My digital brain 🧠
3 min read

How note-taking makes me a (much) smarter

Even with the web at your fingertips, it takes time to research and combine information in a way that makes sense to you or that is relevant in your current context.

I’ve learned that the ability to quickly retrieve summarized and contextualized information, is a large part of what people mean by “having experience”. For most of us flawed humans, that’s impossible without keeping notes.

I started building my own personal knowledge base about 5 years ago. What started out as some loose notes, has now amounted to over 1500 notes on all sort of topics. Given its size and how it’s a crucial part of my personal and professional life, I sometimes refer to this as my digital brain. Without it, I’d definitely feel somewhat lost.

Maybe some day I’ll be able to consume its information through a direct-brain interface 🙃

My digital brain

Different note types

Most notes fall under one of the following categories:

  • Knowledge articles: wiki-style descriptive notes, mostly on technology
  • Project Notes: notes related to a specific project (e.g. meetings notes, message drafts, task instructions)
  • Lists: either in traditional checkbox format, as organized kanban boards, or as structured tables. Used extensively to track personal projects

Paperwork excluded

I do not store general administrative paperwork (e.g. invoices, paper records, etc) in my digital brain, as I only need those seldomly and adding them would only clutter things. I have a separate paperless workflow for that.

I do still use physical paper scratchpad to jot down notes, mostly during meetings or for daily to-do lists. However, those don’t live longer than 48 hours, usually much shorter. If important enough, I’ll take time to transcribe things into my note-taking app.

Structure brings clarity

I organize my notes hierarchically by topic, with the top-level folders being Personal, KB (Knowledge Base) and Work. Organizing things is forever a work-in-progress.

Various parts of my notes hierarchy. Almost all of these are folders, they contain many notes or folders under them.
Enlarge

Various parts of my notes hierarchy. Almost all of these are folders, they contain many notes or folders under them.

Notion

I had tried many different note-taking apps (incl. Evernote, OneNote, Quiver, Bear, StandardNotes, BoostNote and more), when I discovered Notion about 18 months ago.

For me, it’s been one of those tools that I love so much that I actively promote it to my colleagues and friends.

Here’s some of the reasons I like Notion:

  • Multi-platform support: Desktop (mac, windows), mobile (iPhone, android), web.
  • Cloud Sync and offline-mode: Same data on all devices, all the time.
  • Block-based note-taking: Easily manipulate different content types (code, images, lists, tables, embeds, etc).
  • Strong Formatting: The usual suspects: headers, lists, text formatting. Hard requirements: code formatting, linking to other pages. Bonus points: in-tool image resizing.
  • Advanced blocks: Kanban boards, structured tables, galleries, calendar, templates. Bye Bye Trello and co.
  • Strong search and organization: Folders with unlimited nesting and good, fast search. Custom folder and page icons are nice.
  • Browser Extension - Web Clipper: Easily store (parts of) web pages for later.
  • Easy data export: Easy markdown exports (not only html or pdf). I don’t want to risk losing my data (happened before…).
  • Frequently updated: software that doesn’t receive frequent updates goes bad pretty quickly.

Comments, questions, feedback? I'm @jorisroovers on twitter.