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Why take and make notes (dsebastien.net)
85 points by dSebastien 10 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments





Articles like this are like catnip to me. If they are part of a cluster, I will easily click away a whole morning.

However, they usually leave me feeling a bit bloated and unsatisfied. The PKM gurus I come across seem to use their system mainly for recording thoughts about their system. Now, I can appreciate going meta as much as every nerd, but somewhere the wheels have to touch the ground.

Edit: I realize there is an availability bias at play here. There are probably tons of people with effective PKM who do not use their PKM to produce blogs about their PKM.


Your comment really resonates with me (as a general point, not specifically about OP article which is about note-taking as a whole.)

For example, when a Youtube creator makes videos about new PKM apps/systems, they are getting secondary benefits that ordinary users are not. Tinkering with new apps can be fun, but often not worth the actual trouble of learning and converting over to a new app/system. Worse, it can be a source of procrastination in itself.

But the Youtuber pushing out monthly videos about the hot new thing is accomplishing their main purpose of making new Youtube content (which is of course fine.)

I personally started using Obsidian late last year, and have no real desire to look at anything new. It works great for me, and the active plugin development community provides enough new shiny stuff to try out at every now and then. ;-)


I understand your feeling, but it doesn't match the reality at all. As an enthusiast (not an expert), I love going meta and nerd about systems and productivity. But I don't live in theory-land at all. I use my system to capture and organize pretty much everything I learn, whether it is about software development, music, product development, sales, marketing, finance, etc.

The articles I write however are geared towards people who I think would benefit from using the same kind (not necessarily the same!) techniques. So I try to document what it's all about, what benefits I notice based on my own personal experience, and approaches that I found actually useful.

I often think about my son when I write my articles. I hope that someday these articles or what I tell him will drive him to experiment and find techniques that help him achieve his goals in life. Those may or may not be relevant for him, but might be, I don't know ;-)


I think the problem is that a lot of PKM articles are about _the PKM_, rather than the knowledge captured. Endless articles about 'hammers and chisels' in abstract, and not about 'woodworking', or how to use a chisel to accomplish a certain task during woodworking.

However, it's rare that I actually see articles talking about WHAT they capture. They never put the PKM into context. So again a lot of these articles feel like 'just take notes, DUH!'...and yes that's mainly what it comes down to. But with blog post after blog post, there seems to be so much added 'ceremony' to note taking. If there wasn't so much ceremony, one blog post would likely do. Adding all this ceremony just feels like you (the amorphous 'you') are trying to complicate the process so that you can monetise the solution.

If some of these articles explained their thought process about capture and organisation in a real world context, rather than just the abstract notion of 'tags are good', 'organisation is good', 'notes let you follow up on stuff later!', they wouldn't seem so vacuous.

I generally am also quite interested in PKM, and have maintained a git repo of markdown for the best part of a decade, augmented with pinboard and goodnotes for bookmarks and handwriting respectively. I've tried various tools such as evernote, obsidian, physical notebooks, zettelkasten, personally hosted wikis, tiddlywiki, trello, onenote, zenodo, mendeley etc over the years, and even wrote my own bookmarking solutions and CLI tools.


> are about _the PKM_, rather than the knowledge captured

This is because engaging with information ("to note"...) is such a basic human activity. So, you have to abstract to a higher level if you wish to attract the "average" internet audience.

This is one of the reasons I suggested (bellow) it would be better to anchor note-taking discourses within established communities (students, business, academia...)

> much added 'ceremony' to note taking

Like every Human sub-culture/scene/community, note-taking/PKM/tft automatically creates its own customs and ceremonies. There is no escaping it. The fun thing is : because it is a basic activity (as I said earlier), those outside these circles will find it bizarre (the ceremony part) and banal (the basic part), both at the same time.

Bizarre + banal = WTF!


Thanks for clarifying that. I just read your blog about your 25+ years of PKM (go c64!) and noticed your older blogs that are mainly about software engineering, so I seem to have jumped to conclusions. Apologies.

My misgivings about grand PKM systems have been formed, at least partly, by my own starts and stops, which mostly amounted to little more than fruitless tinkering with the system. It seems to me that I am not the only one.


It's often because those gurus and their articles are swallow and empty. They show the surface, but don't understand the topic, and are thus unable to tour around it's deeper parts and point on specific parts hidden from plain sight, which we are all searching for. And even worse, mostly all of them are writing literally the same, copying from each other, recapturing the always same swallow parts in their own words and images and always moving the same gear.

This is ok if you are new to a topic yourself. But after you've learned the first layers, it's become harder to find something new with substantial value. And thus, you are unsatisfied.


I agree. I'm also not satisfied with the quality in this domain.

Here is why I think it is the way it is:

- The contours of this domain are very fuzzy: What are we talking about here? the fact that words like (P)KM and productivity were hijacked by corporate motives for most of their history does not help.

- The "emptiness" comes from "influencers" trying the cater to our incessant pursuit, as a society, of the new and shiny. Social media FOMO makes this worse. But The shallowness you are talking about have absolutely nothing to do with this domain in particular. It is endemic to our current world.

And fuzziness does not help. I appreciate the effort and enthusiasm, but we need to anchor/connect it to more established communities.

Is it about Business management / The future of work? Personal Thinking and Problem Solving? Personal Development? Personal Journaling? The future of journalism? Text Editors UX? Information & Learning Design? L&D (Learning and Development) ? Higher Education Note-taking? Digital research? Software studies? Digital Humanities?

These are all related real domains (google them)


As a lifelong keyboard user my casual handwriting has devolved into scratches that are undecipherable even to myself. Yet in every meeting I will be taking notes on actual paper.

These are write-only notes never meant to be consulted again.

I do this because it not only helps me concentrate, but I feel the physical act engages an extra type of mental process. This effect is specific to pen on paper and is ot achieved eg by typing (wich for me has a negative impact on attention)


I also take notes on paper. It's just a lot more fluid than any other solution and doesn't take my attention away.

I personally consider my meeting notes as transient. I use them to make sure I capture what really mattered during the discussion and ideas that it sparked.

After the meeting, when there's actually useful information in there, I creating meeting minutes that I share around so that it can be useful to others as well (eg decisions, actions, important points made, etc).


> I personally consider my meeting notes as transient

Totally agree. Mine are really just memory joggers so that I can if necessary create a brief record-of-actions-and-decisions email immediately after the meeting. Once I've done that I almost never look at them again.

If someone whiteboards a diagram or similar, I photograph it if I can.


I'm the same, I take a lot of notes, often don't look back at them, but helps with making it "stick". Same for handwriting, auto (handwrite to text) would be nice in my specific apps/devices.

Yeah, note-taking does help with memorization too. I consider that a nice side-effect :)

I use a Boogie Board with the smart pen for that. It's probably one of the most extravagant luxury items I've ever bought($160 or so) for something that only gets occasional use, but it's amazing for mostly write only notes that I might theoretically consult again.

It really does seem to have benefits for any activity that's primarily about actual thinking or creativity, as opposed to busywork or digging through documentation.

I'm guessing a lot of the benefit is that screens are associated really strongly with the habit of procrastinating or scrolling rather than focusing.


FWIW, if you want to improve your penmanship, write slower and more deliberately. (Speed will improve with time.)

Also good advice with ennunciation and typing.


I've found having a device (I use a remarkable) where you can erase writing without making a huge mess makes it easier to improve as well. I tend to speed up which ruins my handwriting or my mind moves faster than my pen and I end up skipping letters. On paper I would have to use a rubber and the page ends up being an ugly mess, which makes correcting mistakes very unappealing. Having an electronic devices rewards fixing mistakes, because the page ends up looking better afterwards, instead of worse.

It's also great advice for playing music instruments. The slower you go, the better you learn

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast, as the old saying goes.

As a Obsidian obsessive, I cannot agree more!

What must be absolutely taken into account with these kind of digital « web of notes»-taking apps is the availability of the search feature.

ALL your note-taking strategy should be pointed at that feature. You need to write things for later INSTANT information retrieval and no context switching overload. Just like the Google experience: information is just there, at your fingertips. And YOU are in control.

It takes a little time not to be shy to give meaningful titles and subtitles, to make a lot of references to other correlated notes, and to capture all the important points without being verbose [usually you don’t have much time to capture information and be verbose, anyway]

Really really, you want, when you search a note or a part of a note, to have an instant access to all the context you had at that enlightened and fleeting instant, when you had all in mind and wrote the note.

The term of « second brain » is really appropriate, in my humble opinion.


Totally agree with you! I need to write an article about optimizing for search/retrieval. I touched on that on my article about tagging [1], but it deserves more explanations :p

[1]: https://dsebastien.net/blog/2022-05-17-why-and-how-to-tag-no...


I do not use tagging yet. I did not grasp the power of it yet. Probably because the search in obsidian does not propose any tag oriented clutering of the results. Or any other feature where the tagging is inherently visible and accessible.

[i will read your article anyway]


You can filter search results using tags in Obsidian: "something tag:#work"

I rely on tags for different things: search, automation (e.g., move notes to folder X if tag A is present), indexes (https://dsebastien.net/blog/2022-05-15-maps-of-content), random exploration of my notes (e.g., open a random note with tag X).


I will try to test Dataview and the query language of obsidian. But honestly, if it is not in direct relationship with search, or if it makes the note authoring process to go in pause to think about which tag is relevant or which new tag could help, I will probably not use them much.

May be I would use tags if they appeared as facets in search, to quickly filter out search results when you get too many of them.

This is my experience writing notes.

I began writing notes in WikidPad a Python wiki software that runs on Windows. I used this for a few years. I like the software.

I used this for years until 2013 when I decided to write new notes on GitHub. The old notes are in my ideas-wiki repository on GitHub.

I create a GitHub repository called "ideas" and it's public and I write my notes in the open.

When I get to 100-500 entries I create a new "ideas" repository and add a number to the end.

Since 2013 I am up to ideas4.

I am up to 700+ entries from this practice. Each entry is a numbered markdown heading such as # 476. Stackless coroutine transpiler.

I strongly recommend taking notes, they can be used to remind you of thoughts and help you get ideas developed and documented.

Strongly recommend creating that GitHub repository today and start journalling! Don't hesitate.

You don't actually need to invest lots of time learning a note taking tool, static site generation or blog software You can just use markdown and internal anchors. You can copy paste the URL of headings on GitHub.

I use a mixture of IntelliJ and the GitHub web interface to edit my notes

See my profile for links to my journal/notes. They are all computer software ideas and architecture ideas and feature ideas for desktop environments and futuristic software. In ideas4 I talk a lot about Parallelism and multithreading.


I'll be looking at your notes and see if I can find some inspiration. I've thought about such a system but instead of a flat README, I'd have a directory for each note with a README and accompanying assets (code and images). In the root directory, I'd have a table of contents linking back to each particular directory.

I’ve been sold forever on the Why, but I’m still searching after 30 years for the How. After a whole career of practice I still cannot effectively multitask between participating in a meeting and writing/typing notes during the meeting. If I devote 100% of my brainpower to it, I can write some bullets while people are talking (after which I’m completely disconnected from the flow of the conversation). It’s very frustrating and exhausting!

I don't think it's the way to go for everyone. Some people have fantastic memories and can really retain a lot of what was said during a meeting. I don't, which is why note-taking is so important to me.

I focus as much as I can on the points being made, and summarize those with bullet points. Usually 1-2 pages max, depending on how long it lasts.

I simply don't want to get out of a meeting and think "what the hell did we talk about in there?!", and realize that it was useless. Ofc other considerations come into play and many meetings are actually wastes of time anyway


To write my ideas down, I take advantage of small downtimes and moments when there's no useful information being exchanged (which happens quite a lot). For instance, whenever I realize that people are just agreeing with each other, when people repeat the same things, when they are arguing. I try to capture keywords when I know I don't have time to write full sentences, so that I can remain active in the discussion and bring value to it while not forgetting the points I need to expand on in my notes

I record meetings (phone and irl), put them through a transcribe service, save the text in Joplin and fix it up/annotate/clean it up it a bit and then throw the recording away.

Isn't that too "noisy"? I mean I wouldn't want to have a full transcript of all my meetings. 95+% of the discussions aren't valuable after the meeting is over. It would be great if an AI could summarize it all though :p

Well, I was there and focusing (not making notes), so relatively close to the meeting, I know the relevant points which I can quickly copy/paste to the top of the meeting doc and leave the rest in the bottom. Works well for me and saved us quite a lot of times when people had things like 'but you said'. No we didn't; here is the meeting transcript. People have very selective memory (or act like they do) towards their own benefit.

"About Sébastien

Hello everyone! I'm Sébastien Dubois. I'm an author, founder, and CTO. I write books and articles about personal knowledge management (PKM), personal organization, software development & IT, and productivity. I also craft lovely digital products

If you've enjoyed this article and want to read more, then subscribe to my newsletter, check out my PKM Library, and the Obsidian Starter Kit ."

PKM gurus be peddling PKM...


I really don't like the term "PKM Gurus". I suppose there are "gurus" in all niches indeed though.

But my goal is clear. I want to help more people try and make good use of note-taking tools, hopefully improving their own systems. The goal is not to trick people into buying things they don't need, but rather give them a more concrete idea about how note-taking and PKM _could_ help them. It's certainly not for everyone.

I'm also doing this for profit, and I'm not ashamed of that. I think that what I create does bring value to the right people, which is enough for me. Of course, this kind of content is a great opportunity for me to promote my products and I think that it is fair. I do try to write interesting and useful articles though, not just fill lines with garbage just to add "buy this" after every period.


Ok, as someone who has tried all note taking apps and systems, the best way to do it is your way.

I started just writing in an empty note everyday (ofc I do digital, I can't write something readable if my life depended on it). The empty note is in Obsidian but you can really use whatever you want, you name the file todays date and thats it. All the things that happen this day at work / private i write inside of that note.

After work is done, do a small reflection and move the needed notes into separate files or extend some other things.

Lets say I work on a kubernetes cluster. I have a note "Kubernetes setup". Today I've configured some services used some kubectl commands etc. and everything I do I document into my "daily" note. After the workday is done I see, "oh i've added new commands and explanations to my notes" and I move them accordingly to the kubernetes setup note if needed.

So find your system and work with it. If you do write notes try to write them as if you are writing a documentation for your future self.


I'm 100% with you on this. Taking inspiration from other peoples' systems is good, but it's important to design your own. One that works specifically for you.

Also fully agree with having a mind for whatever is on top of your mind, corresponding to your current context of "work", as well as using daily notes.

My daily notes are my anchors. I generally write down things that I've discovered/done there, and extract parts of those to separate notes during my weekly reviews.


For the one year of college I did it, taking notes on a yellow note pass during class, then copying and cleaning those notes into a dedicated spiral for that class made a huge difference. Every test was easy and I was a superhero. Then I got into the social scene in a big way and the extra hour or two per day it required was too much! I still regret not keeping with it and think there is a way to incorporate it today but not entirely sure. I use one note a lot to keep electronic records of my meetings but there isn’t a way to analyze after the fact.

Rereading this was of text, I am always interested in how I can tie together notes from one meetings to quickly think - who was that vendor that does XYZ, they should acquire this other vendor. My only solutions would rely on NLP or more organized notes, but not sure how to do either at this point.

My main issue with taking/making notes is that now I must worry how to store and organize them. Back in college I'd take them in a notebook, review them for exams, and then get rid of them by the end of the semester. I've tried blogs (static site hosted on gitlab), markdown files with Vimwiki, Obsidian, and now I'm using Notion. The common thread among all of them is worrying about how to organize them (e.g., file structure, tags, by topic, etc).

I feel like too many people struggle in the same way. Some level of organization is actually required if you don't consider notes as temporary, but as a knowledge base that you'll expand for decades. That being said, organization can be as simple as having 1-3 folders or even less. And tools don't matter that much, as long as they don't lock you in.

Trying to find the perfect organization system is just another form of procrastination.


this is on point. From my personal experience it seems like most of the tools are designed with an "organise-first capture-later" interface which is annoying because they require a lot of mental energy to keep things organised. At some point I just had to build my own thing :) https://acreom.com. Would love to get feedback.

As a Logseq user and former Roam Research user, I love taking notes on everything. I also have ADHD and this fact does matter from the experiences of others as well as mine. Taking notes is fun and second nature to me. I just write and nest bullet points as I see fit, and link the mess together with backlinks. Helps me unload my mind. Conor was a genius! I have over 700 backlinks that might or might not be actually populated with text.

Same here. Note-taking is a lot of fun. It does take time, but I never regret using my time that way. Usually I retain a lot more, and build a knowledge base that serves me well as an author.

I'm surprised there's no AI for note organization and retrieval. It'd be really cool if I could type natural-language sentences into an app and have AI do all the interpretation and tagging for me. Like I could say "Hey Google, take note, my lawnmower is a 190cc, takes 10W-30 oil, and they have the blades at Walmart". Then later I could just ask it to "pull up notes related to lawnmower" or "yard work".

Using logseq is pretty much this by default. Ok you have to put brackets around the word lawnmower but it's pretty close.

https://logseq.com/


Mem X is already doing this (no vocal commands yet) : https://get.mem.ai/mem-x

Others will follow suit soon (hi GPT-4!)


I think we will see more and more improvements in this space in the coming years.

Tana is bringing ontologies front and center with their super tags. Notion is adding GPT-3 like support for text completion and summarization. There are also plugins for Obsidian to be able to use GPT-3, and tools like Lex are gaining traction.

I think it's only a matter of time before we get tagging assistance, AI-assisted note organization, and maybe user-specific trained models to be here.


I am doing this! Almost ready for alpha testing.

I've been using Notion since it's inception, but after reading this I think I'm ready to take to jump to Obsidian. I want to own my notes again, and I've found Notion to not be as configurable as I want it to be in recent months. Any suggestions from people who use Obsidian in their workflow?



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