Toolkit on Taking notes and retaining knowledge

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Toolkit on Taking notes and retaining knowledge
By Prashant Sengar • Issue #3 • View online
In this issue:
  • The best way to retain information
  • How to take good notes
  • Tools to help you take better notes

Source of image [1]
Source of image [1]
Our Memory
I still remember the times in school when I used to listen to what a teacher was saying and told myself “Eh this is so simple, I don’t need to write it down. I will remember it.” But that was an obvious mistake. On the day of an exam, my reaction to seeing that question would be “I know what it is but can’t seem to remember exactly how to do it.” I am sure this must have happened with you too, at least once.
One of the biggest mistakes that we make is believing that our brains are very good at remembering information. Instead, our brains are not so good at storing and retaining information, and they constantly make up memories resulting in inconsistencies [2]. Do you remember that million-dollar idea you had last night when you couldn’t sleep?
How our brains store information
The human brain has different forms of memory. Working memory is like computer RAM, it stores a small number of items for quick access. When you learn something new for the first time or have a random thought, it is brought to your working memory. Whenever you have to work on that particular thought, your brain refers to the working memory. But you cannot trust the working memory as it is very limited in both size and the time for which it can store it.
Long-term memory is your brain’s hard disk where it stores information for the long term. It is stored as connections between different neurons, altering the current structure between them. The stronger those neural connections, the longer and better you remember. It is also found that the more you visit a memory, the stronger gets the neural connection. Thus, to permanently store some information, it is not enough to read about it once but to revise it many times over a range of time. This is also called spaced-repetition and is the base of flashcards and software such as Anki [3]. [4]
The best way to retain information
Well, if my brain is so poor at managing memory, I would rather let my computer or notebook handle it. The best way to store and retain information is to write it down in your note-taking equipment. It could be a small notebook you carry everywhere, or an app on your smartphone, or a combination of both.
Once you have taken notes, you can look at them at any point in time and remember the points quickly. Taking notes seems to be a waste of time in the short run. But your future self will thank you for saving his time when he will refer to the notes instead of going to the source article to find a piece of information.
One of the overlooked benefits of taking notes is that it also helps your brain in remembering the information. Writing helps strengthen neural connections which store the info you just wrote. This means that you will now remember more of it without the need to look at your notes.
How to take good notes
The idea behind taking notes is that you are writing for your future self. The easier you make his job, the more thankful he is. This means that your notes should have the following characteristics:
  • They should be as short as possible without missing the context. This means that you do not want to read a whole essay to describe information that could be explained in a few lines. But you should also not remove context to make it short so that future you do not understand what the thing is about.
  • Your notes should be in your own words. Writing in your own words helps you understand better since you find out the loopholes in your knowledge during the process. Feynman Technique [5] is often touted as the best technique to help you learn something. While writing notes, you are applying this technique since you are effectively teaching yourself the topic.
There are several different methodologies of note-taking to choose from but I like this method called Progressive Summarization. I read about it a few days ago on Forte Labs [6] and realized that this is similar to how I had been taking notes all the time since school. Here is the gist:
  1. Summarize the article in as much detail as you like, could span a page or more.
  2. Highlight the most important parts of the notes and take them aside.
  3. Repeat step 2 as many times as you want to make the notes as concise as possible.
  4. These pieces of text are your progressive summarization levels with the original article being level 0 and the shortest notes being the highest level.
  5. When revisiting them in the future, you start with the highest level and go down until you understand the concept completely.
My way of taking notes is the reversal of this process. I would write the shortest explanation of the original source in bullet points. Then I expand on each one of them in nested bullets on multiple levels.
This method gives you different contexts for your notes based on the level of your understanding of the concept. This means that you can get a deeper look in case you do not understand something. Otherwise, if you already understand the topic completely, you can take a quick look at the topmost level to draw it back to your working memory.
Tools
This is my favorite topic of research at this time. I keep searching and trying different note-taking applications that suit me the most. I have tried dozens of apps.
If you like notebook-style note-taking, you can try out Evernote and OneNote both of which offer a lot of features.
Notion with its huge set of features for note-taking and productivity has a lot of following. I use it to store all the media URLs including articles and videos and take level 1 notes. If you have never tried it, I would recommend you to try it now.
There is a new space emerging for non-linear note-taking software. These apps offer bi-directional linking between notes so that you can discover connections between different ideas. There is Roam Research (and all the apps that are trying to offer the same functionality including Athens Research, RemNote, logseq), Obsidian, and TiddlyWiki.
TiddlyWiki is my favorite because of the insane amount of customization one can do to completely change its behaviour. It is also open-source (another reason for my love towards it) and self-hosted, can be used cross-platform. The only caveat is that it stores everything in a single HTML file.
Roam is a SaaS and stores your data on its servers without encryption. But it offers a great deal of functionality and a lot of thinkers use it for taking notes. It also has a steep lowest tier of $15 per month which is something not everyone can afford.
Obsidian is a local first app that stores your data in plain-text markdown files which are great to make your notes future proof. It offers a great number of customization features and you can add plugins (open source) to enhance its features or to change the way it looks.
Both Obsidian and Roam Research offer a graph view of your notes, showing how they are connected. TiddlyWiki has several plugins for this.
There is an amazing article by Ness Labs on how to choose the right note-taking app for you [7].
A graph view in Obsidian [8]
A graph view in Obsidian [8]
I use Obsidian to save my progressive summarization notes locally and to form connections between them. 
Footnotes [9]
[1] Post on Boldomatic
[4] The whole information of the brain’s storage system has been taken from multiple sources. This Quora answer is a good summary of all of this. The course “Learning How to Learn” on Coursera also has a lot of information on how we can improve our brain’s retention capability and learn better.
[9] If you noticed, footnotes were simply called notes in the previous issues.
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Prashant Sengar

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