The Humble Note: Turning Sterile Information Into Stimulating Insights

Uncover the hidden potential of the humble note: This essential tool fuels insight, innovation, and personal growth. Learn how to use it effectively.

The Humble Note: Turning Sterile Information Into Stimulating Insights

"Sit up straight! When the teacher’s talking, you’d better be writing—or else! That’s because taking notes means you're learning."

Right? Wrong.

You've been misled.

This cultural habit is part of the Collector's Fallacy. It's based on the false promise that "if only you could capture information easier and faster, then it would all work out." But it's a trap (and we're going to replace it with something better).

But first let's take a moment to fully appreciate the power of the humble note.

What is a Note?

Because school drilled in that “you better be taking notes,” we need to break our old beliefs about notes and replace them with five core paradigms.

Each paradigm will shed light on just how powerful notes truly are. For each paradigm, I dare you to pause and reflect on what it means for you.

At its core, a note is a container of thought.

Paradigm #1: 🍯 Notes Are Containers of Thought 💭

You can put anything inside—a journal, a grocery list, an idea…anything.

As David Allen has famously said, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Notes allow us to offload the burden of remembering.

But there is even more to notes than merely being a memory aid. Exciting research continues to tell us what likely feels true to you already, but still very profound:

Paradigm #2: 🎶 Notes Expand Our Cognitive Surface Area 🤯

Notes enable you to extend your mind.

As we make notes, we build a sort of “cognitive scaffolding” that supports our thinking efforts, which actually allows us to extend our mind. Seriously, when you make notes, you are extending the available surface area of your thinking. That’s pretty wild and very powerful.

It goes even further, because the humble note is actually a time machine.

Paradigm #3: 🗣️ Notes Allow Conversations Across Time ⌛️

Notes allow your old self to send messages to your future self.

Have you ever reread an old journal or flipped through something you wrote before? Your Present Self is having a conversation with your Old Self. Your old self can re-inspire you, help you rediscover your way, or remind you of a really great idea.

That’s awesome enough, but it goes further…Knowing this in advance, you can actually start a conversation with your Future Self—planting idea seeds and reminders for the You Of The Future.

The last two paradigms are vital if you want to learn how to use notes to think better.

Paradigm #4: 🌱 Notes Can Change 🌲

Notes are not paved in concrete. Notes can & should evolve over time.

Think of notes like you and me. We have relationships. Well, notes do too. When we make their relationships explicit—by linking them—their social lives grow in complexity and value. Just like ours. And the last paradigm is so important it should be shouted from rooftops.

Paradigm #5: ✨ Notes Are For Thinking 🚀

Notes are not for collecting. Notes are for helping you think.

If this doesn't sound like your notes, it's because you're stuck in note-taking and haven't crossed the threshold into note-making.

Let's explore where note-taking went wrong...

The Fall of the Note Taker

Here are the four ways note-taking is failing us—along with making our notes boring, frustrating, guilt-ridden, and totally unenjoyable...

Our Notes Turned Against Us

Our notes turned against us. After many years of taking notes, our collection of notes is more cluttered than ever, more overwhelming, more frustrating. And we have shockingly little to show for it.

Our notes are full of other people's articles and old to-dos that lost their utility years ago. Dealing with the growing mess becomes your burden.

It's time to push back. You deserve control over your ability to think masterfully with your digital notes. You deserve to think without a to-do list looming over your shoulder.

You deserve a guilt free ideation chamber.

We Let the Servant Become the Master

We let the servant become the master. We knelt at the altar of "to-dos", "projects", and "getting things done". Yes, they have their place. But no, they are not the whole story. And it's time we start working on the rest of the tale.

We gave up the inherent joy of thinking as its own reward. Can you even imagine your notes being a place of tranquility? (Blasphemy!) We stripped away the soul of inquiry and replaced it with soulless efficiency—which, just because we can track every second of our days, absolutely does not mean we should.

You may not know this, but you have a choice. You don't have to serve your task manager. You can take the power back. You can choose to be led by the carrot of curiosity as opposed to the stick of a never-ending list of to-dos.

We Fixated On Collecting Junk

We fixated on collecting junk. Collecting is addictive. And easy. It feels good to "clip" a new article into our library of notes. It feels like progress. But that's a fallacy. You haven't done anything. This is the "Collector's Fallacy" we discussed previously and it's a disease we've inflicted upon ourselves.

• Collecting a new idea doesn't equal KNOWING a new idea.
• Collecting a new idea doesn't equal being able to effectively work with it.
• Collecting a new idea doesn't equal being able to effectively talk about it.

We Wasted Time Highlighting

Instead of spending time developing our ideas, we got into the habit of just highlighting other people's ideas.

And in all that time, what do we have to show for it? Another person's article, with some highlights. What a waste! Your valuable time and enthusiasm deserve better.

We don't need more knowledge every second. Instead, we need to get better at developing the knowledge we already have.

  • The Note Taker stays on the sidelines, passive.
  • The Note Maker engages with the ideas they encounter—getting their hands dirty—and thinking prolifically every step of the way.

The Rise of the Note Maker

Here are the four ways note-making empowers us—along with making our notes personal, meaningful, valuable, and full of joy...

Build Notes that Grow in Value Over Time

Most people take "just-in-time" notes. They take them for a specific short-term purpose—like a test or a project. When the milestone concludes, the notes lose their value. Let's call this "Churn and Burn". Most of us grew up with these habits ingrained in us.

In contrast, the Note Maker "knows and grows". They don't just take notes; they make notes. Through the process of note-making, your universe of notes starts to grow more valuable over time.

Now apply the Compound Effect:

Making quality notes + consistency + time = RADICAL VALUE CREATED

In this way, your notes act as an evolving and contributing library of insights that you take with you throughout your life—across projects, careers, and decades. And it all happens from the tiny habits around building tiny links that over time go on to become a major fortune of ideas.

No sane person looks at an account with compound interest and asks, "could you stop it from compounding please?"

So why do that with one of the most valuable assets you possess: your thoughts?!

Linking is Thinking

What is a link between two notes? It's a relationship. It means something. When you link two notes, you build a new relationship. And it forces a unspoken conversation:

"How are these two notes related, in what way, and why?"

Your mind experiences a marked increase in "Thought Collisions". Through these thought collisions (not an official term...yet) you deepen and enrich your understanding.

Linking is thinking.

Curiosity Builds Real Value (If You Let It)

If something interests you, it's not a waste of time to develop your ideas on it. If you have the enthusiasm, lean into it. Build up your understanding.

Because the unspoken truth is: you're building hidden value.

The reason it can be hard to see is because it might not be immediately useful.

It might not help you with your task list. But the world changes pretty fast, and if you're not expanding your set of skills, you'll become obsolete.

You never know when the next pandemic hits and wipes out your job. What's your Plan B? Will your task manager save you then? Suddenly all your note-making gives you something priceless: Options. You quite possibly have developed the option to pivot in your profession or change careers.

In this way, those who wander, those who let their curiosity guide them from time to time—they actually make themselves more future proof, just like their notes.

"Not all those who wander are lost." – J.R.R. Tolkien

Thinking Is Inherently Valuable

When did we lose our way? When did "getting things done" become our guiding light? When did the Destination swallow up the joy of the Journey?

Linking, Thinking, Learning, Writing, Creating...These activities can't help but produce inherent feelings of joy and meaning.

You can be a professional and still spend time wandering, and wondering, just for the sake of it.

Do not underestimate a mind enriched with developed ideas and defined values.

The Humble Note

The note can be whatever you want it to be, but if you want it to fully enhance your thinking, then I encourage you to balance the time you spend taking notes, with the time you spend making notes.

This article was previously published at the Linking Your Thinking Workshop.


Nick Milo helps people get their thoughts in order so that they can become prolific in what they do. You can find more about Nick’s work at:

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