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Ian Phillipchuk for Jobber

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A Second Brain: A Dip Into Note-Taking

When I start to talk about notes with engineers, I often get a mix of confusion, excitement, and fear. For some it reminds them of a past taking biology notes in class. Writing stuff down but not getting anything from it. For others it calls to mind an interviewer ominously typing. Never knowing what they’re recording or why. Maybe you’ve got a nice bound journal and a nice pen you bought. Thinking this is the time you’re going to get your note-taking-life together at last. And if you’re anything like me, it’s gathering dust instead.

But I’m here to tell you that you can find a path that works for you about note-taking: It can become a second brain for you. Even the venerable Albert Einstein when confronted with the fact that he did not recall the speed of light said “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books.” Why remember what you can write down?

(NOTE: There is a lot here! If this seems too scary to read through completely, please jump down to Putting it All Together: The Rules of Note-Taking. I’ll try there to recap the entire post in as few words as possible. Start there, and read the rest of the article when it doesn’t seem so ominous!)

Lose the Preconceptions

When starting a practice of note-taking we first need to lose any sort of idea of what our solution will look like. There are many different ways to tackle this problem: physical, digital, bullet journaling, zettlekasten, daily planners, electronic apps, all sorts of things. Influencers will try and claim one method is superior to the others but we can be a bit reductive and state the First Rule in Note-Taking.

1 - The best note-taking method is the one that you actually stick with.

A well organized bullet journal

Like exercise consistency will yield better results than bursts of effort. While it’s good to explore different types of note-taking – and the lure of buying a book, pen, app or device that will solve all your note-taking problems is real – don’t get too attached to a particular method. You should explore the various options without getting too invested in them. You might have to run through the rest of the steps in this article a few times to find your right method, adjusting and thinking about your approach each time. I tried 5 different note-taking methods before I landed on my current methodology, and you should likely expect to have a similar journey.

(I will be recommending parts of the Zettlekasten Method of note taking, as well as adding my own choices for each of the steps below, but you should feel encouraged to build your own solution rather than taking mine)

Decide on your Medium

The first main decision to make is deciding on your medium for taking notes. Your big choice here is Digital or Analog, physical or an app. This is a question without a right answer and you can establish a proper practice with either. It’s going to be down to personal preference so don’t feel bad chasing something that you enjoy. That enjoyment will help you maintain your new habit. If you feel good every time you pull out a journal and a nice pen use that enjoyment to pull it out more consistently. If the digital structure and ease of use better aligns with your work life then use that to lower the barrier to entry.

Someone taking notes on a computer

This brings us to the Second Rule of Note-Taking.

2 - Pick a method of note-taking that aligns with your work habits and increases the chances that you’ll do it consistently; one that you enjoy using.

Keep in mind the way in which you do work as well. Are you often in zoom meetings, which might make physical notes an awkward experience as you hunch over a notebook? Are you on computers constantly, which would make an electronic method easier to access? The more aligned with your way of work your note-taking method is, the more likely we’ll fulfill rule #1 and use it consistently.

My Medium

For myself, I picked electronic after trying and trying to get physical to work. I wanted to be the kind of person who fills up journals with all sorts of wisdom but the amount of time I spend in an electronic medium meant that an app just makes sense. I have my notes constantly up on screen as I’m working on something at work, or in a meeting, so I can write down what I need too. I ended up with Obsidian as my note-taking app of choice, since it allows me to work in Markdown, had backup/sync capabilities, and some rich tagging/back linking (I’ll get into those later).

Establish Your Requirements / Goals

Alright, we’ve picked a method, now we need to start thinking about why we’re taking notes in the first place. That might seem backward, but I’m of the opinion that the medium is more important. You’re already considering the goals of your note-taking practice when selecting a method, but it’s good to try and state some objectives at the top. Are you focusing on retaining information? Increasing accountability for yourself? Building connections between your daily tasks? Note-taking as a practice is a means to an end, so understanding the end is essential to actually building a practice that is practical.

An elegant goal planner notebook

So the Third Rule of Note-Taking is:

3 - Your practice should push you towards your professional goals, so understanding them is key to getting results from your notes.

As an exercise, write down the things that you think that note-taking can solve in your professional life, as the next two steps are going to rely directly on this information. It’s okay to start small, and evolve your goals over time. Even a single goal or objective will meaningfully shape your note-taking practice in a way that will provide guidance for the structure of your notes. If accountability is very important to you, then keeping a rolling list of TODOs might be your most important thing. If you’re concerned with recording information, recaps or crosslinks might be the most important thing.

My Requirements

For me there were two important things: I need to improve my own accountability to tasks I commit to, and I needed to be able to track a wide variety of information across different teams I manage. I often have my fingers in many pies at any given time (do not put your fingers in pies, gross) and so I have to have rolling daily TODOs in addition to specific sections and tags so that I can understand what’s happening with my teams, and have historical context for them. When dealing with 30+ people at any one time, that sense of “what I’ve committed too” and the historical context of each team is critical to achieving my goals.

Find a Cadence or Schedule to Guide You

Now that we have our method and goals, it’s time to actually commit to something. Like going to the gym, the best way we can make it a regular practice is to make sure that we’re engaging with it on a regular cadence. So the Fourth Rule of Note-Taking is just an extension of the first rule of note-taking:

4 - Establish a cadence for your practice, and do your best to stick to it every day.

This rule also contains our first corollary to a rule, which is like any practice, there are going to be times where you fail to maintain the cadence. You’re going to “fall off the horse” every now and again. It’s inevitable, so try not to concern yourself too much with it. Don’t try and prevent falling out of practice, focus on getting back into the habit again when you do fail.

A metronome and piece of music

While there are more complicated forms of note-taking, like subject based notes and Zettlekasten “On Demand Notes,” I tend to focus on daily/weekly notes for beginners. Anything less regular than that and your notes are likely going to be too large to adequately parse or reference, and anything more regular than that makes means the focus is more on the note-taking than the usefulness of the notes. I think both methods are fine, it’s more about the amount of notes you take. Take a lot of notes? Probably daily is your best way to go. Only jot down the important stuff? You can probably focus on weekly notes to capture and contain everything.

My Cadence

For me, daily notes are essential, as I take down roughly 1000 - 1500 words a day in notes. A single note like that I can scan and cross reference easily, but if I had weekly notes at 5000 - 7500 words per note? That just brings back ugly memories of writing essays in University classes. No thank you!

That is the basis of my note-taking practice, but I also have subject specific notes for specific people, projects, and things that I want to track. Everything is cross linked from my daily notes however, so it’s why I suggest it as your starting point for your own notes.

Decide on a Format / Template for your Notes

We’ve got our method, our goals, and our cadence now which means we’re in the last step before we actually get to starting to take notes, and we’ve also hit our first optional step as well! Depending on how experienced you are with this process, you might understand really well what you want out of your notes. You might be able to sketch out a document template or format you could utilize. And depending on your method/medium you might be able to use a template structure to auto-format your notes for you as well. This is the Fifth Rule of Note-Taking:

5 - Build a format that helps you accomplish your goals by laying them out clearly.

A mechanical template

A good structure or format is one that if you use it, you can’t help but accomplish your goals. If you have specific things you want to record (maybe something like minutes for your teams' daily standup), then add those sections specifically to your templates and structures. Use the power of templating to make parts of your note-taking habit-based rather than something you have to remember to do each time. In his excellent book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande lays out how regularity and structure can act as a set of guide-wires for us, keeping us on track even when we forget about them. Your formats and templates should do the same, clearly laying out the sections and parts of your notes that are important to you.

My Format

I have a few things that I want to cover each day, and I’ve baked them into my daily notes template so that when I start each days note, it’s already there present for me. Here’s what’s in my notes:

  • Review of Previous Day (what did I do yesterday?)
  • Daily Consistent Actions (what things do I want to do each day regardless of what my day looks like?)
  • Daily TODO (what do I have to do today?)
  • Action Items for Tomorrow (what things do I know I can’t get done today, and will have to wait until tomorrow)
  • Daily standup sections for each of my teams (what are we doing right now? How can I help?)

And then a final notes section detailing my ad-hoc notes during meetings or during the day. I take a **ridiculous* amount of notes*, that’s just what works with me operating at the level I’m at currently. For me, this second brain is incredibly valuable when I’m referencing work that we’ve done over the past quarter, or trying to find the critical context of a decision that was made months ago. It also helps me build a daily practice of focusing on the things I can actually do today, and sorting them into “Today” and “Tomorrow” which provides a useful framing for the day to come.

Build Connections Between your Notes

GOOD NEWS EVERYONE! We can now start actually taking notes! We’ve got our medium, goals, format and cadence defined which means it’s time to start actually taking notes. I don’t have any real advice on taking notes, save the corollary rule about forgiving yourself when you inevitably fall off the horse. While you’re taking notes it’s really important to remember that the goal is not to simply write down everything that happens in your day rather to track important information and make an easy to reference log of your work that you can go back to when needed. For this, making connections is going to be key.

An Image GIF of my notes being created in Obsidian

(As my notes (blue) are added to Obsidian, you can see how they associate withtags (brown) in my vault to build connected graphs of information!)

The Sixth Rule of Note-Taking is:

6 - Add as much contextual information as you can through links, tags, or categories.

This is usually easiest in a digital environment where, you can hopefully utilize your platform or app’s tagging, linking or classification features to start to make connections between the notes you’re taking. You don’t want a book that you have to scan or read in order to pull out useful information, the goal is instead something like a reference document, where related things are mentioned, tagged, or linked too. The best time to draw these conclusions is while you are taking down the notes. Try to note any other notes, tags or connections that could be useful in the future. That way, instead of trying to grasp the entirety of what you’re trying to pull from your notes (the context of a particular project for example) instead of trying to figure out all the places where that information might reside, you can follow the links or tags to quickly summon up all the information.

My Tags

For me, the most important things I have to pay attention to on a daily basis are the People, Teams/Groups and Projects that I’m involved with. For others, Technologies are very important but with that being so wound up in everything I do, I find that level of information is not useful to me. On the other hand, whenever I mention a person or team or project that I’m working on, I immediately use Obsidian’s tagging feature to make that the links between those entities obvious. I can quickly and easily find when I talked with a person on which day, or what projects I worked on during a month, or what groups I work with most often. You can see an example of those connections in the above image, as my work notes fire into a dense web of tags that gives critical context. Technology is so cool!

Review & Revise Your Methodology

So we’ve decided on a format, we’ve started drawing connections and taking notes. If you want, this can be the end of your journey with note-taking, but an even more exciting practice lies just around the bend once we turn a practice into a craft. Once you’ve had some time to start working in your note-taking practice you’ll start to discover it’s rough edges. Maybe you don’t need as much detail in your templates, maybe you need more. Perhaps when you laid out your goals, you didn’t realize that something you thought was incredibly value in your daily life as a professional was no longer relevant with your new job title. There are lots of reasons why a practice should evolve over time, and in doing so you can elevate your practice into a craft with the last and final (Seventh) Rule of Note-taking:

7 - Evolve and Grow your note-taking practice over time by constantly revising your cadence, templates, and goals as your job evolves.

Scrabble tiles spelling "Decide" "Commit" "Repeat"

I don’t think this needs to be as structured a practice as note-taking as a whole, but you should regularly make small and large tweaks to how you take notes. You can often use professional demarcations like a promotion or job title change to also evolve how you take notes, since those will often result in different responsibilities to those you had before. These sorts of large course corrections might involve something major like a cadence change if you find yourself in need of daily and not weekly notes, but they also might be small tweaks. Don’t be afraid to change something that you feel doesn’t work, as remember in Rule One, the best note-taking system is the one that you actually stick with! If it’s not providing value or sparking joy and enjoyment, the odds of you sticking with it are pretty slim. So tweak it, modify it, and course correct it until you find it works for you.

My Note Taking Journey

About 5 years ago I felt like I wasn’t aware of things to the extent that I needed to be. Tracking direct reports, projects, clients and technologies was becoming too much, and I was already using TODO tracking apps (RIP Wunderlist) to try and manage that. I had seen coworkers and their own note-taking strategies, and tried in vain to mirror theirs in an attempt to capture their organization and efficiency. It’s only when I found my chosen medium of Obsidian about 3+ years ago that it started to click for me, and I found something that worked. From there I started a daily notes practice, captured more than just my professional life in it (it works great for Tabletop RPGs too!), added in consistent daily actions, accountability frameworks, and added comprehensive tagging to tie it all together.

And by no means am I done either. My note-taking has started to evolve well beyond daily notes, and I now have 30 different templates for types of notes I take in and around the daily notes journal, and multiple other things I track in my personal and professional life. The last time I changed my daily notes template was (as I write this) literally yesterday, so while I’m further down this path than you might be, I’m definitely not at the end.

Putting it All Together: The Rules of Note-Taking

Okay, so you’ve stuck with me so far as I rambled, let me attempt to corral all of this feedback into something cohesive (I am notoriously wordy) by stating again the imperiously declared RULES OF NOTE-TAKING:

The Seven Rules of Note-Taking

  1. The best note-taking method is the one that you actually stick with.
  2. Pick a method of note-taking that aligns with your work habits and increases the chances that you'll do it consistently; one that you enjoy using.
  3. Your practice should push you towards your professional goals, so understanding them is key to getting results from your notes.
  4. Establish a cadence for your practice, and do your best to stick to it every day. (Focus on getting back into the habit again when you do fail)
  5. Build a format that helps you accomplish your goals by laying them out clearly.
  6. Add as much contextual information as you can through links, tags, or categories.
  7. Evolve and Grow your note-taking practice over time by constantly revising your cadence, templates, and goals as your job evolves.

It’s important to note that the above represents my best attempt at capturing what it is to have a mature practice when it comes to recording information in your professional life. Your first attempts might not follow all of the above rules but hopefully they’ll provide a guide to help you deepen your practice. Ultimately, the only important rules is ultimately the first:

The best note-taking method is the one that you actually stick with.

A hand giving a thumbs up in a bush. You got this!

Nothing in a note-taking practice is more important than consistency and just doing it. If you want a bargain basement note-taking strategy, simply find a text editor that will auto-save for you, create a Notes.txt file on your desktop, and just start ... writing stuff down. Seriously, it’s just that easy to start. Write down what’s important, what you don’t want to forget, or what you want to remember. Use it as a scratch pad and write down everything you think you need to. From that single solitary Notes.txt file will emerge your practice, what you care about, your template, cadence, links and cross referential information.

So if it needs to start simple and not all-encompassing start there. Because a comprehensive note-taking system will act as a secondary brain for you, helping you keep track of amazing amounts of information, detail and context. It will supercharge your brain. But it can’t unless you just start somewhere. The best time to start something is 2 years ago, the second best time is today.

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Top comments (1)

forrest_zeisler profile image
Forrest Zeisler

I bounced around systems myself for a long time. I've been settled into a modified GTD system in Evernote which has worked well for me for over a year now.

As painful as a switch can be, I do find occasionally switching up every few years can be a super valuable exercise. You uncover old notes and thoughts during the migration which fell off your radar. Different systems also get you to think differently, which can be a big plus if you're "in a rut".