Cover image “beauty in the brains” by bedelgeuse

A student recently asked me, “How do you have the self-discipline to open up your notes app every time you encounter an interesting idea?”

Suddenly I realized: I don’t.

It’s so critical that note-taking be easy and frictionless, that even opening an app is too much of a barrier in many cases.

To overcome that hurdle, I’ve adopted a series of tools and techniques over the years to automatically save content I find interesting to my notes app, Evernote.

In most cases, this happens completely in the background and doesn’t even require me to open the app.

When I do open it up, there are dozens of fascinating notes waiting in my inbox, quietly routed from across my digital world through an invisible underground infrastructure.

It’s pretty awesome.

I’ve realized through this experience that I’ve seriously underestimated the importance of automating one’s note-taking so that it takes as little effort as humanly possible. A series of technological leaps over the last 15 years has made such automation possible for the first time.

Technology helps us perform tasks more efficiently, but past a certain point, it takes over so much work previously done by humans that it changes the very nature of that work. It allows us to leap into a future where old assumptions no longer apply.

It’s time to question the basic purpose of note-taking in a world of increasingly powerful technological capabilities.

What we have automated

The following six aspects of note-taking have been partially or completely automated by modern technology:

  1. Taking notes
  2. Titling notes
  3. Searching notes
  4. Linking notes
  5. Filing notes
  6. Sharing notes

Taking notes once consumed countless hours of human effort. In the era of paper and pencil, it required significant effort to find the right notebook, turn to a blank page, and write down an idea.

But now, many kinds of notes can be created automatically or with minimal effort:

  • Highlighted passages in ebooks can be automatically saved to your notes app through services like Readwise
  • Highlights from online articles or web pages can be imported to your digital notes using an app like Instapaper
  • Emails can be forwarded directly to many popular notes apps such as Microsoft OneNote
  • Bookmarks and screenshots can be saved directly from within web browsers using “web clippers” from EvernoteBear, and Notion
  • Conversations and meetings can be recorded and auto-transcribed using services like Otter or Rev
  • Social media posts can be saved with one click using free services like IFTTT
  • Photos taken on smartphone cameras can be directly shared to a notes app with a few taps
  • Handwritten notes can be photographed and searched using apps like Evernote

These tools and integrations are like a digital keychain that I know I always have with me. But instead of opening physical doors, they open the digital doorways that give me access to a vast wealth of knowledge online. 

Now that we can save all kinds of content with a swipe of our finger, our time and energy are freed up to focus on what we do with those notes.

Titling notes once took serious thought. The title was the only way to tell what a note contained, so wording it exactly right the first time was essential. But now, software can automatically detect the name of the article or webpage we’re taking notes on. And if we want to change the title later, it takes mere seconds.

Searching our notes for specific information was once an incredibly time-consuming process. Google reshaped the world with its search engine, and that technology is just as powerful when searching our own personal note collections. With a search, every word in the note effectively becomes a keyword, eliminating the need to index, catalogue, or manually tag our notes.

Linking notes to each other was once very labor-intensive and prone to error. It involved copying ID numbers from one note to another and hoping you didn’t miss a letter or digit. But we can now create direct hyperlinks between notes that are completely independent of where the note is located. This allows you to change a note’s title, location, or contents without breaking any links.

Filing notes was once an essential step that had to be done perfectly the first time. The categories had to be created before the notes, which was challenging when you didn’t yet know what kind of content you would be collecting. But the structure of notes now exists independently of its contents: you are free to move content from one place to another, change the titles of notes, or move or rename entire folders, all without breaking any links or losing any content.

Finally, sharing notes has become radically easier. Sharing our ideas is now as easy as entering someone’s email address or copying and pasting a link. No longer do we have to give someone an entire notebook, rip out pages, or struggle with photocopiers.

Cultivating our idea gardens

With the automation of note-taking, the potential of our notes has finally been unleashed.

They now have the potential to become like “idea gardens.” Full of winding pathways that extend out into surrounding forests, our ideas can extend and overlap with the ideas of others.

As we trade, link to, and mix our notes with those of others, it becomes hard to say where “our” knowledge ends and the knowledge of others begins.

When moving around the content of our notes takes just a moment, the decision of how to organize them becomes like play – a fluid act of testing how ideas might fit together in different combinations. The structure of your notes becomes its own fluid and creative medium that adapts as quickly as your needs change.

Free from the demands of meticulous cataloguing and transcribing, our work actually becomes more concentrated and more strategic. Our attention now must shift to the work that only humans can do, including:

  1. Seeing patterns and connections
  2. Finding contradictory or disconfirming information
  3. Defining and structuring our work
  4. Taking effective action

Let’s examine each of these.

Seeing patterns and connections

One of the few tasks human brains can still perform far better than any computer is pattern recognition.

It is in many ways what our brains evolved to do – to recognize the pattern of a predator’s eyes in a dark jungle, the pattern of a rival tribe’s war cry in the distance, or the pattern of disapproval on a loved one’s face.

In modern times, seeing the patterns and connections amidst a seemingly unrelated collection of ideas is also at the heart of creativity. As psychiatrist and neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen concludes from her research on creativity, “…creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections…”

In order for this pattern recognition to work, we require certain conditions. We need to see many different kinds of information, in different formats, all juxtaposed together in random combinations.

These conditions are difficult to find in the physical world, but notes apps are designed for exactly this kind of randomness and serendipity. They are the only category of software that allows us to store many different kinds of content in one place. That content may include voice memos, scanned paper documents, book quotes, snippets of text, handwritten notes, PDFs, screenshots, photos, webpages, and so much more.

Like scrambling Scrabble letters to see which words jump out at us, we need to be able to shuffle our notes around to generate new insights. We can only do this if we are confident that the underlying software is keeping track of it all. We need to know that as we remix and play with our ideas, sources won’t get lost, links won’t break, and context won’t be forgotten.

Finding contradictory or disconfirming information

Note-taking was once primarily used to find supporting evidence. Information was so hard to find that we had to spend tremendous amounts of time seeking facts and examples to support our arguments.

But all the supporting evidence we could ever want is now just a Google search away. In fact, we may have gone too far in that direction, spending much of our time in “filter bubbles” that only reinforce what we already know.

It’s now more important to do the opposite: finding information that contradicts or disconfirms what we know. This can’t be automated, because it isn’t just a matter of finding the right keywords. It requires human intelligence to understand how a new finding contradicts another.

Discovering information that contradicts what we currently believe is the new frontier of learning. Our thinking only improves when it can withstand criticism and contradiction. Otherwise, we never know for sure if our ideas make a difference in the real world.

Defining and structuring our work

Our technology is still limited by the fact that it doesn’t actually understand the meaning of the information we collect. It can handle information in many impressive ways, but deciding what is important, what it means, and why it matters is still the domain of humans.

This is known as “meta-work” – the process of defining and structuring our work. It includes setting goals and priorities, predicting obstacles and problems, and noticing strategic opportunities when they appear.

By automating much of the low-level work of capturing, organizing, and keeping track of content, digital notes apps give us back the time we need to engage in this meta-work. They allow us to elevate our perspective and take in the big picture, knowing that our technology is handling the details in the background.

Taking effective action

Even the most advanced technology lacks one crucial element: agency.

At the end of the day, after everything is organized, prioritized, and scheduled, only humans can decide to act on that information. To advocate, persuade, influence, and implement.

Every other aspect of note-taking has been dramatically streamlined, but taking effective action is as rare as ever. It might even be getting more difficult as we are inundated with ever more options. Action is now our bottleneck, and our entire approach to note-taking needs to be reorganized around it.

What matters now is not how many inputs you have to your notes, but the output that you achieve with them. It is the output that makes the difference. It is the output that gives you an outstanding career, a thriving business, and a stellar reputation.

The true purpose of our notes is not to trace where we came from, it is to point the way toward where we’re going.

The Future of Work Is Just-in-Time

Note-taking in the past was a scholarly exercise for researchers, scientists, theorists, and historians.

But now, all of us have to not only sift through vast amounts of information, but we also have to organize and deploy that information to achieve specific goals while juggling a jam-packed schedule.

Most of us are not academics building an ivory tower of theoretical knowledge. We are on the ground and in the field, inching our goals forward through a relentless storm of noise and chaos. We are crafters of knowledge, wrestling information into practical solutions to our everyday problems.

The automation of note-taking has ushered in a simple but all-encompassing change in the way we work: Instead of working “just-in-case,” we need to work “just-in-time.”

In the old world of paper notes, when a tremendous amount of human labor was required to capture information, everything had to be done “just-in-case.”

Carefully write down a quote just in case, give it an ID number just in case, think of a good title just in case, cite your sources just in case, precisely categorize it just in case, etc. The entire process of note-taking was front-loaded, requiring considerable work just to get new information into the system.

But today, because we can capture so much valuable content with close to zero effort, it makes more sense to just let notes collect and postpone the work of figuring out how to use them for later.

Because I can capture so much more information, I know not all of the notes I capture will end up being useful. So I want to avoid investing time into them until I know they will be useful.

There is a difference between notes you take in the spur of the moment and those that will become long-term intellectual assets. But it isn’t always clear which is which, and forcing yourself to make that decision upfront takes energy that would be much better spent creating value now.

Once you realize this, your priorities around note-taking change.

Values such as completeness, precision, and comprehensiveness suddenly become much less important. Other values, such as usefulness, contradiction, and interestingness, come to the forefront instead. In a world where our quality of life is directly linked to the quality of our thinking, we have to prioritize the impact of our ideas.

Everyone’s work is becoming more knowledge-centric. That is, the decisive factor in our careers and businesses is no longer how many hours we work, the effort we put in, or how much we sacrifice. It is what we know – our knowledge – that makes the difference. And that knowledge is created through the act of taking notes.

Ideas have the potential to shape the trajectory of our lives, our careers, our families, our communities, our organizations, and even entire nations. We must take seriously the way we collect and organize them. They are not merely for entertainment or private reflection.

Ideas matter to the future – ideas create the future.

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