Why I take notes of everything I learn

Ramses Oudt • Reading time: 7 minutes

What if you could remember every worthwhile idea that crosses your path? What if you could remember everything useful to you, without the need to resort to memory tricks? And what if your understanding of yourself and reality would increase every day, helping you to make sense of this roller coaster called life?

It’s all possible, and you already know how! If you are reading this, you have the only tool you will ever need: writing.

You don’t need to become an author, but you should write for yourself. Whenever you learn something, note it down. Have a system that helps find your notes and turn them into shareable insights.

Why? Because we, as a species, need insights to solve complex problems. Also, because most people genuinely enjoy to learn and to share. We need all the brainpower that’s available, but it’s wasted on ineffective teaching and learning methodologies. As a result, many people’s perspectives go unnoticed.

I make an effort to write down everything that I find worthwhile. Cultivating the habit of taking notes has given me an enormous ROI on time and effort. I’ve been able to solve complex problems and help others do the same. I’ve also been able to share exciting ideas and ignite the joy of learning in others.

Here are a few reasons why note-taking is my be-all and end-all. Only because I’ve taken notes on my learning process am I able to write. Without… well, there would be no Ramses.blog.

Reason 1: Note-taking helps to retain knowledge

Before diving into more philosophical reasons for taking notes, let’s briefly touch on the science behind note-taking.

Having notes is not just nice for your future self to refer to, but writing them also helps to build understanding and retain knowledge.

Research has shown that note-takers “remembered more important ideas, and better identified the relationships between ideas.". They also scored better on comprehension and recall tests, which shows that taking notes helps to engage more in-depth with the material and make it your own.

Additionally, note-taking consists of different stages: recording the notes, reviewing, and then revising them. Recording notes is not the problem for most (although enough people struggle with it), it’s the review and revision stage that few do. Pausing while taking notes to revise them will help to grasp ideas better. If you add to that discussing the notes with others, your understanding will deepen even more.

Finally, the amount of notes someone takes is directly related to how much they will remember. The lesson: take an abundance of notes. Quantity is more important than quality when it comes to note-taking. Write more if you want to remember more.

If you want to dive deep into why and how good note-taking works, I recommend you pick up Sönke Ahrens How to Take Smart Notes. I’ll come back to this magnificent work soon, but I encourage you to check out Tiago Forte’s summary of the main principles.

Reason 2: Teaching is broken, so I take ownership as a learner

Most teaching is a waste of time. There, I said it.

On the one hand, there are the school systems around the world that don’t teach note-taking and personal knowledge management. These systems produce knowledge workers who are unprepared to grow professionally and as a person.

On the other hand, there are online courses. I love to learn online, but I have yet to find a course that does pedagogy well. Live cohorts and videos are okay, but I don’t understand why creators ignore other teaching formats completely. I suspect few online course creators have an understanding of cognitive science.

Alas, the content is out there, but not everyone can learn from it effectively. That’s why I’m adamant about improving learning skills. When you know how to approach new information, it doesn’t matter in what format it comes. With a bit of effort, you’ll be able to learn from almost any source.

When you have a note-taking system, learning becomes a clear mission. You are not reading or watching something with the vague intention of becoming smarter. You are also not relying on a teacher to tell you what you should learn. With a note-taking system, your goal is to feed your note-taking tool—your second brain.

There is an important distinction to make between note-taking tools and systems. For me, a tool is a technology that helps me write, organize, and retrieve my notes. A note-taking system is a way of thinking about note-taking and designing processes to organize the knowledge in my tool. It starts at what to write down, all the way to what to do with the notes.

By coming up with a system to organize my understanding of key ideas, I can drink from the firehose of (online) education. But, note-taking has another important use: finding the nuggets of wisdom in books.

Reason 3: Note-taking cuts out the fluff

Most non-fiction books are bloated with fluff and should be articles. But they’re not, because books pay more. As learners, we need to dredge through the crap to extract the gems.

When you take notes, you learn to distill key ideas. When you distill ideas, you don’t copy your teacher or a book word-for-word. Instead, you think about the content and what it means to you. Once you grasp the idea, you write down your thoughts.

What helped me become better at cutting out the fluff is having the mindset of a curator. After reading three stories that prove a point, I’m not particularly interested in the stories. I want to understand the idea they point to, and I want to record that idea. That’s why highlights are only partially useful; not every author summarizes their points. Often, I’m the one summarizing for me. To do that effectively, I write notes.

By taking reading notes over the years, I have built a massive database of concise ideas that I distilled from books. This allows me to connect new ideas onto older, more ingrained ones. By making connections, I create more mental paths to each. Having more mental ways to ideas makes them more accessible and, therefore, more salient.

I have my database of connected notes, but the mere act of writing and connecting makes me remember the content better. By taking reading notes (versus simple highlighting), I kill two birds with one stone: better retention of knowledge, and a digital version of that knowledge.

Whenever I want to hang new knowledge onto older knowledge, I can bring up related notes in seconds. Before, I’d have to grab the book, look for the passage that talks about the idea I had in mind, read the bit, and could hopefully still connect with the new material. With digital tools like Readwise and Roam Research, this is something of the past.

Reason 4: I teach myself through notes

Writing is thinking. When I take notes, I rethink and deepen my understanding of the information I’ve taken in.

Note-taking starts when reading or listening. I don’t copy everything. Instead, I let the incoming ideas simmer for a bit before I write down the gist.

While writing, I make sure to limit myself to one idea in the most concise way possible. Writing concisely makes the note atomic, which enables me to link it to other notes/ideas. Also, I’m not trying to write for an audience when taking notes; only I need to understand the idea initially.

Once I grok a concept, I think of ways to explain it to others. My secondary goal of taking notes is to be able to teach it to others. Teaching is not a charitable goal; I do it to help my own understanding first and foremost.

By sharing what you learn, you help others and yourself. How? Because when you teach, you learn. Don’t believe me? Teaching is at the core of the Feynman Technique.

Especially when your notes feed into a slip-box (where notes are linked extensively), making connections between ideas becomes a breeze. All new ideas stand on the shoulders of older ones; your note-taking system will become the foundation of your insights.

A sound note-taking system shows your past thinking. Going through your notes is an excellent way to find stuff to think and write about. By reviewing and revising, you interact with concepts on a deeper level. The goal is not to simply take better notes, the goal is to think better.

Want to become a better learner? Design your note-taking system!

If you want to become a better learner, one of the best investments you can make is to become a better note-taker. But being good at taking notes is just part of the story. If you never see your notes again, the effort is wasted.

To learn effectively with notes, your system needs to make it easy (or automatic) to revisit what you’ve written in the past. I’ve already touched on tools like Readwise and Roam Research, which make collecting and resurfacing written information easy. But if you don’t have a clearly defined workflow, these tools will not do much for you.

In future posts, I’ll touch more on how to design a note-taking system that works for you. I’ll share my process, and where to deviate so you can meet your needs. If you have any comments or suggestions in the meanwhile, send me a tweet or an email.