The Tyranny of the Note Taking Industrial Complex, and Other Notes on Notes

There’s been a lot of critique going on lately about notes. My friend Rick and I talked about it a few months ago, and I’d been copying and pasting the links down in an Airtable record (Haha—not kidding though). I’ve written 1,000+ notecards at this point, at least 200 of which made it into this book and another 200 will make it into a future one, and I’ve really enjoyed the process. I want to summarize and respond the old web 2.0 way, at this blog (although you’ll probably read the thread on Twitter):

The note-taking bullshit industrial complex

Okay firstly, this is something that’s been bugging me, which Max Nussenbaum summarizes well, “An entire digital ecosystem has sprung up of productivity gurus who claim that taking notes on what you read and organizing your ideas the way they do is the secret to supercharging your creative output.” A beautiful summary.

I recently saw the merchant of one of these courses—who shall remain nameless out of courtesy, because I don’t actually have a problem with them, and to keep this piece smoke-free—take a photo announcing that he’d started taking paper notes. 

This same merchant had constantly announced how successful their course had sold (I missed the memo on how well their students were using it).

This is the absurdity of the internet now. It really wasn’t about note-taking; it was about the marketing, the positioning, and the beautifully-crafted promise—of speed, effortlessness, and all your problems solved with this one simple course. Note-taking just happens to be the topic feasible enough to get someone to believe, “Hey, this might actually work!” 

Spoiler alert: The course doesn’t live up to the promise. I’ve bought one of these about hiring virtual assistants, I didn’t get much out of it, and I happily got my money back. For that aforementioned other specific course, I’d considered it because it was on a shiny new platform and I wasn’t feeling great about my very analog process, but I found the price to be exorbitant and I didn’t think I was missing out on much. 

I’m glad to know that it wasn’t just me, and that I wasn’t wrong. 

One final note: Modern capitalism has a tendency to take something very ordinary and make it extraordinary, and re-package it in luxury, and mark it up by 4,000%. If you’re thinking of doing a course like this, you could just as easily get by with a $20 book (probably this one). That’s what I did, at least. I’m 100% sure there’s stuff I’m missing from my process, different from the course, and that’s the point. It’s my process. It works for me. Nobody can show you yours.

Anyway! Onto the scrapbook of treatises on notes that I enjoyed:

Maybe… notes don’t have to be useful

Lawrence Yeo writes

If I’m reading something great, I’m immersed in the idea or narrative that is being communicated. I feel like I’m there alongside the author, completely present with the words on the page.

But let’s say I come across a sentence or two that I want to save for later. When I make the motion to highlight it, I break myself out of the present and pivot my mind to the future. I think about how this can be useful, and how I can incorporate it into the goals and priorities I’ve set for myself. This is very subtle, but that’s what’s happening.

In the same way that recording the present moment diminishes presence, capturing a flow of information diminishes resonance. A person with thousands of notes views information primarily for its utility, and not for how it moved them when they first came across it.

I experienced some version of this while watching jeen-yuhs. On one hand, I just wanted to enjoy the documentary at the end of a long day. On the other—should I be marking time stamps so that I could actually respond to things, elaborate on it, rewind, etc.? 

It’s an entirely different experience. I ended up just watching the whole thing, stopping only to go to the bathroom, and I loved it. I watched it again and started marking times.

My only response to Yeo’s is his assumption that notes are mainly for usefulness. Most of the time I am somewhat a transactional reader—I want to get things out of my books—but I read for fun too. I don’t take notes only on topics that I think will be useful, and I often miss taking notes on things that are

I take notes on things that are interesting, on phrasing that I like, on all sorts of things that stand out to me. Sometimes I just write, “Lol!” I’m responding to the author, I’m collecting, and I often just highlight things that stand out. That’s literally a part of my reading process, and it’s like having a conversation with the author

I appreciate the digital gardening concept because that’s how I see it too. Gardeners don’t always just plant plants because they want to eat them; they plant them to admire them, to try something new, to see what happens. That’s a much closer attitude to how I think about note taking. 

Notes need to be constrained

Josh Duffney writes in, “​​Note-taking became a full-time job, so I stopped”:

My biggest mistake wasn’t taking so many notes, but not leaving enough room for my own creative process to mold the workflow. It’s not about taking notes on everything but taking better notes, organizing them in a way that makes sense, AND in a way that improves your thinking, learning, writing, etc…

I can totally relate and see this happening. I’ve started putting together my own methods for “collecting” interesting bits and pieces around the internet, and letting it sit down. I only take permanent notes on things that interest me after some time has passed. I must also add that, contrary to the headline, Josh did not stop taking notes.

Keep your notes simple

Sasha Chapin brings up a lot of fascinating points in “Notes Against Note-Taking Systems.” First!

I am waiting for any evidence that our most provocative thinkers and writers are those who rely on elaborate, systematic note-taking systems. I am seeing evidence that people taught knowledge management for its own sake produce unexciting work. This is not a genetic condition. I think they could do better if they wrote what they knew, rather than what they recorded.

To the first point, the obvious outstanding counter-examples would be Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday. The latter has written about this; while notes are a part of his process, it’s just as important to live an interesting life. I can’t really bring myself to read anyone who only takes notes and only writes about taking notes.

It’s unfortunate—and perhaps telling!—that Niklas Luhmann’s legacy seems to be best-known for his note-taking system, not for his actual work in sociology. (That could very well be intentional—is it really likely that sociology would break through to mainstream decades later?) But I don’t think he’d be better served not taking notes at all. 

For example, Kanye West has (had?) a pretty comprehensive vinyl collection to sample from, but we don’t talk about it—the rest of his work is far more interesting. 

The other thought here is, I also know plenty of poor thinkers and writers who do not rely on elaborate, systematic, note-taking systems. Which leads me to agree with Chapin, notes or no notes, there’s something deeper that drives the creative process here.

I believe controlled sloppiness is the key. I like writing every day, even if the blog post starts with a note, because it forces me to actually relate to the note. To make sense, to connect dots, to leave a bit of myself with it. 

Sometimes, I don’t have a note, and I just actually write about my life. It’s sloppy and chaotic, in contrast to the controlled rigor of my note-taking. I have a hunch this’ll all make sense one day, and I’m working towards it.

It’s not that I advocate for no note-taking. I just strongly believe in keeping it as elementary as possible, such that the note-taking itself doesn’t become the thrust of the endeavor. Leonardo da Vinci kept all of his notes in one big book. If he liked something he put it down. This is known as a commonplace book, and it is about how detailed your note-taking system should be unless you plan on thinking more elaborately than Leonardo da Vinci. Taping a bunch of cryptic phrases to the walls is also acceptable, or keeping a shoebox full of striking phrases on a jumble of papers, as Eminem did.

I couldn’t agree more with this. I only take notes because I need to; I used to try to write them down once a day, I don’t really have any preset rules or quotas or things like that anymore. I still use index cards, for goodness sakes. (I almost ran out recently, and it felt awful—like I was running out of toilet paper.)

Just write, dammit

Max Nussenbaum:

My own note-taking “system” is extremely minimal and stupid. It consists of roughly 2,000 completely unorganized entries in my iPhone notes app, stretching back thirteen years. These could be, among other things: an interesting fact I learned, an idea for an essay, something funny one of my friends said, a dream I had, a shopping list from 2011, or a weird name I made up.… These notes are not organized in any way. Everything from earlier than, say, the past six months is effectively lost to history, except in the rare occasions where I randomly scroll through the entire list for inspiration or out of boredom.

Love this, it works for him, I can totally relate. I didn’t take any notes when I was writing this blog post (it would’ve felt weird, besides I just need to write my blog post for the day and I’ve been itching to write this one!). 

My “notes” are stupid messy too—some are in Notion and my zettelkasten, a lot are in a Google Doc where I collect things copying and pasting the old fashioned way (because I never end up reading articles I save in Pocket), and a lot of is spread out around the internet and at this blog (before I had set up my zettelkasten). 

My number one piece of writing advice—really, my only piece of writing advice—is that basically everything that isn’t writing, revising, or editing is a waste of time. This is especially true for beginners, who are prone to procrastination in the guise of planning. At least once a week someone asks me if they should publish on Substack or WordPress, which is basically the platform equivalent of asking if they should write in Garamond or Times New Roman. Taking elaborate notes on what you read is even worse, since it’s busywork that disguises itself as productivity. How many people are out there convinced they’ve taken the first step towards being an insightful blogger or essayist, when really all they have is a folder full of a bunch of other people’s ideas?

Music to my ears, I don’t really have much to add other than it was a joyful experience to signal boost all of these excerpts. 

Nothing should ever take precedence over writing and doing the actual work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *