Note-taking tools: Boosters or constraints for increasing insight?

In his book "Modern Digital Note-taking Guide," Professor Zhao Saipo mentions:

From Notion, Roam Research, to Obsidian, and now Heptabase, these note-taking tools have not fully lived up to their promises. Whether it's atomization, bidirectional links, or multiple tags, the recording, organization, and discovery of notes still heavily rely on the diligence and self-discipline of users. You have to record information in a certain format, just like a machine, in order to benefit from the tools and increase your "productivity."

This got me thinking, can note-taking tools really not generate insight?

A Subtle Relationship#

First and foremost, I am certain that insight is not simply extracted directly from note-taking tools, but rather stems from our deep understanding and contemplation of knowledge.

Note-taking tools are like external repositories of thoughts, helping us capture fleeting ideas and information. However, the tools themselves do not possess the magical ability to enhance our thinking. They merely serve as bridges in this process. Cognitive scientist Gary Klein, in his book Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, points out that the key to insight lies in making connections, discovering coincidences, sparking curiosity, identifying contradictions, and having a desire for innovation. These are not easily achieved through tools alone.

Note-taking tools can assist us in capturing those flashes of inspiration and organizing our observations and thoughts about the world. For example, when we use a note-taking tool to track our thought process on a particular problem, we are not just recording, but also clarifying and deepening our understanding of the problem.

With note-taking tools, we can trace the train of thought, record various understandings of a problem, and potential solutions. However, these records can only be transformed into true insights through deep thinking and practice.

In other words, note-taking tools are aids in generating insight, but not the direct source.

Limitations of Note-taking Tools#

Although note-taking tools are extremely useful in helping us record and organize information, we must recognize their limitations.

  • Functional limitations: Most note-taking tools focus on information recording and retrieval, and are not specifically designed to inspire insight.

  • User dependency: The effectiveness of the tools largely depends on how users utilize them. Over-reliance on tools may limit thinking and innovation.

  • Side effects: Relying too much on search functions may weaken our memory; pursuing efficiency may sacrifice deep thinking; excessive focus on the tools themselves may overlook their essential purpose of serving thinking and insight.

The Role of Note-taking Tools in Inspiring Insight#

However, we cannot deny the potential value of note-taking tools in helping us develop insight. By organizing information and constructing knowledge graphs, note-taking tools like Roam Research and Obsidian can help us see connections between different pieces of information, which forms the foundation of insight formation.

Heptabase, on the other hand, takes a different approach by providing us with a mid-level perspective through whiteboards, allowing us to maximize the stimulation of insight.

At the same time, the use of note-taking tools can also change our thinking habits. When we record and organize information, we are also engaging in mental training, indirectly promoting the development of insight. From the perspectives of learning and cognitive psychology, it is worth delving into how the design of note-taking tools aligns with our cognitive processes, and how they can help us better encode, store, and retrieve information.

The Role of AI in Note-taking Tools#

Lastly, we cannot overlook the role of AI technology in note-taking tools. With the advancement of AI, the functionalities of note-taking tools are being redefined.

Imagine an intelligent note-taking tool that can automatically identify our points of interest, extract key knowledge quickly, and even organize information automatically. How indispensable would such a tool be in the process of forming insights?

Tana and Notion have already demonstrated to some extent what AI can do in note-taking. For example, Tana can call OpenAI models to provide answers to questions users don't understand in their notes. Notion AI can intelligently recognize, extract, and process information, helping users manage and utilize data more efficiently. Both can provide intelligent suggestions to expand tasks or inspire ideas, offer various types of drafts, and assist users in writing topics.

However, the extent to which AI can unlock our potential for insight through note-taking remains unknown, at least for now.


Therefore, I can only partially agree with Professor Zhao Saipo's viewpoint.

In this era of information explosion, note-taking tools undoubtedly provide great assistance in managing fragmented knowledge and tracking thought processes. The convenience they offer in recording, organizing, and retrieving information greatly enhances our work efficiency and knowledge management.

However, as Professor Zhao Saipo mentioned, the fulfillment of note-taking tools' promises largely depends on the diligence and self-discipline of users. Mechanical recording and formatting can indeed help us organize our thoughts, but the formation of our insight relies not only on the functionalities of these tools but also on how we utilize them and how we capture sparks of wisdom in the ocean of information.

Meanwhile, the integration of AI technology brings new possibilities to note-taking tools. However, regardless of technological advancements, I believe that true insight originates from human thinking, and tools are merely assistants that help us execute this process more effectively.

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