Drawing from professional experience about a documentation-oriented working style, I apply a similar approach in my private life. In this blog post I give you an overview of its value and how you can apply it too.
I consider myself a “heavy user” of (online) content: newspapers, magazine articles, podcasts, documentaries, …
I realised that when I am reading/listening/watching only, you consume a lot, but just a small fraction of it stays in my head and gets actionable when I need it.
For me the answer to this problem is keeping simple notes for everything interesting I come across. Whenever I read an article, watch a documentary or listen to a podcast and think to myself “Oh, that’s an interesting perspective”, or “OK, I believed it’s more like X …”, I take notes about it and reference the original source. I do this for approx. 25% of content I consume, for the one that adds something I did not know, expect, or believe before. I found that the additional time I need is around 10-20%.
This habit has big advantages for me
- First, you naturally remember things better if you consume and write down things instead of just consuming it.
- Second, you typically remember at least vaguely the field or rough topic about the notes you take. By remembering the field, you always know where and how to look it up.
- Third, maintaining notes is a big mental relief. You do not need to remember small bits and pieces. Once you have offloaded them to a written format, you can free your mind and revert to them in your notes at any time.
It takes a lot of discipline to maintain a high standard for your notes. However, with so much good content and inspiration and things to do, I found that I can internalise and use them effectively only by capturing it. Things I just consume I forget rather quickly. If so, why spend the time reading/listening/watching in the first place?
For me, the 10-20% extra time for taking notes is worth it.
Besides capturing learnings and inspirations, your notes are also a great place for simple to-do lists. I am not an excessive user of to-do lists, but they are of course handy for remembering to book a doctor’s appointment, for shopping lists and so on. If you have all your notes and lists at one single and dependable place, you free up a lot of mental capacity.
How to choose the technical toolset
You could use a physical paper notebook for the above purpose, but for me it has too many downsides.
My requirements for a note-taking app include
- Lightweight design
- Reduced functionality - bullet lists, note tagging and photo upload are sufficient
- Collaboration with others on individual elements (e.g. family shopping list)
- Search function
- Multi-platform on phone, tablet, desktop browser
- Complete export function
I checked a frequently recommended application - Notion - in more detail. I found that for my personal use it is nice, but too complex.
I settled with a much simpler option: Google Keep. It checks all the boxes above and does not try to do too much besides them.
How I structure and find my notes and to-dos
The 1 million euro question after you have taken notes is: How do you find them again?
To find notes again I typically just use the search function. This works well in 99+% of the cases. I recommend not to overdo any classification or complicated organisation of notes. Just trust that your notes are there and that you will find them using search.
To keep my notes tidy, a categorisation with a small number of categories turned out to be helpful for me. This simple list of tags, in combination with search, is sufficient for me:
As written above, this concept requires a lot of discipline and some additional effort, but - done consistently - you will find that the value you gain exceeds the efforts.
If such a system works for you, depends on the type of person you are. If you are a structured person, hate the feeling of wasting time and draw satisfaction from constant self-improvement - you should give it a try!
If you would like to read more of my blog, check out the list of posts here!