…by distinguishing three types of notes
A good note-taking system is simple, but allows complexity to build up. Those who worry too much about finding the perfect system end up spending most of their time thinking about their note organization instead of the content of these notes.Those without a functioning system in place might not have much time for that, either, as they probably end up spending their time searching for notes.
The secret to a well-functioning note-taking system is to differentiate between three types of notes and keep them perfectly separated:
1) quick, fleeting notes
2) project-related notes
3) permanent notes.
Let’s take a closer look at these types of notes.
1. Quick notes are mere reminders of a thought. They are written quickly while you are doing something else that requires most of your attention. As they do not contain a thought in themselves, but are only reminders of a thought you have in your head, they need to be processed soon and turned into permanent or project-related notes (unless the idea turns out to be not that great after all – which happens with most of my quick notes!). They are not there to keep. Don’t mix them with your other notes, otherwise they will dilute everything else you have written.
It also doesn’t really matter what you write them on – go with your preference or use whatever is in reach.
2. Project-related notes can be chucked (or archived if you have trouble letting go) after a project is finished. Until then, they should be stored in a project-specific folder (digital or analog – it doesn’t matter). These can be all kinds of notes: reminders, corrections, comments, ideas. The only thing they have in common is that they belong to one project and to one project only.
3. The permanent notes are the really interesting ones. This is where the magic happens and where a good system makes all the difference. These are the notes that are worth taking some time writing. Not diluted by project-related or fleeting notes and not fenced in by artificial boundaries of topics or disciplines, they can mingle freely, spark new ideas and build up a critical mass that becomes exponentially more valuable over time. If you have a system in place where you can bring all your ideas and discoveries together, build meaningful relations between them, play and experiment with ideas, you will elevate your thinking to a whole new level. Just having everything available makes a difference. Think of all the insights you had, the information you found and the quotes you encountered over your lifetime. Wouldn’t it be great to bring all this together and keep it alive and accessible? Can you remember the five most fascinating facts you encountered two years ago? Yeah, me neither. And even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to remember where exactly I encountered them. But luckily, we don’t need to, because that is what a proper note-taking system is for. Without one, we will inevitably forget the vast majority of what we encountered and thought of as worth remembering. Proper note-taking turns reading from being a mere pleasure into something seriously useful. It enables you to compound your knowledge.
Smart notes also make sense in terms of efficiency, because most of the things we encounter during a week are not relevant for the specific project we are currently working on. But they might very well be important for other projects – maybe some we haven’t even started yet. Why should we let those findings or ideas go to waste? The time you spend taking a note will be rewarded many times over. Don’t be the coal miner who is leaving the gold on the ground because that is not what he was looking for. And how to take and organize these notes? It is not that difficult, but it is crucial to understand the principle behind it. Which is why I wrote a short book about it.