How I take smart digital notes—Part 5: Organizing for output
Ramses Oudt • Reading time: 8 minutes
How do you use the contents of your note-taking system? Do you force yourself to review items, do you memorize useful bits, or do you actually create something?
Better said: what’s the use of all this work?
While many of you (myself included) enjoy collecting knowledge for the sake of collecting, this does not have much use in itself. In the past four articles, I explained how I use automation and workflows to get stuff into my second brain and organize it. But this is all wasted effort if I never did anything with that information.
Knowledge generally spends considerable time in my second brain (Roam) before seeing the light of day. I wrestle with ideas, writing notes to myself, to the point they make enough sense to be shared for feedback. Once I reach that point, I’ll organize my knowledge for output—the subject of this post.
If you need a complete refresher of the why of my madness, I suggest you check out the article Why I take notes of everything I learn.
Why collect knowledge
If you’re a knowledge worker, you learn for a living. Nothing stays the same in the information age, and we need to adapt if we don’t want to become irrelevant in the workplace. Knowing what’s expected of you and how to do it well is a superpower. But the only way to get this superpower is to strive to become better continually.
When we collect knowledge in our note-taking system, we build a repository of advice for our future selves. Hidden between those notes, there’s a solution to a problem we’re not even aware of yet. But it’s there, ready to help us when we’re ready and have wrestled with the question and possible solutions.
Storing knowledge in an external system (versus your brain) gives you the mental space to focus on thinking instead of remembering. Add to that a strong filter to only save what’s relevant, and your future self can rely on high-quality information.
“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
By keeping a list of twelve challenges I’m struggling with, I know what content to read, watch, or listen to. I also know what’s worth saving; everything that’s possibly (part of) a solution to one of my problems.
I review my favorite problems every quarter by looking ahead at what’s on my project calendar. If I foresee challenges that I don’t feel equipped for yet, I put it on my list. Then, I prune it and remove anything less relevant at the moment—this keeps me to twelve problems.
How to look at stored knowledge
There are different levels of personal knowledge management.
The most basic level of storing knowledge is to save entire articles or pages of books. You’ll have the content, but need a lot of time to find answers.
Then there’s the level of highlighting and extracting. This is where read-it-later apps and web highlighters show their muscles. It’s easy to save snippets from articles, and they can quickly fill your second brain. Unfortunately, most digital note-takers stop at this point.
The level beyond simple highlighting is writing your thoughts about what you’re reading. You can do this when highlighting, so it doesn’t require an additional step. The advantage of writing notes is that you process the information on a deeper level; writing ideas in your own words helps to retain them.
With highlights and notes, you can already do a lot. Most non-strategic jobs can be done by merely learning from highlights and notes you take while learning. If you categorize everything properly for later retrieval, you’re better organized than most of your colleagues.
But, not all knowledge jobs are created equal.
Storing and retrieving knowledge is not enough when you need to come up with solutions other people have not thought of before. What you’re looking for when you work on innovations is creativity.
How do you become creative? By connecting ideas.
What do to with stored knowledge
It’s not enough to merely store knowledge. If you want to get new insights, you need to wrestle with ideas, connect them, and let new ideas emerge.
Elaboration is a critical component of learning. When we read and take short notes, we may have the illusion of knowing. Only when we dig deep and try to explain complex ideas do we discover if we genuinely grok a concept.
An excellent tool for elaboration is what Andy Matuschak calls evergreen notes; short, atomic descriptions of concepts, and thoughts on how to apply them. They’re never written in one go; like mini-articles, they undergo many revisions before they can be called evergreen notes.
I must admit that I have few evergreen notes. Lucky for me, the problems in my job come and go rather quickly, so simple notes suffice. When I’m thinking strategically, long-term, and have many variables to consider, I create elaborate explanations. My evergreen notes become part of recommendations for senior management, as they’re the product of lengthy deliberation.
Maybe you like having a second brain, but your job is not so complicated that you need one to stay sane. Still, there are many ways to use the notes in your system to grow professionally.
By thinking about your work, its recurring tasks and problems, and possible solutions, you can position yourself as an expert within your team or department. For example, when I was in enterprise sales, I had to juggle many software systems to get quotes, ask internal approvals, and process signed contracts.
By documenting and visualizing the administrative cycle, I ingrained standard processes to execute them faster than anyone else. Although many of the procedures were set in stone and I couldn’t propose improvements, I was aware of bottlenecks and could anticipate them in my planning.
Another advantage of documenting internal processes was that I could quickly onboard fellow team members, further solidifying my status as an expert in our department.
Document your work, make sense of what you learn, and teach others.
How I organize for output
There are many different problems I solve with the insights I gain through elaborating on my notes. But, let’s focus on a relatively simple one for the sake of example: writing a blog post.
Before I had a structured note-taking system, writing articles was grueling. I’d spend hours brainstorming ideas, writing parts of shitty drafts, before deleting everything and starting over. Now that I have a system, I have cured my writer’s block.
My approach is an adaptation of Tiago Forte’s Meta-Plan workflow strategy, which he teaches in his Building a Second Brain course. As I’m a Roaman and no longer use Evernote as Tiago does, my process is quicker.
Here’s an outline of what I do:
- Decide on a topic;
- Decide on what pages to use for research;
- Gather notes and highlights (using Roam block references);
- The story starts to emerge;
- The first level of the outline: subheadings;
- The second level of the outline: notes and highlights nested under headings;
- Write a shitty first draft;
- Polish the piece (several iterations).
This process often spreads over days, if not weeks. I have a backlog of articles I’m working on, just like I have a backlog of internal memos with proposals for improvements. Each step of the process is messy, but at some point, something useful emerges.
The critical point to stress is that I have a system to keep the intermediate products of my thinking. By having my previous thoughts in front of me, and my 12 problems clear, I can slowly chip away to a solution. The moment I decide to write about a problem, I’ve spent considerable time reading and thinking about possible solutions.
Once I organize for output, I home in on one problem and try to distill a solution. Often, this is in the form of a thesis for which I build support. I give myself a constraint to not let my research spiral out of control (not always successfully) and focus my lens on looking for supporting data and highlights. Regularly, I cannot support the thesis as I had in mind and am forced to nuance my views. This makes my research process a good bullshit test for my ideas.
Once I have collected information from my note-taking system, I start to give structure to the piece. This step brings more clarity to my thinking, and often more nuance. While outlining, I sometimes discover I don’t know enough about the topic yet, and that I need to do additional research.
Once I start to write the first version of the piece, I’ve given a lot of repeated thought to the material I’m working with. I naturally begin to riff on my notes and the highlights I’ve collected, making writer’s block a thing of the past. By working with material that I’ve carefully curated and already given some thought, writing has become a joyful discovery process.
Cool system, but now what?
By sharing what I learn and building systems, I have become known as an expert in every job I’ve had. I don’t make it a secret I’m a nerd and that I want to excel, and people have trusted in my advice as a result. I’m able to work on the things I love because I’ve shown my expertise.
If you’re a knowledge worker, show off your work. If you have book or course notes that might be interesting for colleagues, share them. If you have colleagues who do similar tasks as you, share your workflow. Not only will you help others, you’ll also help yourself by rethinking your ways of working.
To show what I mean, I’ll start sharing book notes and course summaries on this website. As I work in HR, I’m continuously thinking about how we can learn and work better. I’m already thinking a lot about this, so I’ll learn in public and share my notes and insights as I go along.
By sharing my work, I hope you get a better idea of what’s possible with an effective note-taking system. Until some years ago, writing blog posts would take me up to ten hours. Now, I’ve cut that down to around two hours. The bulk of the work doesn’t feel like work and happens before I even conceive of writing anything for publication: my note-taking flow.
The overall lesson? Focus on feeding your note-taking system, link ideas, and insights will float to the surface as you interact with the material. Then, make sense of your insights by writing about it and sharing what you’ve learned.
Everyone will benefit.