How I take smart digital notes—Part 1: A map for the journey
Ramses Oudt • Reading time: 11 minutes
Does your learning method work? When you read and listen to new information, how do you make sure you benefit from it?
What you write down and review matters for your future self. Once you get off your lazy butt and start taking notes, there are many possible pitfalls ahead.
One of the most common mistakes learners make is highlighting material without knowing why they do it. They stab in the dark with their marker and crappy approach and never fully benefit from the material.
Another common mistake learners make is that they either take not enough notes or they take too many. Few learners find a middle ground when it comes to deciding what to remember and what to discard. Note-taking is just as much as about what you keep as what you choose to ignore.
I firmly believe everyone can become a better learner. If you have the right tools and approach, there is no topic that you cannot grok. Some things will take longer to understand, but everything will succumb under the pressure of attention at some point.
In this series of posts, I want to show you how I take notes on a wide range of topics and from different formats. By taking notes, I never waste time and effort. Something may only be relevant now because of my interest, but it has often happened that a personal interest came in handy in a professional setting months later.
Hopefully, at the end of this series, you will have a good grasp of a proven note-taking system. I also hope you will understand my system well enough to make adaptations that work for your specific situation.
A map of the territory
Before we dive into the different parts of our note-taking journey, I want to discuss the map of the territory. What beasts will we wrestle for nuggets of wisdom? What tools do we use to slash through fluff? And how can we create a way of working that increases the chance of success?
For everything we do, we should have a clear goal in mind: an understanding of problems and being able to solve them.
It’s important to note that this series of posts is titled “How I take smart digital notes.” I’m not saying this is the way to take smart notes, but it’s a way that has proven me a lot of value. Most of my process is due to insights from people way smarter than me. By reading about personal knowledge management and applying different principles to my jobs, I’ve been able to develop a system that works for me.
Hopefully, this article will bring you the inspiration to do your work better. If that’s the case, my other hope is that you share your insights with other learners and knowledge workers on the web. Together, we can become better.
The inputs: Choose carefully
As an autodidact, you will meet many different content formats on the road to understanding. Not all formats are created equal, and some work better than others. Add to that learning preferences, and you’ve got yourself a complicated situation.
The inputs below are my favorites. I deliberately limit the formats I learn from, as it makes mastery of each more likely. You may prefer other formats, that’s fine. As long as you know how to benefit from the content, that’s all that matters.
Let’s dig in.
My number one source of knowledge are books. They pack so much value compared to their investment; it’s insane. But remember: many books should be articles (and many articles should be tweets, but that’s another story for another day). Cut out the fluff. Read classic books that not everyone is reading and distill the nuggets of wisdom.
Some reasons to go for books:
- Books are cheap.
- Books condense hundreds of hours of research into a package you can digest in 10-20 hours (including taking notes).
- People create summaries of books that you can check out to see if the book is worth reading in its entirety. Reading summaries also primes you for the ideas in the book.
I have more stuff in Instapaper than I can read in a lifetime, which tells me I have too many interests. For me, an article is anything I can read within half an hour. It can be a short blog post or a 10,000-word essay. Most pieces are not worth reading. But with the right techniques, you know how to recognize the worthy ones and distill ideas from them quickly. Articles are great to dip your toes in a topic.
Why read articles:
- Articles are free or cheap.
- If you filter carefully, you encounter content that is worth as much as books.
- Many digital tools exist to make reading articles easy.
I love to learn from YouTube videos, but they are not my best time investment. Videos are difficult to skim, and very few creators make full use of the format. I only watch videos when learning new software or to prime myself for a new topic.
Many people prefer to learn with videos—to each his own. Just make sure to use proper note-taking strategies (I’ll touch on this in length in future posts).
Why watch videos:
- Videos combine text, audio, and visuals (also see Dual-Coding Theory).
- You can speed up and pause videos.
- Videos can make a lot of impact, even without taking notes.
I feel obliged to mention podcasts, but I don’t recommend relying on them too much when learning. They are low resolution and impossible to skim.
Podcasts can contain nuggets of wisdom, though, and are a relaxing way to get introduced to a topic. Listen to them when you commute or are doing mindless chores around the house. Still, ideally you take notes while listening to a podcast. If that’s not possible, there are services like Podcast Notes that give you the key takeaways from impactful episodes.
Why use podcasts:
- You can listen to podcasts hands-free.
- Listening to stories to learn is relaxing.
- Stories tend to make more of an impact.
This is the realm of live-action. Nowadays, courses can be any combination of the above; text, audio, and video. The key differentiator is that lectures tend to be live, and there are often questions from students. Knowing how to take proper lecture notes is an art.
Why attend lectures and courses:
- Like books, courses tend to present a lot of research in condensed form. Each lesson usually has one overreaching theme.
- Courses provide access to an expert (the teacher) who you can ask for clarification.
- Courses with social learning elements are powerful; they help you see information from different viewpoints.
(Online) conversations and random thoughts
The world is a web, and it’s worth to hear other people’s viewpoints. Who knows, maybe they introduce you to an exciting idea that makes your life better.
If you hear or read something worthwhile, you need to have a system to store it. With the advent of Twitter, having a way to save tweets—and your notes about them—is crucial (for me at least).
Why take notes of conversations and random thoughts:
- Like courses, conversations will introduce you to ideas you would otherwise never encounter.
- By talking to interesting people, insights will hit you randomly.
- Your diffuse attention keeps working on problems in the background; when an idea bubbles up, you’ll want to write it down right away.
The tools: Make learning easier
Before going on a journey, it’s necessary to check your tools. Without technology, a learner’s mission becomes more complicated than is necessary.
I am going to warn you: I am opinionated about the tools I use, both digital and analog. I obsess over the weirdest things, from my note-taking apps (Drafts and Roam) to my pen and paper (Pentel EnerGel 0.7mm black and 100x150mm, 190 grams index cards).
However, I don’t nerd out over tools because of the tools. I believe in a piece of technology when it helps me solve a problem. When my life is made easier, I’m interested. If that’s a tool I can learn and master, even better.
Here are the tools I’ll teach you how to use during this journey:
Web highlighters & Read-it-later apps
Text on the web is the lowest point of entry. It’s easy; you simply carve out exciting bits from articles you read online. See something worth remembering? Save it.
Here are my two favorite tools to channel the shit-ton of web content that’s thrown at me into something more manageable.
Instapaper—Read-it-later apps are powerful. How often do you see an interesting article online that you cannot read immediately? To me, that happens all the time. That’s why I save stuff to read later.
After using Pocket for many years, I switched to Instapaper about a year ago. The monthly fee is lower, it imports more articles correctly, and has an unobtrusive interface compared to Pocket.
Hypothesis—There are so many web highlighters out there; it’s almost impossible to go wrong. The goal is to get snippets of text from a web page to your note-taking app. That’s not very difficult; you can solve that by copy-pasting.
But, automation is critical if you want to re-encounter your highlights and notes. That’s why I use Hypothesis, a free highlighting tool that lets you mark up and annotate webpages in public or in private. Best of all: Readwise connects with Hypothesis.
Kindle—For many years, I used a Kobo e-reader, which works fine but is way laggier than Kindle. Since getting Amazon’s offering, I haven’t looked back. It’s super easy to highlight and annotate books, and it’s even possible to see other people’s highlights.
iPad Pro—For my work, I need to read many papers. The best tool to handle PDFs is—in my opinion—the iPad Pro. Reading PDFs becomes a pleasure with the Apple Pencil and the PaperShip app that connects to my Zotero account.
Drafts—How often has it happened that you quickly want to note something down, only to forget it because your note-taking app takes forever to load? This happened to me all the !@#$%^& time, until I started to use Drafts. I mainly use it because it’s blazing fast and always loads with a fresh note, but there are loads of neat tricks you can do with it to automate your workflow.
Cost: Free/$1.99/month if you want automation.
Roam—This app needs no introduction. Most people I know have converted to become full-blown Roamans. Within the last six months, Roam has become my second brain in which I store all of my highlights and notes.
Evernote—I’m putting trusty old Evernote under integration services because that’s the only use case I have left for it. The editor sucks, and tools like Roam make it much easier to find notes. Once Readwise integrates with Roam, I’ll leave Evernote forever.
Cost: free (if you just use it to sync with Readwise).
Zotero—Academics and those working with PDFs may know Zotero and the Zotfile plugin by now. This free software makes it extremely easy to organize and sync PDFs. It has no PDF reader, but it makes up for it by handling edits made with any PDF reader. I use it in combination with PaperShip on the iPad, which directly syncs with my free Zotero account that contains all my PDFs, highlights, and annotations.
Readwise—Last but not least, the core of my note-taking powers: Readwise. Oh boy, I’m about to declare my love for this service.
A small and super-smart team from Toronto, Canada created the app and is dedicated to making it a primary learning tool for readers. At $7.99/month, it isn’t cheap, but my retention and note-taking abilities have skyrocketed since I started using it.
I’ll be covering Readwise extensively in the coming months and why I believe it’s such a powerful tool for autodidacts.
The output: Understand and solve problems
All this talk about tools is nice and all, but we undertake this journey for a reason: to get to understanding.
Understanding of what? Of how the world and its parts work. The problems we face are becoming more complicated by the day, and having clarity of thought is of utmost importance.
Reading widely and applying knowledge to problems is what empowers us to take ownership of our lives. The world starts to look like a place of possibility when you can adopt new viewpoints and learn new skills.
Most of my output is for my corporate job. Although I tweet and publish blog posts about learning, that’s just a fraction of my output. Most of my personal knowledge management system is dedicated to solving business problems.
Regardless of the challenges I’m trying to solve, using the output tools below enables me to think deeper about problems and meet people (online or in my company) who struggle with the same issues.
By thinking out loud together, we can come to solutions quicker.
Twitter is ephemeral, so the bar of entry is low. Did you just read something interesting in a book that you think other people will like? Write it down on an index card and come back to it later.
Tweeting about what you learn forces you to revisit your notes. By re-reading your notes, you will have one extra editing pass. Don’t let a lack of full understanding keep you from sharing; the Twittersphere will correct you soon enough.
Emails and memos
Working in a corporation, most of my thinking out loud happens in emails. Whenever I encounter a problem, I describe it and think of possible solutions. I then share my thoughts with a small group of like-minded individuals who work on similar challenges. Feedback tends to be very specific, and writing emails has enabled me to write memos that are straight to the point and don’t contain too much fluff or ambiguities.
If your job does not rely on thinking and writing about complex problems, you can still use the power of email to connect with others. Start a newsletter around your topic of interest and promote it on Twitter. Who knows where it will get you.
You don’t need to start a blog to start writing articles. If you have solved a problem, write about it to find gaps you hadn’t considered yet. Often, these articles will sit in your note-taking system for your own use. Alternatively, you can publish articles to platforms like Medium or your company intranet. By posting your work online, you turn your writing into a serendipity vehicle and will likely receive feedback from others.
Once you have fleshed out the solution to a problem and notice more people face the same issues, you should consider writing a guide. Especially for the IT folks out there, guides are a perfect way to clarify your workflow for yourself and help others along the way. There’s no need to keep reinventing the wheel, share your knowledge.
If your topic of interest is too big for a guide, consider creating a series of lessons. A course is nothing more than a bundle of lessons that together solve a specific problem. If you’ve dug deep into a topic and want to solidify your understanding, teaching others is a good strategy.
However, I must warn you. Creating a course is a lot of work, and teaching well is difficult. First, educate people through tweets, newsletters, and articles before you take on anything more significant.
What are your inputs, tools, and outputs?
After reading this article, how do you look at your own tech stack? Have you chosen your inputs and tools carefully? Do they enable you to get out of your learning what you want?
Start with the outcome you want. Look at the problems you face in your work and personal life and think about what could help to solve them.
Everyone has different needs. You may want to become better at highlighting and note-taking because you need to do a lot of research. Or you have some deep interest you’d like to get into, but you never learned how to read a book properly. Regardless of your challenges, I hope this map gave you an idea of what ingredients go into learning.
The next posts in this series will touch on how I approach each input and extract wisdom from them using my tools. I’d like to hear from you as well. What are your biggest challenges when it comes to learning? What would you like to be able to do, but don’t know how? Shoot me an email or tweet at me.
Next in this series: How I take smart digital notes—Part 2: Highlights and reading notes