Concluding My Struggle with Note-Taking Systems and Apps, Finally!

I've been researching a better note-taking system, trying apps, and moving hundreds of notes from one place to another for years. Today, I can finally say I have reached the end, and I'm finishing my research and experiments with apps. I share what I learned in this post and explain how things have changed.

I have been thinking about my notes and how to write them, edit them, and store them. There are countless note-taking applications and various techniques, and I tried many of them. Yet I realized it's not the differences or the method that matters for making notes valuable; it's the mindset I have while taking notes.

I used to copy quotes as notes. They didn't consist of any word that is mine; they mainly comprised words of others—the authors. I kept their words, memories, experiences, and ideas. In this collectivist mindset, you know what you have is not yours; someone else created it. And it will never truly be yours, even if you own them.

As I wrote down these notes, I also stored them within specific categories, such as habit building, software architecture design, personal values, et cetera. There were hundreds of notes and tens of categories. I never went back and read them. Even when I did, they were still not mine; therefore, I couldn't remember them. That triggered me to look for ways to improve my whole note-taking system.

For a while, I started trying apps. I tried Evernote, GoodNotes, Ulysses, Bear, Apple Notes, Notion, Scrintal, Dropbox Paper, pen and paper, Anki, Craft, and Obsidian in search of a better system. None of them worked. But I was wrong expecting another piece of technology to solve a problem when my fundamentals were wrong. If I was using them the same way, how could I expect them to solve the problem? All these applications claim that they solve the problem of note-taking. And they actually do if you have the right mindset and learn how to use them.

Apparently, I neither had the right mindset nor learned how to use these apps for years. So, what did I change?

I transformed myself, my perspective, my approach, and my expectations. Let's dive into each separately.

Changing Myself

First, myself. As cliché as it sounds, I'm not the same person anymore. I grew and evolved, and my old methods didn't suit me anymore.

Before all these changes started, I thought I was smarter and more knowledgeable, or at least I wanted to be. The more I read and learned, the more everything revealed how foolish and ignorant I am. I realized I would feel even more stupid every other day if I kept reading.

As I realized I was not smart, I had to keep better notes and write better. I couldn't leave it to chance to learn something and forget about it. As I'm a flawed human, I had to look at my note-taking with the mindset of a person who forgets. As I acknowledged that I would forget what I learned today, I was better off writing things down. Changing this perspective was not enough, though. Since I was already taking notes, something else should have been wrong.

Yes, I faced the harsh reality: it was my perspective on my system.

Changing Perspective on System

The perspective is the biggest flaw we have. Yet, the slightest change can lead to magnificent results. Near the end of my search, I changed my perspective on my note-taking system without changing the system.

I changed the collectivist perspective to a scientist's perspective. Scientists search the literature to learn from previous studies and collect a lot of data to build on it. While doing so, they write down their observations on the previous research. They use their own words (they have to prevent plagiarism). Otherwise, they never learn and cannot add anything to the literature. So, I started using my own words while taking a note.

I suddenly realized how much I was not learning from what I was reading. The sentences that I was trying to build threw me off the rack. I should have fully understood what I was reading to be able to write it down in my own words. As soon as I put the pen on the paper, writing tested my knowledge. I never had this challenge. By using my own words, I began to learn better. Along with better learning, I evolved my approach, and at one point, I had to change my note-saving system.

Changing Note-Saving System

The system I was using pushed me to use the folders and categories. I also used tags to cross-reference between notes, but they were also categories. I used tags to place a note under two categories if a note belonged to more than one category. Later in my research, I learned about Zettelkasten.

I started trying the system. At first, I couldn't really adapt to it because I was still saving quotes. My mind looked for categories and patterns to group notes. In Zettelkasten, there is also tagging, but it wasn't aligned with what I did before. Of course, I mistakenly used tags as before, and it didn't work out. I had to unlearn—which is one of the most difficult things we should do every day. Then I read How to Take Smart Notes twice. I learned the beauty and simplicity of the system and where I was wrong. The tags I used had the librarian mindset, but I needed the archivist mindset.

The librarian mindset looks for categories. Every book or magazine belongs to one category, and librarians place them with the goal of easily finding them by their name, genre, and author. Their purpose is simple: the shortest path to find a book.

On the other hand, archivist doesn't look for categories. An Archivist thinks about the question that leads to this information. They think about how that piece of information should surface in the future. They ask, "how should the information be relieved in the future?"

This tiny difference changed my mindset and my whole tagging and note-linking system. For example, instead of using the #productivity and #time-management tags for a note about improving outcomes with better time management; I now have #outcomes-not-output and #why-should-I-plan-my-day.

And every note has a maximum of three tags, not more. Each is written future-thinking and answers, "How do I want to find this note in the future?" That's the question. It's okay if I don't read this note in two years and don't have to remember where I put it. The goal is not the shortest path to note; it is trusting the system to reveal the note at the best possible moment.

The tags are a support system in Zettelkasten. The core idea of Zettelkasten is linking notes to relevant ones to connect them—increase their chances of being found out. As all notes are linear (no folders, just putting every note behind each other), we connect notes by linking each other. That provides visibility to a node. Eventually, it will be reached and read. No note will stay asleep forever.

That brings me to my last change.

Changing Expectations

My earlier expectations were shallow and almost non-existent. I took notes to remember things; I expected to become smarter, learn more, and eventually have a better life. These naive thoughts—of course—did not become a reality, and all my expectations were unmet. While altering the whole system, I deleted my previously taken notes to reset my expectations.

Instead of trying to become smarter and memorize stuff, I assume I will forget. Hence, I write things down. As I will forget with or without note-taking, I moved the responsibility of remembering things to my system. No expectation to remember things is a big relief to my mind.

Another expectation I had was to produce more articles or essays to publish on this blog. That is gone too. I will keep writing, but I do not crave to publish more. I expect to write daily and publish only when I'm ready and when it's time to publish Mektup.

One expectation I will keep is to learn more, but this time differently. As I write notes in my own words instead of taking quotes, each one challenges my learning. In every written word, I face a huge learning curve. Every note teaches me something better. That's why I keep my learning expectation.

Finalizing the Challenge

My new note-taking perspective, approach, and expectations eventually, will change me. I'm embracing this change and even hugging it. At least, it produces less stress. Accepting that I will forget itself is a relief. Knowing that I will eventually find the note I write is just relaxing. And last but not least, writing notes in my own words will also improve my writing and show me invaluable thoughts and wisdom.

The best part of all these changes and systems is that I didn't invent them. This system is what made Niklas Luhmann and many others succeed in their fields. They already have figured out that it works; I only need to uncover and adapt it to me.

Maybe in time, I will adjust the system more to myself and change how I use it. That's not an issue. I'm not strictly following Zettelkasten as it is. I listen to my heart and reflect on how the system is progressing once in a while. In every reflection, I will have a chance to tweak the system and make minor adjustments.

With this, I'm ending my note-taking tool and system search. I have all my notes on Obsidian for a while now, and all of them will stay there. I will stay with this approach as long as it goes.

Long Form Last Updated: Nov 27, 2022