A curated guide to note-taking

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Note-taking has been a habit of mine since I graduated from university. Although it wasn't that long ago, most of my professors didn't record lectures or publish their slides, so the notes taken by me or my classmates were the only reference material available.

Throughout my four years, I experimented with different forms of note-taking, ranging from the traditional pen and paper to typing on a laptop to writing on a tablet. On my third year, I settled on a hybrid approach of writing and typing. Using the first ever Surface book, I could write and type on one device. I would write notes during mathematical-heavy classes and type during faster-paced theory classes.

This is a habit that has followed me into the working world and it has been incredibly helpful. It has helped me recall information, tracked decisions, and identified personal areas for improvement. This is just the top 3 benefits I could think of, I am sure there are more.

Recently, innovative note-taking programs like Notion, Obsidian and others have once again brought this time-tested idea to the forefront. These programs have infused traditional note-taking with modern web technology and databases to make note-taking even more powerful than it already is.

In this article, I'll explain why taking notes is crucial and help you choose the best program or tool to meet your needs. There are many other guides but here is my curated approach to note-taking.

Why you should take notes

Firstly, let's discuss why taking notes can be so helpful. Aside from my habit ingrained during my university days, note-taking has tremendous benefits for your life and career. It serves as a repository for your thoughts, ideas, and things to remember. Modern note-taking software also enables you to search across your notes, providing almost instant access to everything you've written.

A common argument that I get with note-taking is why do so, when Google's search engine exists. Well, to that, I answer that it's hard to trust every search result that Google outputs, and it hardly provides any context for your situation. Notes, on the other hand, are written by you or someone you trust (hopefully), making it easier to infer the context and solve your problem. As the information is tailored to you, searching your notes will also give you personalized results.

Moreover, you need to spend time sifting through Google's search result as there is a lot of information out there. Even tools like the new ChatGPT can give you good search results but it doesn't understand the context of your search.

Here's an example,

Imagine if you search google for "what is the best music to listen while working" and you get a lot of results. You then have to go and try each "recommended" playlist until you find one that suits you.

Now, let's compare that to a note you took down when a friend recommended a playlist that they use while working. You now have a recommended playlist by someone you trust, saving you time and effort. It still may not be what you were looking for but you now have a more tailored result.

That being said, note-taking does require a mindset shift because you need to have the instinct to jot something down when you come across something useful. However, this upfront effort can save you a lot of time, effort and even improve your output.

A guide to choosing your note-taking tool/program

As I mentioned before, there are many note-taking programs to choose from, each with different philosophies and paradigms. The abundance of programs can make it overwhelming to start note-taking. Which is why this section is focused on helping you pick one, it may not be the best one (the first one rarely it) but it will help get you started.

Over the past five years, I've experimented with several programs, and here's how I would choose a note-taking program if I had to select one again.

Differentiate between notes and tasks

First, let's differentiate between notes and tasks because most note-taking programs have additional functionality such as task management and time blocking. In fact, note-taking programs are often referred to as knowledge management systems (KMS), which is a more appropriate term.

Due to the added functionality, it's important to distinguish between notes and tasks in your daily life because some programs are better at notes, while others excel at tasks. Therefore, you need to make a mental note of that when picking your tool/program.

Your note-taker persona (Architect, Librarian or Gardener)

To help get started with picking a KMS, it's a good idea to figure out what tendencies when you take notes. Do you prefer to be organized and sort your notes, or are you more comfortable with a chaotic approach as long as you can retrieve them when needed?

There are various quizzes and tools available that can help you answer this, here are the resources that I used:

However, it's important not to get too caught up in picking just one note-taking style if all of them resonate with you because you might end up having different styles for different areas of your life. For instance, I am follow the architect persona for shared notes and the gardener persona for personal notes.

Aim for a toolset, not a single tool

There is no perfect tool for note-taking. Each program has its own philosophy, which may suit certain situations better than others. It's best to leverage each program's philosophy rather than trying to force a single tool to do everything, as no tool is perfect.

I made the mistake of using a single program to do everything I needed. I ended up forcing that tool to embody different philosophies which it wasn't designed for. Therefore, it's essential to select a tool that aligns with your note-taking philosophy for a given situation.

So, it's better to use a set of tools than a single tool, there is no tool that fits all situations.

Note-taking tools/programs

Let's get into actually picking a program. I think Tool Finder and How to choose the right note-taking app: the ultimate guide are very good resources to help you decide. But I also wanted to give my opinion on the various popular programs out there.

  • Pen and paper
    • While there are benefits to this method, not having search is a big downside.
    • But if you don't want to give up writing, use a digital tablet that can turn your writing into searchable text.
    • I currently use a supernote which is awesome.
  • Notion (Currently using)
    • I first found Notion in 2019, about 6 months after it was released.
    • Great for sharing and collaborating with others. I currently use it to track bills, expenses and notes with my brother.
    • Great for people who want to be really organised about their notes. I can even see teams using this.
      • In fact, I know Giraffe uses notion to manage information in their team.
  • Roam Research (Used)
    • I tried Roam because I wanted my note-taking to be more organic
      • This was also when Notion didn't support backlinks and had a terrible mobile app.
    • But it's quite expensive but you do get a cloud editor that you can access from anywhere.
  • Obsidian (Currently using personally and at work)
    • I swapped to Obsdian because I felt like I was paying too much for Roam
    • It's completely free unless you use their publish or sync feature. (I use their sync feature)
    • You don't need to know how to code to use it but if you do, Obsidian unlocks a lot more features than Roam.
      • Like how I am using Obsidian at work with a team because we all know how to use git
    • You keep all the files, since they exist in an app on your computer. (another reason I switched to Obsidian over Roam)
  • Logseq / Remnote (Never Used)
    • Experimented with them when I left Roam but at the time I found Obsidian to be way more featureful.
    • But they have philosophies that are closer to Roam than Obsidian does.
  • Tana(Never Used)
    • I have heard a lot hype about.
    • It uses AI and ML to enhance your knowledge and offers everything that Obsidian/Roam can do
    • But it's in closed beta at the moment and looks like it will be pretty expensive
  • OneNote / Evernote / Google Notes / Apple Notes (Used)
    • I used these programs in University and I know some people that still use them today.
    • I think they are pretty reliable but it's hard to search across multiple files
  • ClickUp (Currently using at work )
    • This is technically a task management app but they have added a lot of features that let you write notes and draw mind maps. So I think it classifies as a KMS tool.
    • I think it can be quite useful if you often couple your notes with tasks. This is quite common in the programming world, you can attach your notes to your tickets.
    • I do this a lot at work, I write comments, notes and thoughts that relate to each task.

While I think you can't go wrong with any of these programs, the largest difference between all of them is their philosophies. So it still cycles back to the idea of your note-taking style. But to get started I would just pick one that resonates with you, then do a review after 6 months, and switch if you need to.

It may take some time to figure how you like to take-notes. I started of with Notion because I wanted to organise everything but I now use Obsidian because I am comfortable with managing the chaos.

I would also recommend not to switch too often because it does takes time and effort to get used to a program. Not to mention, you would have to migrate your notes which also add to the time and effort.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, note-taking is meant to enhance your life and work. It shouldn't be another thing to worry about or feel the need to optimize, unless you genuinely want to do so. The goal of this article is to show how note-taking can improve your life and introduce you to some of the available tools that can help you achieve that.

Thanks for reading.


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