I spent $1,500 on a note-taking course

I’m going to show you what I learned and how to apply the same techniques for your personal knowledge management system (PKMS).

Why take notes at all?

Anything that is held only in your head will take up either more or less attention than it deserves.

In my twenties, I couldn’t actually read any book about entrepreneurship or marketing without immense struggle. As soon as I encountered an interesting idea, my mind started to wander.

I imagined how I can apply this “thing” I just read to one of the projects I’m working on. Or how this random idea that just popped in my mind is brilliant and I should probably stop everything and think only about this for the next 20 minutes.

The solution of course was quite simple - you just write down the note, continue reading and then “process” the note at a later time.

While it’s natural for reading to induce all kinds of thought processes, often ideas occur to us at the most random of times. During commute, while watching TV, when playing with kids, or in the shower. So having a system to record all that can be priceless*.

*this depends on the quality of thoughts you have, which largely depends on quality of information you consume.

I survived without a “Knowledge Management System” so far, why bother with one now?

Well, like the Building a Second Brain (BASB) course itself, the system can help:

  • writers,
  • students,
  • entrepreneurs,
  • people working on multiple projects,
  • anyone who feels their approach to information isn’t working.

OK, so what does this personal knowledge system look like in real life; do I have to do any hard work?

The goal of organizing our knowledge is to move our goals forward, not get a PhD in notetaking.

The Second Brain system that Tiago Forte teaches is built on 2 pillars -  PARA and CODE.

Let’s start with PARA.

Every note you take at first ends up in your note inbox. During weekly reviews, you will need to decide which folder to move it to.

These folders are like the class notebooks you probably kept in school: one for biology, another for history, another for math.

Why not put the note in a proper folder right when you first create it?

Separating the capturing and organizing of ideas helps you stay present, notice what resonates, and leave the decision of what to do with them to a separate time (such as a “weekly review”).

*Right, so what is PARA?*

[P] Projects - a list of maximum 10-15 current projects, with set deadline, that you’re actively working on.

[A] Areas - an area of responsibility, with no deadline, that has a certain standard to be maintained over time.

Fitness, health, home - are all examples of areas of responsibility. It’s not a project with a set dealinde, rather it’s something you need to constantly work on.

[R] Resources - a topic or theme of ongoing interest. Swipe files, references, any potential projects that currently exist only as seeds on initial ideas reside here.

[A] Archive - inactive items from the other 3 categories. Once the project is done, it goes here.

Every note you take eventually ends up in one of these stacks of folders.

Then there’s CODE.

(C 🎣) Capture - the way information enters your system from articles, books, tweets, videos. A good reminder here is that you should’t be taking notes just because something is “interesting”.

(O 🗃) Organize - where do you store the note. Most notes should be tied to an active [P] project. But some of them can be assigned to an [A] area of responsibility or a [R] resource.

(D 🍣) Distill - This is where you remove everything that shouldn’t be there. Add formatting to the note, highlight the most important bits. Make it more scannable. But also it’s where you add your own unique insights to the note.

(E 🍱) Express - this is the final deliverable, where you combine multiple notes to make something. Ideally something people want.

This sounds waay to hard, is there a software to make all of this PARA / CODE work nicely?

To make PARA work, you need to commit to a piece of software. No app is ideal for this framework, and every approach has it’s drawbacks.

But, as it’s often the case, /there are basically two schools of thought/.

You can go with a hierarchical system (folders) like Evernote, Apple Notes. This is what I did. Or a networked system (tags) like Roam, Obsidian.

The aha! moments that made the course worth $1,500 and I’m telling you everything here for free now

My first aha! moment when watching the BASB course material was realization that inbox is not an email specific concept, you can also create an inbox for your notes and files.

As pointed out by Tomas Laurinavicius, this was actually also mentioned in Getting Things Done by David Allen, which I read 10 years ago and probably didn’t give it much thought back then.

Second important realization was about the weekly reviews. I tried doing it in the past, but the habit never sticked because it wasn’t well definied.

Now weekly review is a simple 5 step process. You clean these up and that’s it.

  • email
  • calendar
  • desktop / downloads / trash
  • notes
  • tasks

Third aha! moment was a small tip on working with Instapaper (it’s a tool where you can save articles to read them later). If you add something in Instapaper, and you see it 3 times without reading - just delete it.

Super helpful to me, as I was struggling with a backlog of hundreds of articles dating back 8 years, which let’s be honest - I’m never going to read.

I’m also implemeting this for videos through Youtube “Watch later” feature and a similar solution for podcasts in Spotify via “Listen later” playlist.

If I haven’t reviewed it after glancing over it for 3 times - it is removed from queue.

Also, because notes are private, you can spend less time on proper formatting and just focus on substance. I really liked the idea of just quickly jotting down separate thoughts in the same notes in an unnumbered list.

One more idea I picked up - each time you start a new project, look through the notes archives to see if any past project might have assets you can reuse.

To take full advantage of the last tip, it’s crucial to also write down what worked, didn’t work and what can be done better after the project is over.

Final tip is that from time to time (during weekly review) you need to synchronize the active projects you’re working on between your notes software, todo software and file system (dropbox etc).

This way everywhere you will have the same folders with the same projects and it’s always clear where is that note / task / file.

It’s also a great time to notice what’s on your mind. What’s worrying you that you haven’t taken the time to identify as a project? What needs to happen that you’re not making consistent progress on? And then formulate that as a project.

A list of questions I encountered while discussing these topics with friends and colleagues

Q: Difference between notes and todos.

Digital note is a knowledge building block. It’s a discrete unit of information, interpreted through your unique perspective and stored outside your head.

Todo is a specific actionable task you want to accomplish.

Q: How to make note taking frictionless?

That’s not the goal, at least not in PARA.

Friction is good.

Similar to how not saving credit card details in your browser is good.

If you haven’t memorised your cc details, you need to actually stand up, go to your wallet, take out credit card every time you want to buy something online.

This way it’s a little less impulsive.

A more relevant example for note taking would be not connecting Readwise to Twitter. Only copy/paste the really valuable stuff. As social is superficial, it’s not as verified.

Q. Why no tags?

Too much effort.

You need to have a well-thought out tag system to begin with. And you need to make a decision about every single note. What tag to add? Is this note a beginning of something new that requires a new tag?

That’s a lot of energy wasted on a note that might not be important in a few days.

In the PARA system, focusing on tags also gives you a way out from actually assigining the note to the proper project / area / resource.

Thus inviting you to keep notes that are just “interesting” or that shouldn’t even enter your system.

And that’s a wrap.

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