Notes on Notes

A little addition to what I said the other day: The “take notes to reach your goals” is kinda important. Because I am a believer that you actually shouldn’t take (too many) notes that are not in some productive way connected to what you want to achieve.

The world is big. And the amount of potential notes you could take is immense. In my own note taking I try to frame the act of note taking as an activity done by an author, not an archivist. Be an author or creator and find ways in which note taking can support you, but try not to fall into the trap of writing everything down.1 Your job is not to have the perfect Zettelkasten (or whatever), but to have and stay in contact with whatever it is your try to do with your life.

  1. Even worse: trying to perfect all this random stuff: By making everything a beautiful, artfully crafted perfect little note. No! Only do that with the stuff that makes you better in your job/helps you reach your goals. ↩︎

Some ways in which notes can help to reach goals:

  • Finding goals and planning them out
  • Tracking progress
  • Colleting ideas
  • organizing Tasks
  • Reflecting on all of the above

Some ways in which some types of notes can make you write more notes:

  • running list notes - as long as a list is active, new things have to be added to it to keep it active
  • check list notes - check lists have to be used
  • “forms” - forms have to be filled (could also be a single field form, like a prompt note)
  • seed notes - have to be edited/refactored
  • notes with complex ideas - will have to be explained by other notes that may not exist yet or have to bridged to be able to be linked
  • highlights/notes of reading materials - are not even real notes yet!

I think that one trick to make note taking make sense is to arrange your note taking in a way that leads to more note taking and then to make that note taking about reaching your goals. I say “and then” but both things (which are goals in themselves) have to be front and center all the time.

Tools Make Knowledge

HeyScottyJ - No PKM necessary

The concept of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is flawed in that it fails to recognize that there is more to knowledge management than simply collecting, storing, and organizing data. Rather, knowledge management is a process of transforming data into information and then into knowledge through the application of cognitive processes.

While PKM tools can be helpful in collecting, organizing, and connecting the information you gather, it is up to you to do something with that information to turn it into knowledge.

I agree with Eric’s point - and have made a similar one recently - just gathering and organizing information is not knowledge.

However, I feel that Scotty seems to throw out the baby with the bath water: Just because PKM tools are limited doesn’t mean that they are useless. Many people (like me) want or indeed need a writing surface to think. Finding a good writing surface makes a real difference and PKM tools can be an incredible writing surface.

Does this make them “necessary” for PKM? First, what actually is a PKM tool? A notebook? A piece of paper? An index card? A word document? The current crop of fancy note taking tools like Obsidian et. al. are mostly more sophisticated versions of simpler PKM tools that came before them. So I’d say if we just talk about “tools that help turn data into information and in turn into knowledge” (obviously not on their own, I’ll have to engage with the stuff in front of me) then, I’d say, they are indeed needed. If it is about the more sophisticated variants that have become popular over the last few years, then I think the question can be answered with a “no, but”. The “but” part here would make an argument about convenience but also elaborative power.

It can be very convenient to use a modern tool like Obsidian and although not strictly neccessary, working with it is just very nice. As is using an iPhone (in my experience) or a sharp knife. Having a nice tool, makes me want to use the tool more, therefore engaging me with what I have gathered before, which in turn makes it more likely that I’ll acquire knowledge in the process.

More sophisticated PKM tools have, generally speaking, more elaborative power. If I can view and connect an idea in many different ways with ease, I am engaging with the information at hand, making it more easily retrievable. In other words these actions make it more likely I learn how it fits with other things I know already. This is what learning is: trying to understand, trying to get at the ideas behind the information and finding a “fit” within the greater universe of concepts and ideas I already know. If I have a tool, that makes the grunt work easier - like creating links, making my notes portable and so on - I can actually focus more on engaging with the interesting things I have collected. That’s a good thing.

I’m also not sure that the PKM concept itself is not recognizing the importance of actually engaging with my data, as is claimed. I believe that people are aware. I for example was not surprised that PKM should do more than “just” organize data (but was surprised that Scott would think knowledge workers that have heard of PKM aren’t in the know) . I still think that there is a good point in here, that got buried though: No matter the sophistication of the tools used to engage with gathered information: I’ll have to do the leg work, which is what Eric took from it (and what I agree with).

In short: Sure, knowledge work doesn’t need sophisticated PKM tools, but it is tools that make knowledge, so I find it a little reductive to call a concept “flawed” and tools associated with it “unneccessary”, especially if it has lots of things to recommend itself.

P.S.: I would be on board with calling hype cycles around new technologies like “more sophsticated PKM tools” (or “LLMs” more recently) annoying, but these tools (both of them, actually) are not useless and shouldn’t therefore be so easily dismissed.


An interesting difference that just occurred to me: Knowledge management and idea generation are not the same things. They are related, but a note system and its user may have to decide if they’re building an archive or if they’re building an idea generator. I’d say the latter is much more valuable for individuals.

As somebody who has taken notes for a long time now, I have gone through iterations of my setup to interact with them (last year I tried to use Agenda for my periodic and project notes, which I later abandoned in favor of using exclusively Obsidian again). In the process of moving from one app to the next it was not uncommon to leave notes behind. Not always did this happen intentionally. My current incarnation of my notes system consists of about 5000 notes, when I started to move from Evernote to Obsidian I left thousands of notes behind. If I’d need to guess, a count of all of my notes ever written reaches probably around 100000. As I have a full-time job, a little family and little time, my current situation doesn’t allow me to do work on my notes all the time.

So I will probably never be able to collate, deduplicate and unify all my notes into my current system. But I have learned that this is really also not as important as one might think at first. I use my notes system as a way to think and generate new ideas. The argument for having a notes system like this continues usually this way: “…and the more ideas you have, the more you’ll create/find…”. But I think more important than the total amount is to reach a critical mass of notes, which seems to start for me around 50 or so. By this point I seem to be able to always find something to connect to something else. There is always something else to elaborate, so ideas are generated, which is exactly the goal of my system.

I don’t need all my 100000 notes to do it. These 50 notes also don’t need to be perfect notes, or only capturing “atomic” ideas. Some are short reflexions, others are definitions, quotes, maybe a picture, a copy and pasted line of code. Often times they are daily notes that log what I have done that day with links to other notes. (See also: The three types of notes I take)

Heterogeneity and being in various states of completion are really not a problem, as long as there is enough of a critical mass in the system to generate new notes.

EDIT: You may be interested in my little constellation of “Notes on Notes” about the process of working with a notes system:


The way I journal - Part 1: Overview

My journal is in some ways similar to what ratfactor has described, only its not a hybrid analog/digital system. When I have time I will publish the second part, which describes how I implemented this workflow in Obsidian.

Without further ado, here is my workflow for keeping a digital journal:

  1. Have a daily note, that logs what important things have happened that day. One thing per dash. I don’t bother to log the time, because it’s information I do not use (it also prevents redundancy). NB: I sometimes have only one or two things logged for that day. Logging too much just drowns out the actually important stuff.
  2. If there is more to say: Instead of writing paragraphs about the thing in the daily note, branch it out into its own note and leave a link at the dash.
  3. This is basically a special case of point 2: Always create a note for ongoing projects: Write down what you’re doing in the project note. Use headings that link themselves back to the dailies - and link from the daily note to the project note: In this way you can see the progress made per project and don’t clog up your dailies, while at the same time retaining a list of the things you did that day.
  4. At the beginning of the next week, you do a weekly wrap-up: Last weeks weekly note gets populated by the important thoughts, projects, observations, ideas, etc. that occurred that last week: This often doesn’t take very long, because more often than not, you can copy and paste your most important bullet points from the dailies to your weeklies. You may want to add an extra comment to those here and there, or an extra thing, like an observation for stuff that didn’t get logged in the dailies but is deemed important enough to be remarked upon for the weekly.
  5. This pattern of taking the most important stuff from the dailies and putting it into the weeklies is repeated for each periodic note: The monthlies get populated by the weeklies, the quarterlies by the monthlies and the yearlies by the quarterlies. The most important stuff gets distilled even more the longer the timespan is the note covers. In this way the workload is kept relatively small, although the first round of wrap-ups every year can take a while, since you have to do a weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly wrap-up all at the same time. But even then: It shouldn’t take longer than maybe an hour.

This little workflow is not too time intensive and at the same time gives me peace of mind: I do have a kind of journal of my life, which I can use to look back on what happened in my life.

I have been more or less doing this kind of journaling for two years now and can really recommend it. A word to clarify something important though: A journal kept in this way is not going to be a literary delight. Individual thoughts and observations might rise to that level, but the journal as a whole is much more utilitarian. If this is not a problem and you’d like the idea of distilling what’s been important this might be for you.

This last year was not a great year. I wouldn’t say it was as bad as 2021. But it was a challenging year. 2022 was a year of increasing uncertainty. There was (and is) war happening very close by (or at least that’s how it feels). There is the economic down turn, which touches everything and everyone around me.

I look back and see a year that was defined by trying to get a grip, finally (for the umpteenth time). I was successful for a while, but almost nothing I tried to do stuck throughout the year (and beyond): I did not become a microcaster, an early riser, a newsletter writer, for example. Notable exceptions: Duolingo (500+ days streak) and my DailyDogo series of posts here on the blog. I started a side project that I will claim is still ongoing, even though I have not invested any time into it since mid December.

Now, not all projects are meant to be continuous, or even meant to succeed. I know that and it’s fine. I do appreciate the insight gained from projects more than their outcomes. Nonetheless it is gnawing at me that I do not have a lot to show in terms of progress regarding my own ideas. I feel like I ought to be capable enough to make things (bring side projects to a “version 1” state, continuously publish side projects that are ongoing, like newsletters), change or add habits, transform my surroundings in a positive manner, etc. I feel like I should be able to succeed sometimes, at least.

Let me say it again: Despite what I just wrote, I do appreciate that I have not stood still and it would be wrong to claim that nothing good came out of me trying hard in whatever it may have been. I just feel like that I would like to be able to show something for the effort, something tangible.

Take my note taking system for example: For literal decades (only 2, but that still warrants the plural) I have honed and refined my skill to take notes, to think in notes and therefore am able to think many interesting thoughts beyond what a single “thought session” may come up with. I feel like this makes me good at my job. It actually makes me good at life I’ll claim, because my reflections are more mature and I do know myself better than without. The question is though: If I’m so great, where are the results of me being good? I’m a middling programmer - I do recognize that I started my career later than others and I know that I have not reached my ceiling and am far from it: I even made steps forward to becoming more proficient. But still. I’m an okay writer (or was) - not in English, mind you - but where are the publications? I’m a pretty good thinker - but where are my contributions to a field, any field, that I have had academic training in (history, sociology, anthropology of science and technology and computer science)?

It seems to me that I’m caught in a stage of continuously drafting grand visions of my future if I look back through the many years of yearly reviews I have done. I’m pretty sick of it. In 2022 I already made a change towards not changing my plans, but instead refining them. I count this as my biggest professional success. I made my peace with having a career in software development (now about 5 years in) and am trying to learn more about software architecture (only slightly successful, but nonetheless).

IMG 7608

In my private life, our dog has been a great source of happiness. At the same time having a dog is challenging. My family lives about 2000 km away. My partner’s family lives about 800 km away. So visits to either part of the family became much, much harder to organize and carry out. The same is true for vacations. Daily life with a dog is great, but it’s not a neutral thing either: A dog warrants attention, love, decision making and so many different things. Your life will change and it will revolve around the dog a lot. This is maybe not surprising intellectually, but experientially it feels still much different than what it may have looked like beforehand. I do not regret having a dog, as hard as it was raising or quite simply dealing with her this year sometimes, but I won’t say that everything was fine and easy going all the time either. Still, I love her like a crazy dog dad loves his fur child.

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We got engaged this year. We are now seven years together. I take this as a great sign that we are truly there for each other - through thick and thin. It was not an easy year. Lots of emotional support was needed. I’m happy to say that I was able to give it, when I could. As an introvert - yep, that’s true even when it comes to my partner - it wasn’t always an easy thing to do, but I can look at myself in the mirror and honestly say that I tried hard in this regard. And I won’t only complain, either: The vast vast VAST majority of our time together has been fun and something to look forward to. I love sharing my life with my favorite person and love having lots of memorable moments together.

I have become a little rounder last year. Maybe two or three kilos - or is it five? A little grayer, too. I’m 36 now. I feel like I’m fine with my age and my looks. “Not having anything to show for the effort”-itis (see above) is surely a sign of getting older, I think and I do recognize that I’m not super young anymore, but getting older is not worrying me. That’s good. I think.

So what will I remember from 2022? Our engagement for sure. How I got sick of grand plans maybe? That 2022 was economically a terrible year and I’m happy that we were not too hard hit? Maybe that I tried hard on many occasions, despite any track record or tangible results?

Maybe I will remember this year as a kind of beacon, like from a light house: On the one hand I had some insights that will surely inform my decision making next year. On the other hand, I came close at times to run aground in the shoals of actual lived adulthood. I have to be careful, but I also want to take heart: I’m looking as ever hopeful into the future. Maybe I’m able to not only claim a realistic approach next year but actually live one also.

The three types of notes I take

My note taking system consists of three different pieces:

  1. Timeless notes: Ideas, thoughts, etc. that are interlinked and are not time sensitive. These are often literally the base of knowledge from which I work. Here I try to distill what I have learned and try to push myself toward the new and the more generalized.
  2. Project notes: Status quos, todos and thoughts related to ongoing projects or tasks that have some kind of momentum but are more ephemeral than timeless notes.
  3. Journal notes: Notes that record what is happening or has happened so that I have a written record of aspects of my lived life.

Types 2 and 3 are very much related, although different in the sense, that a type 2 note is not necessarily interesting enough to be mentioned in a type 3 note. And a type 3 note is not so concerned with creating or maintaining momentum, but more with creating a record of what happened.

Type one notes are different in the sense that they should be more interlinked and add up to trees of notes that in turn act serendipity-enhancing on the interface between thinking and writing (including coding). You want to treat those kinds of notes differently and keep them separate. This is where the good stuff lives. Insights from type 2 and 3 notes might end up becoming a type 1 note.

A type 1 note is not the place to keep a record, though. It represents my latest stance on a topic, the latest formulation of an idea. They exist to be refactored and to be changed in any way that seems appropriate.

My New Thing Is A Newsletter: Notes On Notes

I had toyed with the idea for a while now: I have joined the ranks of the people who have their own newsletter!

Mine is called Notes On Notes and it collects and comments on a handful of links about notes and note taking that I found interesting in the last little while.

The thing is free and the first issue will go out tomorrow. I would be super thrilled if you‘d sign up.

Notes on Notes - Change

There will be ebbs and flows. As you change, your note taking practice is likely to change. Some things might fall into disrepair. Others become important. Your note taking system might fall dormant for a while. It happens.

Is this good? Bad? Otherwise? Reflect upon why you want to do it, if evidence tells a different story. Be kind.

Notes on Notes - Why do it

Why would you do that work? Do you want to do that work? Why? A note taking system can only be good if you are motivated to work on it. And the question that will drive you is this: Why?

Reflection is one of the most important tools here. Be attentive to what actually keeps you engaged with your notes. And then figure out the why behind the why. The notes will flow by themselves in this way.

Notes on Notes - Connect Notes

In order to connect notes you first have to write them. If you have notes you can start to link them.1 Why linking? Why indeed! Have a reason. Maybe you have concepts that are connected in some way? Maybe you track gift ideas for the different people in your life and need an overview? Maybe you have a journal and you’d like to link yesterday’s page with today’s page and today’s page with tomorrow’s page?

Connecting notes helps to organize and structure your notes in a way that only ever requires a “local fit”. In comparison to tags/categories that have to work for the whole of your notes, a link only needs to make sense for the linking note.

If it is not obvious why the link exists, make the reason explicit. You want to explain links more often than you might think.

  1. Writing a new note can include writing links to other notes. ↩︎

Notes on Notes - Write Notes

A note-taking system without notes doesn’t make much sense. You have to accumulate notes. Do they need to be good? Do they need to be perfect? No. They won’t be. Not on the first try.

But they do have to be written. What gets them written? In order for them to be written by choice, they have to be interesting enough - or the process of creating them has to be. You might be forced to write them, then maybe find a way to make it interesting.

In any case: Do start by writing notes.

Nothing Doesn't Go in Here (1 of 6) (One of my favorite internet people is Merlin Mann who writes this on the first page of all his paper notebooks. This is the right approach to digital notes as well. Get it down first. Make something out of it later. This is a flickr-embed of Merlin’s photo. No copyright intended. See his Album for more.)