The Why And How OF Taking “Discoverable Notes”

I have been an active note-taker for years and a fan of how meta Tiago Forte gets about the process of taking notes. Tiago’s Building A Second Brain course is very popular in productivity circles. While I have never take it, I recently came across his essay Progressive Summarization: A Practical Technique for Designing Discoverable Notes. (Link)

It’s an outstanding framework for understanding the whys and hows of taking notes. I, by accident, have arrived at a very similar system so it was interesting to see someone explain it thoroughly as only Tiago can.

This is a summary of what resonated with me.

The Why Of Taking Notes

The Right Info At The Wrong Time

What you read is good and useful and very important, you’re just reading it at the wrong time.

The challenge is knowing which knowledge is worth acquiring. And then building a system to forward bits of it through time, to the future situation or problem or challenge where it is most applicable, and most needed.


Bridging The Acquisition And Use Of Knowledge

It’s too mentally expensive, if not impossible, to internalize all or most of the information we consume. A good system is intended to bridge the time between when you discovered the information to when you use it.

At that future point, when you’re applying that knowledge directly to a real-world challenge…By the time you’re done solving a real problem with it, book knowledge has become experiential knowledge [which you carry forever].


The How Of Taking Notes

Defining The “Second Brain”

An external, integrated digital repository for the things you learn and the resources from which they come. It is a storage and retrieval system, packaging bits of knowledge into discrete packets that can be forwarded to various points in time to be reviewed, utilized, or deleted.

Designing The “Second Brain”

Goal: You are trying to triage information in an organized way. You read something you know is interesting and you want to be able to reference later.

Challenge: You need to file it quickly, make it discoverable, and emphasize why it’s important so “future you” can make sense of the notes efficiently.

Tiago says:

A note-first approach to knowledge management means we have to think about design. You are, in a very real sense, designing a product for a demanding customer — Future You. Future You doesn’t necessarily trust that everything Past You put into your notes is valuable. Future You is impatient and skeptical, demanding proof upfront that the time they spend reviewing notes will be worthwhile.

Balancing Tradeoffs

  • Discoverable: Digestible notes. So needs to be compressed
  • Understandable: Context including sources, examples, details

Getting the balance between compression and context right is not a trivial matter. When the time comes for Future You to decide whether or not to review this note, seconds count.

When you fail, you successfully sent a packet of information forward through time, but not in a state where it could survive the journey… You have to summarize the note without knowing what it will be used for.

The Progressive Summarization System

  • Layer 0 is the original, full-length source text.
  • Layer 1 is the content that I initially bring into my note-taking program. I just capture anything that feels insightful, interesting, or useful.
  • Layer 2 is the first round of true summarization, in which I bold only the best parts of the passages I’ve imported. Keywords, phrases, sentences
  • Layer 3, I switch to highlighting, so I can make out the smaller number of highlighted passages among all the bolded ones. This time, I’m looking for the “best of the best”
  • Layer 4, I’m still summarizing, but going beyond highlighting the words of others, to recording my own…restating the key points in my own words
  • Layer 5 (as needed): Remix. for a tiny minority of sources, the ones that are so powerful and exciting I want them to become part of how I think and work immediately, I remix them. After pulling them apart and dissecting them from every angle in layers 1–4, I add my own personality and creativity and turn them into something else.

My Own Accidental Version of Progressive Summarization

  • Layer 0 is usually just the link without the text which is risky since the link can break. (With Slatestarcodex site being taken down I’m experiencing this firsthand)
  • Layer 1 same as Tiago
  • Layers 2 and 3 are combined. Mix of bold and italics.
  • Layer 4 is paraphrasing often drawing connections to other ideas. While time-consuming because it requires thinking I am rewarded by an easier retrieval stage. More selective about what notes I do this with.
  • Layer 5 usually means pasting the note in other notebooks when the content has multiple contexts


Leave a Reply