Notes on Notetaking

Table of Contents

    I’ve been taking notes for my whole life, and consciously for less than a decade. I have tried many systems, jumped on and off many wagons. Here are things that stuck with me, which are universal, I believe, for all notetaking systems (and there are many).

    • Longetivity first. You don’t want vendor lock-in. Plain text is the king here, but many systems which offer easy export to established formats are fine as well. Exporting adds a friction though, so writing the notes in the target format is better.
    • Just in case you change your mind, you probably want to choose a format which is well-supported by pandoc. Aim for one which doesn’t need any fancy tools and processing to be readable for humans.
      • Markdown is not that bad format for notes. Although many rightfully point that there are dozens of active Markdown flavors, it also means that there are Markdown editors for all of the platforms you can think of. The core is always the same though, so stick to it and you should be good.
      • Asciidoc (coupled with Asciidoctor) is a good alternative for Markdown, but lacks tooling. It’s more powerful, but additional complexity comes with it.
      • Org-mode is powerful, but being practically Emacs-exclusive makes it another vendor lock-in format. It doesn’t matter that Emacs is a Free Software and that underneath it’s just a text. Org files mean nothing without Emacs. Pandoc, however, converts them quite well.
        • Another con for org-mode is the complexity of this system. The initial learning curve is really steep.
        • Agenda view is great though.
      • It is OK to use more than one file format. Different things require different approaches.
      • Notebook applications which use sqlite databases for some metadata are probably OK, because it’s easy enough to dump sqlite to CSV, or to access it programmatically.
    • It’s OK to have part of notes digital and the other part analogue. Writing on a [good] paper is soothing experience. You don’t have to digitize your paper notes.
      • Paper notebooks work the best when they are topical i.e. one topic per notebook. They are great for journals and todo lists as well. Bullet journal is a good framework for keeping a physical noetbook.
      • A6 is a great format for todo lists.
      • Leuchtturm1917 are great notebooks. I am not affiliated with Leuchtturm.
    • Related to the above, it’s OK to have several notes sources, like your journal, audio recordings, photographs, several notebooks etc.
      • In that case it is important to collect these notes from time to time in a single, uniform form.
    • Don’t take notes on your computer when you’re seeing someone face to face. Do it on the paper. People don’t like to speak to you when you’re staring at your computer, making keyboard noises. They, however, feel listened to when you’re noting with your pencil or fountain pen.
    • Do yourself a favor and store your digital notes in git, preferably on a remote, backed up server. Version control really saves your ass over and over again.
    • Notes must be attractive this way or another. Being mostly text, they must be typographically attractive. You’re going to look at them a lot so the experience must be pleasant. Add some colors to your editor, use a nice font and pleasing, but unobtrusive color scheme. Higlight only important things, but use emphasis and bold a lot. After all, books are black on white (or, more often, rather black on ivory) for a reason.
    • Web view/ page rendering is overrated. It is nice for image-heavy notes, but they usually can be rendered ad hoc.
    • Grep or Ripgrep is the king of searching through your notes. Coupled with fzf, it creates an insanely powerful interactive search.
    • Tags are overrated.
    • Internal wiki-like-links are overrated and maintaining them is a burden. They’re quite good when they are there, though, even if only for adding some typographical variety.
    • Structuring your notes probably isn’t worth your time. Just use grep.
    • One Big Text File works surprisingly good. I’ve been using it as a dump for my thoughts, so I don’t have to decide right away about note’s structure, title etc.
    • Adding new notes must be frictionless. You don’t want your notebook to start 2-3 seconds each time you want to note something. 1-2 keypresses and you should be inside the editor, writing. If you’re using heavy GUI program, keep it in background and configure a shortcut for focusing it.
    • Outlining is the single most powerful techique for writing literally anything. Learn it today, start now. From now on start writing sentences and paragraps with bullets in front of them all the time.
      • You don’t need any fancy outliner applications. Just type bullets (or dashes) and indent subsections.
    • Don’t stress about productivity. After all, notetaking is dumping your thoughts in hope that you’ll be more productive in the future, not now. Predicting whether the notes will be actually useful is worthless.
    • Don’t glue yourself to one particular system and don’t be afraid of breaking the rules. The system must work for you, not the other way.
      • It’s more important to make a habit of noting things down than do that in any particular way.
      • It is normal that proven systems stop working. Don’t be afraid to change them if they don’t work for you anymore.