find that mixing and matching methods of note taking and task tracking will eventually result in something that makes you happy and also is the most efficient for your workflow. Some people like managing their life as a Trello board, physically moving tasks to different work stages to get a sense of accomplishment. Some people prefer massive lists of TODOs that they work through sequentially, or some people just have a highly complex prioritization system they like. Combine this with individual note taking preferences, such as 1:1 copy writing, highlighting passages, synthesis / self voiced rewrites and you can see why everyone differs.
With how essential notes are towards remembering a meeting a week ago, or just remembering to buy eggs at the store, you’ll need to review how you currently work and determine if it is effective. I would place a big bet that most normal people have not reflected on how they take notes at all, or at least since their last collegiate course work. I hope you at least put yourself on the path of 1) thinking about how you take notes / track tasks and how to improve that, and 2) build a skeleton of a system and constantly improve it.
Copy by Reference
In this section I will detail a basic form of note taking and task tracking that you can steal and throw out what you hate, but keep what you love. The gist of it is in the tweet thread below (click on the tweet to expand, or click the thread view - LINK):
My current system is:
Digital Note Taking App - In this case LogSeq
Note taking system - Progressive Summarization
A note interlinking / recall system - Zettelkasten
These three concepts above all weave together to create The System, the superior form of note taking that will drastically increase your productivity. LogSeq stores the digital notes and organizes them. It also enables the ZettelKasten process through special symbols you apply on text: e.g. [[Articles]] or #Writings - these add links as nodes and graphs to enrich the notes and allow cross references between notes. Progressive Summarization provides the actual note taking process and resulting text that we enhance with the interlinking system. We will go over each one in detail, plus alternatives.
Note Taking App
First we have the note taking app. Digital is preferred to me as it has superior search and indexing for recall, durable backups (cloud), portability (notes on mobile are a killer feature!), plus the interlinking benefits I will detail later. Know that I still take plenty of physical notes also depending on the situation, but not everything gets put in the digital logs. Often these are work items since those don’t need to travel from my home office much, or basic personal life things that are fleeting. I also prefer long form notes from technical books to be written, as that helps my personal recall, these do get transferred digitally as needed.
As far as software options, you have a few choices:
Mobile App - Apple, with Android in experimental phase
Youngest of the three
Org Mode Style or Markdown Style
Unique advanced features / integrations
Healthy Amount of Plugins
Paid Cloud Services with differing feature levels
Pro Tier - $15 per month / $165 per year
Believer Tier - $500 / 5 years
No free tier
Strong Plugins and Integrations
Roam Highlighter - Easy Web Article Highlighting + Export into Roam
Limits on Personal graphs
Higher Quality software, less bugs
Mobile App - Apple and Android
You really can’t go wrong with any of these options. I started with RoamJS a few years ago and loved it, but eventually was tired of paying $15 a month for a service I was using less and less while also experiencing some annoying bugs on mobile. Once I learned that LogSeq lets you import from RoamJS easily and also sync via iCloud, it was an easy choice to move over. LogSeq is about 80 - 90% as good as Roam for a middle of the road user, though Syncing can be finnicky since it’s not native to the app, plus sometimes backlinks take more time to load since things are local to your device’s processor rather than Roam’s Servers. Obsidian has yet to be tried, though it looks like they support plugins such as a Kanban board which looks like a killer feature. Also note that these apps all operate on markdown files, so you can share between them, such as LogSeq for notes and Obsidian for task tracking and visualization
Most importantly, they all share a common feature: the ability to backlink. The most important feature of these note taking apps compared to something like OneNote, data is organized via a network of graphs of data points rather than a file based approach. You can easily do notes in plain old NotePad, though I’d imagine you’d have a tough time tracking various concepts and ideas easily together when they are spread between different files. More on this concept in the Zettelkasten section.
But also keep in mind tasks are units of work that must be done, and tasks are really just notes to remind you to do that thing. So they can effectively be covered by the previous note taking tools depending on how you implement that system and also the required workflows (to do, in progress, done, etc…).
In regards to implementation, I don’t have a current system I particularly enjoy, though if you need inspiration you can check out Getting Things Done - David Allen (LINK). Below is a image of his basic workflow:
Here is an actionable framework for studying:
I’m certain you will find inspiration in the above and start to develop your own style of task tracking.
So now that we have the notes app handled, we can focus on how we take notes. This is something you most likely have not thought about much as once you develop a style you generally stick with what works for you. I’ve had the personal realization that even though I take notes a certain way, I need to improve my recall and quality of notes in order to get more value out of them. Thankfully the Progressive Summarization system provides a great system for me to read information, parse it out, take key points away, and then reflect and build off the new knowledge.
Progressive Summarization is a multi stage note taking process that distils large amounts of contextual information into smaller, more dense chunks. This process happens multiple times over each refinement step performed until the knowledge has been fully processed and turned into its most compact form. Now reading this, you probably think “well that’s just how I take notes now, summarizing the important points”. You would be correct on this point, but the beauty is that the summarization technique works in both directions of compacting info as small as possible, to the opposite direction of full context and description, plus an added a step for synthesis / applied knowledge at the end. Being able to see your note taking process in action adds context to recall why you took notes, while also showing the work towards that in both directions. The final “synthesis” step, or Remix as know below is where you take knowledge and apply it, allowing that knowledge to cement in your brain.
The entire process is described in this article series link: Progressive Summarization: A Practical Technique for Designing Discoverable Notes
The basic gist can be summarized from the following graphic from the aforementioned blog:
As you read a book you should be actively notating important phrases and information so when you flip back through you can instantly find the most important passages on the page. Generally I add a bracket around an important passage, then highlight the critical info. You should always have a pen near you to mark things down when reading for knowledge. I performed this process on the first read through for myself, though if a subject is dense I might delay this process for a rereading immediately after the first reading. The amount of regret I’ve had from delaying this by a day usually results in lost information or wasted time.
For web articles, the process is similar, though you’ll need to build an analog to notating a book but in digital form. This can take place in many shapes, either within your Note app, or another note taking app such as Evernote. I personally use a template within LogSeq that automatically scaffolds a layout for me to put my notes in, shown below (depending on your note taking app, you may need to adjust this to your templating system):
- [[Writing]] - Type: - Author: - Recommended by: - Reading status:: #Unread #Read - **Processing Status:** - TODO [[Notes]] - TODO [[Bolded]] - TODO [[Highlighted]] - TODO [[Summarized]] - TODO [[Remixed]] - **Source:** - Tags: - Summary - After organizing, highlighting, and bolding the highlights, create a high-level summary #[[Progressive Summarization]] - Ideas - Holding place for ideas that come up while reading. Tag these with the bibliographic page at the end of the note and move to a page for the main idea. #[[Article/Book Template]] - #Roam-Highlights - Note: Go through these to restructure, and bold and highlight important pieces
And for a live example, here is my own example of summarizing this article: Why Microsoft’s Reorganization Is a Bad Idea
This was one of my first trials of progressive summarization when I started in 2020 and there are many things I’d like to cut down or remove now that I am looking at it, but that is how The System evolves as mentioned before. As you can see, the main bulk of the article was copied into the the Highlights section, where I further bolded or added titles for context of the content of the article. I also added backlinks for relevant info, though in the future I think I would avoid that specifically in the highlighted section, and instead do that in the Summary section as that is the most information dense and also the correct place to cross link as a result. I am also overzealous about backlinks, but that is a skill you need to work on to find what is comfortable with you.
Again, my work isn’t perfect here, but the goal was to show a template + an article and show you how it was done for me. I highly recommend at the end of this article to try it for yourself and see how it works. You can only get better at this by working at it consistently.
Like most things in life there is a fun German word for describing an interlinked note taking system. Zettelkasten takes that mantle, meaning “Slip Box”, or alternatively Note Box, Paper Box, or Card Box. This paper system has evolved with centuries of progression in how to link between topics and ideas in the physical world, and the modern incantation is now done digitally since computers are exceptional at rapidly linking data and storing it safely. In more recent times Researcher Niklas Luhmann used it to publish over 500+ articles and in essence popularized the system due to his prolific achievements and the almost folk lore tale behind it. You can read more about it in this PDF (Link).
This is the final piece of the System. Now that you have a place to store notes and also take high quality summarizations of them, you can now start building relationships with your knowledge. Effectively, you are building your own “rabbit hole” of information, a never ending linking system that can relate to topics that correlate strongly or weakly. Strong correlations will occur within fields of study, such as computer science, physics, math, and others; this will result in a strong multi linked graph with tons of vertices. Weaker correlations occur when tangential relations occur between topics, and may only have a couple of links to other topics. By constantly consuming high quality knowledge, summarizing it, and then relating it with other topics, you have built your own personal knowledge vault that can be recalled easily, traversed between related topics, and constantly enhanced with evolving knowledge. This helps anyone who needs deep thought and research on topics, the “experts” in life. Behind any real genius is a deep knowledge base that can be consumed and interacted with. Most true geniuses might not need a Zettelkasten, but I think everyone else can reap major benefits from this system.
For example, say I am taking some notes on the C programming language. The article I read mentions that C is useful for Embedded Systems and lists some interesting information around that. Months later I read another article about how a Raspberry Pi (an embedded computer / system) can be used as a Musical Synthesizer to create artificial waves. Since I love synthesizers, I go down an article rabbit hole, take notes, and continue building this strongly correlated C / Embedded Systems / Electronic Synthesizer relation. Then as time goes on, I read another article about how cars contain thousands of embedded systems to control a variety of functions in your automobile.
Suddenly I now have a link between embedded systems, cars, and musical synths, and you can see how this can keep going as I keep researching related topics. If I studied enough C to program embedded systems, I can now apply the knowledge of that towards cars, music and any other topic I wish to work on. Even with weaker correlations it’s interesting to know how two different fields intersect and that is true knowledge (or alpha as the youths say). Try to project this concept into a field you deeply study and you’ll find how useful these relations can be.
Summary of the Summarization
Hopefully you are armed with the ability to take notes in a System far superior to your current one. Remember that you must practice this skill and it is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, but that is the price entry for anything new worth learning. Once you get enough reps in you’ll adapt your note taking skills and linking system to what suits you best and eventually you’ll have a strong rate of return on all your previous work. The most difficult thing about this process is that it makes your notes more time consuming. I have counteracted this by taking smaller, more focused summaries at times, or filtering harder on articles that I know are not worth the time right now. Best of luck anon!
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