Notetaking workflow

I think it’s important to have an idea of what you want your process to do for you. Personally, I want to write better essays and talks more easily, I want to look forward to engaging with literature in my field, and I want my notetaking system to be a structure I can relax into. A good structure reinforces your best impulses to let you work well with little effort. For me, that means allowing me to make meaning by moving things around (I’m an IA, rearranging things is how I make sense of the world) and encouraging me to write a little bit all the time, as I feel like it. I’m a great outliner and a reluctant and mediocre prose writer. This process makes the most of that.

It’s important to use the same process and tools all the time, so I don’t have to think about it. I don’t worry too much about the system; instead I want to push my attention into the deeper pace layers of my work.

I write down all ideas as they come to me. I try to close the loop on everything I might be thinking about. These can be written down wherever; I use the Notes app on my phone and a small notepad that lives in my pocket.

I also save anything I come across in real life or on the internet that I think would be helpful to use or interesting to refer back to as an example or joke in a finished work. These include photos of funny categorization schemes in the costume warehouses where a friend works, a meme about how bad Microsoft’s product naming is, or an anecdote about Australian rail standardization from a Bill Bryson book. These examples are valuable and hard to come up with when you need them, so I stockpile them in advance.

I have a standard setup for reading: A printed book or article (I also use a Remarkable for PDFs when I just can’t countenance wasting any more paper), a Lihit Lab Twist Notebook, and a vintage Parker Vacumatic fountain pen. (Nice stationery is part of bribing myself into doing this more.) I take notes on the ideas, frames, patterns, etc. in what I’m reading as I go, expressed as completely as I can, with page numbers. I follow what interests me, regardless of whether I can find an immediate connection in my other knowledge for it. I rarely note facts that could be looked up again, unless they seem immediately useful. I only include quotations if they’re phrased well enough that I would like to be able to use the quotation in full. (I’ve been writing long enough that I have a good sense of this.) I also write down original ideas of my own and additional sources to track down, each with a symbol to differentiate them from the main notes.

When I’m done with a piece, I add the source to Zotero if it’s not there already (my Zotero also has a lot of things to read, so it often is) and transcribe my notes into Obsidian. All the notes for one work go into one literature note. I do a lot of rearranging while I transcribe, to express ideas concisely and fully, while preserving the page numbers. A book will often have an idea expressed at a high level in the introduction, explored fully in a chapter, and then connected to other fields in the conclusion. I take my notes from all of those sections and combine them into one coherent statement of the idea.

As I transcribe, I add sources I noted to my Zotero library, so I can follow up with them later. Any original ideas I wrote down while reading are candidate permanent notes. Sometimes I already have a similar permanent note, which gets further developed with this idea and a reference back to the new work. Otherwise, I create a new permanent note about the idea and write as much about it as I have to say in that moment. These are often only a sentence or two at this stage. I also note follow-up questions at the bottom of the permanent note.

When I’m done transcribing my literature notes, I take the pages out of the notebook (it’s refillable, which is why I like this specific one) and recycle them. The notebook only ever has notes that need to be finished in some way.

Whenever I feel like it (which is often), I wander around some notes in Obsidian and make them a little better by adding, rearranging, rephrasing, or pruning. Aliases and unlinked mentions make it easy to find possibilities. A permanent note on the importance of getting concrete has the alias “concrete,” which lets me see every other note which uses that word. Many of them aren’t useful, but it does help me see that Getting to Yes, a favorite paper about policy entrepreneurship, and a previous observation about mitigating biases in our IA process all make the argument in different, supporting ways.

These notes evolve into theses for essays and talks pretty easily for me, because I get to get an idea out, organize it a little, and then let it simmer in my back brain until a new insight comes to me. Usually, a cluster of permanent notes evolves for a while until I have an index note that arranges all of them in an outline of ideas and sources. That outline becomes a finished work with comparatively little effort, since each of the pieces is already phrased pretty well. I get to focus on smooth connections between them, rather than generating new ideas as I go.

This process works really well for me for a few reasons:

  1. I’ve been using notecards to write essays since middle school, so the basic idea of this felt very familiar when I started. Rephrasing notes so that they’re relatively complete and polished, not just raw quotations, was a game-changer for me.
  2. My background in information science makes this kind of organization second-nature to me. I didn’t have to learn a new skill to index things well or keep track of citations. That also lessened the learning curve.
  3. I work in a field that is immature and interdisciplinary. Information architecture (by that name) has only been around for a few decades, and it borrows from information science as well as environmental psychology, neuroscience, and city planning, among a lot else. There isn’t a hugely deep catalog of literature just about IA, and as a discipline, we reward bringing new ideas in and making novel connections. This process is designed to facilitate that.
  4. I have a strong idea of what interests me. I let my point of view on the discipline and personal interests guide what I read and what I put in my notes, because I have a good sense of what I’ll use. I don’t have to think about this part of the process, and it is usually correct. That said, I do sometimes read a book that I don’t expect to be relevant but sparks interesting ideas that I want to get in my notes. In those cases, I happily re-read the book or article.
  5. I engage with the same ideas repeatedly. It makes professional sense for me to have a twenty-five minute version of a talk and an hour version of the talk and a workshop and an article and a Twitter thread all on the same topic. Having ideas represented in this way helps me scale their representation up or down as needed. I also find myself explaining the same things repeatedly, and frequently copy a definition or argument out of my notes into an email.


Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking . 2022.