July 3, 2020

Note Taking System Intro

My note taking system has been the most disorganized aspect of my productivity setup for a long time. The concept of “notes” is so ill-defined that can be difficult to get your arms around and create a system for. All aspects of our lives could potentially create notes and there are a lot of different options for where you can put them.

Most people I encounter don’t care nearly as much about notes as I do. If you are reading this, hopefully you are with me. I acknowledge that I might be over-thinking the whole situation.

This is an area where I hope to get clarity for myself by writing it out and defining it better.

To me, a note is a way of taking a thought that only exists inside of your head and externalizing it. It could be an original thought that came from you, or it could be somebody else’s thought that you were exposed to and it resonated with you in some way. By getting these thoughts out of our heads we can revisit them and look for ways they relate.

Having thoughts captured also helps you avoid the looping that your brain likes to do. You might have the same thought over and over again. Externalizing it helps you to separate it from your brain and expand upon it rather than dwelling on it.

I want to set up a note taking system that helps me to capitalize on the notes I have taken. They need to be useful, or there is little point to taking them. I want a system that creates continuity and allows me to expand on ideas and more forward. I also want a system that allows me to see relationships between concepts and fosters the creation of new ideas.
For me this results in two separate categories of notes.

Note Categories

For me, notes fit into 1 of 2 categories. My system for work generates the highest quantity of notes by far so I will use that as an example.

Structured Notes

A structured note is one that I am expecting to take and have established a structure in which to capture it. I have 1:1 meetings with everybody on my team, so I have created a place to put all those notes and keep them in chronological order. I know we are working on projects and there are going to be meetings, conversations, and ideas relevant to those projects I will want to capture. I create a note for those projects and fill up that bucket as those things occur.

My main note workflow starts with a page for each month of the year. Every day that I work I fill in the date and create a “daily log”. This is just a list of things I did that day, thoughts I had, or interesting things I came across. I keep it pretty loose. At the end of each day I look at my log and make some decisions. I might move notes out into a particular project, or create a brand new note where I can capture future items. I might find tasks that need to be moved over to Todoist. I fill in a few more sentences of detail based on a quick note I took earlier in the day.

I also like to use OneNote’s quick linking feature in my daily log. If on that day I had an important meeting about “Example Project”, where there is already a note started. I can easily use double brackets to create a link to that note.... “Example Project”. This functionality makes it so simple to reference other notes and topics in your workflow.

Once I review and process my notes for the day I try to have the discipline to create my note for the next day and write the top 3 things I want to get done. Those will be the first things I look at the next day when I go to start my log. It helps close out the day and create this sense of continuity of thought and priorities from one day to the next.

In my structured note system I also have an “Inbox”. In the heat of the moment I don’t want any friction or decision making holding me back from getting a thought down. If I don’t immediately know where something fits I just create a new note in the inbox and start typing away.

The key to the structured notes is to keep things under control. You need to know where your notes live (and what they are named) and get into the habit of reading back through the last few entires for a project or re-occurring meeting to make sure to build on your previous thoughts.

Unstructured Notes

This category seems like it would be messier that the other one just by nature of the title, but I’m not sure that is the case. My unstructured notes are what I use as my “second brain”. This is an area for thoughts and ideas. For unstructured notes I am not creating a hierarchy or system of notebooks and folders. Everything generally goes into the same place. Notes are usually short, and they are tagged with anything that might be relevant to that thought or idea in the future.

This is a place to explore connections between thoughts and find new ways of thinking about topics over time.

I started this system in OneNote but I’ve recently been playing a new app called Obsidian.

A screenshot of the graph view in Obsidian that shows how notes relate to one another.

Obsidian is very similar to another app called Roam Research. They are both geared at creating a Zettelcasten, or a slip-box. This is the initial concept of where the second brain comes from. I’d recommend the fairly quick read How to Take Smart Notes. It lines out the history and concept of the system pretty well. Or you can search YouTube and watch some great videos by Tiago Forte.

The recent discovery of the Second Brain has been huge for me. I have been taking these types of notes for a long time, but never had a good framework that would allow them to be very useful to me. These types of notes were also intermixed with what now lives in my structured notes. Keeping those things separate has been very helpful.


As with most personal productivity systems, you have to find something that works for you. Note-taking is such an ambiguous topic that it can be difficult to get started. You may waste a lot of time experimenting and get frustrated before it begins to click.

I’ve created a two tiered system with structured and unstructured notes. In the structured system you create containers for notes you will need to take, and then have a daily log that can act as in index, linking you to the relevant notes that you are using. Try to keep this as simple as possible and avoid creating a bunch of new notes. Tidy it up by archiving notes you no longer actively contribute to.

The unstructured note section is a place for random thoughts and ideas to live. Try to keep these notes short. Try to write them in your own words. Tag them with the relevant information that will help you find them later and look for possible connections. The more you build this personal “second brain” the more powerful it will become.

I plan to write a lot more about the topic of note taking and journaling. These are things that have been very important to my career and I believe help my thinking processes and performance.

Filed Under: ,