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Create little systems to collect digital notes

This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Use digital notes to do creative work (post three), and Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work (post four).

Have you ever tried drinking from a fire hose? 

I suspect it’s possible. But not in the way we all suggest to new employees when we tell them their first few weeks on the job are going to be just like … well you know.

At best, at best, if you attempt to drink from a fire hose you’ll only manage to consume a few drops of water because the only sensible way to attempt to drink from a fire hose is to stand to the side of the gushing stream and slurp from the spray.

An onboarding experience that captures a tiny fraction of the whole is not a successful onboarding; nor is capturing a tiny fraction of any of the information we come across in any activity at work, whether we’re a new employee or not. 

But that’s just what we’re doing when we attend meetings, webinars, and trainings; when we read articles, books, and emails; when we converse with coworkers, bosses, and employees; when we think of solutions, next steps, and risks; and everything else; and … we don’t take notes.

Digital notes give us the ability to 1) redirect the fire hose of information coming at us all the time into a gigantic collection … tank, where the information is stored until it’s needed and, if it is needed, is findable and 2) collect what we know (knowledge!) in an accessible fashion so it can be used.

And to be findable and usable, digital notes must be collectable. 

Little Systems for Collecting Notes

Making digital notes collectable is about implementing little systems to optimize note collecting. This is where the digital in digital note taking makes note taking so much easier. The internet abounds with useful tools, applets, software, subscriptions, and etcetera to make collecting digital notes easier. 

Here are two tools and a set of rules to make digital note taking easier for you.

Instapaper Highlights to Evernote

Just about everything I read on the internet is filtered through Instapaper. Instapaper makes it easy to save anything (articles, blog posts, videos) for later consumption. This is helpful for several reasons and most especially because Instapaper has a highlight feature that when paired with a recipe at IFTTT automatically saves those highlights to my Evernote inbox.

It’s magical.

IFTTT, also known as If This Then That, is a simple integration service allowing you to connect different services through simple applets. More on that in a moment.

Here’s how to save Instapaper highlights to Evernote:

  1. Create an Instapaper account.
  2. Install the “Save to Instapaper” browser plugin (Firefox) or bookmarklet (other browsers). If you have more than one computer or use more than one browser, it’s helpful to install the plugin or bookmarklet across all of them. Anything I want to read, now or perhaps in the future, is saved to Instapaper.
  3. Create an IFTTT account
  4. Connect the Append Instapaper Highlights to Evernote applet. Just click the link. IFTTT will provide step-by-step instructions.
  5. (Check to ensure your .Inbox is the default notebook in Evernote.)
  6. Save this blog post by using the “Save to Instapaper” plugin or bookmarklet. Visit Instapaper. Highlight this phrase with your cursor. Then click “Highlight.”
  7. Wait for the highlight to appear in Evernote. Voila! 

Reading on the internet in this fashion has been helpful to me because I usually add something from what I read to Evernote, I have a searchable archive of everything I’ve saved and archived in Instapaper, and instead of having a hundred open tabs or emailing myself things to read when I have the time, Instapaper provides an inbox of worthy reading when I want to do it.

Entire Articles to Evernote

Sometimes an article I read is so good, or is foundational to my understanding of a topic, or is one I return to again and again, or is something I share over and over that I just want to save the entire piece to Evernote. 

So I do using the Evernote Web Clipper plugin. Install it. Click the “Clip to Evernote” button. Look for a moment at the “Options”—the plugin has what it calls “smart filing,” where the software decides which notebook to use for saving the clip. I’m sure this is a helpful feature, but to me it’s proven annoying, so I changed the setting to “Always start in .Inbox.” Click “Save.” Wait for the clip to appear in Evernote.

Here’s a “Quick Start Guide” if you’d like to know more about the features. 

Direct Entry to Evernote

Most of your notes are bound to be direct entry right into Evernote. I rely on a few simple heuristics for deciding when to take notes. Most of my notes are work related, and I also use notes for things in my personal life. 

If something captures my interest or attention, online or IRL (like a book!), it gets a note. Also, if something should capture my interest or attention because of a project I’m working on or something I have responsibility for (e.g., employee documentation, reminders to aid during annual reviews, etc), it gets a note.

Thoughts get a note. These thoughts can range from the thoughts that come while on a run, or in the shower, or when I should be paying attention to something else … to the applied thinking I do in preparation for a meeting, or the individual work as part of a project, or the effort in solving a problem. 

Every meeting gets a note. My definition of meetings is broad, so this includes everything that comes by way of a calendar invite, the interactions that aren’t pre-scheduled but amount to what would happen in a meeting if it had been, webinars, trainings, etc.

I use a template for all meeting notes. Each note is dated and titled the same as the meeting in my calendar. I note:

  • Meeting Purpose
  • Attendees
  • Commitments (Who/What/By When)
  • Notes (!), this is the meat of the note, often just an attempt to capture what seems important in the moment
  • Resources; I make note of anything distributed in hard copy form or attach any digital resources
  • Agenda; if available I copy and paste the agenda 

Taking notes about things that capture your attention, the thoughts you have, and the meetings you attend are a good start but may not cover everything you want to take notes about.

For example, in addition to the above, I rely on (and take some notes in this way) notes for reminding me of things I want to be reminded about, skills I’m practicing to improve, and a PDF to read list, among other things. 

Finding What Works For You

My digital note taking (and collection) practices have evolved as I’ve found my way into new jobs and experienced the value digital notes provide.

So there’s no right way nor a reason to comprehensively classify all the different types of notes worth collecting. Instead, taking digital notes is about developing and improving the approach that works for you while relying on PARA as your organizing idea.

You’ll find what works for you and your note taking needs as you take more notes, of course, which happens to be the point: to understand the value digital note taking provides, you must start collecting (and taking) digital notes so you can start using your digital notes to help you be more effective at work.

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