I've been taking notes wrong my whole life

The Cortex podcast has an interesting discussion of note-taking, from which I learn that I’ve been taking notes wrong my whole life. Which is remarkable, because I went from being a student to being a journalist, which means my whole life I’ve been a professional note-taker.

And I may end up trying Obsidian again, or even Roam Research.

The discussion starts at 32 minutes, give or take a few seconds.

I hope to have more to say about this but I’m just throwing this out there for now as - hopefully - a discussion-starter.


Going to have a listen now… Which is only fair, giving your well, shall we say – enticing – title… :sunglasses:

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I’ve tried Zettelkasten systems a couple times but they never seemed to make sense (I even tried reading a recommended book). While I understand the principle of what they are proposing, it hasn’t made sense to me how this would be good for my own research.


There is no right way to take notes.

It is not math.

There is no “right” way. “Taking notes the right way” has no objective meaning whatsoever.

I suspect a significant chunk of the Mac Software Universe and the Mac Blogosphere would crumble if people would ease up on their anxiety and FOMO and just take notes whatever way seems natural to them and stopped the endless lemming march searching for advice.


Seriously. The hype around Roam and Obsidian is deafening.


I started to listen and boy didn’t realize Myke Hurley is a co-host. I will leave it at here …


I appreciate the link, but this is too much like morning radio. I’m 10min in (starting at 32), and they haven’t said anything.


That’s how a lot of podcasts are these days. That and Youtube videos.


@anon41602260 / @dfay: I’m not necessarily convinced that there’s a “right way” to write notes, but there are probably wrong ways.


[…] it was concluded that both Cornell Notes and REAP had a significant effect on EFL secondary school students’ critical reading skills.

"Impact of Cornell Notes vs. REAP on EFL Secondary School Students’ Critical Reading Skills,” Ahmad S. Z., International Education Studies.

More broadly (emphasis added, citations removed for clearer presentation)…

The majority of the studies that investigate the effects of note-taking strategies on learning have focused on the quality of the selection and the organization of the information that is recorded […]. These studies suggest that nearly all non-linear note-taking strategies (e.g. with an outline or a matrix framework) benefit learning outcomes more than does the linear recording of information, with graphs and concept maps especially fostering the selection and organization of information. As a consequence, the remembering of information is most effective with non-linear strategies […].

“Cognitive effort during note taking,” Piolat, A., Olive, T., and Kellogg, R. T., Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2004.

Of course, I haven’t read this literature in detail. Maybe these studies are garbage. They also have little to do with the kind of note taking that’s being hyped these days. Point is, though, that it’s highly unlikely that "approach to note taking” has no effect on quality (and therefore utility) of notes.

The truth is that we just don’t know enough. Research is limited.

Somewhat tangential, I found this table from Morehead et al.’s “Note-taking habits of 21st Century college students” interesting. Less than half of the ~550 students surveyed were taught note-taking explicitly:


I believe the core of Sonke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes can be summed up in the phrase (quoting from memory): writing is not the medium of production, it’s primarily the medium through which you think. Which to me is one of the cornerstones of the Zettelkasten method: it forces you to use your own words, which forces you to think.


Same for the Feynman Technique, the difference being the connectedness of zettelkasten/backlinked/etc.


I really like Myke’s contributions to podcasts :slight_smile:


As a faculty in higher ed, I have a thousand responses to this that run the range between sadly cynical to hysterically sarcastic to deeply insightful.

In any case, I am intrigued that non-linear methods are so productive. I appreciate now that perhaps There was something to the spark that I felt when I started doing mind maps.

Ever so often, I feel that if I could just get my damn linearly-disciplined engineering training brain to shut off while I am trying to collect my thoughts, I might actually get more quickly to assemble a solid forest instead of mucking about at the base of the trees.

Thanks for the insights.



ABSOLUTELY! It’s whatever works for you! How could it be anything else?

Even within certain places or times, you may take different notes! Sometimes I write in English. Sometimes I write in Spanish. Sometimes both but never Spanglish! You have to draw the line somewhere. One thing that drives me to distraction is the imachines won’t let me abbreviate! And spellcheck use to be so much worse. Different apps are different.

But just so long as I can read them? Write!


I’m not a note taker at all. And this “performative” take is spot on. Learning how to research is the more important skill. And using what you’re supposed to be learning.

Having said that, my brain works in a “everything is connected and there’s no real structure” way much of the time. So little notes all linked might work for me. I’d hesitate to use Zettelkasten, just as I’d hesitate to use GTD - as they are too formal and there’s too much “religion” around them.

Rather than Roam or Obsidian or DevonThink or whatever, I’m going to lean into Drafts more. Particularly with its new cross-linking capability.


Zettelkasten and GTD and not formal. Which is their great strengths. It’s like learning an instrument, really. Sure, there are courses and more experienced people who will teach you a certain way and to some extent that can be profitable because you need to get good habits. But once you do, it’s more about principles and good practices than systems. A musician does not think about music theory or scales when playing. Same with note-taking and productivity – but you need to practice to become a musician. If you think in connections and dislike imprinting rigid structures on things (as I do), the Zettelkasten works wonders.


How much would you like to bet they’ve been taught but don’t remember! Just an educator’s guess.


Here’s what I took from the podcast: Like CGP Grey, I never learned to take notes in school. I wrote down a lot of things the teacher said, and never looked at those notes again. I relied on memory to brute-force through tests, and since I’m a smart guy I got solid Bs and some As.

As a journalist, I rely on on interviews, and write down most of what the people I’m talking to say. I’ve been doing this for many years and I am very fast at typing notes. I also get a lot of documents in PDFs and web pages.

When I’m writing an article I need to be able to hold everything in my head and then review the notes from top to bottom and write the article in the order the sources spoke to me, and the order information is presented in the documents. Short-form journalism is very formulaic and so it’s easy to break the articles into pieces in my head and assemble them in the software. This works well for short articles but it starts to break when articles get to be longer than 1,000-2,000 words.

What I see now is that, particularly if I’m doing a longer and more complex article, what I need to do is go through all those notes and retype everything again, this time in bite-sized pieces of individual thoughts. And then move the thoughts around to present them in a whole.

Ulysses is designed for this. Documents are broken up into “sheets,” which can be just a single sentence or hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of words. Sheets are easy to move around and run together. Ulysses was my writing app of choice for a couple of years, and then I moved away from it. I downloaded it this evening while I worked while fighting off insomnia and ay caramba it’s fantastic. Why did I ever give it up?


haha, yes most click baity title in this forum ever!


I assume it has something to do with that other thread you started, where you discussed how you’re never satisfied with apps and decided to stop switching? :lying_face: :rofl: You were vacillating between Ulysses and IA Writer and Drafts in this forum in 2018, saying Ulysses had too many features you didn’t use but had a subscription you disliked paying, and said back then that Ulysses and IA seemed equivalent for your purposes.

For one massive project that I started this year I’ve got a few dozen sheets in Ulysses,

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no copies (aside from CCC and BackBlaze - I remember you used to manually migrate everything out to the Finder), and with font/color choices and custom off-white background it’s a significantly nicer experience than I would have had with IA Writer (which I own for Mac and iOS) and the one least-bad font available of the embedded three that IA lets you choose in the app