The Note-taking Fallacy

Andy Matuschak nails it in a series of entries on his site. A couple of good examples:

The most effective readers and thinkers I know don’t take notes when reading | People who write extensively about note-writing rarely have a serious context of use:

In fact, the negation almost seems true: most note-taking fanatics seem to actually be quite ineffective thinkers.


Many bloggers and “life-hackers” have made a full-time job of suggesting how you should organize your journal, or how you should most effectively “Write about what you read.” We should take this advice seriously insofar as those practices have helped the authors achieve meaningful creative work.

But most people who write about note-taking don’t seem particularly accomplished in their own fields, whatever those may be. In fact, most such writers aren’t applying their notes to some exogenous creative problem: their primary creative work is writing about productivity.

I don’t feel that Andy is trying to disparage people who write about note-taking, but rather to point out the potential distraction of reading advice written about note-taking by those who don’t necessarily produce other useful output. Also, that taking notes is not an end but a means.

Over the years, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking (and sometimes writing) about note-taking, and yet I don’t have a lot of actual results to show for it. I don’t feel like I’ve actually learned much because of it. Honestly, it’s fun to think about taking notes and try various methods, so the time spent wasn’t necessarily wasted, but still. I mean, I’ve spend entire days configuring a fancy bibliographic reference process and yet I’ve never once written an academic paper. Basically, don’t listen to any advice I offer about note-taking as a “tool for thought”, I guess.

I often see very smart and productive people just dumping stuff into random Apple Notes and never ever thinking about the “process” of taking notes. It’s embarrassing how much effort I’ve put toward this when so many people can produce great things without thinking about their “workflows” at all.

If I’m being honest, what I do is not “note-taking” but rather “record keeping”. I write things down that I don’t want to forget. I don’t do it as an aid to “thinking”.

(Thanks to Baldur Bjarnason for pointing out the notes on Andy’s site)