The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory
I've been keeping a collection of notes since about 2014. And I believe this habit has prevented my life from falling into a thousand crappy little pieces.
Or at least, that's what I tell myself.
Taking notes allows me stay somewhat organized and gives me a sense of control. It gives me the feeling that I can exert energy in a certain direction and as a result my life has a small chance of improving.
Like I'm not battling a six-headed hydra with a rusty spoon every day. But just a two-headed one with a sharp stick.
Having this collection of notes acts as a "second brain" to store idea's, thoughts and information for the future. This frees up our primary brain to process and mix idea's and make idea babies.
You could argue off-course, that it's not good for us to outsource everything to machines (especially memory and critical thinking).
So, I guess it's like the old expression goes: "something something balance something something bananas".
To be fair, there are probably only three list nerds that will appreciate this article. The ones that are familliar with a Zettelkasten, commonplace or the PARA system.
So for those people:
"Hey there, you internet weirdo! Feel welcome 🙋♂️"
Here's what I'll discuss:
- Why you should keep notes 🤔
- How I organize my notes 🗄️
- How to pick an app 🔍
- My note-taking app (obsidian) 💜
Why should you keep notes? 🤔
Many reasons exist why note-taking can be helpful:
- Less reliant on recall: Human brains forget quickly because it takes a lot of energy to store stuff. So only the most-used information stays. Note-taking overrides this and allows you to store anything, forever.
- To minimize willpower/energy loss and errors you make: By using checklists or if/then plans you don't have to spend much time thinking about routine actions or low-impact decisions. It frees up more bandwidth for the important things in life.
There is no more miserable human being than the one in which nothing is habitual but indecision.
- Learn from past mistakes/reflection: Keeping notes (a journal in this case) acts as a living trail of where you've been in life and what has caught your interest. If you log your experiences and pains in there, you might be able to teach future-you a valuable lesson.
- Keep information together: Documents tend to get spread out over different places and different apps. Keeping everything in one note-taking app, just makes life simpler and feel manageable.
There's probably more, ask ChatGPT if you're not convinced yet.
How I organize my notes 🗄️
The main structure I've had is based on several areas of "responsibility" in my life: health, finances, social, mind and fun.
For each of those areas, I have a notebook to store information about how to improve that area (Labeled 5 until 10).
I also have 4 "helper" notebooks, to keep track of what I'm working on. (Labeled 0 until 3)
The exact categories don't really matter, just that you organize your notes according to what you want to improve (although everyone probably cares about their health, finances and relationships somewhat).
Information should exist to improve your life quality.
So, for me, it looks something like this;
A list of my current goals across the 5 main area's. The reason all the other notes exist is to support achieving those goals. It also contains a backlog of possible future goals, a tracking system and a decision log.
This is a catch-all box where I paste in links to articles, quotes and thoughts. Once a week (or sooner) I empty these and either move, check or delete them. It also contains a "now" list, which is basically a to-do list for the day.
Logs about my life since 2014, where I list the days' events and planned actions for the next. It's also the place to focus on positives, gratefulness and excitement for the future. To remind myself to count the things I have in life, instead of always comparing to what I don't have (yet).
My thinking becomes clearer whenever I write more. So whenever I feel like I want to share an idea/article, this is the place where I put it.
Here I keep everything related to my health: nutrition, training, recovery, hygiene, ...
So it has some of my favourite meal plans, shopping lists, different diet comparisons (keto vs paleo vs vegan), favourite workout plans, supplement comparisons and reviews, sleep research, meditation research, tracking of my medical history/injuries, clothes I like, research about longevity, ...
And off-course, the bristol stoolchart. Not sure how anyone can live without the Bristol stool chart.
This one contains all the notes related to my finances: income, expenses, investments, savings and law/tax stuff
So it contains research about the economy (inflation, recession, properties of money, future predictions), research about cryptocurrencies, different investment types, list of possible side-hustles/startup-ideas, career advice, company improvement idea's, comparisons of different countries to live/work, possible companies I'd like to work for, list of things I want to buy, active to-do's for my career, previous projects I've worked on, ...
This one has everything related to family, friends, relationships and other people in my life.
So it contains notes on interesting people I'm following, gift idea's, research on networking, research on team management and task delegation, dating and relationship advice, date ideas, advice for couples/marriage, email templates, list of potential baby names, my family tree, ...
Notes related to my mental health/emotions, self-knowledge and learning.
It contains a personal mission statement from "the 7 habits", some rules for life I've picked up, how self-esteem works, my strengths and weaknesses, results of personality tests I've taken, self-examinations from my youth, if-then plans to manage emotions, research on habit formation, routines/habits I have/want to have, research on a productivity system, lessons I've learned, quotes, happiness factors, lists on how to learn new things, ...
The last area basically contains everything else that makes the routine of the other area's possible. It's the fun stuff that "fills the tank" and makes you excited.
It includes (possible) vacation destinations, a bucket list, hobby idea's, list of video games, vacation checklists, language learning, cartoons I've drawn, ...
Lastly, a place where I can dump all the rest that I can't seem to fit anywhere else and dispose of old notes that aren't used anymore.
At the moment it contains art I've liked (poetry, paintings or comics), research on economics, history, psychology, science and biology, book and movie summaries, "books to read" list, flash cards, programming references, checklists for hard and soft skills I've learned in the past, ...
I know, I know.
You must be thinking: "Wow Simon, with all this impressive collected knowledge you must be a multi-millionaire genius by now!"
To which I'd say: "Touché, smart-ass"
Choosing a note-taking tool 🔍
The exact tool you use doesn't really matter that much, but it's important to be aware of the trade-offs that you're making.
Here's some criteria you could/should consider when choosing a note-taking app;
- Platforms: Think about what devices/operating systems you'll be using (now and in the future)
- Synchronization and backup: Does the app sync between the devices you use? Does it have backups in case you screw up? (and you will)
- User experience:
- How will you take notes (by hand-writing, typing or drawing)?
- How will you search for notes?
- How can you categorize/group notes?
- What formatting options are available?
- What media formats does it support (images, video, links, PDF's, ...)
- Offline Access: Do you need it offline?
- Price: How much are you willing to pay for it?
- Portabillity/Vendor lock-in: Does the app allow you to easily export your data if you want to move? Or does it create vendor lock-in?
- Customization: How much do you want to make the tool "your own" to fit your workflow?
- Collaboration: Do you need to work together with other people on your notes?
The most popular note-taking tool at the moment is still Evernote. But here are some alternatives;
- Roam Research: https://roamresearch.com/
- Notion: https://www.notion.so/
- Evernote: https://www.evernote.com/
- Bear: https://bear.app/
- OneNote: https://www.onenote.com/
- Simplenote: https://simplenote.com/
- TiddlyWiki: https://tiddlywiki.com/
- Zettlr: https://www.zettlr.com/
- Joplin: https://joplinapp.org/
My note-taking app 💜
- Simple: Obsidian uses simple and lightweight markdown files which just sit in a folder on your computer/phone. It doesn't force any particular structure to use and has a minimal user interface. It makes note-taking feel more relaxed and less like the productivity-hustle culture we often see today.
- Customization: It allows anyone to create and extend the functionality.
- User experience: It has the best markdown editor, plugin eco-system, inter-linking and search/filter functionality I've come across. It also automatically updates the links when you move a file or rename it, which is pretty neat.
- Privacy: It doesn't assume you want to sync everything to a cloud automatically. I use Cryptomator to encrypt all my notes and store that on the cloud. It even has the name "vault" to emphasize security and privacy.
- Portable: As opposed to OneNote, I can take my notes anywhere and easily integrate them with other tools. If I ever want to move platforms, I can.
- Offline: Access to all my notes, all the time.
Here are all the Obsidian extensions I use;
- Obsidian Format Code (Link): Formats code blocks in your notes for better readability.
- Templater (Link): Enables the creation of custom templates for notes, allowing faster and consistent note-taking.
- Custom Sort (Link): Provides custom sorting options for your notes and files.
- Highlightr (Link): Enhances syntax highlighting for code blocks in Obsidian.
- Reveal Active File (Link): Focuses and reveals the active file in the file explorer.
- Google Photos (Link): Integrates Google Photos into Obsidian, allowing easy access to your photos.
- Obsidian Charts (Link): Adds chart creation functionality to Obsidian, ideal for visual data representation.
- Collapse All (Link): Allows you to collapse all the headers in your notes at once.
- Icon Folder (Link): Lets you set custom icons for your folders in Obsidian's file explorer.
- Text Generator (Link): Integrates Obsidian with ChatGPT.
- Smarter Markdown Hotkeys (Link): Improves and expands hotkey functionality for faster markdown editing.
- MDX as Markdown (Link): Allows you to use MDX (Markdown + React components) in Obsidian.
- LanguageTool (Link): Integrates LanguageTool, a syntax checking tool, into Obsidian for writing articles.
- Recent Files (Link): Keeps track of and displays recently accessed files for quick access.
- Markdown Table Editor (Link): Simplifies the creation and editing of markdown tables.
- Kanban (Link): Adds a Kanban board to Obsidian, ideal for project management and organization.
There are many routes you can take to formatting notes. But the main idea here is to see what other people use, determine what criteria are important for you, and just make something that works for you.
Don't try to over optimize it, but let it grow organically. Create your own style that works for you. Again:
Information should exist to improve your life, not because you just want to hoard it
If you want to look further into note-taking and note-taking tools. I recommend to look into the following terms;
Personal knowledge management, common-placing and Digital gardens. Maybe research Zettelkasten if you're a bit more hardcore (all of these have Wikipedia entries and Subreddits by the way).
Question to you: What are your top 3 most useful notes?