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Stop over-complicating note-taking
Just make it so you can find what you need
PARA. Linking Your Thinking. Antinet. Zettelkasten (and its thousand variations). Evergreen notes. Digital gardening. Ryan Holiday’s notecards. John Locke’s system. Francis Bacon’s notebooks and filing system. Conrad Gesner’s ‘cut-and-paste’ method. Vincent Placcius’ scrinium literatum. Robert Boyle's note-taking on loose sheets of paper. Plutarch's hypomnemata. Jeremiah Drexel's three types of notes. Wittgenstein's Zettel. Thomas Harrison's storage of notes on hooks. Roland Barthes' card index. Levi Strauss' card index. Samuel Pepys' notebooks. Robert Williams' twenty-one notebook system. Clement Draper's massive logbook. Aulus Gellius' excerpts.
There are dozens of ways to take and organise notes. Anyone who peddles their system as the best – and the one everyone should use – must have an ego that could put a Greek god to shame.
Yet there are dozens of PKM ‘gurus’ on the internet making such claims. All promise their system will supercharge your memory and creative output – you too can make notes on making notes and make money from it!
As each system needs to have its own unique flavour, they end up overcomplicating things.
The below video by @AGWilsonn on Twitter draws a comparison between ‘beautified’ planners and what he calls ‘narcissistic Zettelkasten’. The system becomes the object of focus, detracting from the system’s purpose in the first place.
When you whittle away all the guff, the point of PKM is:
To learn (by taking notes).
To be able to find that information again in the future.
When people search for information, they’re actually problem-solving. They have something they need to do – even just answering a question – and they need the information to do so.
Why not simply turn to Google? In the past, people didn't have such easy access to information, so meticulous notes made sense. Today, we have search results at our fingertips.
Google can't help you with “that thing I read about in that article one time”, though. That’s what you should be keeping in your notes. Your notes should furnish you with the information you need to Do the Thing, not waste time duplicating Google search results.
Doing the Thing looks different for each of us, so the information we need is also different. Our information-finding methods are also individual, based on how our brains work. How we conceptualise information storage influences how we search for that stored information.
Your personal circumstances may also dictate your approach. You may like the idea of a slipbox with index cards, but you work from multiple locations and can’t lug it around with you. You may love the look of Roam Research, but money’s tight and you can't reasonably afford it. You may be awed by stunningly complex Obsidian graphs, but also know your ADHD will lead you down a rabbit hole of plugins.
Know thyself, and adapt your system accordingly. You need to be able to (1) take notes, and (2) find information when you need it.
Bin off anything that clogs this up, no matter how pretty.
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