Note-Taking Systems Are Overrated

Published on Nov 1, 2020

Taking notes is necessary—we all have ideas, info, and interactions we need to record for later use. I do scribble things from time to time, but is it judicious to build entire note-taking systems?

Taking notes is a bit like making lists: it's a form of procrastination. We write notes for a reason—publishing a research paper, passing exams, learning new material—but most people lose sight of it and end up hoarding bits of information that will go unused, like dragons burrying themselves in their treasures.

I've been guily of that as well. It's only after starting my writing journey I've noticed how vain my note-taking habit was. I was filling Trello boards with wishful blog post ideas, instead of actually putting in the work to refine them with an audience.

We should think about notes in terms of drafts—ideas meant to be shared. Actionable items, rather than passive data sitting somewhere on a cloud server. This presupposes two things: intentional learning, also known as information diet, and the ruthless pruning of your ideas.

We hoard notes because we lose sight of what we want to do with them, or we took them with no real intention in the first place. If you write a research paper, notes can regularly be transformed into detailed outlines for the actual end-result. If you want to pass an exam, writing a blog from your notes is the best way to improve retention while fostering collaboration. 

There is absolutely no point in taking notes if you aren't going to do anything with the information you are receiving. Information is cheap, it comes and goes and is widely abundant when you know where to look for it, but notes take time: you'd be better off paying attention to what you read, listen, or watch, and diversifying your sources.

"But what if I forget?" you might ask. The best ideas don't need notes to stick. They will follow you your entire life. Like loyal friends, you won't need to reach out to them every week or so: eventually, life will do its thing, and everybody will be reunited. I'd even argue that old notes drag us down, they keep us chained to our old ways of thinking when we should in fact open ourselves up to the infinite possibilities all around us.