Close to a year ago, I wrote a Medium post on how I use my Kindle to learn new subjects. I explained how I get new resources, and my process for highlighting, exporting, and organizing them into a set of notes I can reference. It seemed to be decent enough to get claps (Medium equivalent of likes, I guess) periodically, even to this day.
I realized that in the last year my process has changed quite a bit, so I wanted to update you on how I go about using my Kindle and how I use Notion to take notes.
If you’re not a Notion user or don’t use a Kindle, don’t worry! I’ll try my best to be abstract enough for you to apply these lessons in your life (paper books & notebooks, Kobo’s & Evernote, podcasts & word doc’s, etc.). As you’re reading, try to think of how you can use any ideas here in your own process.
Let’s just jump into it, shall we?
Get Your Books
In my original post, I talked about ensuring your books were highlightable. The reason for this was that my books were almost all PDFs converted to the Kindle format or books from the Gutenberg Project (an online source where you can get e-books for free). Since then I’ve made a pivot to Kindle Deals, so I can get books on sale. My personal rule for buying books is to stay under $5, and I typically only go for $1-$3 books. This solves the highlighting problem, since they’re all from Amazon and formated to work with the Kindle. It’s also easy for me to save money this way.
Slightly hypocritical since at the time of writing I am unemployed.
Note: I do have a booklist, but I rarely buy kindle versions of them. If a book is interesting enough for me to put on my list, it means I want it in paper so I can scribble in the margins. Books on my Kindle typically cover subjects I’m curious about but I don’t want to put on my list.
The lesson here is to be intentional with how you get your resources. Know your approach.
Read, Highlight, Take Notes
This next step is really straightforward. Pick a book and start reading. As you go along, highlight quotes, ideas, and sections you deem important. Kindle gives you the option of adding a note to a highlight, so if you want extra context, do that. Your future self will thank you.
From my personal experiences, there are two main formats you can use when it comes to organizing your highlights.
The first method is chronological. Here, you’d organize your notes into chapters, sections and subsections. If you plan on doing this then you’ll want to make sure you highlight any chapter titles & subtitles.
The second method, and what I prefer to do most of the time, is to organize thematically. Here, you don’t really follow the chronological format (although you might want to include references like chapter numbers). When you export your highlights & notes, you’ll organize them based on shared themes.
I like organizing thematically because I use my notes when working on projects. It’s easier for me to pull my notes on “branding” than it is to go through my chapters to find any branding advice spread throughout.
You can do both if you’d like. That’s what I’m doing now. Or you can do a hybrid version if that works. Or do something completely different. I dunno. I’m not your boss.
After you finish your book, export your notes (whenever you want to, doesn’t need to be immediate). I mentioned how I buy my books from Kindle deals. Because of that, Amazon “recognizes” my books and can export them directly from the cloud. For my Gutenberg Project books or PDFs, I have to export them more manually. I used Kindle Mate for a while, but if you’re not big on programs you can just plug your Kindle into your computer and find the “My Clippings” section. Fair warning, if you’re reading multiple books at the same time the clippings might be mixed together. This would be the one time I’d say to read one book at a time.
Done? Sweet. Now you have your highlights off your Kindle and onto your computer. What do we do now?
Organizing Notes In Notion
Heads up, this is the longest section. I’ll break this into three subsections: the note-taking system, note-taking templates, and Notion features.
Notion, for those of you who don’t know about it, is an “all-in-one” workspace management program that allows you to take notes, create tables (kind of like Excel), and organize information across a wide array of fields. There are more features, but those are the main ones.
I started using it to save quotes from articles I read online, but over time I found it to be powerful for note-taking and “information storage”. I could put notes into a page, leave them, and pull them back up later.
Originally I put my Kindle highlights into word docs but found that Notion could do the same job (and had some unique features that made my life a lot easier). There are two features that have been huge for me. But I’ll get into that in a bit.
The Note-Taking System
I created a section in my Notion workspace solely dedicated to note-taking, and so far it’s been really reliable. It’s influenced heavily by various creators I follow. I’ll leave their links in the resources section at the end of this post.
The set up is a bit odd to understand at first but makes sense once you tinker with it. There are 4 “variables” for each notebook:
- Name (the name of the source itself)
- Topic (what it’s about)
- Status (Current vs Archived)
- Source (book? link? video? podcast?)
What’s really cool about this is that this functions as a sort of excel-like table, so I can filter information based on specific criteria (topic type, status, etc.).
This helps me organize all my notes over time: if I want to pull up my notes on psychology, I can filter topics by “psychology”. If I want to see any of my notes I’ve put away, I can switch to Archive View (filtered by status) and go through anything I’m not currently working on. Source allows me to reference what the resource was (Kindle? Paperback? Article? Podcast?).
Now here’s the fun part: the note-template.
My note-taking system is informed heavily by the Cornell System, which is a template for taking notes when learning a new subject. It’s really cool, but I found splitting my page in two and writing notes to myself on the side wasn’t really useful. Also, I rarely used the summary section at the end. So instead I moved the summary section to the top. That way anytime I opened my notes, I could quickly read what the notes would be. Also, I really enjoy the Table of Contents feature which links each section so you can just click on the title and jump to that section. For notes on recurring resources (like a weekly class), this makes it much easier to jump between sections.
Now the fun part: turning your Kindle highlights into notes. You could just dump your highlights into a note using bullet points, but there are two features you can use that will make this really powerful.
Notion Features: Toggles & Backlinks
Toggles are essentially bullet points, except more functional. They create drop-down menus, so you can hide extra info under a toggle and expand it when you want. This is really helpful for organizing lots of information without overwhelming your screen and allows you to expand and shrink your notes easily.
Remember when I talked about organizing your notes chronologically or thematically? Toggles play an important role here. If you’re taking chronological notes, you can set up toggles by chapter and put your highlights into each one (chapter 1 highlights go into chapter 1, chapter 2 highlights into chapter 2, etc.). You can create “subtoggles”, so you can have a bunch of information under a toggle and have that toggle exist under another one. Hierarchy!
This way you can organize your notes into a simple drop-down menu of sorts so you can find the exact notes you need without having text all over the page.
The 2nd feature, and the one that made this whole system extra powerful, is backlinks. Backlinks are a huge defining feature for programs like Roam Research (which still has a stronger backlinks feature in my opinion), but Notions is still reliable. The way a backlink works is pretty simple: you can create a clickable link that sends you right to whatever page you decide to link to.
If you’re writing notes for a cooking class and you want to try some, you can create a backlink to your “recipes to try” page, and they’ll be connected. When you read through your notes, you can click on the link, and it’ll take you right to your recipes to try page.
Backlinks are a two-way street, so once you connect to another place you’re able to move back and forth easily.
I use backlinks in 4 ways:
- Connecting notes from sources to other resources (EG: notes from a psychology book to notes from a political memoir if they seem relevant to each other)
- Connecting notes from resources to my “ideas boards” where I work through ideas more creatively (EG: notes from philosophy books to a philosophy board where I can throw different ideas onto a page)
- Connecting notes from resources to my “commonplace board” where I create a single card on a specific idea (I’ll be honest I might get rid of this one since I use the 2nd more)
- Connecting notes from resources to my content creation workflow, so I can use something I learn when creating content.
This system seems a bit complex but it’s so cool once you get it working. Being able to organize notes with toggles makes the entire process much smoother and easier on the eyes, the table of contents feature is helpful for working through a lot of information, the filter feature is beneficial for finding exactly what you need, and backlinks allow for connecting between ideas.
If you’re not a big Notion fan, then you can try this in other ways: leaving self-written notes so you know where to look (EG: “similar to the idea in Own The Day, chapter 2) using hyperlinks between google docs pages, using index cards (hell this whole approach is heavily informed by the Zettlekasten system, which started with index cards) or using another program like Roam Research. What you want to do is up to you. But I highly recommend you create a system for yourself that works best for you, and use that.
I wasn’t expecting to write this, but I’ve had a lot of fun doing it. I’ve been cursed with an unreliable memory and blessed with the opportunity to tackle some of life’s more complex challenges. As such, I’ve had to learn a lot on my own.
Thankfully I enjoy learning for its own sake and know to lean on the knowledge and wisdom of others when possible. My Kindle (a gift from my brother) has been a great way to do this, even though I still enjoy paperback. Being able to capture what I learn from my Kindle organize it into an accessible system been a game-changer for me. I’m still improving it, but I know it’ll be a huge help for me.
I don’t really have a “next steps” for you here. If you have a Kindle and want to use (or are currently using) Notion, leave a comment and let me know how you use it and if there’s anything specific in this article that helped!
If you don’t have either, I hope this has shed a light on the benefit of learning and how to organize knowledge into a “database” of sorts for you to lean on. However you organize that system is up to you, but I highly recommend you make one for yourself.
Let me know what you think.
My Original Article:
Thomas Frank: My Notion Note-Taking System
Mariana’s Study Corner: all-in-one customizable organization system for students //Notion
Robert Greene: Mastery (a huge influence on my skill development strategies and the one who got me thinking about interconnectedness)