I collect stuff – thoughts, ideas, links, learnings. My Gallup’s second strength was “input” which could explain this need. The thing is, that if uncontrolled this can grow in the wrong direction leading to complete chaos.

I also consume a lot of knowledge. I work in a field where it’s necessary to keep learning.

Notes taking system

So I needed a system. I didn’t know where to start, but hopefully, I came across a course on better note-taking by a smart guy I used to work at the same company with. (The course is in Polish though). It led me through the process of rethinking the way I collect notes and data and designing something better.

  • when do you take notes?
  • what kind of information do you store?
  • why do you store the notes?
  • what are you going to do with them?
  • when do you need to access them?
  • who needs access to them?

I share it here firstly so I could have a reference for future me to compare with, but also with some hope that it may inspire someone.

Sources of notes

In my case I can see two types of sources:

  • Spontaneous notes
  • Structured learning

Spontaneous notes

The things to note happen unintended. I do other things, think, walk, ride a bus, drive, and talk to others. In these situations, I usually have a cell phone with me.

  • for thoughts and summaries from my therapy sessions – I write them in my journal. This helps me refer back to patterns in my behavior.
  • the same goes for thoughts about myself and my feelings.
  • if someone recommends something to me, I usually put it into Google Keep. Later on, I split it into different places
  • for movies – I have a watchlist on my account on Filmweb but I also have a spreadsheet of movies to watch with my wife
  • for books – I have a dedicated spreadsheet
  • when I listen to podcasts or audiobooks (or Blinkist) I usually don’t just sit and listen. I either go for a walk, drive, or ride a bus. In these situations, I put notes into Google Keep. If I drive, I use a voice keyboard to avoid typing (and dying in the process).
  • when I come across a new word in English I write it down on Google Keep. Later on, I process them and put them into Anki to learn when I can do so.
  • for random ideas (regarding my career, my blog, spending time with my wife, or birthday presents) I put them into Google Keep and later convert them into tasks or projects in the todo app.
  • when I have something to do I simply put it into my todo app
  • for things to buy in a grocery store I put them into my shopping list app
  • for recipes I bookmark them in my browser. If I use the recipe a lot I put it into my notebook with recipes for convenience.

Structured learning

It’s a dedicated time to cover some topics. I’m either in front of a computer or have a notebook or a cell phone with me.

  • when I read books I usually take notes in Google Keep.
  • if I own the book I may also highlight in the book directly and put an index of these highlights on the cover page
  • later on I process these notes and put them into Obsidian as raw book notes
  • when I read an article online, watch a video, or do an online course chances are I’m in front of a computer. So I take notes directly into Obsidian.
  • for onsite courses or lectures, I may bring a notebook with me. If I don’t I still have a google keep on my phone
  • there are also things that are simply easier to write by hand rather than type on a keyboard. E.g. drawing diagrams or formulas.

Principles

For this system to work I needed some principles to apply.

  • I try to keep my Google Keep clean. Every few days I try to process the notes that are there and move them to the ultimate location.
  • For recommendations, I try to write who recommended them to me

Permanent vs temporary storage

So from the previous section, it’s possible to see a pattern that there are two types of places where I store my notes. This approach to splitting them is somehow inspired by the idea storage vs idea factory approach.

The temporary one is usually Google Keep where I put everything without thinking too much about how to categorize the data. The important thing here is that I need quick access to it. I know that later on I’m going to process these notes.

The permanent storage is either Google Drive or Obsidian.

For Google Drive, it’s usually a set of dedicated spreadsheets and documents that I simply extend with new things. New movies to watch, new books to read, new podcasts to listen to, and so on. They usually don’t contain things that I learned. It’s just plain data.

In Obsidian I usually put more creative and educational content. When I process a book that I read I put notes here. Later on, I also process these notes and try to catch the essence. It’s an amazing feeling to see patterns interweaving.

Tools

Habits and principles are more important but for completeness, here’s also a list of tools that I use:

  • Google Keep – used mostly for quick and temporary notes
  • Nozbe – todo app (here – you can read how I use it)
  • Obsidian – my second brain. I use it for permanent notes, both before and after processing them.
  • Listsonic – shopping list app
  • Anki – flashcards app for learning English
  • Google Docs and Google Sheets – I use them to store information that I may need:
    • to share,
    • to access anytime,
    • to view in a tabular form

By the way, why Obsidian? In short

  • because it’s free
  • because it has a ton of plugins, and it lets you write your own
  • because it lets you link your notes making it easy to implement the Zettelkasten method
    • and create graphs of knowledge which look super cool!
  • because it works offline so I can stay focused

What’s missing?

  • I organize my files in a certain way, but I’m going to cover that topic in a separate article
  • I have old notes in different formats – paper mind maps, or whole notebooks with notes. These probably are never going to make it into my digital second brain, unless I really need that knowledge again. But that’s ok, as long as I remember where they are.
  • Obviously, it’s not a final version. There’s never going to be such. It’s a constant process of improvement.

Do you have any thoughts on this topic or would you like to share your approach to taking notes? Share it in the comments!

Author

I'm a software engineer with 7 years of experience. I highly value team work and focus a lot on knowledge sharing aspects within teams. I also support companies with technical interview process. On top of that I read psychological books in my spare time and find other people fascinating.