How I take notes

Joash Xu
·Aug 10, 2021·

5 min read

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Writing is an essential part of learning. Through writing, we demonstrate what we have learned. We display the ability to think critically. And we develop ideas. But writing is not just the result of learning; it is also the medium. Yes, you write a blog post on a topic you have just learned, but you also write notes to understand that topic better. Those notes that you write when you learn can be valuable. You need to figure out how to take and organize those notes.

One way to organize those notes is Zettelkasten. Zettelkasten is a note taking method popularized by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. The system is straightforward. Take notes and make connections between them. Notes are organized topically rather than chronologically or by association with a document. The act of linking between notes is explicit through manually written cross-reference. And to make it easier to connect ideas, write entries that contain one single thought.

I have been using this method for some time now. In this article, I will lay out the tools and the workflow I use. Essentially, I need something to capture ideas, a reference manager, a place to store those notes or a slip box, and an editor.

Tools

Notebook and Workflowy

Notebook-and-pen

I write most of the new information I received into a notebook. I do this because I have a terrible habit of capturing too much information. I have a fear of missing out on the crucial bits. This habit leads me to write an excessive amount of information, making it challenging to process later. Writing on paper using a pen slows me down. It allows me to think deeply about an idea. To ask questions like: Is it essential? Is it new? How does it compare to other ideas? etc. And when I write on paper, I tend to use my word instead of copying and pasting. The additional advantage of using pen and paper is that it is easy to make sketches and mind-maps. Plus, I enjoy writing on paper with a fountain pen.

Workflowy

But, I do use a digital tool to capture information. When I do use it, I use Workflowy. I typically use it when I am on the go or don't have access to my notebook. The tool is quite simple, so I like it very much for that. I can start typing and make lists upon lists using this tool. And there is this kanban board feature that I sometimes use when I compare ideas.

Reference manager: Zotero

Zotero

Zotero is a free tool that I use to store and manage references. It has a neat web integration tool. When you visit a website like Amazon or Wikipedia, you can save the complete reference information to Zotero library. Zotero can also save a copy of the webpage and the full-text PDF. It can store references to videos and websites as well. I can then create a citation for any items in the library.

And have I mention, Zotero is free.

Slip box

Slip Box

To store the notes, I use the file system. I save all entries in markdown format and put them all in a folder. The wonderful thing about using markdown format is that it is plain text. That means you can use any editor to edit or read. Plain text files are easy to handle, easy to backup, and easy to transfer—no vendor lock-in.

I also put every note in a cloud-based file hosting server and back it up on a git server. This way, I can open it from my mobile devices and ensure that I have a backup for all my notes.

Editor: The archive

The Archive

While I am using the file system from the OS, I manage the notes using The Archive. The application is lightweight. It does not look ultra-modern like some other apps, but for what it does, it is impressive. You can create a note super quickly. The search feature works well. And my favorite part: it is tinker-proof. You don't run the risk of constantly tinkering with the tool. Instead, you write more notes.

Milanote

Milanote

Whenever I need to understand things deeply, I use Milanote. Milanote is a canvas app that allows you to put in different cards and images. I use it to curate stuff and to thinking deeper about ideas. It, unfortunately, does not yet have a native iPad app and therefore does not support Apple pencil. When it does, it will be amazing.

Mindnote

I also use MindNode for thinking. When all I want to do is mind-mapping, I find it faster using this tool. I can then move the mindmap to Milanote or The Archive if I need to.

Editor: Typora

Sometimes when a note has a table or a math equation, it isn't easy to read using The Archive. For this, I use Typora. It is an excellent editor that renders the markdown syntax inline. Very convenient. In The Archive, you can assign a shortcut to send a note to be view in another editor. So this is how I use Typora. So if my entries have math equations or tables, I run the shortcut, it opens up in Typora, and I continue to edit the note there. But now, the editor renders the table and the math equation. Neat.

Workflow

All new information will first go to my notebook. I will then process this notebook. I do this at least once a week. But it is usually twice or more per week. When I understand the content, I move it to my slip box (a folder in my file system). If I need to think about the idea more deeply, I move it into Milanote.

The flow does not always follow a neat sequence. Things can go back and forward between Milanote/Mindnode and The Archive.

Summary

So that's my setup for taking notes. I try my best to keep it simple. I like tools that have limited features instead of a super app that can do a whole bunch. And I like tools that are tinker-proof. I found that tools that allow tinkering counter-productive. If I do need to process my note, I can always do it since it is just plain text. I have, for instance, made a visualizer for my notes.

 
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