For years I experienced frustration in my note taking because I did not realize that I was trying to accomplish two radically different things at the same time. First, I was trying to stay engaged or process my thinking by writing. Second, I was trying to establish a reliable long-term external memory. I was having trouble pursuing these two goals at the same time, however, because I did not realize the way that they inherently stand in tension with one another.

When I do not take notes, my attention easily drifts from a text or a lecture. Further, my thinking remains fuzzy until it becomes explicitly stated in writing, staring me back in the face. Unfortunately, a lot of what I think is garbage, and most of what I hear in lectures should be promptly forgotten. Because the very act of writing sharpens and makes manifest the thought, however, I don’t realize that a thought is garbage until it is already written down.

In my old system, I used to write down everything into one central repository—class notes, lecture notes, book notes, random thoughts, personal reflections. I was enamored by the Evernote “everything bucket” philosophy. As a result, it became near impossible to find relevant information when I needed it. So by pursing the first note-taking goal blindly, I failed to achieve the second—unfindable information is forgotten information. Every one of my search queries would turn up hundreds of pieces of junk text.

To solve this problem, I adopted a strict segregation between two kinds of notes:

  1. Engagement notes, and
  2. Memory notes

By keeping these two segregated, I can pursue the first goal (thinking by writing) without worrying about organization, filing, or whether the thought is any good or not, and I can also pursue the second goal (long-term memory) without including all the cruft in my files. I have maintained these two sets of notes in parallel for a few years now and the system works wonderfully for me.

The two different sets of notes have different requirements and thus suit themselves to different media. Engagement notes must be free-form and low latency. If I need to fill out a bunch of metadata or decide where to file a piece of writing when I am in the park and have an idea, the chances are that I just won’t capture the idea at all. Pen and paper work well for this. I can write anything anywhere with no spell check and no filing. A new thought just goes on the next line of my notebook whether it concerns a book I’m reading, a lecture I’m attending, or a concept I’m struggling to make explicit.

Memory notes need to be searchable and organized. Computers naturally excel at both these tasks. I keep all my memory notes in a single directory in Dropbox as plain-text markdown files. Each file covers a single topic and the whole directory can be searched in a variety of ways. (More on the specifics of this system in a later post.)

For about one hour per day, I go over my engagement notes with a red pen in hand. I pull out the really valuable information and enter this into my memory notes in an organized way. (More on the specifics of my analog system in a later post as well.) The time for worrying about filing and organization is after the idea is thought through and made explicit. This system has the added bonus that I see all my engagement notes at least twice with a gap of at least twenty four hours in between. This spaced repetition dramatically increases my retention of information.

This is the first in a series of posts on my note taking system. Stay tuned for the gritty details.