Getting started with note taking
The journey of building a repository of personal knowledge.
Moving information from one place to another
These words popped up early in Tiago Forte’s newly published book, “Building a Second Brain”. I reflected on my experience, and yes in my early days with computers, I was guilty of moving information around, storing it in multiple different apps and locations, with little expectation that I would be able to find it quickly and easily, even if I did remember enough about it to go looking!
Yet, finding and utilising information is essential to everything we do.
The first step in developing an information / knowledge management system is getting information out of our head, and into computers where space is unlimited. But then we stopped.
Very few people have taken the necessary next step, of designing a system to ensure it can be found, or will surface naturally when it becomes relevant.
A study cited by the NY Times estimates that we consume the equivalent of 174 full newspapers’ worth of content each and every day, this is five times more than we did in 1986 when very few people used computers.
What are we consuming? What impact is it having? Are we benefitting from this consumption?
The digital information age represents a massive opportunity, because we can find virtually anything we want to know, give a little time. Yet as we find new information we rarely process it fully and extract its value, in the moment of finding it.
More than likely the value comes at some point in the future, when it connects to other information we’ve found and. This collection of information, often referred to as personal knowledge management (PKM), can spark new ideas and create new perspectives and value, unique to each person.
Building a Second Brain
This week I’ve been reading Tiago Forte’s book, and enjoying it immensely. I’ve been reading and experimenting with different approaches to managing my digital information and the gems he’s shared have been leaping off the pages. I feel like my rough diamond attempts to synthesis the ideas of this emerging topic over the past few years, are starting to shine.
I am deeply grateful for Tiago’s work of packaging up these ideas and much of this article has to be credited to his work and experimentation. The last section of this article are from my notes while reading the first part of his book.
Notes are the building block
The first step towards building a personal knowledge management (PKM) system, often referred to as a Second Brain, is to capture ideas through taking notes. You might copy and paste content from others, but beware of the tendency to simply accumulate. Embrace the creative exercise of using your brain and hands (or fingers) to express in your own words, the nuggets or gems you perceived when meeting an idea for the first time.
The length and format don’t matter—if a piece of content has been interpreted through your lens, curated according to your taste, translated into your own words, or drawn from your life experience, and stored in a secure place, then it qualifies as a note. ~ Tiago Forte
Notes become the building block of your personal knowledge bank, as you succinctly package up the most important and valuable ideas, in a way that allows them to be sent through time to your future self. The note is a record something you just learnt.
Note taking is a learnable skill, like riding a bicycle. Just as riding a bicycle enables endless travel and discovery, note taking as a skill or ‘tool for thinking', and it can enhance our cognitive abilities. It’s the atomic base of building a knowledge system that can transform how we relate to, consume, and make use of information to benefit ourselves and those around us.
The power of focused note taking, and having all one's ideas in one place, is that it can reveal patterns. Ideas written down have more power than ideas which stay in our head.
"Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them."
— David Allen, author of Getting Things Done
Some notes might be directly inspired by information we come across, but some may be uniquely yours, such as when capturing personal reflections.
Tiago describes journaling his medical history at a time when he was struggling with an ailment that health professionals seemed unable to help him with. At one point he began taking notes about everything he had come to understand about the ailment and the effects of different treatments. Then he wrote what he wanted and didn’t want. He goes on to describe the powerful effect this practice had.
This reminded me of a reflection and journal exercise I did in 2001. I’d just recently arrived in France, and my ability to communicate with the locals was minimal. My girlfriend was having a knee operation and I was mostly alone in our flat for a couple of weeks. I had an impulse to reflect on my life, particularly the years from high school and up to 1999.
I recorded the different activities, where I was working, where I was living, and the pivotal moments spanning the previous 30 years. I did it methodically on a timeline, and colour coded it, to indicate those key activities which spanned multiple years.
When it was done, and I stopped and looked at what I’d recorded, a clarity arose about the times I had felt most happy and fulfilled. I grabbed a notebook and started new journal.
First I listed things I didn't want.
I don't want to wear a suit every day,
I don't want to work a 9-5 job,
I don't want to have to do a daily commute,
and so on…
Then I listed everything I wanted.
I want to live somewhere I can sleep at night with the windows open and hear the sounds of the birds and nature,
I want to live somewhere I can grow and have access to healthy food,
I want to connect with others and feel part of my community through contributing my skills,
I want to be be near a paragliding flying site (my recreation at the time),
and so on…
The process gave me tremendous energy and clarity, but the best and most unexpected part came two days later, when a friend from New Zealand I hadn’t heard from for five years, emailed me to say:
“Hey I've just bought an eight acre organic orchard on Waiheke Island. When you come back to New Zealand, if you want a place to stay and are willing to work a few hours in the orchard each day, I’ll put the wine and the food on the table, and you can stay as long as you like.”
I grabbed my journal . . . tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick !!
And yes, we arrived on Waiheke in less than a year, and a began a new life.
If you are not already taking notes consistently, I highly recommend you start. Begin capturing the ideas and inspiration that arise as you meet new thoughts and ideas while consuming information. See what emerges from these creative and generative gems that flow through your hands and fingers, and into your chosen (often today digital) repository.
In an upcoming article I’ll explore what we can do with these notes we take, so we can maximise the value they can offer us.
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