How to Take Note Part 4
Intro to T.E.A. Noting
Time for T.E.A.
In the upcoming sections we will explore the how and why of smart noting, and the power of refractal information theory. But there is no reason to wait until you understand how smart works in order to start putting smart to use for you. You are after the gist.
This gist is that smart is a practice that uses knowledge to gain wisdom. This practice is founded on the assumption that order exists, and that order will reveal itself to you through discipline.
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The gist is that the practice of hunting for the gist will teach you to see.
There are no shortcuts for smart. Smart noting isn’t a hack. It’s a way of being. For that reason, granting yourself the freedom and time to get all the way through whatever it was you started is certainly worth it. If you want to put the book down at any point and experiment for a bit, it won’t hurt you at all. In fact, I recommend you do so.
But soon enough you are going to have amassed enough of a Stack that it will start to overwhelm you. You will have a pile of paper notes that is starting to feel unwieldy. You will begin to ask the question, “What am I supposed to do with all this stuff?”
This is good. This is what you’re after. This is the time when you get to learn. Now is the right time to take a step back from you inputs and T.E.A. up your notes. This is the process that will transform what you’ve collected from what you’ve got into what you want to have
T.E.A. is the heartbeat of the smart note practice: translate, elaborate and activate.
It’s easier than it sounds. Once you get the gist of it, it is incredibly intuitive, because it is the path of intuition itself. It is a process for honing you native instincts via trial and error until they become habits you can trust. There is a good chance you already do some of this process naturally. But by understanding it, by doing it on purpose, and by learning to not get down on yourself when the process arises again, you will be able to shake off much of the rust learned from the bad habits picked up thanks to the empty promises and misguided expectations of the digital information age.
Like, for example, how hard it is for you to throw information away.
In my experience, the hardest part of T.E.A. noting is that activation that means deciding I don’t need this note any more. The complexifying power of digital storage addiction has taught us to distrust this instinct. “What if I might need it?” you will ask. “What good did it do me to take these notes if they just end up in the trash?”
This is a worldview problem. It is a combination of thinking too highly of yourself and at the same time not thinking highly enough of yourself at all. Rather than your information becoming a tool that you wield, it has become a crutch that you fear losing. On the one hand, you expect everything you every write to be some sort of precious gemstone without which the future of humanity cannot do without. On the other hand, you don’t trust yourself enough to believe that by writing it down in the first place you learned all that you needed to know about already, and that the real gist of it is lodged deep within that beautiful masterpiece God created in your head.
We will take on this compounding power of knowledge in the human mind later. For now, just brace yourself. The hardest part is letting go of what was worth noting but isn’t worth archiving.
It will probably help you to have a shoe box or some other large storage space to use as if it were a trash can. That way you can tell yourself that it will always be there later if you need it. This, too, is a crutch. But small gains make for eventual huge wins, so take the initiative where you can find it.
You’re mining for diamonds.
Taking the time to T.E.A. up your notes is essential for getting smart about your task and information management. You want this process to become casual, habitual, as much a part of a day at your desk as your first sip of java. (Mmm… java.)
The first time you try T.E.A. noting, it will probably feel big and compelling, like you’re about to take a giant leap off a cliff or embark on some interstellar moment. That’s ok. We all have an ego. Just take a deep breath and enjoy the moment of clarity you’re about the experience. Tell yourself that you are not trying to save the world. You’re just getting ready to see the world as it really is.
Sit down somewhere comfortable with enough space to spread out your Stack. I like to use the floor beside the sliding glass door to our backyard where I have a great view of the lake. I’m also willing to work through even a large Stack of cards, like the ones for this book, while sitting with a bunch of parents in the bleachers, though I don’t recommend that one for white belts. I know that the best place to really get the thinking done is at my desktop. (By “desktop” I don’t mean that messy semi-archive, semi-launchpad horror show on your CPU. I mean that old fashioned flat surface technology that’s been around for aeons longer than electrical wiring that now mostly gets used to hold your screen and keyboard.) It has taken some trial and error and a little backward engineering, but my desktop is now a dedicated space for letting my Stack get messy in order to get my thinking clean.
Wherever you set up - the kitchen table, your bed or a coffee shop near the mall - have some blank cards close at hand, as well as your cherished writing tool. Set your Stack somewhere up in front of you so that it’s out of the way but in easy reach. Take one more deep breath with your eyes closed, imagining how great it’s going to be to love what you’re doing once you’ve learned to do what you love. Then pick up the first card in your Stack and read it.
It may only take a glance. It might require some serious thought. Depending on what you were noting, when you noted it and what other goals you let slip out on the page either intentionally or tangentially, the goal now is just to listen to yourself.
What did you notice? Why did you notice it? What good is it to you now?
Now, write that new thought down on a new card. Translate it. Elaborate on it. Or activate it in some other meaningful way.
Are you using a journal? Don’t let all my Stack talk dissuade you. But understand that the journal is a bound version of the Fog of Pile. Because all your information is permanently stuck together, because it is not modular, there are more barriers to docking and rearranging your notes. But the process is still the same. Open to a new page, re-read your First Notes, notice what you notice now, and translate it into something better.
Translate. Elaborate. Activate.
To Translate means to take what is there and write it down again in a different way. This might be as simple as cleaning up the handwriting or adding an outline format or some color. It can mean taking something that didn’t quite make sense and polishing it up so that it rolls off the soul. It can also meaning taking three disconnected notes from one card and creating new cards each for each independent good thought. In every case, it means rewriting the idea so that it says what you know it was supposed to mean. But sometimes, this also requires elaboration.
To Elaborate means to take what is there and add to it as you write it down again. It is inevitable that once you start writing down a good thought, more good thoughts will start to show up. Don’t stop them. Pre-planning what you write gets in the way of writing your best stuff. It’s your worst thoughts that insist there is no room for any others. There is plenty of time in life to T.E.A. up your best thoughts again later. Plan on it.
As you translate and elaborate, try not to copy. Don’t get me wrong. If it’s right, then it’s right. But the inherent power of smart noting is found in admitting that you very rarely are perfectly right in anything. There is always room for more. You can always make it better. You can always shed more light.
This doesn’t mean you will always need to translate and elaborate all your notes on everything you read or hear. Sometimes you will just toss them away. Sometimes you’ll date and archive them. But now, at the start of this experiment, you aren’t yet practiced at securing the gist and moving on with it. So take the time to practice on everything that you can. See what happens when you really dig in.
But by all means, don’t keep all of it. Experiment with only pulling out your one or two best thoughts from each of your first few pages. Put each of these on its own piece of paper or page, and make a new Stack off to the side. Don’t worry about what you will use it for. You’re using it for this. You’re using it to learn how to learn. This is where the real meat is.
Then, once you’ve done this, once you’ve dug in the rough for the coolest and most interesting nuggets of everything you thought was worth noting in the first place, once you’ve gotten everything you really like or really need off the notes of your Stack, go ahead and make some simple archival markings. I like to do this with an outstanding color like blue or read. Call it “First Note Field Test” or “1st 1st Notes” or “I’m Gonna Kick Ass” or whatever you like. Just name it something that you like, because when you like it you will remember it. As you make this mark on each note, add an “01, 02, 03” and so on until you get to the end. Then, (though this is not necessary,) feel free to add the date right beside “01.” No need to date every card, as you are simply going to archive them all together in your trash/shoe box.
For now, don’t actually throw them away. After you’ve finished this book, as you get more and more comfortable with trusting the process of information theory, you will freely decide what you want to do with your first notes. But here at the start, think of it like a pile of baby pictures, something you might one day look back on in order to ponder how cute you were, or how far you’ve come, or maybe even to mine again for something you didn’t know was there yet.
At this point, you may have fewer notes than you did before, or you may have more. But these notes will all be more clear. You will feel like you know what is there. You will know what you can go and find if you need it. Since you’re just practicing right now and not using this Stack to manage your life, put the T.E.A.’d up notes in any order that you like and set them in a corner of your desk. No need to carry them around with you now. They’ll be there when you need them, unless, of course, you found something you need to activate.
To Activate is both the simplest and the most difficult step. This is because activation can sometimes mean writing down yet another note that specifically tells you what to do later, throwing the note away, addressing the note (or an email or a letter) to somebody else, reminding yourself to have a conversation with somebody else, or just doing whatever the note says. Activation is taking the things you’ve noticed beyond mere translation and elaboration, out in the real world of everything and everyone else.
You probably won’t have a ton of activation in your “1st 1st Notes” experiment. But you might. One of the funny things about hunting for what you are thinking is you find out that you’ve been thinking quite a lot, often without realizing it. Once you start going it can be hard to stop. You never know what your mind is going to find that has been lurking in the cobwebs for days, weeks or even years.
You might be plugging along in your review of War and Peace when, suddenly, you remember that you’re out of toilet paper. A new blank card labeled “That Store Again” with a quick underline and “TP” scribbled beneath gets shuffled into your stack until it pops out again on your desktop the next time you T.E.A.. (This is precisely the kind of thing that doesn’t natively happen on your computer.) As you write down “TP,” you also think of this, that and the other thing you need on the same list, or maybe on a different lint for a different store. But when these notes show up in your T.E.A. session, activating them means that you don’t put them back in your Stack. Don’t activate things into your journal. Set it aside, take it with you, pin it to the fridge or whereever it is you’ll find it when you need it and grab it on your way out the door.
Activation is a primary goal of getting smart. No one really wants to just get smart so that you can sit on a hilltop by yourself thinking about how smart you are, (although it may be smart to just sit on a hilltop more often than you do now, and taking note of that is a surefire way to eventually activate its reality.) Activation is the process of becoming convicted by what you think. It is the experience of having what you know start to mean enough to you for it to become what you do. It happens after what you’ve noticed becomes understood to such a point that what you have written starts to insist on becoming a part of who you are.
Whether that means throwing the note away because its worthless, or presenting it to your team because this is the idea that’s going to put us on the map, the point of all the mining, all the T.E.A.’ing up and all the getting smart is not just to have the right information when you need it, but to help yourself act on the right things when and because you want to.
There you have it. That’s the gist. You don’t have to read any further, though if you do you will find that there is a lot more going on here than meets they eye, and in my experience that is wisdom worth knowing. But at any point in your experiment, feel free to come back to this section and review it. It really is that easy. Wash, rinse, repeat. Translate, elaborate, activate. What you noted will become what you know. What you know will change what you see. What you see will impact what you do, and what you do will be done on purpose. That is the definition of getting smart.
To be continued…
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