The Case for Digital Notes

About the author

Tiago Forte is the founder of Forte Labs and editor of the Praxis online publication. In his course Building a Second Brain, Tiago teaches people how to capture, organize, and share their most valuable ideas and knowledge to support creative work. He calls this collection of ideas and knowledge a “second brain,” putting everything you learn right at your fingertips so you can find it when it matters most.

In previous articles on the Evernote blog, Evernote and the Brain: Designing Creativity Workflows and Bending the Curves of Productivity, I argued that each person possesses a unique stream of information from numerous sources, and that professional success increasingly depends on curating, tweaking, redirecting, and capturing value from this stream to use in your work. I call this process Personal Knowledge Management, or PKM for short.

But why are digital notes apps in particular the best choice for personal knowledge management?

The truth is, there are many kinds of software you could use to save your personal knowledge. Each category is best suited for something different. Word-processing apps like Microsoft Word are designed for special formatting options and for printing, but they aren’t very convenient for jotting down a quick thought. Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter are great for sharing, but make it hard to save things for the long term. Cloud storage services like Dropbox and Google Docs work well for collaboration, but still require opening each individual document to see what’s inside.

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.

I believe that notes are the best metaphor for how we think about our creative work-in-process. Unlike other common terms such as 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(R), notes naturally combine different kinds of media in one place.

All these features mean that notes apps are among the most freeform and flexible of all creative tools. They can be customized and adapted to suit exactly your style and your needs. This flexibility is crucial, because notes occupy the earliest stage of your creative process, when your ideas are still infants and need to be nurtured to adulthood.

Digital notes apps give you the most important benefits of technology – searching, sharing, access on multiple devices, backups, editing, metadata, linking, copy-and-paste, and many others – while maintaining the blank canvas that every creative person needs to let their imagination run wild.

A notes app is 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 foundation 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 is one you can depend upon.

Common pitfalls

Before we go any further, I’d like to point out a few of the most common pitfalls I see as people adopt notes apps in their work and lives.

  • Switching frequently between apps

Every day, hundreds of new apps are launched, armed 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 well-established notes app, and invest in it for the long term.

  • Trying to find one app to do everything

It’s tempting to look for one app that can do “everything.” But why would you limit yourself to only the innovation coming from one company? I often use Asana for managing projects, Google Docs for shared brainstorming, and Mindnode for mapping out new topics.

The job of your notes app is as a storage location for the things you learn and discover through these other projects. 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 in 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. 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 with it.

Which app is right for you?

From my in-depth analysis, I’ve settled on one app as your best all-around option for building a second brain.

Evernote was first introduced in 2008 and has been updated regularly since then—and with 225 million users it has by far the world’s largest community of note-takers.

Many newer notes apps lack Evernote’s backend infrastructure, something that may not be cool but is nevertheless essential for creative work. Features such as linking, private and public sharing, syncing across devices, and a web version won’t make headlines, but are necessities for a knowledge management tool.

Evernote also prioritizes what I believe to be the two most important technical aspects of a notes app: capture and search. These are two functions that users cannot do for themselves, and that rely the most on advanced technology. There are so many ways to get information into Evernote, and many integrations with other popular apps and platforms, so you always have the confidence that you can capture anything and find it again later.

Lastly, I’ve spent a lot of time with the Evernote community and staff, and I believe that their culture and values are well-aligned with the needs of their customers. Their 3 Laws of Data Protection enshrine privacy and security as core values, assuring me that I will always own my data and that it won’t be sold to third parties.

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 note is a blank canvas, just like a brand new 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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