It was only (March 19, 2022) when I needed to make a minor decision I had been stuck on for a week. The situation didn’t require a friend or advisor’s advice, precious time I’d prefer to save for something of greater gravity. Instead, I consulted a set of notes I’d taken on making decisions, which took me only a few seconds to find. It wasn’t buried in some notebook somewhere—it was in my Zettelkasten.
I was consoled by some quotes I’d written down over two years ago: to consider what I’d do with the opportunity cost, to keep as many options open as possible, and to know that I’d probably be happy either way. It became a lot easier to know what to do next: an email to ask for more information, a pre-decision on which option to go with, and leverage for negotiating.
In the past few weeks, I’ve turned to my notes for marketing ideas and examples, for writing up and release these pieces on faking it till you make it, unrealistic expectations, and on self-fulfilling prophecies. I didn’t have to find a book, or search for a lost link—both tasks costing great frustration and time. On the contrary, the experience felt smooth, seamless, and fun. I could wrote faster than ever. It was like night and day from writing just a few years ago, when each new piece required a constant heavy lift of research, and felt like I was starting from scratch all over again. My notes have become one of my most valuable assets in my writing and marketing careers.
A conscious way to internalize lessons
“If you need to take notes to write a book, don’t write the book,” tweets author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. After a moment of consideration, I found the proposition difficult to take seriously. It’s not just that notes make most people’s research and writing better; it’s simply impossible to manage information without it. Author Robert Greene takes notes as he pores through his research. Collaborator Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson has said Greene taught him the value of information and deliberately keeping the information visible to internalize the lessons that he was learning. Jackson uses the example of writing down lessons in an app on his phone to review them.
I see notes simply as a more deliberate, conscious, approach to processing information. I won’t be relying only on the subconscious, luck, and events outside of my control to elicit my brain. I’m still happy when those events take place of course, and I’m open to observing. I just see notes as another way of guiding the mind.
Sounds exciting, looks boring
While taking notes has helped me remember a lot more important information, and improved my ability to connect ideas together, I write this with the caveat that I experience a great disdain for the fetishization of organization information and taking notes. I would happily accept criticism for being something of an information caveman.
You won’t see me use the words “second brain,” nor will I be advocating taking a course on taking notes. In fact, my own note system started with no more than a couple of hours skimming How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. I’m slightly ashamed to admit I still haven’t read the whole book. I simply don’t see the need. I started taking notes and organizing it the way the book describes, it worked, and I haven’t looked back since. You might not use this method—it might be flash cards, or something else—though having any system is probably better than no method.
The originator of the Zettelkasten note system that Ahrens advocates, German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. It has famously enabled his prolific output of 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles, all before the internet. Yet, it’s a particularly plain and boring system. As blogger MK recalled and translated, “People come [to look at the Zettelkasten]. They get to see everything, and no more than that-just as in a pornographic movie. And they are equally disappointed.”
Soothe brain overload
On top of that though, I do believe that for most people working in freelance or full-time jobs, brain overload is becoming a serious issue. With so many people sharing techniques, tactics, and best practices, it’s hard to keep track of it all—our brains are drinking from the equivalent of a firehose of information facilitated through feeds and screens.
That’s where the notes come in. This is a metaphor I’m lifting from Ahrens’s book: Organizing notes is similar to putting objects into boxes. Surely, a person can move each object one at a time; they’d just need to go to their destination, and return back for each object. Similarly, a person can choose to bring a box, put a bunch of objects in it, and go to their destination once and start unpacking. A box is simple, and it saves a lot of time.
It took me years trying to figure out how to take notes in a way that worked for me. The only solution was to try a bunch of stuff. I use the Zettelkasten now, and I wrote about why it works for me and what I’d learned from writing hundreds of note cards.
Whether it’s an insight from a conference, a stat you need to reference, or a meta-career lesson you want to remember—your notes can be a reliable way of keeping track of the information you work so hard to acquire.
Herbert Lui is the author of Creative Doing, a book of 50 prompts that unblock creativity for your work, hobby, or next career. He writes a newsletter that shares three great books every month and is also the editorial director at Wonder Shuttle.