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Note-taking: In search of the optimal system

For about 5 months I have been trying out different note-taking systems and applications, but only found recently the right workflow for me. I’m always updating it and experimenting, but it seems that I finally laid down the bases.

Let me quickly summarize what I learned during this journey so that you can learn from my experiences.

Choosing the tools

I started out using Notion, which has a great free plan and is growing rapidly.

All-in-one workspace,
Write, plan, collaborate, and get organized — all in one tool.

@NotionHQ

Although I really liked it (and am still using it to this day), it obviously had some flaws:

  • I spent more time customizing than taking notes
  • There is not yet (as of July 2020) an proper offline mode
  • I had limited control over my data
  • Does not have bi-directional linking (unless you do it in a clunky way) Bi-directional linking was recently implemented

I only understood why bi-directional linking is so important after I read the book How to Take Smart Notes (which I strongly recommend). It also encouraged me to take notes from books, articles and videos, since we in fact forget really rapidly about what we learned unless we practice regularly.

Side note: this is why spaced-repetition is so efficient when we want to memorize information.

Thanks to this book, I also discovered the Zettelkasten method, which requires a deep dive to fully understand it, but offers a novel way to approach note-taking I had not seen before.

I then managed to try quite a few apps, that I will list here:

Side note: a substantial list of note-taking apps can be found here.

What I ended up using is Obsidian.

A second brain, for you, forever.

Obsidian is a powerful knowledge base that works on top of a local folder of plain text Markdown files.

@obsdmd

It works offline, lets you manage your data, has bi-directional linking, is free to use (see the details here), and allows me to focus more on content than organization.

Of course, it does not solve all my problems, that is why I am still using Notion (I will show you how shortly). I came to the conclusion that using a tool for something it has not been made for in the first place is often not worth the trouble.

For example, I have tried implementing a Zettelkasten-like method into Notion, which lead to my data being locked into a way too big database with un-exportable relational links between information.

I found that it is way better to use specialized tools for specific purposes than one tool which will supposedly solve all your problems. It allows you a lot more flexibility, as you can switch them easily. I believe there needs to be a compromise between decentralizing everything, which can lead to your data being too scattered around to make sense, and centralizing everything, which reduces flexibility and prevents you from finding a better way to do a specific action.

Now that I had found the right tools, I still had to choose a system to take notes.

Creating your system

When I started, I tried taking notes hierarchically with Notion. If you have read How to Take Smart Notes, you know it does not seem to be the right way to go, unless you want to build some sort of wiki. It is said to be better to start writing right away without worrying about the categories you want to put your note in. Then you add tags, links, … You can also read more thoroughly about it at https://zettelkasten.de/.

The core idea is to build your knowledge base from the bottom instead of from the top, that means the content you put in your knowledge base will naturally form clusters if the notes are well linked together.

So I started doing it the other way around: taking all my notes non-hierarchically with Obsidian. After a while, I noticed some sort of loose hierarchy is still useful when using Obsidian.

I think it’s mainly due to the fact that Obsidian works on local folders. Sure, I could put all my notes and media files in a single folder called “Zettelkasten” or “Notes”, and search from specific notes from there. But I find it more efficient to separate my notes, not with categories, but by type.

These are the top (and only) folders of my Obsidian notes:

  • Concepts: contains short notes which define a precise idea. They are strongly linked together and have multiple tags. An example of a concept note would be “Trust the process”.
  • Essays: contains medium-sized notes of a personal reflection on a subject. They often refer to other type of notes. An example essay would be “Differentiate concepts and essays”.
  • Files: contains all media files, like images or PDFs.
  • Inbox: contains recent notes which need to be sorted or worked on. An example inbox note would be a book I’m currently reading.
  • Daily notes: contains daily notes. I tend to write them elsewhere.
  • People: contains notes about people. It’s here that I put the authors of the books I read, one note per person.
  • Resources: contains notes about resources I scrap on the web or elsewhere. This is mainly where my concept notes originate from. These notes could be about a book, a movie, a video, an article, a tool, … They are tagged accordingly.
  • Lists: contains notes listing information. These are often linked to the “resources” notes.

Because these folders describe broad types of notes, they almost never interfere (one note belonging to two folders), and therefore I don’t have a hard time deciding where to put the note from the inbox.

Now I tried using only Obsidian for note-taking, but what really worked for me was using both Notion and Obsidian. I now use Notion for storage, clipping links and articles to a global database. This is also where I take notes from books, that I then “extract” to Obsidian as concepts. As I said earlier, I find it better to use specialized tools for specific purposes.

A comment of Dylan, on my Zettelkasten in Notion with Auto Footnote Backlinks video, sums it up very well:

Notion is great for general note-taking and logging data about your life / team. But Obsidian is better for Zettels. I’m thinking about using Notion to collect notes and Obsidian to process them into permanent notes.

Dylan Modell, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MNA-_zPNww

Conclusion

I hope you have got something valuable from this article. Tools may change, thus impacting our workflow, but the basic principles of linking notes and generally avoiding categories, once adopted, will steer us towards more thoughtful ways of organizing information, taking notes, and learning.

Please, if you enjoyed what you read, leave a comment below and share it with people that you know will enjoy it too.

Thank you for your time.

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Zettelkasten in Notion

Learn about the Zettelkasten:

Notion: https://notion.so

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Blog

Roma: My favorite movie

ROMA by Alfonso Cuarón is not the kind of movie you are used to watch. In fact, it really stood out from all the films I have seen so far.

I am not going to persuade you watch the movie, because you may not enjoy it. You also may not be in the right place at the right time to watch it. But I’m putting this here just to highlight the fact that Roma was a really moving experience. And if you happen to watch it (or if you already did), I highly suggest you as well watch the video below explaining the meaning of Roma.

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Projects

3D Modeling of a Kar 98k

What is the project and why we made it

This is a Kar 98k 3D model I made with a friend from about November 2017 to August 2018. We wanted to model something that would look cool and that we could integrate in a game with the Unity 3D engine, and learn in the process of creating the model. So, with almost no knowledge about modeling, texturing and animating, we started to create the Kar 98k.

How we managed to do it

As is said earlier, we knew nothing about the process of creating a 3D model – well almost nothing, we knew how to create rough shapes in Blender. So we learned.

We watched dozens of tutorials on YouTube, created something, admitted it was ugly and started again. Again and again and again. We would see each other every Friday after school to advance the project, and we would call on Discord and share our screen, slowly showing the progress we would have made. And slowly, it started to look like the thing we imagined. It was amazing.The Kar model after months of work (we added the scope afterwards) – June 20th 2018

In April, we started to think about the texturing. We decided to use the free version of Substance Painter to texture it, so I downloaded the software and for the second time we jumped into that learning loop. It was a bit faster than the modeling, even though it took us time to understand how things were working and to come with textures we liked.The Kar texture from June 24th 2018

After the modeling and the texturing, we thought it would be cool to had more life to the model, so we started to learn about animating the model. This is a part we really struggled to make due to the complexity of it. Furthermore, we needed to tweak a lot the model, like separate multiple parts of the model in order to animate it.

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Projects

The music production of Dark Emission

Dark Emission is a music I composed in summer 2018. I wanted to give a sense of repetition but at the same time progression, this is why I used only two chords, G Major and G Minor, in the music, but added a variety of instruments, from the piano at the start to the synth at the end. I also made sure to insert breaks in the music, going from multiple instruments to just the piano and a hat, but then make it grow again until the end.

After the second break at around 1:13, to give this growing aspect, I also added more and more frequents beats, supporting the piano going faster until the synth starts playing.

In the end, that was a very fun project to make that I really enjoyed doing and from which I learned a lot.

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Projects

The Game Development of COLORED

What is COLORED about?

COLORED is a simple arcade game developed for mobile where you need to match colors to stay alive. It’s quite challenging and includes 5 levels of difficulty, an endless mode and customisables elements such as your character or the color palette.

When was it developed?

COLORED is a mobile game I developed from April 2017 to about September when it was released. I then added new features until November 2017. Almost every day after school from April to the end of June and during the summer, I developed COLORED.

How came the idea?

I remember waking up in the middle of the night, taking a pen and sketching the basics of the game on a random sheet of paper I found. Then the next day I started to create the game. 

What softwares did I use?

I developed the game on a very popular engine called Unity3D, which uses the C# (or C Sharp) programmation language. It provides awesome tools for game development, and is very efficient when it comes to developing mobile games. I also used Blender, which is a very powerful and open source software, to make some of the 3D models in the game (I also got some help with that from a friend of mine, Gwendal Richomme). I also made some of the UI, such as buttons, and the logo of COLORED with Photoshop and Gimp.

  • Unity3D
  • Photoshop
  • Gimp
  • Blender

What did I learn during this project?

I had never made a game and published it on my own before, so it has been a really rewarding experience for me. I learned in the process of making the game, searching for answers on the web, looking for ways to optimize the game and the code, acquired new knowledge on things I wouldn’t have thought of like color theory, even if it seems obvious now. I also got interested in many other subjects related to game development such as music composition, 3D modelisation, and art in general, as developing a game requires to know and to have knowledge in a lot of different fields.

As I’m looking back on this project more than a year and a half later, in december 2018, I’m considering the project as the trigger of all the creative things I’ve done since then, like starting to write novels, making music, learning photography… but also non-creative things like improving my english (even though it’s not perfect).

Where can I download the game?

You can download the game by clicking this link or the button down below. COLORED is currently available on the Google Play Store for Android devices and for free.