This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), and Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work (post four).

In many ways, at least for me, notes have become a primary work activity, perhaps even the primary work activity. 

That’s because our jobs are changing. This Harold Jarche visual representation gets to the point in a straightforward manner: our work is steadily becoming creative work.

It’s creative work in the sense that creativity is required for solution finding when working in complexity. Applying creativity to solve problems in complexity requires skills like intuition, empathy, curiosity, and sensemaking.

Creativity has always been valuable in organizations; but it wasn’t necessary for everyone to be creative because business context changed so infrequently. 

Now we’re realizing context, the conditions of a business decision, is always shifting and depending on the setting it has as much to do with an interaction between employee and boss as it does with changing market dynamics.

Responding to market shifts caused by competitors, regulators, cultural shifts, innovation, yes even pandemics, and especially in response to the response of a pandemic, among a multitude of other examples … requires creativity. So does, on an equal level, organizing a team to do their best work, leading a project, navigating bureaucracy, creating a financial model, conducting a training session, leading a staff meeting, and on and on.

This importance of context requires creativity from everyone in order to respond to all the contextual changes happening across the organization, at any given moment, and in any given moment. 

So it’s good news that we’re all capable of creativity. And a foundational element of my creative (healthcare administrator) work, and now perhaps becoming a foundational part of yours, are digital notes because digital notes store what’s at the foundation of the creative skills on the right (up above) until we’re ready to use it: input.

Using and Improving Notes

The point of having notes is to use them.

That seems an obvious statement, but using notes, at least for me, has been more of a challenge in changing habits than collecting notes was in establishing one. I’m very good at collecting notes. I’m getting better at using notes. 

It sounds trivial, but after decades of starting every knowledge-seeking activity with an innocent search engine search, reminding myself I likely already had what I was looking for was difficult. For certain, there are resources on the internet better than what I have in my notes, but what I already have has been curated for my interests, is likely to meet my contextual needs, and doesn’t contain all the flim-flam of a search-engine-optimized Google search result. 

So if you find yourself having the same problem, here’s what worked for me: change your browser’s default search engine to something more useless than Google. That should do the trick. 

Once you establish the habit of using your notes, there are at least three reasons to use them: in consultation, in preparation, and in creation.

In consultation is to rediscover what I “know” about a subject. This is as much about reminding myself what was discussed in the committee meeting two weeks ago as it is about refreshing myself on a topical subject in the midst of a team meeting.

In preparation is to prepare for a work activity. Whether it’s a meeting or an interaction, and those two categories cover much of what we do at work, I look to my notes to prepare for knowledge reasons (here’s what I know) and process reasons (here’s how I’m going to do this).

In creation: To inform a creation. It might be a PowerPoint slide deck, financial model, framework, project plan, memo, team development activity, etc., etc., etc., my notes help me in the process of creation.

Using a note in consultation, in preparation, or in creation happens in the flow of work and in that flow there is also an opportunity to improve a note and make it even better for the next time it is used. It’s called progressive summarization and it’s an exceptional feature of digital notes.

Progressive summarization is a tool to do just what it describes: progressively summarize a note you’ve collected previously, as you’re using the note, so that you can make it even more useful for the next time you use it. 

For example, there’s an article I constantly reference because it’s changed the way I think about work. I saved the entire article as a note. I’ve bolded passages, highlighted key ideas, and even summarized it. So when I return to the note, which I do with some level of regularity, it’s easy to find what I’m looking for without having to spend 15-minutes re-reading the article. That’s progressive summarization.

Tiago Forte, inventor of Progressive Summarization and creator of the Building a Second Brain course, describes progressive summarization as “a method for opportunistic compression — summarizing and condensing a piece of information in small spurts, spread across time, in the course of other work, and only doing as much or as little as the information deserves.” 

Progressive summarization works through five layers with each layer building on the previous layer.

The first layer is creating the note. That’s easy. 

The second layer is bolded key points. The third layer is highlighted best points (which come from the bolded points). The fourth layer is creating a summary of the note in your own words. 

And the fifth layer, which in all honesty I haven’t quite figured out yet, is to remix notes. I imagine it to be a mastery-level use of digital notes and something I’ll figure out when it becomes useful to my digital note taking practice.

Progressive summarization doesn’t have to occur all at once. In fact, it shouldn’t. And not every note deserves or requires all layers of progressive summarization—stopping at the bolding layer is common for me and summaries should be reserved for only the most impactful notes. 

Notes are intended to be useful. Using progressive summarization to make notes more useful as you’re using them to do the work you’re doing absolves digital note taking from tedium. We’re all too busy for tedium. 

More Creativity at Work

At work we commonly depend on our creativity as we write the email, as we compose the thought in a meeting or interaction, and as we create the spreadsheet or presentation. Let’s call it creativity in the moment.

Equally (and perhaps more) important is considered creativity. The creativity that emerges from well thought out preparation, consultation, and creation in thoughtful consideration of context.

I’m not sure that distinction serves all that much importance beyond this: it calls attention to the need for creativity in all moments, in all areas, and by everyone when working in complexity.

Digital notes help us in constantly shifting contexts because digital notes provide a system to collect, process, and remember the information and knowledge required for being creative—and importantly: while we’re being creative in preparation, in consultation, and in creation.