Over the holidays, a lot of the content in my social media feeds has been yearly reviews and promises for 2023. Some of it has been about tools for thought and personal knowledge management. Some express more general arguments for spending less time fiddling with the tools and actually making sure to get work done. Others are more specific. "2023 is the year I'm gonna settle on one tool. Not just yet sure if that's gonna be Tana, Obisidian, Logseq, Remnote, or something else."
The underlying notion is clear.
You either spend time tinkering with your tools and get no real work done.
Or you just let the tool fade into the back and start to deliver.
I would beg to differ: The sweet spot is somewhere in between. But also that the problem people hint at isn't so much about switching tools as it is switching workflows and processes.
Notetaking is a skill
I've spent 23 years as a "knowledge worker". The first 20 were as a journalist and the last three as a project manager. How many pages of notes I've taken over the years is impossible to estimate. But it's a lot.
When I recently moved offices, I found a couple of old notepads in a drawer. Notes from interviews, articles I had read, etc. And I can tell you: Those were not good notes, in any way. How I take notes has evolved a lot over the years.
But here it's important to stress that "how" is not about the tools I use, going from pen and paper to digital. Rather, "how" is about structures, "note scaffolding". Type of notes, what details are written down, what is not, etc. The biggest change over the years is how I structure my notes to make them useful not only in the moment but also in the long run.
Looking back and comparing decade-old notes with more recent ones, it becomes obvious that note-taking is a skill. And just like with any other skill, you have to practice to improve.
Process vs tool
How (still the process, not the tool) you take notes depends on the end goal. To me, it's primarily to help in researching and preparing for text to be written. It can be interview questions, articles, reports, white papers, and books. Thinking about what I need and why has eventually led me to a couple of "note types" that are the backbone of my "how":
- Source notes. A short "bibliography", with information on the type of source (book, paper, conference, podcast, etc), author, publish date, etc.
- Highlight notes. What in a physical book would be marked with a yellow highlight pen. Every highlight relates to a source note.
- Thought notes. What thoughts or ideas do the highlights spark for me? Write them down, and link them to the highlight.
- Cluster notes. The first three types are about digesting sources. With my cluster notes, I start to "build", putting highlights and thoughts into context. In my cluster notes, I pull in highlights and thoughts from many different sources, combining ideas into a first draft.
This is my notetaking process. One that I've used for years, and that supports me in my goal.
But the tool where this process is implemented has changed and will change.
Tinkering leads to craftmanship
And this is why I don't think that tinkering with new tools is necessarily procrastination. Rather the opposite. Trying out tools, be it new ones or diving deep into the ones you already use, sharpens your skills and eventually lets the tool fade into the back.
Since going digital for my note-taking, I've switched tools a couple of times. I started with Evernote, and am currently using a combination of Obsidian and Tana. On the way there, I've also used Notational Velocity, nvALT, SublimeText, and The Archive.
Every change in the tool has been about features that make my current process more frictionless, and hence give me more time working with my notes, spending less time managing them.
And I think that's the distinction that's important to make:
Switching processes is expensive, in both time and energy. No matter if you switch tools or not.
But changing how you implement an established workflow, be it in the app you already are using or switching to a new one, is less expensive.
When I got access to Tana a couple of months ago, I could immediately tell that it was a tool that could support my notetaking process in ways that Obsidian can't.
But – and here comes the important part – tinkering with Tana also helped me realize how I could push Obsidian to the limits for another important goal with my notetaking, documenting meetings and projects. This has been a pain point for me for a while, not really finding a way to implement my idea on how to make that kind of notes.
Had I not spent time tinkering with Tana had I not figured that part out either.
You have to practice to become better. And trying out tools – be it features you are not using in your current one or exploring something completely new – is a way to practice.
I'm currently outlining what will become a short e-book on my note-taking process and how I've implemented it using Readwise and Tana. And probably also in Obsidian.
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