During 2021 I completely restructured the way I was taking notes. The goal was to up the game and be more effective and get more proficient at it.
At that time I was using Standard Notes, an e2e encrypted note taking app with rich features. I still think is a great app, but after using it for some years I noticed it was coming short: note search was missing full text search and organising them through tags was not enough.
I would still recommend it if you take linear notes as it’s packed with features and developed by a passionate team set up for the long run.
When I started searching for alternatives, I got exposed to the idea of “non-linear note taking”.
1 Minute history of note taking
We take notes to free our mind from having to recall all of them.
Since the invention of writing, note taking has played an important role in human history and scientific development. Quoting Wikipedia:
The Ancient Greeks developed hypomnema, personal records on important subjects. In the Renaissance and early modern period, students learned to take notes in schools, academies and universities, often producing beautiful volumes that served as reference works after they finished their studies. In pre-digital times, people used many kinds of notebooks, including commonplace books, accounting waste books, and marginalia.
Note taking is complex, as it requires a moltitude of cognitive function to produce a working result. Is also a requirement to manage large amount of information.
Note taking takes also different shapes and forms, in the effort to structure the content so it’s easier to find and consume at a later moment. We can cluster different methods in 2 main categoris: linear and non-linear note taking.
Linear note taking
Linear notes take the form of outlines or sentences. Outlines can be bullet points or phrases, organised and structured in a logical way from top to bottom, separated by headings. Sentences are short phrases that summarise a concept, and is losely organised.
Non-linear note taking
If you ever created a mind map you used a non-linear note taking method. In non-linear note taking notes are split as much as possible to bite-sized information that are then clustered.
Some of these methods come from long time ago: Cornell Note system is from 1950, Zettelkasten system is from mid 16th Century.
Welcome to the digital age
So it’s 2022 and looking at way to take notes I start digging deep into non-linear note taking. That’s the moment in which my fellow Standard Notes does not keep up. It was also the moment in which Roam Research started becoming popular, as its (freemium + file based) alternative Obsidian.md.
Obsidian is a great and extensible tool, powerful and file-based. This means I’m in control of the content, which is in a standard (and common for me) format, Markdown with frontmatter.
I started using Obsidian, breaking down my notes experimenting with Zettelkasten. That proved incredibly useful for content I wanted to learn and remember.
I was facing a new issue though, as I came to Obsidian early enough that there were still some rough edges. One of them was the ability to easily sync across devices (without paying) and collecting thoughs on the go. Another was using it to take linear notes in a fast way while following talks, videos or courses.
To fill this gap I discovered Workflowy, which is an infinite nestable bullet list. Workflowy power lies in its flexibility. You can basically do whatever you want and build whatever system you can think of using it. It also allows to tag bullet, link and mirror them. It behaves likes an hybrid linear/non-linear On top of all this, its pricing tag is amazing compared to the competitors.
They both served me well and I’m happy with the setup, even if there are still rough edges that I plan to iron out in the future.
This is my setup at the end of 2022:
- In Workflowy:
- all things to follow up go to Workflowy, as child of the Inbox bullet; untagged, rough, mostly links or spare thoughs. Goal is to insert them as fast as possible.
- under a Personal bullet I have:
- an Eisenhover TODO matrix
- ideas I have, tagged; generally moved from Inbox after reflection
- info on Projects I work on
- spare notes on meetings I have
- a collection of interesting quotes
- a collection of possible presents for my family and friends
- an Archive page where I move information that is not relevant anymore
- under a Work bullet I have:
- an Eisenhover TODO matrix
- other information about day to day things organised with the PARA method.
- In Obsidian:
- a Zettelkasten system where I add information
- small notes, each linked to a single Topic and tagged with cross-note or topic
- a series of pages to collect related pages; for example: listing all conference notes, all people notes, all topics notes.
Obsidian has a nice little feature, is able to graph the relation between notes. This is how my graph looks like:
The power of this structure is that I’m creating links between notes, which translates to link between concepts or people. These links are powerful for creating new content and refining ideas on past content.
I’m happy with the current process, but everything can be improved and there are some rough edges that I’d like to smooth.
I’m currently running 3 main experiements: a reMarkable tablet, Logseq and Voiceliner.
As an unexpected present I recently received a reMarkable 2 tablet. Taking note by hand again, but in a digitalised fashion, is refreshing and something I was really looking forward. I’ve not used it enough to fully understand where to put it in my workflow, if not for highlighting technical books or articles I read. I plan to extend its usage and integrate it with other tools, how is still unclear.
As there are scientific studies (like The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard) that point that taking notes by hand is better that typing them for learning, what I expect to be doing in the future is add an additional first step by hand that then gets digitalised and moved to its digital storage.
The other experiment I’m running is with Logseq. A thing that I’ve not been able to fit in all this so far has been journaling. Workflowy makes it too manual, Obsidian requires plugins or manual toil; overall it seems is neither provides a first hand experience on this. Logseq does. Another element that I’m eager to try are flash cards, but adding another tool seems to outweight the value, and it really does not fit in Workflowy and partially fits in Obsidian. Logseq does that to! Additionally Logseq has a bullet point approch like Workflowy and is file based like Obsidian. It’s promising, albeit still in early stage (but the community around it is great).
The last experiment is with Voiceliner, a speech to text recognizer bundled in a mobile app that produces Markdown files. By syncing them to Obsidian or Logseq I foresee some interesting integration there!
All of this has been quite a journey, but I’m extremely pleased at how much value I get from it. The next step will be to consolidate and integrate tools, form better note taking habits and better define processes around getting value from this personal knowledge base. In the end, that’s why we take note in the first place.