Stop collecting notes; use them: Structure and Formatting

  • Post by Maxime Cote
  • Mar 05, 2021

If you’ve been following along in this series, you probably recently lowered the rate of your collection of notes, especially the low quality or external stuff. If you’re joining in this article, you can look at the previous one in the series here: Noise & Friction.

So you’ve got a nice collection of high-quality ideas, notes, and useful information, great, but how do you structure it now? That’s always the question that comes around when you start to look into knowledge management and even sometimes when you’re already deep into it. What system do I need to use? What’s going to bring me the best return on time investment? What’s the best way to format my notes? If you’re starting, then the answer is simple, none. You don’t need a system, for the most part, to get started and use your knowledge. If you’re already deep into a system, the answer is probably to do less. In either case, you also don’t need to format your note; write down what you find resonating with you as you consume content.

The problem with the previous line of questions, on top of being overwhelming, is that to get a valid answer, you need to know how you will use your notes. What will you create with them, and also importantly, what’s the price you’re willing to pay to get there. Structure and format have an inherent cost to them in energy, time, and effort, so you need to be sure they’ll bring back more reward than they cost to set up and maintain. That cost is also highest when you start to format your notes heavily, and your collection grows fast, so this is where we will start.

As for the structural framework around the note, whether you’re looking to change or start, you mainly need to know your goals before starting to look into those. Just that will be the biggest determinating factor into which system you should try and how you will set it up. Do you take notes to learn better, write faster, drive projects, explore new ideas, etc. this will inform what system you should look into. Thankfully, for the most part, frameworks like Zettelkasten or Building a Second Brain works well with retrofitting into your current notes, so don’t let it stop you from taking notes right now.

Formatting cost

Defining a structure too early in the process not only consumes your time and attention, it presents real risks. It can blind you to ideas that don’t fit the structure. It can create unnecessary hierarchy and complexity before it’s needed. It can keep you from getting started because it seems to require a lot of dedicated effort.

Formatting your note is a tricky thing; it seems important, especially when you’re starting. You clearly need correctly formatted notes with all the possible information in them to be able to re-use them later, but do you really? Here I’m talking formatting in the sense of spending time to restructure, reformat (in the textual sense), highlights, tags, links, add metadata to a note to make it “good.” Doing that kind of formatting is a time sink, and that time is forever lost unless you actually re-use the note later on. There’s also no real way around this since it takes time to format things in certain ways with tags and links, etc. So unless you’re pretty sure you’re going to actually use that note because it’s related to something you’re working on right now or shortly, formatting is not useful. Take the note, let it sit raw unformatted, and move on.

That’s the just-in-time mindset; just do it when you need to, not before or after (since it’s too late anyway). Spend as little time and energy upfront as possible before it’s useful. When it comes time to consume the note for a project or learn something or explore, then is the perfect time to format it. You have to spend time on the note anyway for your purpose, so while you’re at it, just spend a bit more on highlights, links, etc., the content. Doing it this way will also give you a different filter and perspective on the content because you have a use for the ideas and information; it’s not just something you think you might need in the future. When you do it just-in-time, you also don’t spend time and energy on notes you end up never really using (yet). In turn, that means no time spent in the hope that your future self will need this piece of information you just spent precious time formatting.

With this way of working, the only formatting you should do before using a note is the minimal set of things required for your system to work. Most systems require sorting in folders or set some primary links to other notes or add the main tags, so your note is not lost in the void. Those are required for everything else to work, so they’re fine to do on the spot, but those are very few, if you’ve noticed. It should cost you seconds, below 30 even, to do all of that. Doing formatting at usage time also helps balance discovery with time spent. The light formatting makes sure the notes are part of the whole system and can be found but not fully-fledged, which requires lots of time and effort. I regularly find “raw” notes from when I started or from my various migration, and they’re not “pretty,” but they still contains good information, and I can still use the ideas all the same. At that point, I can also make them more pretty as I interact with them if it really bothers me.

Content first

Minimize time you spend doing things that computer will automate in second in the future

Now that we’ve talked about the formatting and metadata, what’s left in a note is the content itself. The content is really the core part of any system and ultimately the reason we collect notes and build those frameworks and systems. That is where most of your time, effort, and energy should go toward. Saving the insight, the ideas, and another piece of content from what you consume daily, be it an article, a class, a meeting, a podcast, or a video, is what matters. On the other hand, if a big part of your time is spent on setup and maintaining the system, you need to re-balance how you do things. Note content is king and should come first, doing it this way also as many benefits, for example, making it easy to migrate your notes and make them follow you around.

If you remove the need for special meta data and formatting, most note application out there suddenly becomes viable for your system. All notes application by definition can handle notes, which is where the content should be, not in metadata or formatting or graphs. Those things are extras that are supposed to make you do things faster and discover more ideas, but they shouldn’t be the core of how you do things. One of the big reasons this is so powerful is that most applications have some form of export, but they are often only made for that same application to import. Exports are often plain text, JSON, or Markdown and don’t contain all the extras features the application offers. That is usually due to the limitation of the export format, but it’s also often not in the interest of the application to make it easy for you to go elsewhere. That means if you want to switch around, you end up with a pile of text files, which is fine if you focused on content since that pile is the content. You only lost some organization and extra stuff, but you can rebuild those in the next application, and then you’re back in business.

The idea of having to suddenly change note application and factor that in might seems weird to you at first. Why would you limit yourself in the features you can use and how you do things so your note can stand on their own. It starts to make more sense if we zoom out and look at how to keep that system and those notes working over a decade or two. How likely is it that the application you’re using now will still be as perfect for you in 10 years? Things change so rapidly in the tech and software space your current application might not exist in 5 years. With that in mind, the best way to go about it is to think about your content and focus on that. Make your content itself the most important part, make your note self-contained, make sure as much as possible that the core part of the system is in the notes themselves. Doing it this way will probably mean you shouldn’t use some of the most specialized things offered by some application, like built-in queries, search portals, specialized embed in the core of your notes. A note should stand by itself without needing a specific application; that way of working is limiting in some fashion but very powerful when ensuring your notes can last.

Longevity over years

When your notes are very lightly formatted, and you focused all your time and energy on the note content itself to make it stand on its own, at this point, nothing sort of a catastrophic event will prevent your note from surviving years to come. That’s the point where your system grows with you and accumulates insight, and produces tons of content fairly quickly. It probably won’t be the most optimized system for any application you use because you focus on the content, not the app. In contrast, app optimization is how you end up stuck with a specific way of doing things, and everything starts to breaks without it.

Being able to “morph” as needed to reflect your current needs better and survive multiple applications migration is the ultimate accomplishment. As it’s probably evident by now, you often need to do less and just focus on some key points to get there. Focus heavily on the content itself to make sure those notes stand independently, with minimal formatting. When you need to work on the note, then it is time to expand on that formatting. All of that also means less work on your part unless it’s useful, which is good. On top of that, if you reduce the noise in your system and increase the high-quality input, your note system should be able to accompany and grow with you for as long as you need it to. At that point, all that’s left is to harness its power and insight to produce projects, content, and insight.