In our course Building a Second Brain, we teach people how to capture, organize, and share their most valuable knowledge and know-how using technology. We call this practice Personal Knowledge Management, or PKM.
One of the most common questions I am asked is “Why digital notes?”
This article will explain why, out of all the kinds of apps out there for managing knowledge, I recommend the category of “digital note-taking apps.”
Click here for an in-depth analysis of the criteria I believe you should choose when deciding on a notes app. For more on what it looks like to use notes apps to build a “second brain,” see my article How to Use Evernote for Your Creative Workflow.
The Case for Digital Notes
Why digital notes apps are the best choice for managing your knowledge
There are many kinds of software you could use to store and access your personal knowledge. Each one is best used for a specific purpose:
- Word processing apps (like Microsoft Word) are best when you need special formatting or printing options
- Social media apps (like Facebook and Twitter) are best when you want maximum social engagement
- Cloud storage services (like Dropbox, Google Drive, or iCloud Drive) are ideally suited to sharing or accessing your files on multiple devices
- Collaborative editing apps (like Google Docs) are best for real-time collaboration
While all these categories have their uses, there is really only one category of software I can recommend as the centerpiece of your second brain: digital notes apps.
Popular options include Evernote (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, browsers), Microsoft OneNote (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows), Bear (Mac and iOS), Simplenote (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux), Google Keep (browsers, iOS, Android), Bear (Mac, iOS), Zoho Notebook (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android), Notability (iOS, Mac), Goodnotes (iOS), and many others.
Digital notes might seem a strange choice at first. How can something as lofty and grand as a “second brain” be created by something as mundane as “notes”?
I believe that notes are the best metaphor for how we think about our personal knowledge. Unlike other common terms like documents, files, entries, cards, or records, notes have a natural home at the heart of our creative process.
Notes are personal, informal, quick and dirty. They are not for public consumption, but for your own personal use, like a leather notebook you keep in your backpack.
Notes are open-ended and never finished. “Taking notes” is a continuous process, in which you can noodle on ideas without an immediate purpose in mind.
Notes have low standards for quality and polish. They are easy to jot down, because it’s fine if they are messy, incomplete, or totally random.
Notes naturally mix diverse types of media. Just like a paper notebook might contain drawings and sketches, quotes and ideas, and even a pasted photo or post-it note, notes naturally combine different kinds of media in one place.
Digital notes apps give us the most important benefits of technology – searching, sharing, access on multiple devices, backups, editing, meta-data, linking, copy-and-paste, and many others – while avoiding complicated data entry.
Your Home Base
How to use notes apps as a “universal inbox”
There will always be times and places to use specialized apps, including all the other apps for managing information I mentioned previously. The point of centralizing your knowledge management in one app is not to stop using all the others. It is to give you a secure home base that you know you can always come back to.
Because the strength of a notes app is saving content from a wide variety of sources, it can function as a “universal inbox” for capturing any kind of information coming your way. By paying close attention to a “home base” that you know you can always depend on, you’re free to strike out towards the frontier of knowledge, and experiment with the most cutting-edge new apps.
Your home base should be stable, secure, and not make any dramatic changes. This is why it’s important to have a popular, well-supported app as the centerpiece of your second brain. You are free to try out any fancy new app as an experiment, but it’s important that your primary platform won’t suddenly go out of business.
Joining a Community
The importance of considering an app’s business model, culture, and community
The next important factor to consider is that, when you invest in a notes app, you are joining a community.
This isn’t true of most other apps you use. I don’t think many customers consider themselves a part of the “Microsoft Word community” or the “Dropbox community.” Information management apps tend to be utilities. It is obvious how to use them, which means you don’t need much context or training to learn how.
But notes apps are different. You can download and install one, but it isn’t at all clear how you should use it. These apps are like blank canvases, allowing many possible uses and many possible approaches. This can often be a major hurdle for a newcomer, but presents a wonderful opportunity if you’re willing to invest some time. You can use it any way you want, to exactly suit your needs.
Because notes apps can be so customized to your needs, they quickly occupy a uniquely personal place in your digital life. They are the earliest stage of your creative process, when your ideas are only half-formed, and your subjective observations are mixed in with your research and record-keeping.
Many users of these apps quickly find that they become a part of a community around the app they choose. Whether or not you join a Facebook group or register in their user forums makes no difference. You are part of their community, because everything they do has a dramatic impact on how you work.
Every feature they release, every change they make, every change of direction will impact how you work to a greater extent than other categories of productivity apps. This is why you should spend some time getting to know their culture:
- How do they think about the purpose of their product?
- What are their beliefs toward privacy, security, and customer support?
- What is their origin story, their core beliefs, and their long-term outlook?
All these things are worth considering when you will potentially invest years of effort into building your knowledge library on their platform.
The most common pitfalls in adopting notes and productivity apps
I’d like to point out a few of the most common pitfalls I often see people succumb to as they search for the perfect knowledge management app:
Switching frequently between apps
There is a “shiny new thing” syndrome, especially common to people who love technology. Every year new apps come out, launching with slick marketing campaigns and bold visions. It is tempting to view each new product as a silver bullet, trusting that a team of crack engineers and designers has somehow “solved” knowledge management once and for all.
As you can probably tell, I don’t put much stock in these hopes. There is a cost to switching apps, and I think it’s much better to invest in a trusted solution than to spend energy migrating from one place to another. What really matters is your output: what are you creating or producing out of this knowledge to make a difference in your career, your business, or the world? It’s doubtful that any mere feature set will dramatically improve the results you’re getting.
My recommendation is to instead pick one notes app, and invest in it for the long term.
Building your own
I live in Silicon Valley amongst a lot of talented software developers, so perhaps I see a disproportionate amount of this. But it’s very tempting for people who know how to build (or piece together) software to throw aside the available options, and set out on a glorious path to creating the “one perfect app to rule them all.”
Don’t do it! In almost all cases, that path leads nowhere. At best, it becomes a passion project that only works for one person’s idiosyncratic methods, slowly decaying over time as the technology gets old. That time and energy is much better spent creating things and solving problems. Notes are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
My recommendation is to instead use a popular, off-the-shelf app that has most, if not all, of the features you need.
Trying to find one app to do everything
It’s tempting to look for one app that can do everything. This most often results in one of the two pitfalls described above. But even Evernote isn’t a universal app. I often use Asana for managing projects, Google Docs for shared brainstorming, or Mindnode for mapping out new topics.
The job of your notes app is as a storage location of last resort. If your knowledge is better suited to a specialized app, by all means, keep it there. But if you complete a project or stop using one of them, be sure to bring that content back into your notes as a record of the work you’ve done.
My recommendation is instead to always use the best tool for the job, but at the end of the day, save everything you want to keep to your notes app.
Focusing too much on the long term
As important as it is to preserve your notes over the long term, this can also become a pitfall. I’ve seen people spend so much energy creating multiple, totally secure backups, or using file types that will never change, that there’s no energy left over for creating! Remember that all this work is designed to make it easier to produce meaningful results. Don’t make a hobby out of engineering a system so resilient that it can survive a nuclear war!
My recommendation is instead to balance short and long-term perspectives, prioritizing doing good work in the medium term of the next few years.
Waiting until you have the whole system perfectly figured out to get started
This is perhaps the most common one, and the most problematic, especially among perfectionists. It’s understandable to feel anxiety and fear when embarking on such an important undertaking. It’s so tempting to try and have all the details perfectly worked out before you take the first step.
But ultimately, you can’t know exactly what will work upfront. An approach that works for someone else may not necessarily work for you. Even this one. The only way to build a second brain is to start small, and make incremental improvements over time. Trust yourself that you will learn and grow right alongside it.
Do What Works
I’ve presented my strongest opinions and recommendations based on my experience, but what ultimately matters is that your approach works for you.
A notes app is a blank canvas, just like a brand new leather-bound notebook. It offers endless possibilities for those willing to experiment. But its ultimate purpose is to empower you to imagine, to create, and to take on creative ventures.
I encourage you to leverage technology to its maximum potential, but to remember at the end of the day that your creativity is the only irreplaceable piece of the whole puzzle.
Do what works for you.
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