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How to Take Note - Part 1
Have Awesome Tools
Anything you can write about you can change. To revolutionize your life:
1. Write down (“take note of”) that which you “notice.”
2. Later, after the right amount of time, judge its true value.
3. Translate, elaborate and/or activate it to greater value.
Given time, enough space and a good pinch of trust, you cannot but improve.
First, you will need a pen or pencil that you love.
It can be cheap or expensive, black or fuchsia, fat or smeary. You just need to love it.
The hardest thing about being smart is that you will use any excuse you can to avoid it. It doesn’t matter how much you know the right thing to do. It doesn’t even matter how much you want to do it. If there are one too many steps in between you and your goals, the part of you that hates you, that talks down to you, and then later scolds you for not having done enough, will seize that moment and use it to keep you from pressing on.
There are few things more frustrating than trying to write with a pen that you hate. I can just feel that half-dried ball-point catastrophe scrawling wearily across the page as I type this. It sends shivers down my spine. The bad ones.
I adore the Sharpie S-Gel 0.7 gel pen. They come in bulk. They flow like syrup on pancakes. They come in multiple bold colors, and when you inevitably break the pocket-clip off from thumbing it too much, the insides are interchangeable so you can just whip out a new one, swap in the unused ink cartridge, and save the unopened one for whenever the original runs out.
(Yes. I go through an entire pen once every one to two months. I often will run around the house showing my family the completely empty cartridge. There is an unmatched feeling of success and accomplishment that come from knowing you have taken note of enough awesome stuff to put a great pen to rest.)
Second, you will need paper that you love.
All the same rules apply. If you don’t like to touch it, then you won’t want to use it. If you don’t want to use it, you won’t use it when you need it most and everything else this series will teach you will collapse in a sad moment of lazy give up. So, more than anything, you need to not scrimp on the paper you buy to take your notes on.
Now, I’m am going to try to convince you that real rocket fuel here are blank 6x4 notecards. They’re wonderfully cheap, and you can find them anywhere. I will devote more time to the mechanical theory behind the genius that is interchangeable modular paper (IMP) later. But the short version has everything to do with the problem of indexes.
Everyone loves a good journal. There is something nearly erotic about the feel of leather in the hand, the crisp clean pages and the way it looks on your desk or shelf. It makes you want to take pictures of how amazing your workspace is and post them online so all your friends can see how close you are to being both productive and hip.
But then you ruin it all by writing in it.
Unless you are one of those supremely artistic individuals who has both the time and the love to make your journal an authentic work of art, designing and planning each page before you actually put anything on the page, then you will quickly find that the hardest thing about keeping a paper journal is digging through all the ugly scrapes and scribbles while trying to remember and finding what you wrote in it.
It can be done, and the best engineering minds in the world have devoted hours to creating indexing tools and hacks to allow you to keep your grocery list for last March right beside that quote from Solzhenitsyn that you’d rather have on top of your three major goals for this year but is already stuck where you doodled during that one ridiculous lecture.
Of course, you can copy it again, or hack your way to cross-indexing perfection. I just personally find this to be way too much work. I want to write. I want to take note and remember it when I need it. I want to be smart so that I can use my time well, not use up all my time pretending to look smart.
But to start us off here, I don’t care what you use. You just need to love it. If you want to buy a Moleskine, or maybe one of those boutique ruffle-edged paper snaffoos that, without question, feel like something a block and a half from heaven in your hand, then do it.
What I need you to do is give up typing.
Let’s not waste our time.
I’m typing this right now.
There is a place for typing. There is a value to electric keyboards in your life. But that value is not in making you smart.
Screens and hard drives do many things well. They make storing and retrieving large chunks of information appear easy and efficient. Without question, they make modern printing and writing possible.
But what they also do is scatter you.
I understand. I know that you’ve bought AwesomeCloudBrainNeverLoseItTM Software and its super shiny with links and superfeatures and multi-search widgets and things.
But what we’re going to do here is make you smart.
We’re not trying to build a VR portal. We’re not trying to archive the internet. We are going to help you learn how to know what you need to know when you need to know it. That means we are going to discover the things you need to know the most. These will not always be the things that you think you need to know. Just as often they might not even be words at all.
There is a magic to paper that the digital tools simply cannot replace. This does not mean that there is no place for the digital tools. It means that different tools are good for different things, and none of the tools are good for everything.
Having the most recent bestest mind-mapping app still won’t save you from that moment where you are trying to use piece of Information X and you can’t find it. You know you saved it. You know it’s there in the ether, and you know your friend is waiting patiently while you scroll through the cloud on your phone like a doof with too many pictures.
This will happen with paper too. That’s why people create indexes. That’s why the 6x4 is a funny little piece of heaven. Losing what you thought you knew is unavoidable in all temporal universes. Embracing it as part of the magic is a catalyst that sets your smart free in ways you, by definition, could never imagine.
The problem with the digital world is that losing things not only happens more, but more completely. The reason is not because the digital tools are too hard. It’s because they are too easy. They are too fast. You can do too much. As a result, your mind (and sometimes your soul) cannot keep up with it’s own creativity. With all the best intentions in the world, the superpower of electric knowledge teases you into hiding all of your best information deep inside a perfectly designed structure for yesterday. It’s all there. You were the one that built it. But now, where did that one vital thing go? Why won’t it show up in a search? Didn’t you come up with that exceedingly clever way to preserve it so that you would never lose it?
Paper is your way out. By learning to make use of the real again, by discovering the power of the analog, tactile realm, even your digital file storage will improve. How? You’ll get smart. In part, you’ll learn that the real reason you can’t find things like you want to is because you hid them, thinking that hiding them would be the surefire way to find them again. Eventually, you’ll stop hiding them so well. Sometimes, you won’t even bother to hide them at all. You’ll give up on trying the capture everything under the sun and only spend as much time on the computer as you have to. The rest of your life you’ll enjoy being out in the real. Watching the trees. Talking with a friend. Reading a book. All with a handy piece of paper and a great pen nearby just in case you need to take note of those invaluable things that you want to solidify as a part of your soul.
You might have to learn to write again.
Before I made the leap to paper, I first taught myself to type a second time. I learned QWERTY touch typing in gradeschool and was forever grateful to the slavedrivers who sometimes let us play Letter Invaders for the last few minutes of class. That is, until in my thirties when I developed an excruciating case of carpal tunnel (CPS). CPS is a chronic pain brought about by the inflammation of the nerves in your forearm. Many people choose to have surgery to sever the nerve rather than give up the lifestyle which causes it. One of the causes of chronic inflammation is a sugar-saturated diet. But along with this chronic conditioning, other major factors are poor posture, long hours and straight up typing too much.
Every time I make a typo, my right ring finger jumps to the delete key with lightning speed. Smack! Smack! Smack! I hold down option and reach for the arrow keys. Smack! Smack! Smack! Years and years of this, emails, first drafts, fourth drafts, World of Warcraft, editing video and audio, more emails, and my arm to pinky throbbed. Still I typed on, willing myself to believe that it was just a phantom pain, not some a career-ending injury.
Not particularly fond of the “Let’s cut your nerves!” medical answer, at some point I heard about Dvorak, a keyboard layout patented in 1936 and up to 75% more efficient than the standard American QWERTY layout. Reasoning to myself that typing more efficiently would lead to fewer backstrokes, I embarked on the journey.
Little did I realize how many more times I would have to hit delete while learning a new layout. That didn’t deter me, and I pressed onward, eventually coming to love the new skill and appreciate its faster typing speeds and simple, intuitive layout.
But my CPS still throbbed. I began to hate computers, to hate typing and, worst of all, to hate writing.
Then, I discovered How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. It has many good things to say regarding the theories of information that we will address. It also presents the Luhman method of note archiving for those of you that missed your calling as librarians. Needless to say, even hinting at the possibility that I could manage information work without having to rely on a keyboard was a risk I was willing to take. I cast myself headlong into a multi-year experiment of living and breathing 6x4 notecards.
This series is the result of that research, and it is my firm hope that it will revolutionize your informational freedom. But, one of the first things I discovered as soon as I began taking note of my life by hand was that, although under those same day school task masters I had also learned script and cursive, my handwriting was abysmal.
It took me several months to become fed up with my 3rd grade level scribbles. I’m still not sure what inspired the change, but I know that I began to experiment. This is the beauty of paper: it let’s you run free. So I tinkered with color and I tinkered with size. I turned things upside down and I even wrote in circles. Somewhere along the line I realize that if I gave up on the silly notion of lower case letters then suddenly my handwriting didn’t look bad at all. It looked magnificent.
That was when I began to write in all caps with a vigor. It wasn’t as hard as learning to type again. (Though by this point my CPS was a fleeting memory.) But it did come with its fair share of mistakes. It took time and practice to develop my script into the awesome comic-book dialogue /architect scrawl that I now relish using to take note of this, that and the other thing. (Only later did I learn that this is, in fact, called “architectural lettering” and is a matter of good design and clarity officially adopted by a profession dedicated to making things as clear as possible.)
It still gets messy toward the bottom of the page or if I’m in a hurry. But a first major hurdle about getting smart by taking note is learning to expect your first notes to not be your end notes. Not everything you write will be worth keeping, and not everything you keep will be worth cleaning. That’s not the point. The point is that taking note, writing what you notice down so that you can read it again at least one time later, is a semi-cosmic feedback loop of inspiration that will radically improve your information engagement with life.
For these reasons, removing every potential obstacle to your returns is a simple priority, a worthy discipline to establish and assume at the outset.
To be continued…
Next time: Getting Used to the Stack
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