People who write extensively about note-writing rarely have a serious context of use

Many bloggers and “life-hackers” have made a full-time job of suggesting how you should organize your journal, or how you should most effectively Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply. We should take this advice seriously insofar as those practices have helped the authors achieve meaningful creative work: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”

But most people who write about note-taking don’t seem particularly accomplished in their own fields, whatever those may be. In fact, most such writers aren’t applying their notes to some exogenous creative problem: their primary creative work is writing about productivity. These writers offer advice on note-taking to help scientists and executives with the challenges of their work, but the advice was developed in a context disconnected from those external realities. There are two related problems here: Effective system design requires insights drawn from serious contexts of use, and Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes.

Luhmann, by contrast, barely wrote about his Zettelkasten: he focused on his prolific research output, then published a couple small essays about his practices near the end of his career.

I’m not quite guilty of this problem myself, but I certainly slip into this behavior for weeks at a time. This is a cautionary note. Related: The most effective readers and thinkers I know don’t take notes when reading.

Last updated 2023-07-13.