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5 tips for designing an effective, resilient note taking system (that still works even when life gets busy)

Learn how to build a flexible note taking workflow and personal knowledge management system: one you can sustain even during busy, overwhelming seasons of life.

Elizabeth Butler
Elizabeth Butler
7 min read
5 tips for designing an effective, resilient note taking system (that still works even when life gets busy)
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

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Over the last few weeks, I had an unexpected and rather time-consuming event happen (everyone is fine, not to worry! 😊), combined with a busy season at work. Things are getting back to our usual routine, but it was a challenging few weeks.

Over these past few weeks, I was especially grateful that I had already taken the time to build a resilient, flexible note-taking workflow in my personal knowledge management system. During this extra busy time that came out of left field, my usual routines of processing and organizing my notes went out the window. Any margin I had was lost.

But once things settled down a bit, I was so relieved to be able to clear the decks in my note taking system without feeling overwhelmed. I thought that the reflections I had after going through this experience might be helpful for other people going through a similarly busy, overwhelming season of life. If you’re wondering how to stay on top of your note taking system, and how to keep your personal knowledge management system organised when life gets busy, read on.

Tip 1: Create an inbox for your notes

If you're familiar with the work of David Allen, you are likely familiar with the importance of creating an inbox for your tasks in his Getting Things Done method. The idea is that you can quickly capture and toss your task in the inbox, without worrying about how to fully process and organize it right away. When you have time later on, you go through your inbox to refine the task, clarify, and assign it to the proper project or list.

Similarly, having a dedicated inbox in your note taking system for quick ideas, notes, and works in progress is absolutely integral to maintain a resilient notetaking workflow in your personal knowledge management system. At certain times in life, you’ll be able to process your notes on a daily basis. But other times, it may take you many days or even weeks to get around to processing. The most important thing is to make sure that you have a trusted, easy-to-access place for storing these notes until you have the time, energy, and mental space to properly process them.

Tip 2: Choose a note taking app with quick, reliable mobile access

Over the past few weeks, I have been particularly grateful that I built my own note taking system in Bear Notes. I could access my notes seamlessly across my iPad, iPhone, and MacBook. During brief, rare periods of downtime, I could even categorize and process notes from my inbox right on my phone.

This kind of setup is certainly not unique to Bear. There are plenty of note taking apps that offer excellent sync and mobile access. Here are a few that spring to mind:

  • Craft is another great option for people in the Mac ecosystem.
  • Obsidian is an excellent cross-platform option. (I was an early adopter of Obsidian, but ended up switching to Bear because Obsidian didn’t have a robust mobile app and reliable sync in the early days. I understand that their mobile app is now highly functional, and people are having an excellent mobile sync experience.)
  • Notion is another good cross-platform app for note taking. (Full disclosure, when I used Notion mobile back in the day, I found it fairly slow. But I believe that Notion’s speed has been improving in general, and the mobile app may be quicker as well.)

My main takeaway here would be to experiment with the mobile version of whichever app you choose to make sure that it works seamlessly on your own tablet and phone.

Tip 3: Use voice to text speech recognition software to capture draft notes

As a physician, I regularly use voice dictation software at work. Granted, voice dictation certainly still isn’t perfect. Even though I often wish voice-to-text was more reliable, I do appreciate being able to get the first draft of any prose captured using voice dictation. It really speeds up the content development process. I treat the second pass through as a chance to edit and tighten up my writing— but it’s always less mentally taking to be editing rather than facing the blank page.

Especially during busy seasons of life, I highly encourage you to use voice-to-text to capture your draft notes. Options for voice to text include:

Depending which app you find most reliable, you can dictate into whatever app works best, then copy and paste the text into your main, dedicated notes app. Ideally you'd be able to dictate straight into your notes app, but you might find that you get better results with an external app.

One caveat about voice-to-text? Test in advance to know how reliable your voice recognition app is. And make sure you test it out in different environments. An app that accurately captures your voice notes in a quiet home office environment may struggle if you’re trying to capture verbal notes on a windy day as you run to the bus stop. You need to know how reliable the transcription is, so that you know whether you’ll need to quickly review and edit the note right away (while you still remember the details of the idea you were trying to capture)— or if it can wait a while.

I’m therefore a fan of Otter.ai for two reasons. One, it’s quite reliable at baseline. Two, it saves your original voice recording as well, so if it transcribes a word or phrase oddly, you can always go back to listen to your original audio to check.

Tip 4: Embrace full-text search in  your note taking app

I'm a huge fan of structured knowledge and information. I enjoy using folders and tags myself, and have seen some excellent implementation of bidirectional links aka backlinks for personal knowledge management systems as well. Despite advocating for a structured approach to note taking, I also believe that any personal knowledge management system also needs to have robust, reliable full text search.

During a busy season of life, you probably won’t have time to assign every new note to the appropriate folder or tag right away. You might not even have time to think about where to assign notes until days or even weeks down the road. You need to know you can quickly find and access your new notes in the interim, as well. Having a trusted bank of reference notes you can easily access is especially welcome during a time of life when you’re feeling especially tired or overwhelmed.

As part of my Calmer Notes method for note taking and personal knowledge management, I recommend that people title their notes as descriptively as possible. I recommend including any and all keywords that your future self might be searching for down the road to access this information again.  Taking advantage of this keyword planting relies on having a note taking app with robust full-text search.

Whenever you’re choosing a note taking app, make sure you do some early testing to make sure that the search function is complete and reliable. You want to make sure you’re easily and quickly able to find whatever you’re looking for.

Tip 5: Process your digital notes in small batches whenever you can

If you’re a productivity enthusiast, you likely know that batching tasks is generally more efficient. So you might naturally think that it makes sense to wait until you have a large block of uninterrupted time to process your notes. And during your regular routine, this is quite true and is a great habit to implement. Carve out a daily or weekly window in your schedule for regular note processing, so you can batch your task and efficiently process all in one go.

The problem during unusually busy seasons of life? Large blocks of uninterrupted time don’t come up all that often. And when they do, other tasks likely take precedence over processing your notes inbox. So then, your unprocessed notes build up and feel like an increasingly overwhelming task to tackle.

So, when you’re trying to stay afloat during challenging life seasons, allow your workflow to change and adapt. Process your notes in small batches in tiny windows of time. (Having a mobile-friendly notes app will help with this.)

What do I mean by processing your notes? Processing notes in your personal knowledge management system includes things like:

  • Reading through your draft notes
  • Combining notes that fit well together
  • Deleting out of date or redundant notes
  • Refining, editing, and polishing your ideas
  • Assigning your notes to the appropriate folder or tag

Being able to do this processing on a tablet or phone is very helpful when you’re working away from your main workstation. (I personally squeezed in small batches of processing my Bear notes on my iPhone whenever I could, and the small progress really made a difference.) Being able to edit and refine a few notes here and there truly does add up. I never felt like I was facing an unwieldy, overwhelming list of notes to be processed.

When you process regularly, you’re doing your future self a huge favour. When life finally settles down again (and it will—eventually), you’ve kept your note taking system up and running. Your ideas and research are still there, patiently waiting for you to finally get that time and margin to start building and creating again.

PS - Feeling busy and overwhelmed? Organize your digital notes with the Calmer Notes method

Hi friend! 👋 If you're searching for note taking tips and tutorials like this one, you might be the kind of person who's interested in personal knowledge management.

If you're a creative person who would like to create an intentional, mindful, flexible personal knowledge management system that fits your busy life, the Calmer Notes method may be the right fit for you.

I've created Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People based on my own two-decade experience of applying personal knowledge management in academia, consulting, and medicine. The Calmer Notes method will take you through the process of creating and maintaining a tailored, mindfully-designed personal knowledge management system to organize your digital notes and files.

This self-paced course (which includes digital book + workbook + PKM app database) is now available for purchase at Gumroad.

If you'd like to learn more, check out an overview of the Calmer Notes approach or visit Calmer Notes.

You'll also get a free guide to the 5 most common note taking myths (that just might be stopping you from building a sustainable personal knowledge management system) when you sign up for my newsletter.

Wishing you all the best on your note taking journey!

Note TakingEnergy ManagementPersonal Knowledge Management

Elizabeth Butler Twitter

Your guide to the world of note taking and mindful productivity. Creator of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management. Physician, PhD, parent, tea drinker.


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