Notes apps are where ideas go to die

Came across this article today through Hacker News, and it struck a chord:

Search, linking, organizing, filing—all good for your most important notes, but then again, the most important stuff will show up again on its own (something else the best notes apps could do, resurfacing older notes like Apple Pictures does with your photo “memories”). You’ll come across those best ideas again and again; your notes end up merely being a record of when you first encountered the idea.

Honestly I’d like to quote the entire thing, I recommend just going and reading the article. The summary is that our collections of notes have very little value outside of the mental freedom to forget that they give us. I think that’s true for me, personally. Sometimes I have notes that are high value, mostly those are tech-related, like a specific command syntax or snippet of code. Other high-value notes have my family information in them that I need from time to time. The vast majority of other notes are… just kind of there.

If I were back in grad school I’d have a different approach, and sometimes I think about carrying on the academic rigor of my technical research into my everyday work. But, those thoughts get replaced by the needs of the job at the moment, and my notes revert to a basic repository of snippets and syntax that are hard to remember.

What do you think? Are we really getting any value from hoarding information, or is it an unnecessary burden?

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These days, as a happy retiree, my Daily Note and my limited set of Getting Things Done notes are very important and useful to me. It’s where I think “out loud” and “on paper.” Really poor analogies, huh?

With that said, my work notes were always a frantic effort to grab everything I could in the hopes that when I needed something, it would be there for me. :slightly_smiling_face:

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I’m sure I read somewhere that Luhmann (Zettelkasten) said that keeping a Zettelkasten takes a great deal of effort. I’m one of those who doesn’t want to spend so much time on note organising, pruning, linking, etc. I imagine anyone who does gets a much greater reward. As with all things you get out what you put in in terms of time and effort.

I use Bear to record what I’ve done for work and to capture facts and helpful articles for work. I also use it to capture for personal use. If I need it, I can find it. Otherwise, it’s just there.

The article made me think, but was maybe a bit too poetic or metaphorical for me. I recognised what was being said, but I don’t think notes are always meant to die.

I’d say we make notes for several reasons, often all at the same time.

We note things in writing to preserve them - to aid our memories, if you like - and that will be everything from small details (like measurements for a project or the content of a meeting) to trying to capture all the moods and feelings of a memory you want to treasure. The note keeps our memory anchored.

We also write notes in order to think: putting points in order; explaining them; finding the words to express ill-formed ideas; gathering evidence for a point of view. The process of writing a note may be more important than the note itself, but once written, the note itself captures something important. That can be especially so where we have used the note to gather ideas and thoughts from multiple sources and attempted to make our own sense of a field or area.

We write notes as the foundation on which we build and create. The note is not an end in itself but a component in something, from a story to a visual project, that we are are working on.

The value of notes is the thoughts, experiences, creativity they capture and how they can be used. I’d agree with the article that having somewhere to safely keep notes that you don’t have an immediate use for allows us to let go more easily, but it also allows us to get a jump start when we next need to think about something, or recall something or create something. Yes, there are a lot of notes where the value was in writing them, not keeping them, but the trouble is that it is not easy to know that, because we can’t know what will become important. I’d also agree that there is much too much attention paid to the notes themselves, rather than to what they are for and why they are valuable - simple and personal organisation and workflow is often better, I think, than technical and complex, but writing and keeping notes is a valuable practice - there are just so many examples of how notebooks have made the world better, when the right people write in them.

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Nice article and thoughts from you all. For me it breaks down something like this:

  • Vague aspirations and supporting material for aspirations: rarely revisited. Bad habit
  • Personal search engine material: revisited stochastically. Useful
  • Project notes: almost always useful unless the project approach was bad
  • Longer journaling/thinking notes: worth writing. Rarely revisited but can be a pleasure to come across years later, so I keep them
  • CYA/compliance notes: rarely revisited, but protects from significant downside so worthwhile

Overall, areas I understand deeply have fewer, more valuable notes than areas where I’m still finding my way and uncertain of future risks and challenges. Like @karlnyhus said, many years from now I expect they will be a small but vital corpus.

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I started taking notes in grad school for later use (that is, for research or writing, or teaching not just studying). I never stopped. I have tried Obsidian, mostly as a replacement for VoodooPad.

Currently I use DevonTHINK for .pdfs and sometimes syncretizing or summarizing a related group of .pdfs, but I’m back to html and local notes on my Mac, written in Bear or TextEdit, HTML’d in BBedit. I take free-hand notes based on reading, I export highlights from Ebooks, and then place them in context with references to other things I’m reading.

I have very specific interests, and while I have a lot, they are narrowly focussed, with the basic idea of researching to understand, and later, to incorporate it into writing.

It’s very practical for me. I use my notes. My notes start accreting around a thesis, they become an ur-draft, and end up in Scrivener for long works, then Pages. I think that’s one of the reasons I abandoned Obsidian after a year; it just wasn’t working for me.

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I’ve read the article. This bit caught my eye in particular:

Sherlock Holmes, in BBC’s rendition, builds a fabled mind palace, an imaginary castle in which to stash his clues and concepts for later recall. Mere mortals with our average powers of recollection turn instead to notes and bookmarking apps, with their promises to be our “second brain” and help us “remember everything.”

That’s a Classical memory technique, first referred to by the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos (died c. 468 BCE). He left a symposium shortly before a roof collapsed. The other guests where crushed beyond recognition, but Simonides was able to remember where each of the other guests were sitting and thus help with identifying the bodies.

This kind of associational memory technique is used by other cultures with rich oral traditions. The memory theater or memory palace concept has been been written about by Frances Yates in The Art of Memory, tracing the Classical rhetorical use through the Medieval and Renaissance eras, where using a memory theater is entwined with the loci communes or Commonplaces.

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This is a huge benefit.
The ability to forget, means I free up the few bits of my brain to pursue other things, knowing I have a place to refer to past thoughts.

I also keep notes regarding procedures, products, related to work and to home.

I think the issue is how much time do you put into maintaining a notes. My answer - not much. I want to get the note down, links and tags and appropriate titles, hopefully means I will stumble into the note again when needed. A little help with Devonthink AI increases my chances.

What is the cost of keeping a note I do not see or use ? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t stress about it, but the cost of not documenting something that turns out to be important later - that make me sad, because the information and my state of mind at the time is lost.

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I tend to keep anything that might be of value later. Like the article stated “storage is cheap”. I don’t spend a lot of time on organization. If it is something that needs attention I will deal with it immediately, or add it to a task list or calendar, etc. If not I just file it.

When I need some bit of information I can normally find it using search in a minute or two. If it takes more than five I know it doesn’t exist.

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Ideas disappear in a Notes app for the same reason they would in a paper file. Because a Notes App or a Paper file is reference material, to be accessed when you’re looking for information, not as a work manager.

If you want an idea to stay current and perennial until you decide what to do with it, it should live in your task manager as an item to be actioned or on a someday/maybe list.

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I’ve read the article. I have… many thoughts. I don’t think I have an overall theme here, just some observations about notes, note-taking, and note-keeping in connection with this article. Then, at the end, I have some response to the questions that @ibuys raised.

First, I agree with this,

We don’t write things down to remember them. We write them down to forget.

Perhaps you are familiar with a similar message from Through the Looking Glass

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never, NEVER forget!”

“You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”

Alice looked on with great interest as the King took an enormous memorandum-book out of his pocket, and began writing.

Notes and memoranda are records of things that we will forget, but want not to forget. So, we preserve them.

Second, rather ironically in light of the previous point, is that often the very act of writing things down does result in us remembering the information.

I once was cleaning my closet and found a goals list I had written out on a piece of paper. It was five years old. As I looked through it, I was shocked to discover that, apparently without ever consulting that list after I had written, it I had accomplished a large number of my listed goals. Additionally, I had discovered some unachieved goals that I had written down and thought I forgot about, but which happened to be on my then-current goals list. I hadn’t even realized that they had ever occurred to me in the past. How can that be? I wrote something down as a goal, didn’t achieve it, forgot I had ever even made it a goal, and later made it a goal. WHAT?

I think the process of taking notes of this type — things that one likes, that one wants, or that describe oneself — come from a very deep place inside us. The note isn’t necessarily the result of new thinking but drawing out and making conscious something that is in you but seemingly sub-conscious. It’s like mining your own mind.

I don’t claim anything scientific about this point. It’s just me trying to understand and clumsily explain what I imagine to be happening in my brain when I take notes.

Third, going back to the point of making notes to forget, I think what note-takers and listmakers hope for is some magical way to have those forgotten thoughts, quotations, citations, and data, bubble up organically when we are in a context to do something with those particular notes. That’s probably why Zettlekasten is built around links and cross-references. That’s why David Allen likes organizing “general reference” material in an A-Z file. That’s why Evernote elevated the tag to the pinnacle of its organizational system.

In my work, for example, clients and witnesses often share pieces of factual information that may be important for their case at times when I’m in no position to deal with that fact. Maybe, it’s about how a document was created or some other person who knows something about some issue in the case. For me, I’ve set up a series of buckets where I dump information that I know that I’ll need later. For every case, as an example, I create a blank document for closing argument notes. Whenever I have a brainstorm, I add it to the notes. I don’t do anything with those notes until I’m wanting to work on my closing. Then they are at my finger tips (not buried in yellow pads or strewn throughout my email repository). I can then organize, sometimes excise, and revise those notes into what will be my final argument.

This is my key-dish system. I always know where to find the keys, because I have a key dish to put them in. Unfortunately, most of my notes, though, are not stored in a systematic key dish. This brings me to my next point….

Fourth, as I organize my notes more using, say, tags, those tags proliferate and then I am just as likely to forget that I have a tag that organized what might be a useful note in a given context. So, I am back to the issue of being able to find and review a note that I took in the past.

Often, I have great notes on a subject, but it’s still easier to just search google for the information after I can’t remember where I might have categorized it. That really is only an issue when I have notes that could just as easily be categorized in multiple ways (and I’ve forgotten which way I picked!). Certain types of notes that are very discrete are, for me, almost universally easy to find.

I have gone to great efforts to systematize my tags, print out an index of tags, and create a system to manage them. This, so I don’t forget that I have something buried somewhere that is useful to some particular things I’m trying to do at that moment. Even that is not ideal, but it helps.

Fifth, I do not agree that we don’t get much value out of most of the notes we keep.

I get the author’s issue that maybe we only use some 1% of what we’ve captured. I’m not sure that the real figure is quite that low, but let’s assume it is. What I find really cool about notes that I’ve taken is, for many of them, I don’t know what part of them will be useful or not later. I have old spiral notebooks that are filled with pages of notes, but I consult notes on two or three of those pages regularly and otherwise have no use for the remainder (or so it seems!).

I have class notes from classes I took 30 years ago. Occasionally, there is some gem in them that is useful or interesting. I took great notes on one particular class in undergrad, and late last year I discovered that they form a great outline for a potential book on the subject.

Here’s another personal example. I love music. I don’t play an instrument (yet?) and I’m not a musicologist. Still, I take copious notes on composers, artists, genres, instruments, and the like. It gives me a connection to something I enjoy, and it’s fun to go back and see what caught my interests and how I thought about something years ago. Those notes will not likely ever be “used” for anything important. (But it does make me annoying at some trivia games.) It’s possible nobody would have ever even known they existed had I not mentioned it here. Yet, they are precious to me. Maybe those notes even help me to understand myself a little better; certainly they help me appreciate the world around me a little better.

Sixth, I have found that my memory of a note that I took ages ago is often enough to enable me to find it today.

I get what the author states about note-tool search tools not being so good. More than that, one’s memory (mine at least) of the words that were written in the note that I can use to search for is often hazy. I know I wrote something thus and so. I search for it, but can’t find it.

That’s rare, though. I have found in the vast majority of cases, the memories of taking a note—what I was doing, why I was doing it, where I was, the writing instrument, and various other contextual clues—enable me to at least find the note by brute force. Sometimes that effort is rewarded with having surfaced a note that is not really all that useful. Other times I have retrieved exactly what I need that answers a question or saves me or a team member a ton of work.

Conclusion

I don’t know where this journey I’ve taken you on leads, save to say this. Note taking and note-keeping, for me, is one of those little things that bring out the joy and endless variety of life. It is, for me, such a useful pursuit for so many things. As a distance runner, I have running journals from almost two decades ago, and it’s remarkable the little insights I’ve been able to discern from glancing back over them from time-to-time.

Like so many of us, I’m looking for the perfect tools and methods for making note taking more useful and more accessible. Still, whether I’ve taken my notes on a post-it, typed them in Vim, scrawled them in an Apple Quick Note, put them in an e-mail to myself, or what have you, the utility is the same. Some of my more useful notes were taken on the back of a credit-card bill’s envelope, scanned, and saved in my file system. Some of my notes make zero sense if I look at them the week after I took them.

To answer the original question,

I will offer my unqualified “yes,” we are getting ton’s of value. And, my unqualified “no,” that it is not an unnecessary burden. (Maybe one qualification, there may be more efficient ways to gather and capture the information to minimize the burden.)

My own view is that we should enjoy our note-taking and note-retrieving—and not stress about it—as part of the process of life and of our life’s work. Even if those notes do nothing more than to help the note-taker and are never seen by anybody other than the note-taker, they do wonders. Whether they be practical notes (my closing argument notes, @Medievalist’s process of understanding and writing, quick reference things like @NiranS mentioned, and the like), productivity notes, or even our own personal-development notes, note-taking helps us to grow, develop, get things done, understand ourselves, and maybe even understand each other.

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Great collection of replies, especially @iPersuade . Well said. All of this reminds me of one of the tenants of GTD, our brains are great at having ideas, not so great at remembering them. Hence, task managers and note taking systems.

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This is often the sticking point for me and why starting a new empty repository seems so attractive. I wonder if Luhmann wasn’t correct that for notes to be useful they need a connection to other notes? For Luhmann the tags where just an entry point into a topic. The notes themselves then led you through the full range of thought recorded so far. This of course, takes a great deal more effort than throwing a note in a folder!

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I had a hard time reading this article, because I don’t think that it’s that well written. But then again, it’s generating a lot of discussion. Although it doesn’t take much provocation to get people to talk about their note taking practices these days.

The individual attachment that a person can have with a word or a series of words that form ideas in writing, can become isolating in certain circumstances. The virtue of writing in a literate society is that it externalizes verbal thoughts. For most people, there is no guarantee that they will encounter their ideas “again and again” if they don’t record them somewhere.

The note pile serves as a social surrogate for what was previously a more dynamic, intellectually shared environment when civilizations were more insular, tribal and predominantly oral.

The static, visual presence of a thought becomes the only means that an idea is wholly realized. From this perspective, it sounds more like note apps are where ideas go to live.

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I wonder how much time your average professional spent contemplating the process and “tools” of note-taking in the 50s and earlier when the method was primarily restricted to a legal pad or a journal (or a stenographer)? I wonder if we overdo it.

And I’m the proverbial the pot calling the kettle black. :slightly_smiling_face:

I recognize clearly that we are in “the information age“ and that we are “knowledge workers. “ But, I would argue that professionals have always been knowledge workers, though we certainly have more information to manage.

Are we being too obsessive-compulsive about this matter? (Finger pointing directly at me.)

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I read it. Then I read it again. I have no idea what the author’s point was.

We write things down to forget them.

We write things down to remember them now.

Which is it, to forget or to remember?

As noted by @Medievalist the Sherlock Holmes bit is a standard memory technique, very old. Something I learned years ago.

I found the piece a mishmash of pseudo related bits and straw men. A bunch of quotes that all seem similar designed to support a specific conclusion without any facts to back it up.

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I think that’s the crux of the matter.

If your “to do” list contains a dozen items, you don’t need a system. You don’t need an app. You need a piece of paper and a pen. It’s when you have dozens of projects with dozens of sub-tasks with tons of support information that you need a way to organize it.

I would suggest that the average person in the 50s probably managed less information on a yearly basis than what comes through our email in a week. I’m not saying anything about the QUALITY of that information, mind you - but the load is substantially more.

If we trace it further back, since we’re appealing to history, the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was…what…3 volumes? That was “what was important” at that time.

I would suggest that as the amount of information approaches infinity, our thoughts regarding that information, what to do with it, etc. do too. And since that information is fundamentally deconcretized, near-infinite amounts of it can exist in our computer with no obvious disincentive to doing so - and no physical triggers to remind us that we should consider going through it. :slight_smile:

I would suggest that it was available information and what was deemed important to a particular culture.

We now have instant news from around the world. The difficulty is that everything is important to someone. If everything becomes important then nothing is important as all information is at the same level. This reminds me of something Tiago Forte said about only collecting information that stands out to you.

In an ever increasing mass of information, we perhaps need to focus on what is important to us, not what someone tells us is important? This might make note taking more manageable. I’m also increasingly suspicious of collecting information that might be important sometime in the future. My house already has too many items that I “might need” sometime, but in reality rarely do.

I think they thought about it quite a bit. The Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress systems, and library card catalogs were very carefully thought out systems and processes. Board- and organization-meeting minutes predate the computer age, and epitomize a process for keeping and retrieving potentially important notes.

I once saw an ingenious personal filing system maintained by a then-octogenarian former judge, who had hanging folders of clippings and notes on various topics. Each had small metal loop-like tags(!) affixed to the top of the file, sticking up; the position of the tag identified a topic. By threading thin metal rods through multiple tags, he could identify all files about topic A or topic B; by lifting those folders and then threading a third rod through tag C – before removing rods A and B – he could find all material pertaining to (A or B) and C…

Look at the evolution of books: first long passages, later divided by punctuation and paragraphing, tables of contents and indexing…

Note-taking and information-organizing tools and techniques are probably as old as writing.

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