Casey Newton: Why note-taking apps don't make us smarter

Casey Newton had a brief follow-up yesterday:

A funny and predictable outcome of me writing about why we should stop trusting souped-up note-taking apps to make us smarter last week is that dozens of you wrote to me saying: ok, but have you tried this souped-up note-taking app to make you smarter? And then linked to something I had never heard of that looked to be at most 1 percent different from every other product on the market. Several of you told me that, driven to madness by the failure of other note-taking apps, you had actually built your own souped-up note-taking app and invited me to try it. You are all degenerates and I hope you get the help you need.

An even funnier and more predictable outcome of this response is that I actually downloaded one of these suggested apps and immediately fell in love with it. It’s called Capacities, it’s built by a small team in Europe, and it’s at most 1 percent different from every other product on the market. I’m completely in love, and about a year from now I’ll tell you in a separate post why I abandoned Capacities for something that looks almost identical.

That’s the entirety of Newton’s comments on note-taking in that particular edition of his newsletter. It’s just two paragraphs of a much longer newsletter so I figure it’s ok to post here.

One of the reasons I posted the original article here is that I have enormous respect for Casey Newton as a journalist. He’s a great journalist, and to be a great journalist, you need to be a great note-taker. Note-taking is an essential skill of journalism; you can’t do the job without taking good notes.


Great answers. Also funny that he fell for the next app. In fact, it looks great although I am not interested.


Haha, I absolutely love his response, especially “You are all degenerates and I hope you get the help you need.” :joy::joy:

I’m feeling superior today because despite hearing the siren call of Capacities and eyeing up their website at least once a week, I have resisted :joy: Because I don’t actually need a new app.

It was @sridhar who tempted me most recently with Capacities (in the thread on organising tasks and emails), and although I resisted setting up Capacities, I ended up downloading LunaTask. Ridiculous. (Interesting task manager though.)

Casey’s right, I am a degenerate.


Vera Brittain, the British author of books such as Testament of Youth that chronicled her experience in World War One, was friends with Winifred Holty, author of South Riding. Brittain reported Holtby had said that use of a commonplace book (what would today be considered a journal or a note-taking app) for recording quotes caused her to forget completely the events so recorded.

Curious. I find that writing things (not typing) helps me remember. This was especially true in college, where my process was to write the notes twice. Once at lecture or upon first read of the material. And then a second time in my “permanent” notebook. I suspect this repetition helped with recall.

Even today I use a pad (no “i”!) and pencil in work meetings to jot down things, only some of which get further processed as entries in task managers or note apps. Simple and effective and works for me.


There’s a cognitive mechanism at play here that might explain the difference.

Rehearsal and questioning of concepts tends to cement and chunk those concepts in our minds (hence the effectiveness of spaced repetition techniques).

So, rote recording of events — without any rich reflection on those events or questioning of details — would probably have a limited effect on remembrance, especially if they’re never revisited ever again. If they are revisited but, again, the concepts that’re recorded aren’t questions, it’s still likely to have little benefit on memory.

It’s working with concepts, turning them around in our minds, that reinforces memory.


I used to do this too! I’ve never “met” anyone who takes study notes like this, how exciting!

My friends found it baffling (and I suspect thought it was a bit of a time waste, but they were wrong). In my case, I wrote a lot of “temporary notes”, but it all needed tidying up and writing nicely for my actual folders (in those days I used ring binders, the horror. This was mid-noughties, I’m just old-fashioned).

I think just re-writing the notes itself has value, but the true rewards were at exam time when all my notes were meticulously written out and rounded out (when writing up properly I supplemented with additional info, etc.). I went to a Russell Group uni and all our exams were at the end of the year. That meant some topics might not have been looked at for almost 10 months - clear detailed notes are vital.

There I was at the top of this thread saying I wasn’t going to comment much, but I do love talking about knowledge management :joy:


One quick example of how PKM and collectors disease is paying off.

Confession - I hoard knowledge. I’ve doing it for 30+ yrs. PKM (Obsidian in my case) is allowing to organize and find it more readily.

Useful Example - (Work context - Drug dealer selling drugs) - from my experience with Scrum and Agile teams, I find that many don’t succeed because they’re running on autopilot. On Tuesday I created a picture Outlining a “Path to Success”

This morning I turned this into an Obsidian note and with a few minutes of searching linked 2/3s of the steps to existing notes. This tells me I could probably put together a first draft book (150-200 pgs) on the subject in a matter of weeks.

Key takeaway, it PKM is eventually useful helping you share your knowledge when you know what you want to share.



Were the notes you linked to actual notes and summaries you had written, or were they articles, videos, etc. from other people?

Brittain & Holtby were using their commonplace books not for university revision — they had long since graduated by the time Brittain’s anecdote was recorded — but as simple notes intended as reminders. Holtby experienced the opposite. The notes did not remind her because she had forgotten the experience once it was committed to paper.

This isn’t a problem for me. I make notes — not on paper — but can continue to remember them. My prefered note-taking setup is Scrivener which may have been created for writing projects its netadata, keywords, folders and collections allow me to categorise notes in various ways. My problem is fine motor control issues that make my handwriting illegible; tried calligraphy classes but the problem is physiological not lack of practice. Hence my notes are all electonic giving an easy way to find them either with Scirvener search feature or macOS Spotlight.

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All of them are my own notes. Two things that have helped (business site warning ;-):

So I already have a professional excuse to write about this stuff. I’m also a geek, I would probably write even if I had no excuse.



Tools don’t bequeath knowledge, hard work and mind crunching does, but nonetheless tools matter. After a year enjoying Obsidian, with a gnawing impression back of mind that something was missing, I returned to TheBrain almost solely because of the Plex. The graph in Obsidian just doesn’t cut it. TheBrain document (a “brain”) that I had carefully nurtured for close to 14 years before deciding to put it aside and try to get the same experience with Obsidian was still waiting for me, and just as much fun to explore and wander as ever. (No coincidence that TheBrain has a “wander” feature that randomly offers notes to read and think about.)

Casey Newton has more discussion of note-taking, note-taking apps and AI in Hard Fork, the podcast he does with Kevin Roose of the New York Times.

The discussion starts at about 21:15. Though, really, the entire podcast is worth listening to. It’s one of my favorites; a good overview of the week’s top tech headlines, delivered in an entertaining and humorous format.

Casey Newton and Kevin Roose would be outstanding guests. on MPU, btw. They’re both brilliant journalists and I bet they’re both Mac/iPhone users too. @MacSparky @ismh

Casey Newton is definitely One of Us, a productivity nerd who tries every note-taking app. Roose, on the other hand, just sends himself emails or leaves himself a voice memo when he has an idea. They make a good contrast—one person who does too much in an attempt to be a great note-taker, and another who doesn’t do enough.


And now he’s switched from Alfred to Raycast.

Newton is a great journalist, Mac/Apple power user and productivity nerd. His Hard Fork podcast is my favorite one of my favorite podcasts. Please get him as a guest on MPU, @MacSparky and @ismh!