Today we operate from a basis of knowledge, confidence and creativity to pull together insights and build successful products. Here, I want to share how creating a personal note-taking system can act as a catalyst for connecting knowledge and ideas that will save you time, enhance problem-solving and boost creative thought.
Today we consume more information per person than at any other time in human history. We are continually reading, observing, monitoring, conversing and mentally trying to build a knowledge of the world we can use in our daily work and lives. The problem? The disparity between the total quantity of human knowledge and our ability to assimilate and filter it grows unremittingly by the day.
Imagine being able to recall any interesting thing you have read, seen or done. How amazing would that be? Any problem, any piece of creative work or project, boosted by a library of your historical insights, accessible any time. That’s a transformative way of solving problems.
One of the stepping stones to building such a solution is note-taking. However, it’s likely the way you currently take notes is wrong. It’s probably not changed since your school days. In the knowledge workplace, nobody can tell us what’s essential and when or how the information will be needed. Unlike school, the “tests” in our working lives can come at any time.
The failing of taking good notes is invisible in the short term, but in my daily role as a product manager I now regularly find myself referring to notes for everything from feature development, meeting preparation, providing colleague feedback and user research.
Knowledge is hard to come by, and as humans, it’s better to use our energies to focus on solving problems rather than recalling all the information. The following is a guide to understanding what a note is and how to you can use them in a system to help boost your thought process and productivity.
It’s not so much that there is a “right” way to create a note. What’s more important is making sure a note does the job you need it too. This is somewhat challenging because you are trying to predict what your future self is going to find useful. And that’s the point — that effort is how you start thinking differently about information.
There are some good practices for note-taking like Zettelkasten, which would be worth reading if you are not used to note-taking. What is working for me is a system of small or “atomic” notes which focus on a single idea or article/book. Within each note will be a list of highlights, annotations and a personally written summary or reflection. The more critical the note, the more time I will spend summarising, reflecting and adding value to its content.
As you read things in books, blogs, or come up with ideas, you want to be building a catalogue of your most treasured insights and literature quips, which in turn can be organised, searched and shared. The idea being that over time you start seeing the relationships between ideas and combining them to create unique insights. The system should help facilitate you in creating these connections.
Underpinning each example below is the idea that my workload is gradually residing less and less in my mind. It now lives in my notes. Sometimes the more straightforward you want your daily work to be, the more sophisticated the underlying system must be.
If I had to name the biggest impact note-taking has had on me, its the time saved searching for stuff. The volume of new information we are exposed to any given day can be overwhelming, and there is no good way to tell what will be important later on.
I used to rely on a frantic keyword search journey consisting of emails, slack, cloud drives and apple notes just to find that one name or URL. Now, whenever a nugget of potentially valuable information comes my way, be it a link to a prototype, a piece of colleague feedback or excerpt from a design document, it goes straight into my note database for easy recall later.
This different approach to storing information has a surprising knock-on effect. I’m no longer reading passively. In every sentence, I’m now scanning for the value and future benefit. It completely changes the way I consume information or process events.
Note-taking in meetings is probably one of the most thankless jobs at work. Nobody wants to do it, but everyone is thankful when those notes are available. If you are already taking notes on everything by default, what’s the harm in sharing them afterward? Not only does this make you a savour in the eyes of your colleagues, but there is another strange indirect benefit of doing this — you define the narrative.
Why is this useful? Language massively influences the limitations of how we think, and by developing the language used to describe or summarise a problem, you are teaching your team how to think about and communicate ideas during collaboration.
At the time of writing, we have just passed the middle of the year, and that means a flood of colleagues asking for performance reviews. Giving this feedback can usually be tedious as you typically need to cite specific examples of things they did or did not do well. But this time it was a breeze.
One of the things I started doing is spending 5–10 minutes a day jotting down in a work diary any successes, grievances, issues, thoughts and events. Not only is this a good process for reflection, but also served as an index for events. I typed in my colleague’s name and watched the associated notes pop up. Having nothing appear was sometimes equally as telling.
In short, my time spent providing feedback was halved. I was able to give the managers of my colleagues the information they needed to ensure and sponsor their career progress.
The act of writing notes itself serves as an excellent tool for reflection. Writing is thinking, and you can’t think clearly until you can write clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.
The act of summarising a lengthy report or trying to solve a hard problem requires a process of consolidation, description and communication before you be impactful in your actions. Note-taking can be a great tool to help you with this.
When I start researching a new product feature or thinking through a strategy, having a system of standardised, searchable notes enables me to work faster by pulling together thoughts and perspectives from across my knowledge domain. It gives me the space to explore an idea further, from a zoomed-out perspective and hopefully develop some hard-earned wisdom.
As I mentioned before, there is no single “right” solution for note-taking. It’s likely the first system you build will need to gradually replaced once you get a feel for what’s useful. The following is how I run my note-taking system, and it starts with some principles:
- Individual notes need to be a single expression of an idea, thought or representation of a single piece of media (blog post, video, podcast, book, email)
- Notes need to standardised into a single format which is easily transferable (I put everything into markdown)
- Notes must be easily searchable and discoverable
- Notes must be easy to create and enhance
I’m an avid reader, and I wanted a solution that would fit into my current workflows. Here is the tech-stack I’m using, so to speak:
- Ulysses — This is a markdown editor that works on both Mac and iOS devices. It’s perfect for writing notes in a standardised format, creating folders for categorisation and using iCloud to sync across devices. Where ever I am, I have my searchable notes with me.
- PARA Method — Projects (things I’m working on), Areas of Responsibility (things I’m responsible for), Resources (things I’m interested in)and Archives (things I’m afraid to throw away). The PARA method is a system that promises you a framework for organising digital information. I find myself modifying it over time with most notes ending up in Resources, but it feels like a good starting point.
- Pocket — I paid for the premium version and never looked back. Any blog post or article I consume goes straight into Pocket where it is subsequently highlighted and tagged. I have a small python script which then pulls this information from their API, converts it to markdown and puts it straight into the database. You can also use a paid solution like Readwise to achieve a similar flow.
- Kindle — In a similar way to Pocket, I tend to annotate and write notes as I’m reading books. Afterwards, I run a python script to pull this out of a notes.txt file from my Kindle and convert them into individual notes. Readwise, again, provides a paid solution if that’s too technical.
- Highlights (app) — It’s hard to find a good PDF reader that works across devices and allows you to export annotations easily. Highlights for Mac and iOS is the best of the lot — highlights and comments are easily exportable into a plain text format.
- Obsidian — Part of a new breed of knowledge management system apps (Roam Research being the most popular currently). Obsidian is an open source app which focuses on making it easy to add atoms of thought and gradually compose them together into larger pieces. The way I have started using Obsidian is to visualise the connections between concepts and ideas based on a system of inter-note referencing. It’s surprisingly insightful and is beginning to change the way I think about my work process fundamentally.
Searching on Google is no longer enough to make sure you have access to the best ideas. You need something more reliable and personalised — a system designed around your needs and interests.
It may be useful to end this post with a recent example of the system in action.
What can a product manager learn from a medieval farmer? Recently, when musing about a product strategy, the answer turns out to be more than I realised. Medieval farmers, in case you didn’t know, actively chose not to plant crops they knew would produce more food. Seems strange. Surely more food, means more sellable produce and hence, more profits in return?
Back to my example. I was debating a risk/reward scenario. Should I put all my resources into developing one significant feature that would likely have major user impact, or, should I focus on developing multiple smaller features which collectively, may have a major impact? I can’t do both.
Back to the farmers. Why not just plant the best crops? It turns out these farmers were masters of risk management. By choosing instead to plant a variety of lower-yielding but hardier crops, they protected themselves from the unknowns of bad weather and disease. The average food yield would always be lower, but they always had enough to eat and sometimes a surplus. They hedged their bets and sacrificed short term gains for long term returns.
Perhaps there is a lesson in there for my product strategy. By making smaller, multiple feature bets I may increase the chances for long term success. More importantly, I have created an opportunity for reflection and an analogy that can now be shared with others. This is the promised value of a note-taking system.
In a similar way that teams of people are more likely to be successful than individuals, spotting the connections between ideas will help liberate you to do what humans do best — think creatively and create new wisdom.