Why do we take notes? How should we take notes?
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about note-taking lately. I debated with friends, did some research, and this post summarizes what I’ve learned about the second question: How should we take notes? (See also my post on how to learn.)
If you’re interested in why we take notes, check out my post below:
Why Take Notes: 3 Common Misconceptions and 3 Better Mindsets
No, retaining shouldn’t be the goal of note-taking.
Below, I’ll describe how an app, Obsidian, a sociologist, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence (AI) have changed the way I think about note-taking.
Free and incredible note-taking app: Obsidian
Obsidian is a free note-taking app that wants to be your second brain. I’ve been using it for a few weeks and I’m loving it.
It’s made by the creators of Dynalist, a very powerful and free outliner that directly takes on popular apps like Workflowly. Obsidian is an excellent free alternative to other apps like Roam Research, Zettlr, RemNote, and Notion.
As described in my Obsidian post, it has many incredible features like multi-pane markdown editing, linking, back-linking, graphs, local notes with online sync, and a super active community (forum and Discord).
Obsidian lets you implement any note-taking system, but most importantly, it incorporates the ideas described below.
Sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s note-taking system
Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) was a prolific German sociologist who was well ahead of his time. He published more than 70 books and almost 400 academic papers on many topics. He also developed a famous note-taking system that helped him develop influential theories and ideas on social systems
His famous system, the “slip box” or Zettelkasten note-taking method revealed how incredible he was: It incorporated ideas related to modularity, hyperlinks, and the World Wide Web (but note that these concepts and ideas were either non-existent or very new at that time).
His note-taking system was based on two simple principles that are now central to AI, programming, and neuroscience: modularity and links.
Luhmann basically invented a personal wiki — manually with just index cards — without having any of the concepts and technologies we have today.
Fortunately for us, note-taking apps like Obsidian help us implement Luhmann’s principles quite effortlessly.
With connections in place, you can navigate your notes and get inspiration with backlinks and graph view. — Obsidian
AI and programming: modularity principle
Like building robust and extensible software, your note-taking system should also be based on the principle of modularity.
Each note should contain only one concept or idea — no more, no less.
The core idea is that each note should be modular, atomic, or independent. Each note should contain only one concept or idea — no more, no less.
If you follow this approach, you’ll end up with many more notes than you’re used to. Luhmann built up about 90,000 index cards of modular notes for his research!
With so many notes, you might wonder how are you supposed to organize them. If you incorporate the next and final insight, you’ll realize it might be unnecessary to attempt to sort your notes into pre-existing categories beforehand (in fact, pre-sorting/organizing is something you should not do with this system; see discussion here).
Neuroscience: neurons without connections are useless
Neuroscience research tells us that the human brain has about 100 billion neurons. But these neurons, individually, don’t amount to much. It’s the 100 trillion connections between them — the complex network of notes — that work together to make us who we are.
Creating connections between modular notes is key to great note-taking and thinking.
Our modular notes are like these neurons — they need to be connected to other notes to be useful. Traditional note-taking systems don’t focus on creating connections or bi-directional links between notes.
If you focus on connecting notes, clusters of ideas will organically emerge from your notes, so pre-existing categories or tags will be unnecessary.
These four insight have made me rethink how we should take notes. I now believe that creating connections between modular notes is key to great note-taking and thinking.
I hope you’ll also implement a few of these insights. If you do, I’m curious whether it has worked for you.
Take Better Notes With This Free Note-Taking App That Wants to Be Your Second Brain
Obsidian makes connecting ideas easy and helps you think and write better
2 Meta-Learning Principles to Help You Learn More Efficiently
Acquire knowledge and skills efficiently
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