One day in your early school years, a teacher probably told you to “take notes” for the first time.

Looking around at your fellow classmates, this seemed to involve writing down what the teacher said, word for word, on lined pieces of paper.

For most of us, this is how our experience of note-taking started: with a mysterious command, and very little guidance in how to carry it out.

If you were lucky, you might have received a few basic note-taking tips. Make two columns. Use abbreviations. Underline key words. Write down the date. But that’s where it ended.

You knew it was time to take notes when the teacher said “This will be on the test.” This declaration implied that “getting a good grade” was the only reason you might want to take notes. The minute the final exam was over, you knew you would never make use of those notes again.

Taking notes in this way might have been the primary way you participated in your education – passively, for the short term, and only for the test.

And then you entered the professional world, and suddenly the whole approach to note-taking you learned in school became obsolete.

Unlike in school, in the professional world:

  • It’s not at all clear what you should be taking notes on
  • No one tells you when or how your notes will be needed
  • The “test” can come at any time and in any form
  • You’re allowed to reference your notes, but it’s up to you to organize them
  • You are expected to take action on your notes and turn them into results, not just regurgitate them

Not to mention that the volume of information we are expected to manage doesn’t go down once we enter the workplace.

It explodes.

Every single day is filled with an overwhelming torrent of emails, invites, updates, messages, notifications, reports, reminders, and to do’s…each one screaming for our attention.

Once again, we are left on our own to somehow tame this flood tide. And again we are given precious little training or guidance. Even if we are lucky enough to have good note-taking habits left over from school, those habits don’t serve us in the radically different environment of work.

The new meaning of notes

Luckily, the same technology that has fueled an explosion in the volume of information coming our way has also equipped us with the tools to manage it: digital notes apps.

Now that our notes are digital, they can become durable. They can last for the long term, supporting our long-term goals and ambitions without relying on our fragile memory. 

But to fully embrace this digital future, we need to flip the definition of note-taking on its head, and leave behind the outdated approach we learned in school.

Here is my proposed definition:

A digital note is a “knowledge building block” – a discrete unit of information interpreted through your unique perspective and stored outside your head. 

It could be a passage from a book or article that you were inspired by, a photo or screenshot with annotations, or a bullet-point list of your thoughts on a subject, among many other examples.

Once a piece of information has been interpreted through your lens, curated according to your taste, translated into your own words, or drawn from your life experience, and stored somewhere outside your head, then it’s a note.

Unlike a long, formal document, a note is discrete – it makes a single point, comes from a single source, or serves a single purpose. This gives each note clear edges and makes it easy to directly compare and contrast with other notes.

Like a LEGO block, a knowledge building block stands on its own and has intrinsic value. Yet each block can also be combined with others into greater works – a report, an essay, a website, or a video for example.

And just like LEGOs, these building blocks are reusable. You only need to put in the effort to create a note once, and then it can be mixed and matched with other notes again and again for any kind of project you work on, now or in the future.

When you take a digital note, you don’t have to worry about where it fits in. There doesn’t need to be any comprehensive table of contents. Just save any idea that resonates with you that you might want to reflect on, reconsider, or reference in the future. They can easily be moved, retitled, or edited later.

All you have to do is craft a single building block of knowledge each time you read or learn something, and save it in a central place. You can leave it to your future self to figure out what to do with it.

This approach simplifies our note-taking while also making it more valuable and flexible. It relieves us of the burden of sticking to a grand strategic plan, and frees us to focus on what really matters: the present moment, here and now.

Every digital note is like a bookmark reminding you of something you’ve learned in the past, and pointing you back to the original source if you want to recall it. Your notes are like a garden full of familiar, winding pathways, but also secret and secluded corners. Every pathway is a jumping off point to new ideas and perspectives.

Technology doesn’t just make note-taking more efficient. It transforms the very nature of notes.

No longer do we have to write our thoughts on Post-Its or legal pads that are fragile, easy to lose, and impossible to search. Now we write notes in the cloud, and the cloud follows us everywhere.

No longer do we have to spend countless hours meticulously cataloguing and transcribing our notes. Now we collect knowledge building blocks, and spend our time imagining the possibilities for what they could become.

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