Many people fret at the thought of organising their notes.
Organisation often feels like a waste of time or a form of active procrastination. You sit down to write something very important and before you know it, you've spent an hour sorting your tags and folders. You get a sense that you have just wasted your time. But it is only true if you organise just for the sake of organising.
In this article I will argue in favour of organisation.
In fact, I won’t just argue but guide you through the same strategy I teach my students. A 5-step Knowledge Flywheel strategy where you organise your notes and grow your knowledge at the same time.
The secret is: We are not going to organise our notes. Instead, we will organise our ideas.
The organisation of your notes will follow the organisation of your thoughts. That means the organisation of your notes will be a by-product of making sense of information and growing your own knowledge. And, even then, your notes will still be organised in a way that makes it easier to retrieve them later.
But it won’t suit everyone!
For those who find thinking and learning boring, I am afraid this strategy won’t help. It will also not help those who only want a Personal Information System (i.e. only quotes, highlights, and clipping of information).
The Knowledge Flywheel strategy shows a type of organisation that suits learners, researchers, and those who love thinking. It is a way to spend time with your ideas, create new knowledge from them, and get a good organisation as the outcome of it all. So when it is time to find your notes again, you just need to think about which idea you are looking for and go grab its note.
So, if that's what you're looking for, let’s get started.
Knowledge Flywheel Strategy
Step 1. Write Your Thoughts Down
You can’t organise notes that do not exist.
So the first step is to ensure you have captured all your knowledge and insights somewhere. Just create a note and write your thoughts down. The more thorough you are in capturing your own thoughts, the more likely your future self will thank you for that.
Now, with all your knowledge written down, it is time to organise it.
Step 2. Organise Your Notes Based on ‘Objects of Attention’
Notes don’t matter, the ideas they convey is what matters.
So rather than thinking about notes as “snippets of text” or “documents”, I invite you to think about notes as representing ideas.
And what are ideas?
Ideas are ‘objects of attention’.
- you set the focus of your attention to something,
- you create boundaries to separate that something from its environment (i.e. create an object), and
- you give it a name.
That’s how our cognition works and how we normally perceive the world. We create objects so that we can describe them, reason about them, and communicate them to others.
My favourite analogy for understanding this idea is photography, where we focus our attention on a part of the landscape (i.e. the object of our attention), and all the rest gets blurred.
So, go ahead and give it a try.
Scan the note you have created and observe all the objects you have set your attention to.
You may have called them by their names or you may have written paragraphs about them without having ever made them explicit.
Capture each object in their own note and give them a name. Then you start transferring the text you have “about them” into their specific notes.
This step can help you develop clarity about your thoughts, discover ideas you didn't notice at first, and result in a collection of idea notes. So when it is time to see what you know about a given idea, you just need to pull out the note for the idea.
Step 3. Identify Relationships Between Your Objects of Attention.
Cool! You probably have a bunch of disconnected notes all over the place by now. What’s next?
It is time to think: How do these objects relate to each other?
The goal here is not to create relations all over the place. Instead, the goal is to build your knowledge.
As it is your knowledge, the goal is not to spend time considering every possible relation that may exist between two ideas. Instead, the goal is to explore relations that are meaningful to you. That means, relations that are interesting, relevant (to whatever you are doing), or puzzling to you.
If there is a relation, write that down and create a link between the notes representing the two objects of attention.
There are two main consequences for looking at the relationship between ideas.
First, creating links between ideas helps us find the notes about these ideas again. We may forget the name we gave to the idea we are looking for, but we are still likely to remember what they are related to. So the links become a form of organisation, but created through a process of making sense of the ideas. No time wasted in meaningless organisation.
Second (and that’s the best part!), the relations themselves can become of attention.
Ok, let me repeat it again:
The relations themselves can become objects of attention.
That means they can become ideas we can talk about, reason about, and communicate. And if that is the case, the relation should not be just a link between notes, but get its own note instead.
Now, as any object of attention, the relation can also relate to everything else. It is an infinite cycle that can go for as long as you wish – one more push to spin your very own Knowledge Flywheel.
Step 4. Create Generalisations
That’s it!? Yes, pretty much it. But remember it is a 5-step strategy so let me share a few more secrets with you. Shall we?
There are a few relations that are harder to see if you only consider a pair of objects. So, after having looked into pairs of ideas, let us focus now on generalisations.
Generalisation is the process of creating broader ideas from the ideas you currently have. So when it comes to generalisations we can use (at least) two techniques.
The first technique is called categorisation.
Categorisation (also called ‘top-down’, or ‘architect’ thinking) is when you arbitrarily design a number of categories (and sub-categories) and try to fit your objects of attention within those categories.
If you have ever created a structure of folders, then you know what categorisation looks like.
The very process of trying to fit your object of attention into categories makes you reflect about what the object is (or is not), how it relates to each category, and how it relates to other elements within that category.
It works in the same way as thinking about relations in step 3. Because, ultimately, the category is nothing more than yet another ‘object of attention’.
When it comes to your notes, the category can then be represented by an idea note (as it is an object of attention after all), a tag, or a folder. Your choice, really.
The second technique is called clustering.
Clustering (also called ‘bottom-up’ or ‘gardener’ thinking, or ‘emergence’) happens when you try to design categories that represent the objects of attention you currently have.
You group your objects based on certain similarities, forming a ‘cluster’. Then you give that cluster a name, an explanation of what it means to be in the cluster, and voila! you have created another object of attention that ‘emerged’ from the objects you already have.
Example of a cluster of notes. Looking exactly the same as a group of notes related to a category (Regular Community Contributors).
It is not just organisation! It is sensemaking all the way through and, as a result, you also have your notes organised 😊
Step 5. Build Storylines
Finally, in this vast network of objects of attention, there is something lurking under the radar: the storylines.
We think in stories, we tell stories, and the relationships between objects we have created in steps 3 and 4 will naturally build those stories. But the challenge is that they are hidden inside of the network. So, how can we find those storylines again?
It is simple: make them explicit.
We organise these storylines by pulling the sequence or groupings of ideas out of the network and into their own space (i.e. a separate note, a board, or in the outline of that important report or essay you have for next week).
Only by pulling these notes out of the network and organising them, we are able to see this storyline, critique it, grow it, and communicate it. In other words, only by separating it from its ‘environment’ can we make it into a new object of attention.
See what I did there? 😉
(1) write your thoughts down,
(2) organise your notes based on ‘objects of attention’,
(3) Identify relationships between those objects,
(4) Create generalisations, and
(5) Build storylines.
The flywheel effect comes from a continuous generation of objects of attention. The more objects of attention you create, the more you can create. Also, every time you create a new object of attention you are invited to go back to step 1 again: write your thoughts down.
So if you are someone who enjoys learning and building new knowledge, don’t fret when you need to organise your notes. Instead, give the knowledge flywheel a spin and let organisation be a by-product of your own process of sensemaking.
See you next time!
Until then, take care.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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://thinkingcafe.co