ivanOS
my digital garden — a place for my ideas to grow and blossom.

A Beginner’s Guide to Note-Taking (for your Life).

1918 words, 11 min read

Note-taking has become a huge part of my life. It helped to mitigate two problems I face perpetually everyday:

  1. To retain information that otherwise would fade away with time.
  2. Organize my thoughts. I constantly feel overwhelmed by having too many things going on in my mind at the same time, and that can get very distracting.

Twitter user @visakanv beautifully describes note-taking (actually it’s journaling, but it really applies to both) in this twitter thread:

Why I Take Notes.

Oftentimes, when people think of taking notes, they associate it to studying for an exam.

But the fact is, we are constantly learning new things everyday. So if you are all about living life to the fullest and improving yourself as a person, then why would you not transfer this concept of note-taking to your own personal life?

One of the best thing writing things down can do for you is to sharpen your thinking. Sitting down and putting the work to synthesizing your thoughts can help to produce better quality ideas. If I find myself having an abstract thought in my head that it is hard to express in words, penning them down can help to solidify and refine the idea.

In the rest of the article, I will be going through my note-taking journey, and the various techniques & concepts I use to make my note-taking more effective.

Active Recall and Spaced Repetition

When I was a student in junior college studying for ‘A’ Levels, the content we were learning were becoming more and more complex. So I started searching up study techniques to optimize my learning.

I came across Ali Abdaal’s YouTube videos on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, and these techniques stuck with me till this day. These were legitimate, scientifically backed1 advice, in contrast to the plethora of “Top 101 Study Tips” listicles online that sounds good but doesn’t work.

(Spoiler alert: Active Recall trumps other study techniques like rereading, highlighting and blindly writing notes, in terms of examination performance.)

Active Recall2: This involves retrieving information from your brain after learning something, typically through testing yourself. The act of recalling strengthens your ability to retain your information and solidifies the connections in our brain between different concepts.
Spaced Repetition3: The act of reviewing materials at spaced intervals. This is effective in memory retention and countering the forgetting curve.

If you ever want to learn something effectively, it is key to utilize both techniques to maximize your retention rate.

Second Brain

On the never-ending quest for maximum productivity, I chanced upon an article by Forte Labs that explained this conundrum I had in my head:

How many brilliant ideas have you had and forgotten? How many insights have you failed to take action on? How much useful advice have you slowly forgotten as the years have passed?

We feel a constant pressure to be learning, improving ourselves, and making progress. We spend countless hours every year reading, listening, and watching informational content. And yet, where has all that valuable knowledge gone? Where is it when we need it? Our brain can only store a few thoughts at any one time. Our brain is for having ideas, not storing them.

Without a little extra care to preserve these valuable resources, our precious knowledge remains siloed and scattered across dozens of different locations.

Mind = Blown 🤯. This perpetual problem that has always bothered my mind (but could never find the words for it) was perfectly articulated by this excerpt.

The article then introduced a solution: Building A Second Brain. BASB is a methodology for “preserving your ideas, and turning them into reality”. The article explains it like this:

We are constantly generating ideas. Yet, without a little extra care to preserve these valuable resources, our precious knowledge remains siloed and scattered across dozens of different locations.

By offloading our thinking onto a “second brain,” we free our biological brain to imagine, create, and simply be present.

Information overload is a plague of today’s society. Building a digital system where you can deposit all your thoughts and learnings there is quintessential for knowledge workers in this day and age.

Another similar concept is the Personal Knowledge System. PKM involves the bottom-up approach of collecting information that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledge in their daily activities.4

Note-Taking App: Roam Research

(This segment talks about my favourite note-taking app, Roam Research. If you wish to skip to the next segment of the article, click here.)

In search for an appropriate medium for BASB, I discovered Roam Research. I have been using it ever since and have never looked back.

Source: Roam Research's official site.

What makes Roam different from the other note-taking apps?

Note-taking apps typically function hierarchically.

You create categories, and within each categories are sub-categories and within them contain notes. The problem with this is that we face the issue of deciding where to put these notes under, since they can belong to multiple categories.

Roam Research is a note-taking application for networked thought.

The way you take notes on Roam is similar to how a brain would processes information. Usually, when you are learning a new concept, your brain will immediately try to create mental connections of other concepts or events related to it. As you consume more information, more and more ideas become intertwined together to form an entire large network of thought.

Likewise, Roam seeks to associate notes with other notes via bi-directional linking, making it easier to connect your ideas. It becomes a proverbial secondary brain —— a place storing all your written thoughts. What’s more, your notes do not just sit there idly like other note apps. Roam encourages serendipity and Spaced Repetition by letting you continuously revisit past notes whenever you call it back with back-linking.

For those tinkerers out there, you can even create your own custom CSS and JavaScript themes! (Shameless plug: check out my theme CyanoRoam on Github :)

Pricing

The bummer is that after their 31-days free trial, they start with a whopping $15/month and $7.50/month for students afterwards. If you are not willing to spend that much money on it, I recommend looking into other Roam alternatives like Obsidian and TiddlyStroll.

(I was lucky enough to have been part of their beta program so my graph is free indefinitely 😁.)

If you are interested to know more about how Roam Research works, you can also check out Ali Abdaal’s video on Roam.

How I Take Notes.

Personal Knowledge System/Building A Second Brain or whatever you want to call it, below are the multiple facets of how I take my notes. See and pick what works for you.

📸Quick Capture

Our brains are constantly coming up with new ideas. Sometimes, this can get very distracting and take away from what we are currently focusing on.

A way I have come up to curb this problem is that whenever I come up with a new idea or inspiration, I will immediately capture them down on Roam.

I keep quotes, reading highlights, podcast insights and everything you can think of. I find this very liberating as it helps to take the load off my brain so I can focus what is important presently.

Then, at the end of the day, I can go back to review whatever I have written the entire day, and decide whether I will add them to the list of stuff to work on.

📚Book/Podcast/Article Notes

This is the most obvious kind of note-taking: writing notes on stuff you read.

Whenever I read, or other content I consume online e.g. podcasts, articles, I try my best to paraphrase and summarize every book. Especially when coming across a foreign concept that I wish to learn more on, I find it best to actively engage with the material for better learning.

Take note (pun intended): When taking notes, paraphrase and try not to refer back to the material at hand. This is the essence behind Active Recall.

⚖️Quantifying My Productivity

I subscribe to the notion of the 1% Rule: if you improve yourself by 1% everyday for one year, you will end up 3800% better than where you started off a year ago. I first read this from James Clear, the author of the best-selling book, Atomic Habits.

Source: Marginal Gains by James Clear.
"Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement."

Of course, in reality, the metric to quantify your productivity is slightly more unclear, and you might not exactly be 38x better. But the 1% Rule proves how powerful compound interest can be and how it can do wonders to your life.

I follow a simple system of quantifying my output to track my productivity. I have a section called ⏳Timeline of My Life. In there, I record down the notable things that I have learnt or accomplished that day, or when I have reached a certain milestone in my life.

This is especially useful if you wish to do weekly reviews on your personal development.

Looking at all your past notes can give you a birds-eye view of what you have accomplished the entire week. By reviewing, you are applying Spaced Repetition to your learning. Occasionally looking back at the mini-achievements you have done can also do wonders to your motivation and self-esteem :P.

I am considering using a software tool like Airtable in the future to relegate this mini-project to. Maybe one day, I will reach the level of julian.digital.

📝Journaling

As mentioned in my article on journaling, I also use Roam as a tool for writing down my thoughts and reflections. You can read the article here, where I talk more about how I use it to manage my emotional and mental health.

Conclusion

So this is a brief overview of the theories behind how I do my note-taking. I hope you have gained some insights after reading this post, and perhaps even incorporate some of these concepts into your own life.

My Roam Graph: An overview of how all my notes are connected in Roam Research.

If you were to try something like BASB or PKM, give time for your ideas to gain momentum before they snowball into an entire network of thought.

Soon enough, all your high-value ideas will be right at your fingertips, ready to be recalled from your secondary brain at any time!

Additional resources:

  1. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. doi:10.1177/1529100612453266

  2. Iii, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 1-36. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-387691-1.00001-6

  3. Benjamin, A. S., & Tullis, J. (2010). What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61(3), 228-247. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2010.05.004

  4. Grundspenkis, J. (2007), “Agent based approach for organization and personal knowledge modelling: knowledge management perspective”, Journal of Intelligent Manufacturing, 18(4): 451–457, doi:10.1007/s10845-007-0052-6