Three Powerful Note-Taking Systems To Keep on Top of Your Life
Keeping a habit of writing things down has completely transformed my work, social and personal life in the last three years. In the Information Age we live in today, there is little room to properly process information, and, more concerningly, little space to connect with our thoughts.
However, the following guide will take you through three game-changing systems I have in place to organise my notes and, in effect, my life.
The first system of note-taking I have in place is what I refer to as my life notes. This is your go-to place for your best thoughts, ideas, and discoveries at the present time. Acting as an extension of personal journaling, your life notes are an ongoing process of recording any great ideas you have discovered through the day, future plans you wish to make, or projects you wish to pursue.
There is no right or wrong time to add an entry to your life notes and there isn’t a fixed rulebook. Let your creative freedom guide the way.
Optimising Your Life
With total freedom, however, comes a total mess — in terms of organisation. Optimising your life notes becomes a challenge, but can be resolved with the power of indexing. Many journals come with an index page, but it is not so difficult to create your own.
After writing an entry, give it a meaningful title. This will prevent confusion at a later stage and save you from helplessly scanning down a list of entries titled ‘Big Important Idea.’
Categorisation is also another key player. Examples include ‘Social’, ‘Goals’, ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Potential Future Projects.’ This is perhaps best implemented using note-taking applications with folder hierarchies but can be simulated in a physical journal through splitting the index page into six-or-so equal sections, leaving each section blank to be filled in as and when required.
To give an instance of how your life notes are your life-long best friend, let’s use the following example:
You are currently being overwhelmed in your work life and seek more of an opportunity to enjoy your free time. When in a calm or happy frame of mind, open up your life notes and brainstorm ideas of what inspires you the most and what things you find the most fascinating or fun.
A great question I find to ask yourself is What would you do if today was your only chance to do it?
Once the inspiration comes rolling out, you can assign a title such as ‘Current Free Time (March 2021)’ and have a perfect, energy-packed list to resort to whenever you next finish some work.
With studies showing we can only hold three to four items in our memories at one given instance, our laptops and notepads become our own reliable companions in managing the information chaos of our busy modern work schedules.
If like me, you find your days are becoming filled with more information and less time to process it, the following strategy aims to ensure you keep on top of data management, rather than gradually falling behind.
I needed a way to write and store notes fast, and the help of Marie Kondo’s inboxing system helped me find an effective solution. The method would also rely on me knowing where to find notes I had typed for later use.
And so enters what I refer to as the ‘Notes Now’ structure. Put simply, this is one fixed location, whether a folder in your note-taking app or a physical filing wallet, to store any new notes created in the current moment — context of the note is irrelevant.
Using this technique, you won’t have to think twice about where to find anything. No longer will your draws be scattered with scrap notes and post-its as you ask yourself, annoyed: ‘Where did I write that down?’
Creation First, Allocation Later
An alternative title to the ‘Notes Now’ structure would be the ‘Allocate Later’ structure: as the content will be of a strong mixed variety, the folder can be sorted out (that is, assigning the files inside to their relevant locations) at a later stage. If you choose to store away precisely each note when it is created, this will certainly stagger the momentum of your note-taking.
For intense, information-loaded days, frictionless note creation is key, and having a Notes Now folder is the perfect solution.
What’s worth considering is the ease of creating a new note for the inbox. If you’re using a note-taking app, for instance, learn the keyboard shortcut to create a new note, or learn how to change the default notes location to your ‘Notes Now’ folder. Despite being small details, these will all the more encourage you to write more, decreasing the journey time from pen to paper.
Conveniently, this note-taking structure can serve as a model in several other settings. Take bookmarks in web browsers, for instance, whereby having a ‘Relevant Now’ folder can be an incredibly useful tool for accumulating web pages you wish to save. You can move these to more established bookmark folders later. Sticky thoughts of ‘Where should I store this?’ are left out of the equation.
Your Knowledge, Organised
After this minimal approach of temporary storage, what’s left is to have an effective system to store your best, most valuable insights. Whether it’s a YouTube TED Talk that you found inspiring or a blog post here on Medium, the Internet has provided us all with a profound vault of knowledge free of charge.
Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) aims to effectively manage and store the knowledge we learn in our media-rich lives. By implementing a reliable PKM system, you will have instant access to some of the most insightful thoughts, lessons and pieces of wisdom you have gained throughout your life.
What I refer to as my Notes Bank exists on my laptop. There is an excellent range of software for this purpose, including the traditional choice of Evernote but also more recently Obsidian, ROAM Research and RemNote, all of which offer bidirectional links compatibility.
The above software allows for effortless categorisation through folder hierarchies. But the recent surge of backlinking capabilities has opened a new pathway for connecting our thoughts: the latter three apps enable you to reference other pages (and even text) within notes.
This is ever more useful for when your Notes Bank becomes plump — seeing the links between your ideas creates a coherent history of interconnected thoughts that you can access in several ways.
Implementing the above three systems will allow you to treasure your most precious internal and external lessons learned in life. Valuable insights will no longer be washed away amidst hectic daytime schedules. Try these out and begin your journey to deepen your understanding of yourself and the outside world…