The problem with note-taking

Most note-taking apps use a hierarchical structure: folders and notes. This mirrors how we’re taught to take notes, and how most books are structured, with parts, chapters, and sections. Growing up, I never questioned this taxonomy.

Yet, I always struggled to make use of notes this way. I wanted to believe that maybe the act of writing them down in my own words helps me remember them better, but that simply didn’t come true for me. I tried everything from paper and pen to fancy apps like Notion, none of them solved the core problem: I never revisited anything I wrote down.

One day, I discovered Andy Matuschak. He’s a fairly well-known researcher, designer, and engineer who’s accomplished more than I know how at his age. I admired his fluency at expressing complex ideas and his ability to straddle between multiple disciplines at ease. When I saw his publicized notes, I was blown away by how all the ideas are cross-linked and referenced like a mini Wikipedia. It was almost overwhelming at first, for a reader like me. I clung so stubbornly to the hierarchical thinking of domain and phylum and genus and species that I couldn’t reconcile how “chaotic” and “unorganized” his notes appeared at first.

But I eventually realized this: the brain is not hierarchical. Your brain stores everything you know in one giant, chaotic network. Each idea or memory is like a node in this graph, and each node has numerous connections to other ideas and memories, like a spider web. Together, this densely linked worldview makes connections between random things regardless of which library isle they belong in.

Think of that time you made a brilliant connection between two seemingly unrelated ideas. These “aha!” moments are only possible because our brains function like a knowledge graph, rather than a library.

To put it another way, organizing notes using a top-down, folders-and-chapters approach is excellent for presenting information but fundamentally at odds with how we store them.

In other words, I never went back to reading my notes because they were never organized like how I think. Somewhere, sometime, I wrote an idea in the margin of a page. As soon as the idea was born, it was dead. Without a sudden strike of inspiration, I’d never recall the idea even when a new context might be relevant.

Around the same time of realizing this, I discovered the idea of networked note-taking. Sometimes called zettelkasten, this is a method of making connections between notes so that you rely on backlinks, contextualized references to other notes, to organize your knowledge in a bottom-up architecture.

It might sound abstract and a bit wild at first, but once I embraced the chaos and the organic organization of zettelkasten, I felt liberated from the librarian tedium of housekeeping. More importantly, it truly felt like an extension of my brain, where I can keep track of evolving ideas and connections much more efficiently than any other organizational method.

In the next part, I’ll run you through a long but hopefully straightforward example of how this works for me.

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