We read, we browse the web, we watch news and documentaries, we get ideas from TV shows and films... we have so many ideas coming in to our brains that it's impossible for most of them not to fall through the cracks into oblivion. And when your livelihood depends on you being creative, you need to keep hold of all the brain food you can get.
all those notes disappeared into the digital attic with no useful way of finding them again
I used to do note taking when I read a book or when I came up with an idea that I couldn't use straight away. I used Evernote so I could do it on my computer and phone. But it didn't stick. The trouble was, all those notes disappeared into the digital attic with no useful way of finding them again. Either I remembered them and searched for it, or they popped up by accident (this still happens — just yesterday I accidentally found a story idea I'd written 10 years ago).
The problem was that the notes were unconnected. Sure, I'd put them into folders. Well, I'd started to, but as time went on I forgot the folder structure and more and more of them just ended up in 'Notes'.
I needed my notes to be faster to create, smarter to browse and easier to connect to each other. I ended up hunting for something that would let me:
- Instantly create a note wherever I was — that meant data stored locally (synced to the cloud, sure, but it needed the speed and reliability to be stored on whatever device I was using). It needed to have a desktop and mobile app and be able to add photos, so that whatever I wanted to record, I could.
- Be able to add tags. Tags are like folders on steroids. A note can belong to any number of tags, rather than being stuck in a single folder. So a recipe I found for a healthy kale smoothie, say (just kidding, that sounds awful) could have both the #recipe and #health tags. It could also have a nested #ingredients/kale tag, if I wanted to later be able to browse by ingredient.
- Be able to link notes together. Beyond tagging, being able to link directly to other notes is vital. We're all used to this on the web: hyperlinks help us follow our trains of thought through different pages to find out more information.
- And, one I was initially unhappy with, but came to see the light: be based on plain text files. Why? Because this information store needs to be able to be platform dependent AND fast. An app that supported Markdown was the perfect compromise, letting me add notes rapidly in text that still supported formatting, links and images.
I ended up choosing the wonderful Bear notes app. It's Apple-only at the moment, but there are Android alternatives. The good thing about a plain-text system is that you can basically use it anywhere.
Bear lets me instantly create a note, give it a title, autocompletes my tags as I start typing, lets me add formatting with Markdown and link to existing notes (also with autocomplete) all without taking my hands off the keyboard (digital or physical). It syncs using iCloud, which means it happens in the background on my phone, iPad and Mac — the notes are just there when I need them.
Because it's so easy to connect each note to related ideas, browsing becomes a much more fruitful experience.
I use it to collect notes on EVERYTHING: writing ideas, recipes, ideas from books, birthday present ideas, plans for articles or courses, interesting things people say, films people recommend... and on and on. Because it's so easy to connect each note to related ideas, browsing becomes a much more fruitful experience.
The one thing Bear doesn't have yet is a view that shows you which notes link to the one you're currently viewing, but the team says they're working on that. At them moment I search for the title of the note and that will list everything that links to it too — not quite as easy, but good enough.
The reason I decided to write this article is that I found recently this is actually a fairly well known system: the Zettelkasten Method, developed by the German sociologist and prolific author Niklas Luhmann. By interconnecting all sorts of notes, it allows your creativity to find ways to use ideas that you would never have remembered alone.
Give it a go and see what your external brain can come up with while your internal one is struggling to remember what day the recycling bin is due to be put out.