Notes Against Sasha Chapin’s Notes Against Note-Taking Systems

Dear Sasha 

I’m writing to disagree with you. This, I hope you’ll agree, is a high honour. It’s a sign that I think your thoughts are worth taking the time to grapple with and unpick. I’m doing this to satisfy myself, to contribute to the discourse around the value of note-taking systems, and to consolidate an argument on the subject I recently had with a friend. 

My principal critiques are as follows: 

  • Getting words down on a page is intrinsically valuable, whether you intend to share them for public consumption or just need to work out what you really think about something. It’s valuable for the same reason lifting weights or taking a walk outside is valuable: it’s good for your mind/body in the moment that it’s happening. I think second-order effects, like whether you’ll become really buff or make a morning walk part of your daily routine, are subordinate to this in-the-moment value. 
    • So if you find a tool that helps increase your written output, this is to be celebrated. Undermining this output by suggesting you could be using this time better, by calling a friend or by actually “creating things”, seems to start from the wrong comparative point – for most people, I think the alternative to using such a tool is doing other unthreatening things, like scrolling Twitter and Instagram. 
    • People are either going to create things or not, whether or not they use note-taking tools. So to suggest that the use of such a tool syphons people away from other creative/emotionally satisfying pursuits is misleading – I worry it conflates these different groups. It’s also not clear why we should subject organisational tools to such strict scrutiny based on their capacity to enable procrastination, when this capacity is a feature built into almost all technology in the modern world. People using note-taking tools who convince themselves that their unpreparedness is the bottleneck to them producing stuff seem unlikely to have produced stuff even in the absence of such tools. 
    • Another reason I think writing words down is intrinsically valuable is that, as you repeatedly emphasise in your own writing, the best way to improve one’s writing is to just…write more. Indeed, your refrain around this theme often echoes in my head, inspiring me to put words to page. 
  • Many of your criticisms seem to make considerable assumptions about how most people use note-taking tools. These include: 
    1. that using a note-taking tool will cause you to rely on some other filter for what you find interesting/important rather than what is naturally salient. 
    2. that using a note-taking tool precludes you from writing stunted fragments of ideas, and from being original more broadly. Relatedly, that using these tools leads you to focus on factual insight as the core of your work.
    3. that the only serious reasons for using note-taking tools are to manage complex research or to compensate for a disability, beyond which one is just “LARPing”.
  • I think these assumptions are largely unjustified. This is because: 
    1. In choosing what is worth noting down, you are making a judgement call regarding salience. Nobody can note down absolutely everything, even assuming they wanted to. So judgement calls guided by what organically sticks in one’s mind are not bypassed by making use of a formal system. Further – and this is largely anecdotal, though I’ve seen some lukewarm evidence to support it – writing things down typically causes those things to stick more vividly in one’s memory. Which things stick? That’s not something we are really in charge of – it’s controlled by our salience filters, which we are always relying on.
    2. There is no reason to think that using a note-taking tool precludes one from writing stunted fragments. I jot down such half-formed thoughts in my Roam database almost every day, with little regard for what’s come before. The idea that while using a note-taking tool, you can’t start each day fresh, generating original stuff from read/write errors, is unfounded. Sure, some people may become so obsessed with playing in their “magical junkyard” that their creative efforts become stultified, but my response here is the same as what I said regarding procrastination above – if your use of a tool results in you producing unoriginal stuff, perhaps you weren’t that original to begin with. Similarly, if one is limited into focusing on factual insights, this has more to do with their intentions and use of the tool, than with the tool itself, which is compatible with various focus areas.
    3. While I agree note-taking tools are most useful to those engaged in serious research, and that for the majority of people there’s probably no need to use them, I don’t think we should denigrate those that use them outside of these ends as merely “LARPing”, for two reasons. 
      • First, LARPing is a form of play. If people are getting a kick out of pretending to be productive, if using a note-taking tool feels like a game to them, power to them! Yes, they may in some sense be wasting their time (if the end is producing content), but as I keep returning to, this time probably would’ve been wasted anyway, and it’s not clear to me why this form of procrastination is any worse than the others. 
      • Second, I think one’s use of a tool for work can be intertwined with its use for play. This is the case for me. During a typical work-day, I use Roam to keep track of various tasks that need doing and subjects that need researching (I currently work as legal researcher); but I also use it to pepper in poems, stunted fragments, thoughts that go nowhere. I think a lot of interesting ideas come from letting these fragments coexist alongside more serious work, which your narrowly-defined categories of where note-taking tools are useful may miss.
  • Certainly, I don’t think using a note-taking system is necessary (or even sufficient) to do interesting work. Obviously it is not. I also agree that people learning from “knowledge management” courses and the like may absorb a dogma that leaves their work inert. I don’t even disagree that a note-taking system should be as elementary as possible – indeed, I think the best systems evolve organically and in response to the needs of their users.
  • But I do worry that the idea that you don’t need tools fancier than da Vinci’s to do interesting work is rooted in a traditionalist ethic; in the idea that great people of the past made do with what they had, so who are we to lay claim to more? I think this overlooks the very real possibility that da Vinci would’ve loved digital note-taking systems, or if not da Vinci, then some other historic intellectual on whose merit we can agree. Using a note-taking system doesn’t imply that you think you’re better than da Vinci; and in any case, who knows what da Vinci’s workflow would look like in the modern era? Not me.

I don’t expect you to radically change your opinion on any of the above, and indeed you may find fault in much of what I’ve said here; but I thought discourse around this topic might be made richer with my contribution, so this is that. Writing this felt like play. Now I’m going to go outside. 

Yours in good spirit,

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments