I have been down the rabbit hole, exploring my process of note taking, systems and organizing over the last few weeks. It has been an intensive and extensive journey, and one that I have detailed here. It started with a frustration with the continued dysfunction of my files and references, and expanded into a more general indictment of how I take notes. Sönke Ahrens’ “How to Take Smart Notes” provided some valuable prompts about what is possible with notes, and in particular underscored for me an essential function that I had long been ignoring. I find myself at a solution that I believe will work for me, which is what each of us needs to find. What I’ve learned may not serve you directly, but it may offer some insights for your own journey.
Notes are the ephemera of our lives. Theoretically short-term and transitory, they have become on-going collections of thoughts, scrawls, screeds and snippets of information. By attempting to manage my notes and maintain my records, I’ve gotten good at two dimensions: keeping track of the minutiae of my day, and hoarding the articles, papers and books that I find interesting and meaningful. Where I struggle is in bridging the gap. Notes are about more than just day-to-day musings and lists. References aren’t just there to look pretty on a shelf (really, they’re not). Finding a way to make and sustain meaningful connections between them is an essential challenge.
One of the essential questions we need to ask in getting to better systems for our notes, thoughts and references is why we have systems in the first place. We live in a constantly connected world; wouldn’t we be better off just Googling for what we need when we need it? The reality is that this is an answer that not only doesn’t satisfy our inner hoarder; it also ignores the very personal and unique forms that our systems take. This isn’t just about capturing materials we get from elsewhere and making sense of them. It is relating to how those materials—and those notes we generate ourselves—define and shape the work that we do.
Many of us strive to get organized. A similar number of us struggle with how to actually do that. For me, it has been the on-going focus of more decades than I care to count, as I try to make sense of the reference materials in my life and organize them in ways that are meaningful, useful and above all accessible. The problem with all systems is that they are subject to entropy; they will decline into disorder over time unless they receive proper care and feeding. Exploring what that looks like is an interesting challenge.