Featured image of post Build your own notetaking system - The most important principles

Build your own notetaking system - The most important principles

A few useful ideas about how to take notes and which tools to use, so your notes can be useful for years to come.

There is an important and simple thing you can do…

  • To ensure you can handle whatever life throws at you.
  • To guarantee that you will grow as a professional.
  • To help you to keep creating continuously.

And that would be taking notes. This is critically important. I would recommend this to everyone: take a lot of notes, take note about everything which might come in handy later. (And if you are not sure if you should write it down: take a note about it anyway. Better to have an unnecessary note than to forget something which would be useful.)

I take notes on a daily basis for a bit longer than 8 years by now. Those notes cover pretty much every area of my life: programming, video games, making music, my cloth sizes… you name it. (As I’m writing this, I currently have around 3160 notes in my system.) Those notes are one of my most useful helpers I can rely on any time. Those are my most important documents. They help me a lot to make sure I can do professional, quality work.

I’m pretty sure that you’ve tried taking notes earlier. But if I’m correct, it’s quite likely that you haven’t been taught about how to take practical notes for your everyday life and how to keep them organized. For many people, probably because of earlier experiences in school, notetaking is closer to being a necessary evil rather than something you can enjoy and benefit from.

To make sure that your notetaking practice is going to be really sustainable and efficient, your system of notetaking (which consists of the method of how you take notes, the notes themselves, and the software(s) you use for handling them) must fulfill a few criteria. Those criteria might not be obvious at first. In this article, I will write about those to make it a bit easier for you to get started.

What’s needed to make the notes the most useful in any situation?

We need to be able to store any kind of information in them.

For me, this means that the system needs to be able to store formatted text, and I should be able to put links, images etc. into them. Ideally, I should be able to embed different kinds of multimedia content as well, e.g. YouTube videos and sound.

We should be able to recall information quickly anytime we need them.

This is not just about having search functionality – most software can handle this easily. But the search must be quick and effortless to use, and it should always give quality results. (This was one of the reasons why Notational Velocity and nvALT were interesting for me back then – they built the entire software around the search functionality.) The kind of search functionality I would be looking for would be something like this: I would be able to invoke it with a keyboard shortcut, and after pressing a few keys, a so-called fuzzy search would pop up the most relevant matches immediately.

The need for being able to recall information quickly probably could also affect the way how you organize your notes. My experience tells me, though, that a good search functionality can solve this for the majority of cases – but without a good search, the entire notetaking system is going to be useless. So the search is much more important for me than the note organization. (Just to give you an idea, for years, in my note storage, I had hundreds of Markdown files in a single folder. For a very-very long time, this was perfectly enough – because I always selected tools with good search functionality.)

The information found should be directly relevant. We shouldn’t need to read a lot to get an answer quickly.

This is not so much about the notetaking software, but about the notetaking methodology you use. I found it most efficient if I take notes which are as small as possible (but matching the expected situations where I would use them). There’s a popular notetaking methodology called Zettelkasten, which follows this principle, and I adopted a lot from it.

Where the real next level starts: it should be possible to create a “thinking space” from the notes.

By thinking space, I mean something which is not just about recalling earlier memories, but also about creating new ideas – for example for writing an article. This is a completely different level than making a moment in your future a bit easier: this is where the real party begins, and this is where your notetaking system will turn extremely useful. I don’t want to go too deeply into this topic, because there’s a lot to discover. By now, there’s a great book from Tiago Forte called “Building a Second Brain”, which I would definitely recommend if you’re interested in this idea.

Anyway, if you want to make sure your notetaking system will work nicely as a thinking space, I’m pretty sure it should be able to do the following:

  • You should be able to open multiple notes side-by-side.
  • You should be able to link to different notes quickly to represent associations and to be able to jump between them
  • It’s useful to have advanced editing tools for notes, like being able to merge two notes or to extract a new note from an existing one. It’s also useful to have some tools for organizing the notes.

There’s one more key aspect I haven’t covered yet - this will decide whether your notetaking system will be successful or not.

Your notetaking system should be future-proof and reliable.

There are a lot of things you need to pay attention to give a chance for this to become true. Here are a few:

If the notes only exist at a single place, that system is not reliable.

What happens if you lose your note storage, if it gets stolen, etc.? My most shocking experience about this was when quite a few years ago, in Paris, a few people “convinced me” that it would be much better if they would have my bag. The major issue with this was that both my laptop AND my backup hard drive was in the bag, and I didn’t have much saved online. Similarly, I don’t think it regularly happens that lightning strikes into a building. But if you really value your data, you should prepare for such situations.

Syncing notes between different devices should be automated and reliable.

From the previous point, it’s kind of obvious that we need to solve syncing between devices and having a backup copy. For most notetaking systems, the sync between devices is the most painful part. Usually, this is the point where you first hear about paid solutions, and the more device you want to use, the more painful it gets. (For example, Dropbox and others love to limit the number of devices you can use in their free or smaller plans.) I have to also tell you that even the better companies are struggling sometimes to implement sync, which can even cause you to lose data. (For example, I had an experience with the award-winning Day One journaling software that its sync was so slow and unreliable that I stopped using it.) Even companies like Google and Apple can have issues with sync from time to time.

Anyway, you need to select a sync method that you’re able to troubleshoot it with your own technical skills. If you’re a software developer and you say, you’re perfectly fine with using Git with this, I think that could be a good way… but please ask yourself, are you able to accept the troubles with your preferred tool? (Is it really convenient to git pull and resolve conflicts, standing at a bus stop? 😀 )

I can only accept a sync solution as good enough, if it doesn’t try to hide too many things from me, and if it gives me a chance to control what’s happening. I’ve seen enough from those tools to not try to blindly trust them. The following would be enough to make me calm:

  • If the tool gives options for selective sync. It’s not a given that I will always want to sync the same stuff from everywhere.
  • If I’m able to see what’s happening during sync, including what kind of data came from which device. (If there’s no option to rename a device, or if the name is not visible, it’s quite likely that the given tool failed this test.)
  • If I can even see it later what happened during sync. (Sync history.)
  • If (at least for a couple of days / couple of versions) I can check the history of a file, and I can restore any of those versions. Such features saved me quite often.
  • If I can access deleted information for a while. So if things really go sideways, I will still have a last chance to recover.
  • If I can also use backup solutions in addition to the sync. I can accept that it’s technically challenging to build a perfect sync solution – but only if I’m allowed to use other things as well. (For this exact reason I don’t like software that use Apple iCloud exclusively – what if I end up having issues with exactly that?)

If notes are stored in a way which makes moving them somewhere else problematic, the system is not reliable.

You can easily run into this issue if the company, where you store your notes, doesn’t give proper export options. The fact that an export functionality exists doesn’t guarantee that the data you get will be usable. For example, the export doesn’t make much sense if you can’t use the data in another software easily…

It helps a lot if you keep your notes in a format that is not proprietary, so other tools can also use them. This was one of the key reasons why I ended up using tools that work with simple text-based note formats (like Markdown).

Final thoughts

If you manage to build a notetaking system, which mostly passes the criteria above, that should be sufficient to let your notes bring positive changes to your life. They should be able to enable you to improve your learning skills, you should be able to connect your thoughts, you should be able to pay more attention to people important to you, and so on. I’m sure there’s always going to be something to improve on such a system, but the above points should give you something that is good enough to rely on in the long run.

Thanks for reading this post. Would you mind sharing where you are with notetaking right now? What is the most difficult part of notetaking for you? I would be grateful if you could share in a comment below, or even in a private message 🙂

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