How I take smart digital notes—Part 4: Organizing input

Ramses Oudt • Reading time: 7 minutes

Click here to read part 3 of this series

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.
—Steve Jobs

Why do you take notes? Probably because it benefits your future self.

But will it benefit your future self? Will you be able to find your notes? For most people, taking note-taking is not the main problem. Finding their notes and actually doing something with them is where it hurts.

I’ve been an avid note-taking for years. My Evernote has thousands of notes, with many of them spanning over 100 lines. I’m not short of content to draw from, but finding useful information is another game. Until I discovered Roam, my note-taking system was mostly a dumping ground where ideas went to die.

Notes are only as valuable as the network they’re in. If you never link your ideas, nothing will happen; everything will live in isolation. But if you start to link ideas, new ones will emerge.

I work as a systems consultant for a large recruitment department. It’s my job to come up with answers to problems from the business quickly. But, I don’t have the time to roam the internet to do research every time I get a question. That’s where my note-taking system pays dividends.

By keeping notes of all the research I do, I can quickly draw from a well of inspiration to solve new problems. I don’t need to mentally keep track of the solutions I found or heard about; it’s in my note-taking system, ready to be seen with just a few keystrokes and clicks. Also, there’s less need to bother colleagues; what they told me in meetings is safely stored, ready for when I need it.

Less emails = less waiting = more output.

In this fourth installment of How I take smart digital notes, I show you how I organize my notes for maximum effectiveness. Again, this is how I organize my notes; this is not the perfect approach. By writing up my organization system, I want to undercover gaps I hadn’t noticed before and gather feedback from other professionals using personal knowledge management systems.

Feeding my second brain

A note-taking system is only as good as the content it contains. Of course, I can write all notes myself directly in Roam, but that’s not the ideal approach in most circumstances.

I mostly write notes when triggered by some other idea. This could be a previous idea of mine, but it’s more likely I read something and write about it. At this point, trusty Readwise roars its beautiful head.

Readwise has enabled me to read and annotate many different (digital) text sources and not worry if I’ll see them again—it will feed my note-taking system and remind me to revisit highlights and notes I’ve taken in the past.

The key is automation. If I had to extract highlights and notes from everything I read manually, I would be less likely to do so. But with Readwise’s automation, I’m not worried—I know I’ll see my stuff again. If not through Roam, at least through Readwise’s spaced repetition system.

Quickly process input using templates

Unfortunately, Readwise does not (yet) export directly to Roam. Therefore, every highlight and note needs processing. It’s is a manual process, but one that’s almost painless.

With everything I do, I aim to reduce friction. If something is too much work or too mentally taxing, I’m less likely to do it. Copying and structuring my notes and highlights from Evernote/Notion is a breeze using keyboard shortcuts.

I use TextExpander to quickly set up pages that I only need to fill in after. Here’s how I process the highlights from a book that Readwise exported to Evernote:

Quickly feeding my second brain using TextExpander and highlights from Readwise (via Evernote)

The snippet I use for books is as follows:

PS level:: #[[ps-level 0]]
Recommended By:: 
## [[Key arguments and takeaways]]
## [[Inter-disciplinary connections]]
## [[Questions]]
## [[Notes]]
## [[Highlights]]

TextExpander pastes that snippet every time I type ;book.

The status can have as value #unread, #reading, and #read. The PS level says something about how much Progressive Summarization there’s on the page. It has the following levels:

#ps-level 0 = Only text | #ps-level 1 = Bolding and highlighting
| #ps-level 2 = Notes and links | #ps-level 3 = Summary

I start by filling in the highlights (level 0), which is a simple copy-paste. Many highlights will have notes, which I will move to the #Notes section along with the corresponding highlight nested under as a block reference:

Roam highlight block nested under a note

As I revisit notes, I come up with questions, create connections to other ideas, ending with key arguments and takeaways (PS level 2; summary).

Structuring my second brain

Depending on the note-taking system, organizing is challenging. Most systems work hierarchically, meaning that you store notes in folders and subfolders—in other words: silos.

The fact Evernote works with silos is what caused it to become my graveyard for notes. Sure, I’d revisit notes, but I would rarely look across notebooks—linking to another location in Evernote is a hassle. Luckily Roam has changed that.

I now link up notes every chance I get—highlights and my own words equally.

When I link notes, I increase the likelihood I’ll see them again. It’s also how our brain works: more links to a bit of knowledge make it easier to retrieve that knowledge from memory. Likewise, Roam’s linking ability almost makes search obsolete as I simply jump from note to note and wander through my second brain.

With search, I need to remember what I have written or highlighted in the past. I don’t need to remember much, but I do need to retain some parts. With links, I simply click to notes I had forgotten entirely. This bit from Sönke Ahrens How to Take Smart Notes resonates in that regard:

The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.

When text enters my second brain (Roam), it will live there for a while before finding a life outside (in the form of blogs, emails, proposals, product specifications, etc.). I structure my note-taking system because I want to be able to resurface previous thoughts when the time is ripe.

Apart from being able to retrieve knowledge easily, I also want to elaborate on my previous ideas. Elaboration is the core element of creativity. Again from How to Take Smart Notes:

The challenge of writing as well as learning is therefore not so much to learn, but to understand, as we will already have learned what we understand. The problem is that the meaning of something is not always obvious and needs to be explored. That is why we need to elaborate on it. But elaboration is nothing more than connecting information to other information in a meaningful way. The first step of elaboration is to think enough about a piece of information so we are able to write about it. The second step is to think about what it means for other contexts as well.

By creating meaningful connections, I come to new insights. By connecting ideas from different fields, I can come to solutions that nobody else has been able to see. A prerequisite for this is that I can rapidly read the core ideas of many distinct notes.

Making notes glanceable

An essential tool in my arsenal is Progressive Summarization (PS), a way to make the essence of notes stand out. By bolding and highlighting sections of a text snippet, I make it easier to skim a bunch of notes.

Instead of seeing a wall of text, I see a mix of unmarked, bolded, and highlighted notes. My eyes are automatically drawn to the most salient parts, and I can understand the gist of each note by reading the marked-up bits. If I need more context, it’s there.

Progressively summarized highlights

The role of tags: index pages

I like to dedicate a few words to tags, which often get a bad rep from productivity experts. In the era of Roam, the tags versus notebooks discussion has mostly become irrelevant. Roam treats tags and links equally, giving each a page.

Still, tags have their place. I often give pages a tag when I think it’s related to a topic that’s not explicitly named in the notes:

Tags in Roam

As every tag is also a page, I use them as index pages to related topics or important notes. Like this one on Stoicism (a philosophy I’m interested in):

Stoicism index page in Roam

I store a definition that I can share whenever someone asks me what Stoicism is. I can also simply jump to related topics I already have notes for. Last, I gather resources for reference or easy sharing (here nested under #Cheatsheets).

For topics that I’m thinking about often, I have a page named Index. This page is always in flux, depending on what I’m working on. My index page currently looks like this:

Main index page in Roam

Next: Organize for output

Once a second brain is fed and structured, the big question remains: how to get stuff out?

Storing notes is only useful when it helps us produce articles, proposals, specifications, or even physical products. The knowledge that’s in our second brains can fuel our ideas, but only if we know how to navigate it.

In the final installment of this series, I’ll dive into how I meander through my Roam database to gather materials for memos and articles. Instead of brainstorming, I wander through my notes to see what I’ve been thinking about and what ideas it triggers next. On the wave of these epiphanies, I write proposals, specifications, and articles to gather support and feedback for solutions to problems.

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Next in this series: How I take smart digital notes—Part 5: Organizing for output