If it seems that every day a new Note-Taking app hits the market, that is correct. The last few years have brought us Notion, Roam, Obsidian, Foam, and about 20 more I can’t remember.
From the outside Note-Taking or more accurately, Personal Knowledge Management may look like a solved problem. You take a piece of paper, and we’re done with it, right? And why do we need so many notes anyway?
My psychology Master Thesis was about just that: a particular aspect of the fallibility of human memory called The Source Monitoring Error. Scientific research of human memory is in total agreement: it’s terrible, fragile, easily manipulated, and not to be trusted. During the painful birth of my thesis, I adopted Evernote as my “Second Brain” and happily used it for the last 12 years.
All human progress is based on some forms of Note Taking. Books are notes prepared for sharing, and almost all software is some form of a notebook – that is why the field is called Information Technology.
When ideas are captured and shared, they can be improved upon and serve as building blocks of new ideas (also Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes are fascinating to this day).
When Gutenberg first introduced machinery to the note-taking process, it was kind of a big deal. So, what new has happened in the field over the last few years? Why the sudden revival of interest in note-taking tools?
In 2017, Tiago Forte has started releasing his “Building a Second Brain” course, which is now teaching it’s 11th cohort of (over 1000) students. The course addresses the “Post-Scarcity” nature of information in today’s world:
And many people become “infovores,” force-feeding themselves endless books, articles, and courses, in the hope that something will stick
How do I make what I’m consuming right now easily discoverable for my future self?”
Tiago started with Evernote but has moved to an app-agnostic methodology of storing, retrieving, and summarizing information based on David Allen’s ideas from Getting Things Done.
Here is a basic overview of Tiago’s methodology:
- Every notebook/folder should be organized in one of the PARA groups (more in this article on Tiago’s site)
- Projects that have a deadline (for example a Blog Post)
- Areas where you need to perform at a consistent level (say, your Marriage)
- Resources which will serve you in the above endeavors
- Archives for cold storage (say invoices in case of a tax audit)
- You should store your notes in a place where you will need them next time
- You should progressively summarize your notes every time you touch them, so they become more refined and “your’s” over time (more here).
- The first time you stumble upon a note, you may bold the interesting passages
- Then next time you highlight the most relevant parts of that
- Third time you look at a note, you may rephrase it in your own words and that will be perfect for just Tweeting
Also in 2017, Sönke Ahrens published the book “How to Take Smart Notes” exploring the productivity system of Niklas Luhmann called Zettelkasten (“slip-box” in german). Each note in Zettelkasten is devoted to one idea and then are connected via strands of references:
Luhmann wrote down interesting or potentially useful ideas he encountered in his reading on uniformly sized index cards
He wrote only on one side of each card to eliminate the need to flip them over, and he limited himself to one idea per card so they could be referenced individually
Each new index card received a sequential number, starting at 1. When a new source was added to that topic, or he found something to supplement it, he would add new index cards with letters as suffixes (1a, 1b, 1c, etc.)
Thanks to the book, Zettelkasten entered the public discourse inspiring new developers to create more Note-Taking apps. (Tiago also has a great summary of Sonnke Ahrens’s book.)
I won’t dive into Notion, because I have dismissed it as another note-taking-app-du-jour. Since my elaborate Second Brain already is in Evernote, I wanted to avoid switching costs. And it seems I was right – Roam appeared just after Notion was touted as “the best and final note-taking system”.
The app directly implements and expands ideas of Vannevar Bush’s Memex and Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten – every note is a node in the graph, connected to the lattice of other concepts. This is exactly like human brain stores memories and what convinced me to try it out.
What made it stick is that it starting delivering on the original promise of the White Paper:
At the simplest level, Roam’s structure makes it inherently easier to store, recall, and cross-reference ideas. This is the primary proposition for students, writers, self-directed learners, and users of existing note-taking apps. For power users, the knowledge graph also unlocks applications in logic and reasoning, Bayesian inference and decision-making, modeling complex problems, and collaborative research.
For me, Roam has the biggest Braindump Bandwidth from everything I tried. It’s like thoughts are downloaded via a Neuralink.
I think it’s the confidence that I don’t have to worry about finding this note later that gives me the energy to just write.
Using Roam and Evernote together
I outlined the elaborate system of bots connecting to my Evernote account in an essay about my philosophy of automation. Naturally, I didn’t want it going to waste. Furthermore, as Anne-Laure Le Cunff asserts in How to Choose the Right Note-Taking App, Evernote serves perfectly as a library, whereas Roam is a fantastic garden.
Long story short: I built a tool to migrate my notes from Roam to Evernote automatically every evening. I get the benefit of sparking new ideas in my Roam Graph, but I can retrieve them quickly in Evernote, which has an unmatched search mechanism. It will also make the transition smoother. Here it is:
If you use apps like Pocket, Kindle, Hypothes.is, Medium or any other tool that allows you to highlight text, Readwise is a also fantastic tool that syncs to Roam, Notion, and Evernote.
You will have your book and article highlights ready to use right in your database.
What should you do?
By now it may be pretty obvious that I treat note-taking seriously, but it’s not about fancy tools – for the last 12 years I used ‘basic’ Evernote and enjoyed tremendous benefits.
You can use Apple Notes, Google Keep, or a paper journal – anything but your head. Just remember, that notes are meant to be revisited, used, and processed in context. It’s not about hoarding but enjoying a wider perspective inaccessible to those without a second brain.
Aside: I don’t know if the major note-taking developments of 2017 are related, but Information Technology is full of independent similar breakthroughs- it seems that Zeitgeist is more important than we think. Innovators by Malcolm Gladwell covers that nicely
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I write about the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, focusing on remote work, online economy, and cognitive load. Every monday.