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everything I learned about note-taking in the last few months

My Q2 12 in 12 Update

This year I began a project to learn 12 centuries of history in 12 months (12 in 12). It’s an enormous but fabulous project. I did an update about it at the end of Q1, so I suppose it’s time for an update after Q2! Let’s go 🙂 

Table of Contents

My Updated Research Plan

After 6 months of this project, it’s become clear that studying centuries just doesn’t work in practice, so I’ve adjusted the timing. I will still cover at least part of every century this year, but I’m slowing down a bit and spilling into 2025.

First, we (me and Réka) transitioned it to the Eras Tour (please don’t sue me, Taylor), and I personally now plan to zoom in a bit on the 20th century towards the end of the year, still following ChatGPT’s suggestion of a curriculum. Regardless of how the centuries study panned out in practice, having a rough curriculum to guide me works great!

Here’s the updated one!

I’m kind of excited to see how this changes tbh but it’s a great guide otherwise!

In retrospect, I think it makes sense that the top down approach here is tricky to stick to.

One totally beautiful part of networked note taking is that things emerge bottom-up. That is the effect of implicitly asking “what does this thing remind me of” many times and enthusiastically falling down any and all rabbit holes you find along the way (PS thank you to Réka for reminding me the term “rabbit holes” exists, it explains my life practices very nicely and you’ll be hearing me use the term a lot going forward!).

So this top-down approach to study is very different for me. I’m a rabbit-holer, not a top-down researcher which probably explains why I dropped out of my masters a year ago…

Resources

Perlego - if you’re a fan of the anti-library approach, Perlego will be a dream for you. It’s a giant online library and I cannot get enough of it.

Wondrium (now The Great Courses Plus?) - this is still the best place for well researched, accessible historical overviews in very nicely presented PDFs which Readwise Reader only enhances.

Horse Browser - I can’t tell you how joyous the aforementioned rabbit hole sessions are when spent with the combination of Horse Browser and Capacities. I still use Arc day to day, but the second it’s time to research, it’s time to trot on over to Horse Browser (sorry to everyone for that pun 🐎 ).

Kindle- I cannot believe it took me until June 2024 to buy a Kindle. I’ve read so much historical fiction which has reminded me, most valuably, that history is about people, and complementing non-fiction with fiction has been great.

I wrote a whole post about this so see there for more depth, but that post has three points and a fun lil example where I roast my own notes.

The points:

I found that if I do all of the above, I am better able to synthesise my knowledge, which allows me to find gaps in my knowledge and new rabbit holes to fall down. But the starting point for all of this is sensible backlinks, and I realised that during my hours of note-taking this quarter!

Maps of Content - I was doing them wrong..

Last year, I made a video about maps of content in Capacities. I demonstrated how I set up a page that displayed everything I collected about the Early Modern Era during my random obsession with it last year (I’ve come full circle!). When embarking on 12 in 12 though, I realised that equating Maps of Content to displaying content isn’t necessarily the right way. I thought this was in line with the ‘workbench’ that Nick Milo references with the MOC concept. But actually it’s not the best type of workbench for this particular project.

I think what I was showing (if we carry on with the furniture metaphors) was more a ‘fine china cabinet’. I was beautifully displaying (imo) my objects, rather than facilitating an understanding of how each object fits together.

I realised this whilst creating my Map of Content for the late middle ages. To be honest, I found myself quite confused even after hours of research. I wasn’t sure how the pieces fit together, and I wanted clarity, so I reconsidered Maps of Content…

A quick reminder of where MOCs are on my note-taking path first though...

👉️ I read and take notes. I summarise those notes and link to things that it talks about/reminds me of

👉️ I go into each of those things at some point, and read all the backlinks I have and summarise what I know about that thing (following the advice above).

But all of this drills into individual things (people, places, events etc). However, everything in this world sits within the context of all that came before it and all that existed alongside it. I needed to zoom out to see these contexts. That re-contextualising is where the Maps of Content come in.

So, needing to understand the wider context, I decided to look through all my objects and write a narrative that references them all. 👇️ 

It is far less interesting to look at, so perhaps I can also make a version that is more of a display later. But my goal was to understand more about the context, and I achieved this with this method. It took me a while, but it was worth it!

To do this, I first created queries to find the objects I wanted and I ordered the results by the number of backlinks so I was dealing with the most important notes first. I set myself a rule: if objects couldn’t be woven together in my narrative then I had two options:

  1. Do further research to fill the gap- is this important? Why? Where does it fit?

  2. Delete the notes.

here’s a query

here’s another query

This worked remarkably well and I really enjoyed the process. So it’s a completely different vibe to the Early Modern Era fine china cabinet (the un-catchiest name in history?) from last year, but it meets a different need. It tells me how things fit together, and that led to a deeper understanding.

Let’s talk more about why it’s ok to delete things because that is new for me!

it really is ok to delete notes!

The more content you have in your space, the more noise you have. It’s a fact of life. This is why I am a huge proponent of multiple spaces (= vaults, graphs) in Capacities because it’s essentially a giant search filter for all the different sides of myself and my interests.

But even within each space, I like to do some occasional pruning to keep things totally relevant to me, because noise totally relevant to you (paired with powerful search) is worth it, right?

So I asked myself what notes did I take that I thought would be useful one day, but haven’t turned out to be? What full objects can be replaced with sentences? Turns out, for my history notes on medieval times, there were plenty that could be deleted or merged with other notes.

Let’s look at an example.

I had a whole event object (=note) that held one simple fact: William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas day. Whilst I’m sure that was a great day for him, it’s not a particularly interesting fact for me, nor is it likely to get any further notes added. So do I need an object (title, properties and blocks to write in)? Absolutely not. I deleted the object, and just wrote it in the William the Conqueror object instead. The information still exists in Capacities but it doesn’t need to be a whole object.

Before…

…after

I did this with a lot of objects (Capacities users, I opened my key object types and added a filter for things created since April 1st, and then sorted oldest to newest). I was really happy with the results. My space is even more related to me now and what’s left is what’s truly interesting/important for what I’ve studied after. 🙂 

I also took these mini-reviews as a chance to roast my own links again which has actually turned out to be a fun little activity in my world, like doing the Wordle every morning. Clearly, I live an adrenaline-filled existence. 🏎️ 

Everything I learned in Q2…

So to sum up what I learned last quarter:

👉️ create the notes that make sense to you at the time - this means you don’t spend your days thinking about how to take notes, you spend your days learning and note-taking!

👉️ link these notes to other notes (perhaps following this advice)

👉️ every once in a while, do a review to check where your notes fit into their wider context to facilitate understanding (this is where Maps of Content come in)

👉️ if you find gaps, you’ve got a lovely opportunity for more research, or just delete the object that you can’t make fit with the rest of your notes and move on! 💃

Note-taking is a wonderful tool to help you explore and engage in this world. Could not recommend it more! Can’t wait to see what I learn in the next few months.

Have fun note-taking! 🥳 

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