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Why take notes

Introduction

I’ve been fond of notetaking for approximately the last 4 years. Notetaking systems I’ve used extensively are:

  • Workflowy. You’ll probably notice that I love hierarchical lists.
  • Anki. Yes, I used it not only for spaced repetition but also as a poor man’s knowledge base.
  • Paper notebooks. One notebook per mathematical subject.
  • Emacs org-mode

Right now, I am trying the latest rationalist fad - Zettelkasten using paper. I like it, but it’s far from ideal, so yesterday I’ve been thinking about what else I could try and how I should choose a notetaking system. This document is me writing down those thoughts as a blog post.

What I get or hope to get from notetaking

Here goes my list of ways how notetaking can improve my life. Each item has importance assigned from low to very high.

  • It facilitates thinking useful thoughts. This has two components.
    • For me, it’s nigh impossible to think a long and complicated thought without an extension of my working memory in the form of paper, whiteboard, or a computer with a text editor. For some magical reason (“habits” and absence distractions are my best hypotheses), this works much better for me with paper than with a computer. My best hypotheses for why this is the case are: due to habits I am used to thinking on paper and not getting distracted, and due to other habits I get distracted all the time when using computer or phone; writing on paper is slower than typing, so this forces my mind to slow down. If I need to think about something complicated, I put a sheet of paper on the table, take a pencil and start writing my thoughts. Notice that it’s not necessary to even keep notes for this effect to work. Although knowing that the note will go into my knowledge base gives me the motivation to write it. importance: very high
    • Finding useful connections between notes by linking. This is what zettelkasten is all about. I am actually not sure if this is important. But it might be, and right now I want to try Zettelkasten for real, so I am rating it as importance: high
  • Knowledge base. I.e., having quick access in the future to the knowledge I write down today in a form which will be easy for me to understand. For example, yesterday, I forgot how integration by parts works. I went to Wikipedia, but ∫u dv = uv - ∫v du is not how I’ve learned it. So I looked it up in my Anki and found (f ⋅ g)’ = f’ ⋅ g + f ⋅ g’, which is much more intuitive for me. So, my notes, by virtue of being mine, are tailor-made for me. importance: high
  • It improves my memorization. importance: medium
    • There is a bunch of research showing that writing things down when studying improved memorization. Most of that research focuses on writing things by hand. I don’t buy into the premise that precise muscle movements which happen when writing by hand are the important thing here, I think it’s mainly the act of thinking about the thing that much more thoroughly, maybe with something else. So I don’t think handwriting is much better at this than writing on the computer.
    • Hopefully, a good knowledge base will show me useful notes I made in the past, and this will work as kinda spaced repetition.
  • Being able to free up my working memory because I know I won’t forget about important things - my notetaking system will remind me of them. This is one of the important considerations behind David Allen’s “Getting things done” method. I think this is useful not only for remembering to do my todos. Also, if I know I’ve written down this very important thought I am having in my notetaking system where it probably won’t get lost and completely forgotten, I can go to sleep now rather than frantically trying to finish thinking about it now. The part about being able to go to sleep seems extremely plausible, while the part about freeing up the working memory seems somewhat plausible (25% probability of actually working like that, since by default, I consider all psychological theories to be false). I haven’t specifically sought research about the working memory component. Please send me a summarization or a meta-analysis if you know one. importance: medium
  • It facilitates writing blog posts. Having a blog is useful for signaling intelligence and other good things. In this regard, computer-based notetaking systems win, because copy-pasting text is much easier than typing it while looking at my paper notes. importance: medium
  • A notetaking system can also be a todo system. Todo systems allow me not to forget the important things which I need to do. But it’s trivial to use google calendar or something like that for todos instead, so I am marking this as importance: low

Desiderata for a notetaking system

Here I list characteristics I want a notetaking system to have. They are useful to compare different notetaking systems. They aren’t all absolutely critical.

  • Given a topic, it should be easy to look up notes about it.
  • Quick adding new notes and editing existing notes
  • Low cognitive burden of using the system. After getting used to it, at least.
  • Future-proof. It should be easy to switch from this system to another one and keep the notes. The system shouldn’t suddenly stop working (for example, because the creator went bankrupt). The system should work on different platforms I might use in the future (e.g. on Windows computers with restricted software installation if my future employer forces me to use one).
  • I should be able to take the system with me. So, having an Android program would be nice.
  • I should be able to use it comfortably not only behind my table (for example, if it’s difficult to use the notetaking program on a small laptop screen) but just about anywhere. This characteristic is probably not important for many people, but for me, sitting all day long behind a table causes back pain.
  • Using the system should feel nice.
  • It should be easy to put brain dump notes in the system if I decide that I want them there.
  • If it’s software, it should be customizable.
  • If it’s software, it should be unable or unlikely to access my system, other files, etc. and use them in ways that are bad for me.
  • Other people shouldn’t be able or should be unlikely to read my notes stored in the system.

Notetaking systems I might want to try and what characteristics they have

The 4 notetaking systems I might want to use are

  • Paper zettelkasten. So far, I’ve been using it for 2 months.
  • Roam. I’ve tried it for about 10 days and moderately liked it. Mostly I disliked that it’s in the browser, that it’s not free open source, and that it had a problem with keeping users’ notes private.
  • Org-roam is a plugin for Emacs org-mode. I’ve tried using it for about a month, and it was painful. Before this, I’ve been using just Emacs org-mode for 3 years.
  • Stroll - a roam-like experience in TiddlyWiki. TiddlyWiki is one big HTML file that you’re suppposed to take everywhere with you. It contains both your notes and the software. So it works in the browser, you keep the file on your computer, open it, and it self-modifies when you write something. I haven’t tried Stroll yet.

Other notable notetaking systems I might consider in the future but which I don’t want to analyze now are:

  • Obsidian - something like roam, using markdown, but in a desktop program.
  • Zettlr - another roam-like markdown-using program.
  • Notebag - another roam-like markdown-using program.
  • Ipad pro plus a fancy app for taking handwritten notes. What can I say, I like handwriting.

The table

Here I list some notetaking systems I want to try (or have already tried but want to give them another chance) as rows of a table. Columns are desiderata. The desiderata are mentioned in the previous section, but they don’t map one to one, and not all of those desiderata are present as columns here. I rate each desideratum from 1 (high importance) to -1 (low importance). Each cell contains a rating of how well the notetaking system satisfies the desideratum from 2 to -2. Or it contains a range like [-1, 2] if I am not sure and I think it can be anywhere from -1 (inclusive) to 2 (inclusive).

SystemFacilitates thoughts by magic 1Facilitates thoughts by linking 0Easy lookup 0Easy adding 1Easy editing 0Transferable 0Will work 0Doesn’t force same pose 1Can use everywhere always 0Facilitates writing for public -1
Paper zettelkasten21-21-2-11[1, 2]10
Roam022221-11-11
org-roam[-1, 0][-1, 1][-2, 1][0, 1]110[0, 1]01
stroll[-2, 0]12[0,1][0, 1]01[0, 1]01

Why these systems have these ratings

Facilitates thoughts by magic
this is about me being used to thinking using a piece of paper. Also, this is about how much cognitive load there is when using a piece of software.
  • Paper clearly wins for me.
  • Stroll and Roam get penalized because they work in the browser, and that means I’ll be easily distracted. However, roam is easy and pleasant to use.
  • Org-roam adds too much cognitive load, but perhaps that can be fixed.
Facilitates thoughts by linking
this is the feature zettelkasten is famous for.
  • Graph and backlinks in org-roam suck.
  • In Stroll, the backlinks pane works well, but the graph is probably not as nice as in Roam.
  • On paper looking at linked things is not very easy.
Easy adding
This is about the quickness and cognitive burden of adding a new note.
  • Stroll is not WYSIWYG. This is bad. Also, it uses some kind of wiki markup language, which might be clunky compared to org-mode and markdown. The same holds for easy editing.
Transferable
it means how easy and quickly you can transfer your notes from this system to another system you might want to use.
  • Roam exports markdown, which is great. Don’t know how easy it is to use in other markdown zettelkasten programs though - perhaps links or something else won’t work. Also, AFAIK images aren’t downloaded, only image links are saved. Also, even though Roam’s creator promises you’ll always be able to export your stuff, who knows if it’ll always be true.
  • Org-mode is plaintext, which is good. It’s used by emacs only, which is bad. Pandoc can convert it, but maybe it will be buggy.
  • Stroll saves notes as some wiki markup language. Needs work to convert to markdown or to another format.
Will work
this is something like the expected time during which the system will continue working, i.e. if it’s a web service, it won’t close, if it’s a desktop program which needs maintenance, it will continue to be maintained, and if it’s a paper system, it won’t get stolen or burned.
Doesn’t force same pose
this is once again about me getting back pain from sitting behind a table.
  • Org-roam’s sidebar for showing backlinks sucks, so without a lot of tinkering, I can only use it comfortably on a big screen, which forces me to sit at my desk rather than move around my home with my laptop.
Can use everywhere always
whether I can take the system with me everywhere I go.
  • Paper notebook is easy to take on a walk but I won’t be able to take all my notebooks when I have many.
  • org-roam will never have a mobile app.
  • Roam requires internet access but might get a mobile app.
Facilitates writing for public
whether it encourages writing blog posts and other forms of writing for other people. The main consideration for the ratings is that it’s easy to copy-paste but much more difficult to type what is already written on paper.

Conclusion?

Columns with importance 1 get the coefficient 3. Columns with importance 0 get the coefficient 1. The column with importance -1 gets the coefficient 0.5. To get an overall score for a notetaking system, for each of the columns, I multiply the column’s coefficient by the score the system got for this desideratum. If a system has a range instead of a single score for some column, I take its middle point. Here’s the result:

Paper zettelkasten
9.5
Roam
14.5
Org-roam
3.5
Stroll
5

This suggests that Roam is great, and I should give it another chance. Hmm. But for some reason, I want to give org-roam another chance more because yay free open source software yay emacs yay customizability. Well, we’ll see how it goes.

I hope you find some of these considerations useful for figuring out whether you need a notetaking system and how to choose one.