Why write notes

Header Image ©️ Shu Cheng Leslie

This is a well-worn topic. 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, making 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 take notes, nor to teach you how to take notes. Instead, I hope that my words can inspire your thinking about why you should take notes and how to take notes.

Choose the Right Tools#

Before discussing why we should take notes, I want to talk about a viewpoint: we must choose the most suitable tools for ourselves.

I often encounter friends asking 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 my usage 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. Just to name a few that I often hear: 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. As you can see, there are at least twenty of them, and there are actually more. When it comes to choosing the most suitable note-taking software, it depends on our use case and whether it can integrate into our workflow.


In the field of personal knowledge management in Europe and America, many people consider four dimensions when choosing note-taking software, as shown in the above figure. 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 facilitate 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 would choose an architect-style note-taking software.

It is important to note that this is only an empirical summary and not a definitive standard. "The shoe that fits one person pinches another," and the same goes for tools. If you want to choose a note-taking software that suits you and becomes a useful tool in your work and learning process, you need to constantly try, explore, and compare. "Practice makes perfect." By applying it in practice for a period of time, you can find the one or ones that are most suitable for you.

No note-taking software will completely satisfy every user. As long as it can integrate into your workflow and bring benefits to your work and learning, it is a good tool, a suitable tool. Don't be discouraged just because someone else is using a certain software and you haven't used it. Everyone's workflow is different, just like fingerprints. Even if we use the same software, the way we use it, the positioning of each tool, and the tasks assigned to it will be different.

Every year in the note-taking market, new software emerges. Don't be too eager to try new note-taking software, as it means we need to adjust our workflow to adapt to the new tool, which may cause us a lot of trouble. Each note migration requires a lot of effort and may even lead to a dislike of note-taking.

Of course, when it comes to optimizing your workflow and choosing a new tool, some pain is inevitable. Last year, I made significant adjustments to my workflow, cutting out several tools and replacing and migrating note-taking software. In the first three weeks or so, I was in extreme pain. On the one hand, I hadn't adapted to the new workflow, and on the other hand, the tools I was using were still in the process of adaptation. 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 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 but not producing any meaningful output. This situation is prevalent in today's society. For example, we read an article that we think is great and save it in our note-taking software. But that's where it ends. After a while, we can't remember what the article we thought was great was about, let alone 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 metabolized, but the skill of fishing is not easily forgotten and will help us catch fish continuously.

When we use note-taking to record our learning and thinking process, effectively transforming the new information we receive into meaningful output, even if we only record simple notes, we can continuously improve our abilities in this process. The process of thinking while taking 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 just the fish, not the fishing. Even if we follow the Cornell Note-taking Method, the Zettelkasten Method, the Bullet Journal Method, the Atomic Note-taking Method, the Nine-Grid Note-taking Method, and so on, without understanding why we use these methods, we are just imitating without understanding. For example, the popular Zettelkasten Method in recent years focuses on organic growth of thoughts, rather than 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 framework of knowledge 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:

  1. Writing is a memo for thinking. Recording the thinking process allows us to fully trace our own thinking trajectory.
  2. Writing is a cache for thinking. Because our working memory is limited, thinking often tends to go in circles. Writing helps us cache the intermediate steps of thinking.
  3. 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.
  4. Writing is a communication with others. Writing down our thoughts allows others to discover flaws in our thinking, which is beneficial for improving our knowledge system.
  5. Language itself can think. The same concept, when vague in the mind, becomes clear and specific when expressed in words. While writing, we may find that certain words seem to have a life of their own, bringing out other words.

Internal or External#

I used to be confused about how to share the results of my thinking if the recorded notes were only for myself. How should I take notes if they need to be shared with others?

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 for research, putting the corresponding references in the article structure using links, and call them up in the right sidebar when needed.

Research structure and 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're not familiar with it yet. Forcing yourself to come up with an article structure at this time 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 investor tell me," "What did the US government say." But when I write the article, my structure would be "How many stock options should I give to employees," "How many steps are there in the program," "What is the first step," "What is the second step," "What is the third step," "What comprehensive considerations are there for these steps combined."

I suddenly understood. The notes we take in note-taking software are initially for ourselves, recording our thinking process. When we digest the content through note-taking, and when we need to present it, we slightly change the expression logic and language, making it suitable for external sharing.

This is similar to Qian Zhongshu's "Limited Views." It started as his notes while reading classics, and later, after organizing them, it became a book.

Building a Digital Exobrain#

Many PKM enthusiasts are enthusiastic about the term "second brain," and many note-taking software also like to introduce themselves as the second brain. I think it is more accurate to say that we are digitizing our consciousness and actions, rather than constructing a second brain. We are adapting ourselves better to the era.

The development of search engines allows us to not remember details. With a rough idea, we can retrieve the information we need. Last year, we witnessed the development of AI technology, such as chatGPT, which has excellent contextual understanding abilities. Building a digital exobrain using note-taking software and AI will be the trend of the future.

There are many benefits to a digital exobrain:

  • 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 the digital exobrain, 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 exobrain.
  • 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 interaction methods to note-taking software, such as voice interaction, visual interaction, etc., making our digital exobrain 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 the digital exobrain.

In summary, the disadvantages of note-taking are the time and effort required, but the benefits are numerous. No matter how you look at it, it is a very cost-effective behavior. 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.

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