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Next-Level Notetaking

Hello, friends.

Last week, I was walking on a street in downtown Atlanta after lunching with Karen Thickstun, the former president of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). She stopped in the middle of the conversation and pulled out her phone, saying, “Hold on a second. I can’t trust the brain to remember everything.” Then, she excused herself to type something on her phone. While waiting for her to finish her note, I thought to myself, She surely has the notetaking system down.

Interestingly, I have also observed people’s various methods while attending workshops during conferences. Some didn’t seem to make notes at all, some seemed to jot down ideas on a program book or a piece of paper or type on the phone (or they might have been texting someone), and many took pictures of slides with their phones.

When we trace back some great artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci or even comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, they often had amazing notetaking systems. Whether paper or digital, they had the habit of capturing passing inspirations or ideas into notes daily.

The author of the resourceful book Building a Second Brain, Tiago Forte, explains why we need a method of building a second brain (a.k.a. a digital notetaking system), and how to do so efficiently:

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” -David Allen, Author of Getting Things Done

I find this concept of having an external storage system for the brain fascinating, as I understand how much space in my brain is required to be creative. With the influx of information we process daily, I can’t imagine trying to remember everything. For one thing, I know I won’t. More importantly, I don’t want to waste my precious working brain simply remembering facts.

I have implemented the following techniques from the book in my own life, which you might also find helpful:

First, collect information as you live your life. This could be anything from information or inspiration from a YouTube video, highlights from a book, interesting quotes, notes from a meeting, an interesting website or article. I mostly use Apple Notes for this information. I use Notion for a project with other people, and for writing this newsletter, I use Ulysses. I only use paper notebooks for mindfulness practices. However, to retain knowledge and specific information, I prefer to be able to sort, reorganize, add tags, and search in a digital format.

Forte gives us four questions to ask to help decide exactly which nuggets of knowledge are worth keeping:

Does it inspire me?

Is it useful?

Is it personal?

Is it surprising?

The second step is to organize efficiently for the future. Instead of saving information as general topics, such as health, finances, and so on, put it where you will use it in the future. Create a folder for action-based projects, such as an upcoming workshop, the progress of your health, or a specific personal or professional project. Whenever useful and relevant information comes along, put it in that folder.

Like other conference attendees, I find myself taking photos when I want to remember things. I try to move the pictures using the Adding Photo function in the Notes app under the appropriate project folder as soon as I take photos. How many times do I later scroll back those photos of slides? Almost never unless I move to the better location right there and then.

Forte suggests that each note or knowledge you capture is like a product you are trying to sell to your future self. Make it easy for your future self to access and use. For this reason, I learned to take one extra minute to reorganize my thoughts or clarify ideas at the time of input so that my future self would remember why I put the information there, rather than going through it all over again to figure it out later.

For me, this is one of Forte’s most eye-opening suggestions. Even though I might have been using this action-based organizational system unconsciously, it has helped me to do so intentionally.

One of the interesting ideas he suggests is to maintain a gift notebook folder (for Christmas and birthdays) for each person to whom you give gifts. Whenever a new idea or product pops up, put the link or note in that folder. When Christmas or a birthday approaches, you simply open the folder for that person and purchase the item.

Another great way of thinking about this idea is to make progress by slow burns rather than heavy lifting. I have multiple projects that are ongoing concurrently. They can be a public workshop, a YouTube video, the next podcast episodes, new album ideas, things I want to teach my piano students, or even my muscle mass progress in my body.

Instead of sitting down one day to start the project from zero to 100% completion, I constantly have all these projects in different stages on the back burner. I put the information or useful knowledge into the right project over a longer period. Then, when the time comes, I reorganize my ideas into a sharing format: a public talk, writing, or recording.

I love that Forte emphasizes organizing information not as a way to collect it, but as a tool for future use.

I am curious. What is your methodology? Do you have any notetaking systems to organize ideas and information as your external brain drives? Please share it with me!

Regardless, make a note to look up to the sky this week at least once, and give yourself a reminder that life is beautiful.


Always special, the moment before an encore

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