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Like other people, I use different means to take notes. Sometimes, I write or sketch in a paper notebook or sticky notes. I often write in one of several apps on my phone, iPad, or laptop. Eventually, these notes go into my unified repository in DEVONthink, which lets me find individual notes or see connections between possibly related notes.

There are significant benefits to this system. For one thing, I don’t worry about where to find stuff; everything is in DEVONthink. Also, the system is flexible. The means of capture varies depending on convenience, appropriateness, context, mood, and other factors. I use the paper notebook for some things, the Drafts app on my iPhone for others, dictate into my Apple Watch when exercising, etc.

The main downside is that this system requires maintenance. While some notes automatically flow into my inbox, others don’t. For example, when I take notes on paper, I must scan or transcribe the key points. This is easy enough to do, but it takes time.

And the chores don’t end after import. Once in the inbox, I must triage notes. Sometimes, this means acting on the information and deleting the note. But sometimes, it means saving it for later use, in which case I must tag it and move it to the appropriate place.

Currently, I organize notes using a taxonomy inspired by two sources: Sönke Ahren’s How to Take Smart Notes1 (which leverages Niklas Luhmann’s zettelkasten approach) and Tiago Forte’s second brain framework (via Maggie Appleton’s sketchnotes.)

From Ahren’s book, I picked up the distinction between three basic types of notes:

  • Fleeting notes are short-lived, meant to capture thoughts on the fly, so I don’t forget them. For example, I listen to podcasts when exercising. Sometimes, I’ll hear about a book I want to check out, and I capture the book’s name on my phone or watch. Later, this note reminds me to look up the book so I might buy it, save it to my to-read list, or discard it. In any case, the original note doesn’t play any further role, so I delete it.

  • Permanent notes are meant to become part of the knowledge repository. I don’t discard these; they stick around so I can refer to them later. For example, if I come across an interesting idea that I want to reference later (such as Gall’s law), I write a short note that describes the idea in my own words. I include a reference to where I found the idea (in this case, John Gall’s Systemantics) so I can revisit it in context if necessary. Some permanent notes are more granular than others. When reading a book, I usually write several notes for individual ideas and one that captures my impressions on the book as a whole. (Some of these I share as book notes on my website.)

  • Project notes are related to particular projects. While permanent notes become part of my general knowledge repository, project notes are only meaningful in the context of specific projects. For example, this includes meeting minutes, to-dos, and working notes. They’re no longer relevant after the project is done, so I don’t want them cluttering my repository. Inspired by Forte’s framework, I differentiate between projects and areas. (Key distinction: projects have a deadline, whereas areas represent ongoing commitments.)

Fleeting notes are disposable, so it doesn’t matter where I write them down. But I’m more disciplined about permanent and project notes, which I keep in separate Obsidian vaults. Both vaults are indexed in DEVONthink, allowing me to search and find relationships within either vault or across both.

This system works well. That said, I’m constantly tweaking it. For example, I’m debating the merits of having separate vaults for projects and permanent notes. Obsidian lets me create “day notes” that track what I’ve done on a given day. Having two vaults means having two sets of day notes, which isn’t ideal. Also, I sometimes wish I could reference permanent notes from project notes and vice versa. I can do this by using the note’s permanent address in DEVONthink, but linking within Obsidian would be more convenient.

In any case, this system is a work in progress. It looks very different today than it did five years ago and will likely be very different in five years. (Before DEVONthink, I used OneNote. I still have several years’ worth of notes there pending migration into my current repository.) But regardless of what tools I’m using, I expect the distinction between fleeting, permanent, and project notes will remain.

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