The Best Note-Taking Method is the One You Have with You

After spending enough time in a field, you end up going back to basics. You rediscover the joy of taking photographs with a point-and-shoot, you go back to that first operating system, you enjoy the pleasure of simple yet well-made food. For me, note-taking now enters the same category.

We often forget that the main goal of note-taking systems is to take notes. Sure, organizing them later matters, but taking notes comes first. Without this first action, you can’t have the second. There’s no point in wiring a house that will never receive power.

I talk often about Zettelkasten on trms. I use it, and it’s almost life-changing for some. It’s a genius system, and it generates more ideas than you can do with them if used well. I’m possibly one of its most outspoken advocates on the Internet. And ever since I adopted it, my note-taking plummeted.

My workplace gifted me a Moleskine a couple of months ago. I’ve been carrying it around all the time ever since. I think it’s a very well-made object, both in design and materials. Yet until a little ago, it was empty. Why? Because my note-taking system had become a monolithic behemoth.

Notes outside of my system didn’t count. I felt as if the only notes worth taking were the ones in or for the Zettelkasten, and everything else was scrap paper. The passage of time had made it so that my standards for entering a new note in my system increasingly crept up. I’m aware that many, me included, talk about making “fleeting notes” first, which form the basis of fully-formed notes. Yet just knowing that they were going to be part of the system made me want to “prep” them, making them more organized and more polished from the get-go, so that I wouldn’t have to do so much work later on. This slowly raised my standards for what a note was, and with it, the mental friction of taking one.

I am not entirely blaming the system for it, I am also wired this way. I post on this blog/channel extremely rarely, and it’s entirely due to my (frankly, silly) unwillingness to put out anything less than what my unrealistic, ever-growing standards allow for.1 So this post is not for everyone, but I know that there are people like me out there.

There’s an adage in photography that goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. I didn’t understand it at first. Clearly, a DSLR is better than my phone’s camera. Then it clicked. Photography is about taking photos. You’ll never take good photos if you never take photos. Similarly, the more photos you take, the higher the chances of taking a good one. And if you shoot with the camera that’s always with you, you reduce the friction to do it. And you’ll take more photos.

Note-taking is about taking notes. Note-taking is about committing to a medium a piece of information that you have either thought yourself or that you have seen somewhere.

If in your method of choice there is anything creating friction between you and this basic act, then I strongly recommend you try reducing it and seeing what happens. For example, if the feeling that you have to organize notes adds friction to your note-taking, try for a while to not organize your notes. I’m serious. If necessary, you can always bring that back later. I figured that I’d rather have a flood of unorganized raw material than one very well-polished piece of writing. I’m in note-taking nirvana right now.

I still fully recommend and stand by note-taking methods. For most people, they do not add a single bit of friction, and their benefits far outweigh anything else. The following is still true though:

When it comes to taking notes, whatever you read on the Internet, only one thing is truly paramount: optimize for friction. Or, well, absence of it.

Don’t let your note-taking turn into a bureaucracy.

  1. I’m making an exception for today

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