My new note-taking system: Don’t take notes.

It feels like the entire world (or at least my corner of) is consumed by the “how” of note-taking. Tools, workflows, processes, backlinks, and on and on. Obsidian? Roam? Paper? I read it all. It’s fun and interesting and there’s no end of things to distract myself with. A distraction is all it is.

None if it really matters, though, and yet we endlessly split hairs and wring our hands and gaze at our navels over irrelevant minutiae. It’s exhausting. I’m not one of those people who wear “I never change my system” as a badge of honor. I can’t seem to stop. I’m too curious for that. FOMO and all.

As an attempt to extract myself from this loop, I’ve decided to stop taking notes for a while. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing. Writing isn’t note-taking. Nor is journaling. I’ll still do that. That’s what all of this is supposed to be for, isn’t it? But I won’t be jotting down my recent thoughts about minimalism or digital record-keeping or the details of a conversation I had with a colleague or how much I paid for the wrench I just ordered.

No more Roam vs Obsidian vs Tinderbox vs Org mode vs The Archive or what-have-you until I stop obsessing over which is better or more private or more open source or if it uses the right kind of Markdown. No more worrying about whether I’m taking “smart” enough notes or if this one should be “evergreen” or not. How long should a zettel be, anyway?

I’m willing to bet there are lots of smart, productive, happy people around that take very few notes and aren’t missing anything. I would love to be one of those people.

15 Comments

  1. @jack I am 52. I was thinking after one of your posts – I think my Tiddley Wiki – that I lost … how many notes etc that I have lost. how many spreadsheets I have made and lost. Does it matter? Not really. The point who am I? have I made progress as a person? to my family to my community? Most days, I pull out a 3×5 card – side one is I list (non – work) tasks I need to get done that day. Note the time if they are time sensitive. On the back – I capture other things that might come to mind. Repeat. This seems to work the best for me.

  2. @jack How dare you continue to see the forest, in spite of all the trees. Pay attention to what doesn’t matter and be a compliant modern computer user like you’re supposed to be. Haven’t you learned anything at all from all the thousands of hours you’ve spent on the Internet?

    What did Pogo say?
    “We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us.”

  3. @jack I haven’t reached that point yet, but yes, I’m cutting back as well. Note as I need, with a single tool that is easily searchable. Doesn’t matter which one.

    When I was at university (probably longer ago that you) I found that the act of writing the note was more important than being able to look it up. The writing was the key.

  4. This gives me some food for thought. I have been looking for a good note-taking system and I’ve been eyeing some of the various wiki software. I have had to take an astronomical amount of notes over the past few years and they’re all stored in Anki decks. These notes have served me well and I will use them for many years to come, but random flash cards aren’t great for creating links between different concepts.

    We’re bombarded with so much information these days that note-taking seems like a good idea. If you have a need to organize your thoughts and you know how you want to organize them, then finding the right tool for the job should come naturally.

    1. I never really got into the spaced repetition thing, but many swear by it. At least using something like Anki can make your notes _useful_. I should take another look, thanks.

  5. I love taking notes, even though I probably never look at 95% of them the day after I’ve written them. They are just part of my thinking and planning process… how I make sense of my world. Then there is the 5% that is really valuable to keep. Challenge is figuring out which 5% that is! I also love the novelty of new systems, all kinds of systems but particularly note taking systems, Tiddlywiki is still the champ but paper, reMarkable, text files are all in the mix!

    1. I hear you! I think I love it all too much, which leads me to always be questioning the way I’m doing things and looking for something new. How do you manage your “mix”? I feel like if I say “Now, where did I write that?” one more time I’ll lose my mind :).

      1. I don’t think I have great answer but I do try to always have one primary system and I use a lot of pointers to other repos that are in the mix. For example at work we’re a Microsoft shop (Teams, SharePoint, DevOps … ) but almost everything has a URL so my personal notes have a lot of entries like “ABC file for XYZ project: <>” type references. I always search my primary repo first and then spin out to the secondaries if I don’t find what I’m looking for. This also works for paper notes that I haven’t transcribed … “Ideas for post-pandemic vacation, 2021 journal page 48”. The reMarkable 2 has helped somewhat as it’s left me with only one “real paper” Notebook and everything else handwritten is in the reMarkable. For Tiddlywiki I run a local Tiddlyserver so all Tiddlers are text files and can be easily found with spotlight and edited with a text editor (however I need to restart TiddlyServer to pick up the changes) In practise this is more aspirational than practical as I don’t edit tiddlers by hand very often but it’s nice to have the option.

        1. Thanks for the follow up! It sounds like you manage things similarly to how I _try_ to. I’ve also brought FoxTrot into the mix and find it great for specific searches. I’m always happy to hear from another TiddlyWiki fan, too! 🙂

  6. I empathise with the post. I wonder if what we’re doing is confusing a few different types of writing. Writing for synthesis (articles, essays etc), journalling, note-taking to capture thoughts/items for later reference. Closely related— notes can feed synthesis for example— and they all look like writing, but they perhaps benefit from being managed differently?

    Some of the people who make brilliant use of Roam/Obsidian/Logseq etc are academic researchers. Some are entrepreneurs. Easy to see the value of tools that facilitate frictionless connected thinking in these and other similar use cases.

    Then there’s a body of note-taking that’s really just journalling— thinking that’s useful to process through writing, that probably won’t need to be wired into a knowledge graph. Especially not when, if we ever need to reference a particular journal entry, a basic search will probably suffice.

    Maybe the journal doesn’t need to live in the knowledge base (kinda like the advice of not using a work computer for personal stuff). And maybe we just need to be brutally honest about what our actual needs are, which I know is hard to do when tempted by all the shiny new tools being released into the world…

    Of course, when all is said and done, different minds need different bicycles… 😉

    1. Good points, Jacob. And yes, I find that most of my needs fall under the “record keeping” umbrella. This is why I probably don’t need a fancy graph or anything beyond a good search facility. But I love playing with apps so much that I tend to pretend I need more. 🙂

      1. Oh, believe me, I know that feeling. I’ve got a list of “knowledge management” tools in Raindrop. And I’ve tried a fair few of them— TiddlyWiki, Roam, Logseq, Obsidian, Supernotes, etc etc. Currently taking a look at Foam (though if something like Foam existed for Sublime Text, I’d be a little more comfortable…

        Nothing I’ve thus far tried has compelled me away from my long-running stack— Drafts + iThoughts. And for now, I doubt anything ever will. Foam can work nicely with my existing set-up via Git. What I have can handle everything I currently need. That doesn’t prevent me from keeping eyes open for whatever’s new… 😉

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