Principles of note-taking

Principles of note-taking

Principles of note-taking

Ultimately note-taking is a very personal endeavor. Over time you will develop your own style and conventions. These principles, however, are a good place to start.


Your notes should flow from you to the page with the least amount of friction possible.

Writing is not the outcome of thinking, it's the place where thinking takes place. Only once your thoughts are out of your head can you begin to make sense of them. Any kind of friction disrupts this process.

This principle has many knock-on effects. Not only does whatever tool you're using to take notes need to be as fast as possible, but it must never force you to make decisions when entering notes.

For example, having to make decisions like "where in this hierarchy do I put this note?", or "is this tool secure enough that I can write down this extremely sensitive thing?" cripples frictionless note-taking. Concepts like folders and files often force a structure on our notes that works against our ability to get our thoughts out.

Append only

When new information comes along, we should append to existing notes, rather than replace content in existing notes. This process mirrors the way our memory works.

"We don’t remember things by modifying our past memories – we simply accumulate more, as if adding entries to a log or a journal. We search through them by traversing time, looking for links between ideas and experiences."

A convenient way of storing a log of amendments to your notes is by putting changes in your daily notes - more on this later.

Backlink entities

Our memory works through associations. If you mirror these associations when note-taking then you're creating extra hooks for later recall.

You can mirror your memory's associations when note-taking by backlinking, a powerful feature that all networked note-taking tools support. Essentially you can link notes together in much the same way that web pages are linked together.

How do you know which parts of your note should be backlinked? Generally speaking it's a good idea to backlink all entities (such as people's name, locations, companies, etc). If it starts with a capital, backlink it.

Associate with time and space

Physical space is a really important part of memory formation and recall. For example: sometimes when moving between two rooms you'll forget something, only to remember when you return.

Dates are great hooks for recall too. We all associate memories with time to some extent or another. For example, a forgotten memory may often be recovered by recalling what you were doing around that time (which can be enough of a hook to remember the rest).

This is why daily journaling (which we cover next) is so powerful. Any notes made in your daily-notes are automatically associated with a date.

Include the why

When you're reflecting back on your notes, it's often useful to understand not just what you did, but why you did it, and how you felt at the time.

Don't just keep a running tally of tasks and facts. Note-taking can help reduce your biases, but only if you instill your notes with emotion.

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