A simple way to organise notes
So they show up when they become relevant.
Today’s letter follows on from last weeks Organising by Actionability. It’s a deeper exploration into a question that’s held my attention for years:
What organising principles will facilitate information showing up when it becomes relevant?
Writing this is a kind of therapy for me, as I feel a truly elegant solution is tantalisingly close. This is my way of working through my thinking, taking the thoughts out of my head and organising and re-arranging my notes on this topic. I trust this process will help to clarify the deep intuition that there is a way.
The impulse to simplify
I’ve had a deep sense for a long time that we need a radically simplified approach that’s different to what we’ve used in the past. The logic of folders, within folders, or endless complex categorisation don’t scale well in the face of the exploding volumes of information we are obliged to deal with.
History has shown over and over that simple always win over complex. When competing tools go head to head the one that offers the most people the biggest benefit, with the least cognitive load always wins. My goal has been to create the simplest possible method for organising information:
Radically simplified, human-scale, collaborative, project-centric information systems.
The invention of tags held some promise because it allowed us to apply multiple tags to a single item - like labels in gmail. This was a welcome break from the folder concept, where we could only store something in a single folder. But what defines a tag, in the moment it’s applied? Is it a topic, a person, a place, a relevance?
Too frequently, the number of tags quickly becomes unworkable as their numbers increase, often overlapping or with different spellings pointing to the same thing. I started using Evernote in 2009 and I’ve created 100+ tags in there! Too complex.
I’ve since done something quite different with labels in gmail . . .
The search function in most software is getting more and more intelligent and that offers some hope. I’ve had some people suggest we dump things in one big pot and search for it when we need it. Maybe, maybe not. We’re seeing AI buffs turn their skills to this problem, attempting to turn the responsibility for finding things, over to the machines. I’m keeping an eye on this, but not so sure this will ever work sufficiently well. Only time will tell.
The magic of four
Four is the number of things humans can hold in mind at one time. We can resist this, or embrace it and let it become the beautiful constraint that forces us to be creative. A few years ago I came across Tiago Forte’s idea of organising by actionability, and his article on the P.A.R.A. system.
It set me on the path to creating my CORA system in Notion. CORA - which is an acronym for the principles of Capture, Organise, Refine and Action, is built around four core and linked places to store information:
Areas, Projects, Resources and Toolbox.
I’ve tested it extensively on myself and others, and getting solid feedback. It’s working. But I sensed there was some refinement(s) that could make it work even better, and which would allow me to explain it to others in a simple, clear way.
Yesterday, while reading the section on Organising in Tiago Forte’s recently published book Building a Second Brain, another piece of the puzzle dropped into place.
Boxes of projects
Imagine dumping your notes (text, images, quotes, links, documents) into a box. Not just one box, but a box that relates to a particular PROJECT.
This way, when you commit to applying energy and attention to move one of your projects forward, you won’t have to search for it. It will be right there and you can get to work.
Tiago refers to Twyla Tharp, a prolific, inventive and celebrated dance choreographer, who uses physical boxes to store things related to each dance project. The imagery resonated with me, and it was easy to see how it would work with digital information, or notes.
This is truly a radical simplification, and it makes sense. The notes, or information we capture are only useful if we ‘do’ something with them, if we act on them. Only then does it impact our lives, and the lives of others.
Otherwise it can end up in a massive graveyard of information we’ve acquired but may never look at again. In this case it won’t made a difference, beyond having had an interesting thought we may or may not ever have again.
For any of you, who are wondering whether putting notes in a digital project box would mean you won’t find it when it could be useful for another project, there’s a simple solution for that:
In CORA Areas, Projects and Resources are all related to one another.
If I sense a note could be valuable to more than one Project, I will drag and drop it into the related Resources database within the Project page.
This means it is now living in Resources, but visible and available for this Project.
Since every Project is related to an Area, the note is also now visible in the related Area page. All related Resources - whether they are linked directly to the Area, or indirectly via its related Projects - show up in that Area page.
I understand this might be hard to follow, unless you are a database geek or a Notion buff, but what it means is that when you start a new Project, you can look into the Area page the Project relates to, and see a collection of related Resources - notes that could be relevant!
What if it’s not project related
There will be some notes that are not project related, but still important enough to be captured and stored for future reference. These are the things we need to reference from time to time, and that can live in the RESOURCES database.
Search, Followup dates, or a limited number of simple tags can serve to make them easy to find. They might include Guides or SOPs, fiscal documents and receipts, notes about the car and its maintenance, registration of pets or software, and so on.
And then there are notes that prompt the thought, “oooh that’s interesting” and you can imagine it relating to a future project, but not one you’re working on yet. So then the question becomes, which Area of your life and work, does it relate to? When you identify that, boom! That’s the database page it lives in.
As described above, when you start a new Project, you can look into the Area page the Project relates to, and see a collection of related Resources - notes that could be relevant!
Summing it up
Use a digital inbox so you can capture notes quickly. Sometimes these will be your own thoughts, and sometimes other things you stumble across.
Then process each note. This is something that should be done regularly, while things are still fresh and to keep the inbox empty.
First check if it’s still relevant. Sometimes I capture things and then realise I don’t need this information. I know it already, or it doesn’t fit with my 12 favourite problems.
If the note is a keeper, then…
As you browse a list of notes within a Project page, a good name should help the relevant one jump out at you.
Apply one of a limited number of tags, to indicate the stages the note has gone through. eg: [new] [processing] [refined] [archive]
Move it and link it
Move it out of the inbox, to where it is likely to be used or actioned - e.g. in the relevant Project page (box).
If it’s not for a current Project and you put it Resources, then link it to the Area it relates to.
There are lots of practical details that will relate to the platform you choose to use for storing your digital notes, but I hope these principles land for you, and give you a way to think about your system and how you can tweak it to ensure information floats naturally to the top, when it becomes relevant.
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