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🌲 Takeaways on efficiency, passive learning, & optimization
Thoughts on how to take notes that actually matter.
I mostly don't read a lot of productivity articles anymore. I went all-in in the beginning, learned a ton, and then turned my attention to other things.
My own evaluation of my system and process is that there isn't a lot of blood to eke from the stone of my productivity. For the most part, I have a pretty decent grasp on note taking. Heck, I taught notetaking professionally for years before I started using Obsidian — I've taken courses for teaching the AVID methods, for example.
I did well in college and law school — for the most part, I didn't need much in the way of help “being productive” and I've stumbled into systems that worked for me, typically before being given an article that explains the concept succinctly. I'm particularly fond of the notion of structured procrastination, for example, but I was doing that years before I ever heard the phrase.
I always experience a bit of FOMO when I see my friends in the knowledge management community discussing new methods and apps, though, so I sometimes indulge in learning for learning's sake — not because I expect the “return on investment” of my time to pay off, but because I don't think there's anything wrong with treating productivity literature as leisure reading.
I've mostly gotten by reading summaries of methodologies, though, taking the efficient path — I've never read "How to Take Smart Notes" and I don't really think I've made a mistake, given (1) the limitations on my time: I’ve got kids, and hobbies, and a pretty active social life, and (2) the things I was optimizing for: facilitating an intellectual hobby so I don't mentally atrophy, and saving time by writing up things I found myself repeating.
That said, here are 4 key takeaways I’ve learned to live by:
Efficiency is not synonymous with the soulless pursuit of productivity.
If anything, efficiency is a little bit lazy — better thought of as the opposite of "methodical." It's a focus on high ROI activities. It's stopping at "minimum viable product" — without forgetting that viability is a key word there, and excellence is sometimes critical.
I don't half-ass things — but I also don't let decision paralysis take hold. I don't let the pursuit of perfection make a product take twice as long to ship when I have other deadlines.
So theoretically I might make a note titled “the arctic is mostly inhabited by Russians” and then the body might just be a link to the evidence for the claim, and then any other facts I come across that prove that point / elaborate on the point (like I might include how that came to be, or what that means for the arctic or Russia or something).
Realistically though, if I'm doing a bunch of quick research into a topic, I will plop a link down and some quick takeaways. Spinning all of these things out preemptively into atomic notes is too much friction, so I often don't. And that’s okay. The point is to make information I need accessible when I need it, as easily as possible. The main thing is just to try not to get unnecessarily bogged down.
Know what you’re optimizing for, and act accordingly.
I once took a quiz to find out which productivity and task management app was best for me, and more important than the answer (Pomodoro) was the process — I wish this sort of custom-fit-finding was more normalized.
So, here's my attempt:
PARA works great for people whose interests & concerns are neatly chunked into discrete projects.
Zettelkasten — literally “slipbox” — is great for creating unique synthesized articles and products that cross-reference between insights and inspiration.
Johny Decimal is a method for organizing a variety of material types — it's a very "whole life" system, for example my zettelkasten is one folder of my johnny decimal style organization system.
Linking Your Thinking — optimized for thinking, making connections, and synthesizing ideas.
Getting Things Done — optimized for managing a lot of tasks.
The Konik Method — optimized for the messy & complicated life of Eleanor Konik (but may provide useful inspiration to others).
In high school, I mostly used chronology instead of categories and this worked really well for me. Some folks manage their slipboxes the same way. Some folks prioritize ease of capture; others are more worried about ease of retrieval. Are you trying to make sure you can get a thought out of your head so you can stop thinking about it (“forgetting is your brain’s superpower!”), or so you can be sure it’s ready for you when you can start thinking about it? For me, it’s a combination of both — but the latter is usually more important to me, since my babies have utterly wrecked my ability to remember things.
The main thing to remember is that the goal is not to turn every single idea into a finished product. The goal is NOT to process every single scribbled annotation or highlight into my knowledge management system. The goal is to have a place to store insights and, secondarily, produce content that helps me think through things I want to learn.
Whenever I have focused time, I go find whatever is my most developed thought and work on it. All the rest happens if and only if I need to — or if it's the only thing I can fit into my schedule. Writing an article or a story takes a lot of time. Sometimes I only have like 4 minutes, so that's when I triage my RSS feeds or read a quick article and take some quick notes if I find something useful. But at the end of the day, my notes serve me, not the other way around.
For the last few months, I haven’t taken any notes beyond quick highlights, scribbled annotations, medicine logs, and comparisons of private schools — and that’s fine, because my goals at the time were not served by focused deep work on high-value intellectual insights. They were served by knowing when I took an ibuprofen last.
If the things that you care about are easily searched on the internet, they might not be the best candidates for taking notes about.
Most things I take notes about were things that I had trouble easily finding when I searched, like for example that time I spent like a whole day tracking down issues with my website. I didn't record the stuff that was easy to Google — but I absolutely took notes on what my process was and what I did when it was things that I had trouble finding or would need to "remember" later.
There's a lot of information and stuff tucked away in places like discord and reddit that actually is really hard to find again with just a google search. But there's not really much point in taking notes on things like "gallium pulses like a heart when electrified" if the only time you will need to know that is in contexts of someone asking "hey what does gallium do again?" or "what's that metal that pulses like a heart, again?"
On the other hand, there’s a lot of value when you're cross-referencing and collating things like "lists of weird metals that can be useful for my specific research project" — because then the information is bundled in the way you need it. So this is definitely a “might” situation — sometimes having information in your notes makes it more accessible to your search habits, and that’s a good thing.
So clip away, my friends. Clip away.
Front-load your learning; learn passively, not actively.
Kids learn from seeing things modeled. Learning by osmosis is what some people call it and honestly it's what I do for a lot of things; I surrounded myself with smart nice people and paid attention to stuff they talked about and eventually I learned to code with no classes and frankly very little active research.
I barely even noticed I was doing it.
We talk a lot about active learning and how it’s so much better to use information than listen to lectures or just read textbooks… but honestly these days most of the learning I do is passive, and preemptive, and it’s worked out pretty well for me.
I’m a big believer in learning things before you need them, when they don’t feel relevant and aren’t yet important. I obsessively read about a topic before I get started on it, even if it's stuff I probably won't need — better to know what's even possible, because otherwise I won't know the option exists when I'm faced with a problem it could solve.
If nothing else, it’s better than doom-scrolling my social media feeds, even if I never wind up using what I learn.
The reality, though, is that I learn about concepts before I have to use them and that informs my research… because once I learn about the concepts, I am able to make opportunities to leverage that information. Even if it’s just in conversation at dinner parties.
No one actually wants to hear me talk non-stop about my kids, yanno?
They’d much rather talk about productivity tips ;) what are your favorites?
PS: I try to make it a point to avoid writing "generic" articles, or rehash old ideas just for the sake of producing content. My philosophy of writing is that I make a real effort to only write things that can only be written by me; things that are unique to my perspective, or at the very least the things that no one else seems to be saying. But if there’s something in particular you’d like me to write about, please do let me know in the comments!