Effective Note-Taking: Avoid Common Traps

Learn the strategies to turn notes into powerful tools for learning, remembering, and generating ideas. This article reveals how to become effective in note-taking.

Effective Note-Taking: Avoid Common Traps

Not everyone needs to take notes.

Many of us got through school just fine with little or no note-taking.

It was possible to sit at a writing test and just think on the spot.

It was possible to prepare for an exam just by reading highlighted material and memorising it.

It was possible to find our sources again as the teacher had given us the reading list.

I mean, why would you need to take notes if: you can remember all the information you need; you don’t deal with complex information from multiple sources; and you don’t write long reports or content? Unnecessary, right?

But taking notes is essential for knowledge work.

Knowledge workers need to be constantly improving their knowledge through study and research, applying knowledge to solve problems, and communicating their knowledge to others.

There is no list of assigned readings. The exam can happen at any time in any shape and form. And the amount of information is so large that we can’t expect one would remember, make sense, and generate new ideas all in one sitting only with what they have in mind.

So we take notes.

But how to take effective notes?

Ask 5 people this question and you are likely to receive five different answers.

The fact is: no one knows what effective note-taking looks like. Mostly because there is not enough research on the topic (until now at least).

Instead, we share our practice (and hopefully the reasoning behind it) in the hope it can be useful to others.

In this article I will highlight common note-taking traps and how to overcome them.

Defining Effective Note-Taking

Effective means to be successful in producing a given outcome. Thus, for something to be effective it needs a goal or intention.

Any note-taking goal, even "no goal at all" (which is also a goal), will determine how effective your note-taking techniques are.

As my professional focus is in note-taking for self-expression, research, learning, and creativity, my focus here will be on knowledge and ideas. That means it won’t include information about tasks, files (e.g. invoices, business cards), or people.

I want to discuss a note-taking practice that:

  • Supports your way of thinking (it is customised to you).
  • Represents your knowledge (inspired and influenced by the words of others, but not just a copy/paste of their words).
  • Allows for easy retrieval of your knowledge.

So let’s check what are 3 common note-taking traps when you are trying to create a system that is truly yours.

Note-Taking Traps

First, why do I call them traps rather than mistakes?

These practices can move you forward so they are not mistakes. They will support your thinking and give you a sense of accomplishment, but only up to a point. They move you forward but they are not the best you could achieve.

As you transform these practices into habits, it becomes way harder to get rid of them. Thus, a trap.

So, which traps are those? Let’s check them out.

Note-Taking Trap 1: The Quest for the Perfect Tool

What is the best note-taking tool?

This is, by far, the main question I receive. And, honestly, I have once asked that question as well.

When we notice that note-taking can be more than just “copying what the teacher wrote on the blackboard”, we get passionate about the possibilities of our tools.

Should you use Evernote, Notion, Scrintal, Obsidian, or Tana?

We get excited about their features: which tag system should I use? Should I use an outliner, a long-form note, or a visual way of representation? How many links should I have in a note?

Questions, questions, questions.

It turns out each tool is the result of a series of design decisions made by its creators, all of which may have positive or negative effects on you. So, to pick up the best tool to support your way of thinking, first you need to decide: which way of thinking should your tool support?

To make the process easier I created the PKM Pyramid.

PKM stands for Personal Knowledge Management — that is, effective note-taking as we are focusing here.

PKM Pyramid

The PKM Pyramid is an acknowledgment that tools support certain ways of thinking, while adding friction to others. It has three levels:

  • Mindset is a way of thinking or a state of mind.
  • Method is a procedure that puts a mindset into practice. Two methods can be compared against each other regarding how efficient they are in supporting one (or more) mindset(s).
  • Tool is an artefact that enables the application of one or more methods.

At the base of the pyramid we have the mindset. This is what we want your tool to support. Only by building the base we then start creating the upper levels. Without the base, everything will eventually collapse (sometimes over and over again).

But climbing this pyramid is not a trivial task. In my own practice and teaching of note-taking I have already uncovered more than 20 mindsets and I know the list is far from complete. So, how can you get started?

Here are 3 options for you to choose:

Option 1 (not recommended). Learn all mindsets that work for you before you choose a tool. That means: self-reflection, reading, self-reflection. You think a lot before you try anything out, but it doesn’t really work, does it?

Option 2. Choose a tool you like and use it while exploring your intended mindsets. You will learn by trial-and-error and by finding points of friction where your mind doesn’t work as you want it. It won’t make the exploratory process any faster, but at least you will get started.

Option 3. Work with a Personal Knowledge Management professional and a supportive community to get a quick start to your process. It is easier to start your journey from a list of mindsets and some initial methods than having to figure it all out alone.

Climbing the PKM Pyramid is a personal journey, but you don’t need to do it alone. The community is here so you just need to reach out.

Solution for trap 1: Climb your PKM Pyramid.

Note-Taking Trap 2. Writing Notes as Pieces of Truth

Our second trap appears when we want to build a system that represents your knowledge.

I mean.. Look at your notes (if you have them or not).

If you need to prove to someone that you have the knowledge you claim you have, could you just give them all your notes? Do these notes represent all the knowledge you have or are they just clippings of other people’s words?

When it comes to writing the content of our notes, we can use two different mindsets.

The first mindset is what I call Notes as Pieces of Truth.

It refers to the desire to have only true, complete, and high quality knowledge within our notes. In that case, false, partial, or vague information is not allowed.

The consequence is the belief that all our notes should contain pieces of truth.

But tell me..

Have you ever seen a (non-egoistic) person who ever believed their thoughts are the absolute truth?

The consequences of having this mindset are:

  1. We avoid writing our own thoughts down. As every note needs to be their final version with only correct information, it instantly triggers perfectionism. When that happens, we may avoid writing notes about our thoughts altogether.
  2. Personal notes are seen as disposable. When we finally come to write down our thoughts, we just treat these as fleeting notes – notes that are disposable and have a deadline to go to the rubbish bin (or trash can). By treating them as disposable, we tend to not work well on our own thoughts. Why would you put effort in growing a note that will go into the bin anyway?
  3. All our long term notes are the words of other people. You want to write content with your own knowledge contributions. Yet, all your good notes are about other people's thoughts. You just try to capture the author's thoughts exactly as published. You do have quotations, facts and citations, but where is your own argument? Where is your knowledge?

This mindset will give you notes with a lot of information. But if our goal is to represent your knowledge then it becomes a trap.

Instead, I suggest creating Notes as Pieces of Understanding.

This mindset recognises that ideas are born vague, incomplete, and chaotic. Only by spending time with those ideas will they grow into what we could consider truth or at least good reasoning.

If you see notes as pieces of understanding it also means your notes will improve over time. As your understanding grows, your notes will grow with it.

At any point in time you can look at your notes and say: this is my current understanding, my current knowledge about these ideas. They won’t be just information you came across. Instead, they will represent your personal knowledge (even if still inspired by your sources).

Solution for trap 2: See your notes as pieces of understanding.

Note-Taking Trap 3. Writing Document Notes

Creating notes is time consuming.

So we don’t want you to write 100s of notes just to discover you can’t find them later – when you need them the most.

Then let us stop for a moment to investigate when we want to find our notes again. To:

  1. remember what we know about, or related to, an idea.
  2. improve our understanding or expression of an idea.
  3. communicate an idea (in a project, deliverable, or a conversation).

We are always looking for ideas in our notes.

Now let us investigate how most people take notes:

  • A note with all knowledge you needed for a deliverable (e.g. Report May/22).
  • A note for a source you have read (e.g. Comments on Article X’s highlights).
  • A note with all thoughts and ideas you had on a given day (e.g. Daily note 05/07/2023).
  • A note with everything you know about a topic (e.g. Oceanography).

Most people take what I call document notes.

And this is our 3rd trap.

Document notes contain either multiple snippets of ideas or a full argument chain within a single note. Also, to make things worse they have cryptic titles that say nothing about which ideas are inside that note.

It is inefficient to use document notes when it is time to find your ideas again, for three reasons:

  1. You need to remember in which document you wrote your idea (You most likely won’t).
  2. You need to read most of the note to find the paragraph mentioning the idea (Time consuming).
  3. Pieces of the same idea may appear spread over multiple notes (Good luck searching for it all). These pieces may even contradict each other.

Now let us stop to reflect..

If you are looking for ideas, why are you writing notes as documents?

Instead, I suggest writing what I call idea notes.

Idea notes focus on only one idea.

Yes, they can contain multiple ideas, but they focus on only one. Similar to a blurred background image in a picture, multiple ideas are present but only as a backdrop to enhance the focus on the main idea.

If a background idea starts fighting for attention, then it is time to give its own note. As a background idea moves into its own note, it leaves a reference behind (or a link if you are into link-based note taking).

So when the time comes to search for an idea, you won’t be searching and browsing through documents. Instead, you look for the note for that specific idea, directly.

Solution for trap 3: Create idea notes.

What Next?

While there is no perfect formula for effective note-taking, if you focus on the best mindsets for your specific needs, everything else will come together.

Now, it is your time to climb your PKM Pyramid, write notes as pieces of understanding, and decide whether document notes or idea notes will work best for you.

Bonus question: Did you know that writing idea notes can also lead you into a few traps?

But that is the topic for another day..


Bianca Pereira is a researcher and Personal Knowledge Management coach who helps you uncover the mindsets and methods to unlock your thinking. You can learn more about Bianca’s work at http://pkm.biancapereira.me/profile.

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