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When In Doubt, Take Notes

3 min

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If there's one thing I know I believe, it's that take notes is powerful.

I know I believe it, because I consistently do it.

(That's the best way to tell, by the way. Behavior rarely lies.)

I take notes on every book I read.

I take notes on every class I take.

I scribble notes on videos I watch, and text myself notes from podcasts, and scribble down thoughts that occur to me while I'm showering or walking or cooking.

Taking notes consistently does two things simultaneously:

It allows your subconscious to open up, increasing the rate at which you generate ideas, and

It allows you to confront your past self.

When you make a habit of capturing your fleeting thoughts, those thoughts become more likely to appear. It's as if your subconscious feels valued; as if exercising your capacity to generate new and interesting ideas strengthens a kind of muscle within yourself.

The method of capture doesn't matter. I famously use Roam Research and have a home-brewed system of note-taking, review, and synthesis...but I also have a board filled with Sticky Notes and a pad of paper on my desk. The Notes app on your phone will do the trick just fine, as would emailing yourself, or recording a voice memo.

The simpler the method, the easier and faster it is for you to use, the more likely you are to use it - and the more powerful it becomes. It's the consistency of use that makes the method valuable. By assuring your deepest self that its ideas are valued, you encourage the creation of more and better ideas.

The cycle fuels itself. Soon, you won't be able to turn it off.

But taking notes isn't just about generating ideas. It's also about the confrontation of those ideas.

Each of us is in constant flux. The illusion that "we" are somehow constant, unchanging, throughout the flow of time is just that - illusion. We are different people moment to moment, capable of different decisions and unrecognizable reasoning. To encounter a previous version of yourself - from 10, 20, or 30 years ago - would be to encounter a stranger in every sense of the word.

Part of the problem this poses is that our present selves - knowing what we know, thinking what we think - have an incredibly difficult time understanding our past selves. We literally can't understand how we could have done the things we did, thought the things we thought. Our current context is so different, and we can never "unlearn" the lessons we've learned.

As L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Note-taking - particularly raw, unedited, in-the-moment note-taking - preserves a record of our past selves. This record allows our present self (much better and wiser, we hope) to confront the reality of our past in a way that's hard to replicate. We can see out thought processes, spot our biases, flinch with our knowledge of what-was-to-come.

This experience - the unvarnished confrontation with our past - helps to internalize the knowledge that we, too, are imperfect. Our knowledge is fragmentary, and what we don't know far outstrips what we do. Confrontation with the past burns away our illusions of objectivity - and leaves, in it's place, a deeply-felt sense of epistemic humility.

To me, that's one of the highest virtues. And all from taking a few notes, here and there.

Not a bad investment of your time, if you ask me.




A beautiful Mazzy Star performance that also, somehow, perfectly encapsulates an entire era of sad-indie, down to the body language.

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