This is a common topic of discussion. In today's era, taking notes, writing blogs, and writing newsletters are all effective ways to reflect on one's thoughts and express ideas. Regardless of the method, the purpose behind it is the same: to express one's thoughts, improve self-expression skills, and share one's perspectives with others. Of course, if you prefer, creating videos or podcasts is also the same, it's just a different way of expression.
The purpose of writing this article is not to tell you why I write notes, nor to teach you how to write notes. Instead, I hope that my words can inspire your thinking about why you should write notes and how to write them.
Choosing the Right Tools
Before discussing why we should write notes, I want to talk about the importance of choosing the right tools.
I often have friends ask me, "Leslie, you recommended a certain tool, but I don't know how to use it," or "Leslie, I can't find a suitable use case for a certain software, do you have any suggestions?"
In response to these questions, I usually briefly explain how I use the tool and then add, "If it doesn't feel right, don't force yourself. The key is to choose what suits you."
In recent years, the note-taking software market has been booming. Some commonly heard names include Evernote, Bear, OneNote, Zoho Notebook, Youdao Note, DEVONthink, Roam Research, Obsidian, Logseq, Remnote, Reflect, Heptabase, Notion, Tana, Lazy, flomo, Simplenote, Craft, Google Keep, Apple Notes, and many more. Just counting a few, there are already twenty, and in reality, there are even more. The most suitable note-taking software depends on our use case and how well it integrates into our workflow.
In the field of personal knowledge management in Europe and America, many people consider four dimensions when deciding which note-taking software is most suitable for them. For example, some people like to collect a large amount of information in their notes for future retrieval, so a library-style note-taking software may be suitable. Others prefer to brainstorm and use notes to enhance their thinking and creativity, so a gardener-style note-taking software may be more suitable. Some people need structured frameworks and automated workflows for note-taking, so they choose an architect-style note-taking software.
It is important to note that this is just a summary based on experience and not a universal truth. "The shoe that fits one person pinches another," and the only way to know if a tool is suitable is to try it out. To choose a note-taking software that feels right and becomes a useful tool in our work and learning process, we need to continuously experiment, explore, and compare different options. "Practice makes perfect." Through practical application over a period of time, we can find the one or ones that are most suitable for us.
No note-taking software will completely satisfy every user. As long as it fits into our workflow and brings benefits to our work and learning, it is a good tool, a suitable tool. Don't feel discouraged just because someone else is using a certain software and you haven't. Everyone's workflow is different, just like fingerprints. Even if we use the same software, the way we use it, the positioning and tasks we assign to each tool will be different.
In the note-taking market, new software emerges every year. It is not necessary to constantly try new note-taking software, as it requires adjusting our workflow to adapt to new tools, which can be quite troublesome. Each note migration consumes a lot of energy and may even lead to a dislike of note-taking.
Of course, when it comes to optimizing our workflow and choosing new tools, some pain is inevitable. Last year, I made significant adjustments to my workflow, cutting out several tools and replacing and migrating my note-taking software. In the first three weeks or so, I was in extreme pain. On one hand, I hadn't yet adapted to the new workflow, and on the other hand, the tools I was using were still being fine-tuned. But once I got used to it, my efficiency and creativity improved significantly.
Fish or Fishing
We often say, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Taking notes is a choice between giving someone a fish or teaching them how to fish.
When I first started working, I heard the saying, "Knowing how to do something but not actually doing it is the same as not knowing." Later, I learned about the "Leonardo Syndrome," which refers to a person constantly encountering and trying new things without producing any meaningful output. This situation is common in today's society. For example, we read an article that we find very good and save it in our note-taking software. But that's where it ends. After a while, we can't remember what the article was about or what we learned from it. This is because we only chose to eat the fish without learning how to catch the fish. The delicious fish meat is quickly metabolized, but the skill of fishing is not easily forgotten and can help us continuously catch fish.
When we use note-taking to record our learning and thinking process, effectively transforming the information we receive into meaningful output, even if we only record simple notes, we can continuously improve our abilities and achieve the best of both worlds: having the fish and knowing how to fish. The process of thinking while writing notes helps us better grasp knowledge, deepen our memory, strengthen our thinking, and exercise our logic.
Furthermore, we need to realize that there are countless note-taking methods, but these methods are the fish, not the fishing. Even if we follow popular note-taking methods such as the Cornell method, the flashcard method, the bullet journal method, the atomic note-taking method, the grid note-taking method, etc., without understanding why we use these methods, we are just imitating without understanding. For example, the popular flashcard method in recent years emphasizes the organic growth of thinking, not just the technique of bidirectional linking. When using note-taking methods, we also need to modify them according to our own circumstances, making them work for us instead of being led by them.
For Better Thinking
Liu Weipeng wrote in "Writing is Better Thinking":
I often summarize what I have learned while walking or before going to bed, thinking about the remaining questions. After a period of reading and thinking, a general knowledge framework gradually emerges in my mind. Then I write it down. However, I am often surprised to find that new content continues to emerge as I write, as if my keyboard is also thinking.
He then summarized the five benefits of writing:
- Writing is a memo for thinking. Recording the thinking process allows us to fully trace our own thinking trajectory.
- Writing is a cache for thinking. Because our working memory is limited, our thinking often tends to go in circles. Writing helps us cache the intermediate steps of our thinking.
- Writing is a dialogue with ourselves. When writing, we don't need to rely on temporary memory, allowing us to reflect on our own viewpoints.
- Writing is a dialogue with others. Writing down our thoughts allows others to discover flaws in our thinking, which is beneficial for improving our knowledge system.
- Language itself can also think. The same concept, when it is vague in our mind, and when it is expressed in specific words, is different. When writing, we may discover that certain words seem to have a life of their own, bringing out other words.
Internal or External
I used to be confused about whether notes should be solely for personal use or if they should be shared with others. How should we take notes if they need to be shared?
Once, during a discussion in the Heptabase Discord community, Alan shared his perspective:
I think a big principle is not to think about writing an article when doing research, but to think about how to conduct the research, what information it should include, and the relevance of that information. When you need to write an article, then organize the structure of your article and go back to the whiteboard you used during your research. Put the corresponding references into the structure of the article using links, and use the right sidebar to call them up when needed.
The research structure and the article structure are often different, especially in the early stages of research. You often don't know the true structure of a topic because you are not familiar with it. Forcing yourself to come up with an article structure at this stage can be counterproductive. For example, when I was researching stock options, I would organize information like "What did the lawyer tell me?", "What did the accountant tell me?", "What did the investors tell me?", "What did the US government say?". But when I write the article, my structure would be more like "How many stock options should I give to employees?", "How many steps are there in the process?", "What is the first step?", "What is the second step?", "What is the third step?", "What are the overall considerations for these steps?".
This enlightened me. The notes we write in note-taking software are initially for ourselves, documenting our thought process. When we digest the content and need to share it, we can slightly modify the notes to change the logical structure and language, making them suitable for external consumption.
This is similar to Qian Zhongshu's "Limited Views" (Guan Zhui Bian), which started as his notes while reading classics and was later organized into a book.
Means to an End or End in Itself
The purpose of learning and thinking is to guide us in our work and life, and the purpose of writing notes is to facilitate better learning and thinking. Therefore, there is no debate about whether it is a means to an end or an end in itself. The two are inseparable and not mutually exclusive. It's like when Jia Dao was contemplating whether it should be "monk pushes the door under the moon" or "monk knocks the door under the moon." It is difficult to determine whether he thought of using "push" or "knock" first or whether he thought of the action first and then decided which word was more appropriate.
We write notes to internalize the information we receive and guide our actions. In the process of practice, we continuously adjust the information we internalize. In this iterative process, our notes go through multiple revisions, and our experience and abilities are honed.
Elementary school teachers often emphasize the importance of "a good memory is not as good as a bad pen." Writing notes is a habit. We record consciously and record when we take action. When recording consciously, try to think about and write down how that consciousness triggers certain actions. When recording actions, also try to think about and write down what consciousness those actions reflect. In fact, this is a form of meditation, helping us better understand ourselves.
Building a Digital External Brain
Many personal knowledge management enthusiasts are very enthusiastic about the term "second brain," and many note-taking software also like to describe themselves as the second brain. Instead of saying that we are building a second brain with note-taking software, I believe we are digitizing our consciousness and actions to better adapt to the times.
The development of search engines allows us to not remember details and retrieve the information we need with a general idea. Last year, we witnessed the development of AI technology, such as chatGPT, which has excellent contextual understanding capabilities. Using note-taking software and AI to build a digital external brain will be a future trend.
There are many benefits to having a digital external brain:
- Storing a large amount of information, saving mental effort, and learning and working more efficiently.
- Organizing information to help us find what we need more quickly.
- Assisting us in thinking and analyzing, promoting deep and broad learning and thinking.
- Helping improve memory because in the process of writing notes and searching for information, we not only need to remember the content but also how to find that information in our digital external brain, which helps us better remember what we have learned.
If note-taking software incorporates AI, there will be even more benefits, including but not limited to:
- Accelerating information processing: AI can help note-taking software quickly search, filter, and organize information, thereby improving information processing efficiency.
- Providing personalized services: AI can analyze our historical behavior and preferences in using note-taking software, helping us create a more personalized digital external brain.
- Helping us remember information better: AI can help note-taking software analyze our memory methods and provide targeted memory techniques and methods.
- Providing new ways of interaction: AI can bring new ways of interaction to note-taking software, such as voice interaction, visual interaction, etc., making our digital external brain more natural and convenient.
- Improving user experience: AI can help note-taking software provide a better user experience, making us feel more relaxed and enjoyable when using our digital external brain.
In conclusion, the disadvantages of writing notes are the time and effort required, but the benefits are numerous. It is a very worthwhile behavior no matter how you look at it. At the same time, what we need to establish is our own note-taking methodology and then use suitable tools to participate in our methodology, rather than building a methodology around what tools to use.