Organizing notes by type, plus Laura Yarrow on trusted agitators & other things worth your attention.
INFORMA(C)TION — April 3, 2022
Organizing notes by type, plus Laura Yarrow on trusted agitators & other things worth your attention.
Hello! I'm Jorge Arango and this is INFORMA(C)TION: a biweekly dose of big ideas for people who make digital things. If you like this email, please forward it to a friend. And if you're not subscribed, sign up here. Thanks for reading!
Three shuttered windows
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Organizing notes by type

Like other people, I use different means to take notes. Sometimes, I write or sketch in a paper notebook or sticky notes. I often write in one of several apps on my phone, iPad, or laptop. Eventually, these notes go into my unified repository in DEVONthink, which lets me find individual notes or see connections between possibly related notes.

There are significant benefits to this system. For one thing, I don’t worry about where to find stuff; everything is in DEVONthink. Also, the system is flexible. The means of capture varies depending on convenience, appropriateness, context, mood, and other factors. I use the paper notebook for some things, the Drafts app on my iPhone for others, dictate into my Apple Watch when exercising, etc.

The main downside is that this system requires maintenance. While some notes automatically flow into my inbox, others don’t. For example, when I take notes on paper, I must scan or transcribe the key points. This is easy enough to do, but it takes time.

And the chores don’t end after import. Once in the inbox, I must triage notes. Sometimes, this means acting on the information and deleting the note. But sometimes, it means saving it for later use, in which case I must tag it and move it to the appropriate place.

Currently, I organize notes using a taxonomy inspired by two sources: Sönke Ahren’s How to Take Smart Notes (which leverages Niklas Luhmann’s zettelkasten approach) and Tiago Forte’s second brain framework (via Maggie Appleton’s sketchnotes.)

From Ahren’s book, I picked up the distinction between three basic types of notes:

  • Fleeting notes are short-lived, meant to capture thoughts on the fly, so I don’t forget them. For example, I listen to podcasts when exercising. Sometimes, I’ll hear about a book I want to check out, and I capture the book’s name on my phone or watch. Later, this note reminds me to look up the book so I might buy it, save it to my to-read list, or discard it. In any case, the original note doesn’t play any further role, so I delete it.

  • Permanent notes are meant to become part of the knowledge repository. I don’t discard these; they stick around so I can refer to them later. For example, if I come across an interesting idea that I want to reference later (such as Gall’s law), I write a short note that describes the idea in my own words. I include a reference to where I found the idea (in this case, John Gall’s Systemantics) so I can revisit it in context if necessary. Some permanent notes are more granular than others. When reading a book, I usually write several notes for individual ideas and one that captures my impressions on the book as a whole. (Some of these I share as book notes on my website.)

  • Project notes are related to particular projects. While permanent notes become part of my general knowledge repository, project notes are only meaningful in the context of specific projects. For example, this includes meeting minutes, to-dos, and working notes. They’re no longer relevant after the project is done, so I don’t want them cluttering my repository. Inspired by Forte’s framework, I differentiate between projects and areas. (Key distinction: projects have a deadline, whereas areas represent ongoing commitments.)

Fleeting notes are disposable, so it doesn’t matter where I write them down. But I’m more disciplined about permanent and project notes, which I keep in separate Obsidian vaults. Both vaults are indexed in DEVONthink, allowing me to search and find relationships within either vault or across both.

This system works well. That said, I’m constantly tweaking it. For example, I’m debating the merits of having separate vaults for projects and permanent notes. Obsidian lets me create “day notes” that track what I’ve done on a given day. Having two vaults means having two sets of day notes, which isn’t ideal. Also, I sometimes wish I could reference permanent notes from project notes and vice versa. I can do this by using the note’s permanent address in DEVONthink, but linking within Obsidian would be more convenient.

In any case, this system is a work in progress. It looks very different today than it did five years ago and will likely be very different in five years. (Before DEVONthink, I used OneNote. I still have several years’ worth of notes there pending migration into my current repository.) But regardless of what tools I’m using, I expect the distinction between fleeting, permanent, and project notes will remain.

There are undoubtedly other types of notes. These are the primary ones I’m using. How about you? How are you organizing your notes? Do you distinguish between fleeting and more permanent notes? If so, how do you store the latter? Please let me know by replying to this email.

What I’ve been up to

Book Notes: “Genius”
An overview of James Gleick’s book about the life of Richard Feynman. Of course, I was especially interested in how Feynman used notes in his work.

Upcoming workshops

Building a Personal Knowledge Garden 🌱
April 18, 2022 — IA Conference (online)

Strategic Information Architecture 🎯
May 24, 2022 — UXLx (Lisbon)

Also worth your attention

Programmable notes
Maggie Appleton: “What if we started to think about note-taking systems as active agents, rather than receptacles?” This is in part what those of us using DEVONthink are trying to achieve: a agentive note repository that surfaces connections between ideas.

Taking notes to free our minds
Matthew Guay on taking notes in order to let go of ideas so our minds can focus on other stuff. I don’t agree that this is the “true value” of note-taking, but it’s certainly an important feature of good notes. Mind like water, etc.

Overview of Christopher Alexander's work
Lots of appreciations of Alexander following his death. My favorite is this overview from Dorian Taylor, who’s read (and been influenced by) most of Alexander’s books. If you only know A Pattern Language, it behooves you to read this post. And stay tuned for my upcoming conversation with Dorian about Alexander’s impact.

Why Christopher Alexander still matters
Michael Mehaffy: “Alexander emerges as an intelligent optimist: able to see a path forward, into a more hopeful future.” Another worthwhile appreciation of Alexander’s work.

Being an architect vs. being a builder
David C. Baker on the differences between being a strategist/advisor and “a skilled craftsperson who makes things happen.”

An iPad commonplace book
How Skip Walter is using GoodNotes on his iPad to keep a commonplace book. (H/t Harold Jarche)

Blogging accelerator
Tom Critchlow wants to encourage us to blog more. Blogging has been an important part of my thinking processes. I'm blogging less now that I'm working on a book again, and I miss it.

New Eames museum
The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity just opened in Petaluma, not far from my house. A day trip with the kiddos may be in order.

History of the web
A timeline of key events in the development of the web from 1989-2020.

The Informed Life with Laura Yarrow

Episode 84 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with HM Land Registry head of design Laura Yarrow. Earlier this year, Laura posted a tweet stream advocating for designers to think of themselves as “trusted agitators.” I loved the opportunity of discussing this idea with her.

The Informed Life episode 84: Laura Yarrow on Trusted Agitators

Parting thought

Closed systems can hold a pose well enough, but open systems can dance.

– Steve Grand

Thanks for reading! 🙏
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