How does one take notes…

…when the goal isn’t to end up with a pile of notes?

There are many scenarios where, over time, I do want to end up with a collection of notes. This is straight forward; start taking notes, and keep them somewhere. Bonus points if you review them, or use them as reference, or do anything with them.

But what if I have a scenario where I want to “do a better job” but I don’t care at all about the notes themselves. Suppose you have a regularly scheduled recurring meeting, but you don’t need a historical collection of notes. In fact, suppose you don’t actually need notes, but you think: It would be nice to know what we did last time, so we can follow-up next time.

And so I’m thinking this would be easy. I’ll just have a pile of notes (physical, digital, whatever) and I’ll go through them and … wait, what, actually? Recopy them? gag, that’s tedious. How many do I keep? How long do I keep the old ones? Here’s what I came up with…

I’m working in a single digital document. I have a heading, “Ongoing,” at the top that has the big things we currently have on our radar. The list has some dates with notes; “Oct 2020 — started that big project” and similar things.

Next I have a heading, “Jan 5, 2022” with the date of our next scheduled meeting. When that meeting arrives, I start by doing something very weird: I add “9876543210” on the line below the heading. Then I take simple bullet-point notes under that heading. “We discussed the foo bazzle widget needs defranishizing,” and similar items. Before our meeting ends, I add a heading for the date of the NEXT meeting, ABOVE this meeting’s heading. This pushes the heading and notes down the page a bit.

Then I continue reading. The heading just below this meeting’s, is the date of our last meeting. Just below the heading is “9876543210”, which I put there when we had that meeting. I delete the “9” from the front. I read my notes from the meeting. I may even edit them. Sometimes things that were obvious then, don’t seem so obvious a week later.

Then I continue reading. The next heading is the one from two meetings ago. Just below it is “876543210” — think about that, if it’s not obvious that last week, I read this part and already removed the “9”. So this week, I remove the “8.” Read the notes.

I work my way down each of the historical dates. Snipping a lead number, off the front of the line after each heading. 7. 6. 5. etc.

At the very end of the document, I find a heading that is from 11 meetings ago. Below the heading is “0” — because I’ve looked at these notes 9, 8, 7, 6, etc deleting a digit each time. These notes are now quite old. In fact, they should be irrelevant after 11 meetings. If they are not, I figure out what I have to add to “Ongoing” (the very topmost heading)… or perhaps I put a note under the coming meetings heading (just below “Ongoing”.)

It sounds wonky, but it’s magic. One digital document, you can skim the entire thing right in any of the meetings. You can search in the document. I can be sure I’m not forgetting things, but I can be sure I’m not making a huge collection of crap I’m never going to look at again.

Care to guess where that delete-a-digit each time comes from? It’s an idea from book printing. When they used to set type (physical lead type in trays) they would put “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10” (or other orderings of the numbers) in the cover plate. Then print the book. What printing? This one is “1” Next printing? …they’d just chip off the “1” and print “2 3 4 5…” in the book… second printing. They still print those weird sequences of digits in digitally printed books. I believe this one is a second edition, 3rd printing…

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Tribe of Mentors

Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors was published in 2017, and arrived in my collection as a gift in 2018. It took me three years—until 2021, March of this year in fact—before I was finally ready to read it. I have a couple, (and “couple” always means two,) of things to say about the book.

Excellence is the next five minutes, improvement is the next five minutes, happiness is the next five minutes. This doesn’t mean you ingore planning. I encourage you to make ambitious plans. Just rememeber that the big-beyond-belief things are accomplished when you deconstruct them into the smallest possible pieces and focus on each “moment of impact,” one step at a time.

~ Tim Ferriss

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As I was reading, I marked about 50 quotes. I didn’t count the markers I inserted, and some of them are at sections with several quotes. There are quotes from the people in the book, there are quotes that Ferriss included in single-page, “quotes I’m pondering” section breaks, and there are precisely three quotes from Ferriss himself. (All three are here, in this post.)

The first thing I want to share about this book is that it’s not really Ferriss’s book. He didn’t write a book. The vast bulk is other people’s work and writing. Some of those people impressed me, some were “just” solid humans being their best, and some struck me as self-deluded; which makes it a superlative book. Where—let’s be honest—can one get insight on 100 different people and tuck it under your arm? Insight on people you’ve heard of, people you’ve not yet heard of, and even some people you’ll probably never care to hear of. Furthermore, having myself done a bunch of, “you’re just capturing what other people say,” work, I’m qualified to say: He did the deceptively difficult work of asking. He asked and followed up and nudged and organized (and indexed and cross-indexed) and cast light on people he thought were worth giving a platform.

To paraphrase Jim [Loehr]: The power broker in your life is the voice that no one ever hears. How well you revisit the tone and content of your private voice is what determines the quality of your life. It is the master storyteller, and the stories we tell ourselves are our reality. For instance, how do you speak to yourself when you make a mistake that upsets you? Would you speak that way to a dear freind when they’ve made a mistake? If not, you have work to do. Trust me, we all have work to do.

~ Tim Ferriss, but see also, https://tim.blog/2020/12/28/jim-loehr-2/

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Which brings me to the second thing: There’s a very slim section hiding at the back. If I noted its existence when I read the Table of Contents, (I always read Tables of Contents,) six months later I’d certinaly forgotten the section existed. I could very easily have put the book down most of the way through and completely missed it. If you read nothing else in the book, this last section is the part you should read. I checked and it’s not published as a blog post by Ferriss, (but it’s small enough it could be.) Borrow or buy the book if just to read the last section.

Based on everything I’ve seen, a simple recipe can work: Focus on what’s in front of you, design great days to create a great life, and try not to make the same mistake twice. That’s it. Stop hitting net balls and try something else, perhaps even the opposite. If you really want extra credit, try not to be a dick, and you’ll be a Voltron-level superstar.

~ Tim Ferriss

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If you’ve not already guessed, all three of those quotes from Ferriss are from the last section of the book.

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This is click bait

German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) influenced some of the more prominent minds in the world. His writings and lessons traverse time and discipline. Schopenhauer confronted similar problems with media to the ones we face.

~ Farnam Street from, https://fs.blog/2017/01/schopenhauer-dangers-clickbate/

The scale of Philosophy—just “western” Philosophy alone, even—is mind boggling. Who thought what, at which point in their career. Who influenced whom. Who’s work is now considered bunk, and which is bunk but still necessary to understand some other piece. What is in which language, and then which translation of that should one choose. If so-and-so had an influence on other-person, in what way? …did they build upon, tear down and correct, or push farther the influencer’s work?

At one point, I had deluded myself into attempting a systematic survey of Philosophy. ahahhahaahhaahahhaahahahahahhahaaa. Silly human.

But this small-ish article from Farnam Street led me to actually wonder about some of Schopenhauer’s essays. And I’ve ended up with an English translation of his On Reading and Books now sitting on my read-next table.

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Grunt work

It’s important to take time to think about what we’re reading and not merely assume the thoughts of the author. We need to digest, synthesize, and organize the thoughts of others if we are to understand. This is the grunt work of thinking. It’s how we acquire wisdom.

~ Farnam Street from, https://fs.blog/2015/08/schopenhauer-on-reading/

That’s a tiny taste from a delightful and sublime collection of thoughts on reading and books. Which will serve perfectly as an on-ramp to Schopenhauer’s actual essay, On Reading and Books. Which, furthermore, is even linked as a modern PDF from that same page. Wonders never cease.

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The time for action

Books? How, or to what end? For is not reading a kind of preparation for living, but living itself made up of things other than books? It is as if an athlete, when he enters the stadium, should break down and weep because he is not exercising outside. This is what you were exercising for; this is what the jumping-weights, and the sand, and your young partners were all for. So are you now seeking for these, when it is the time for action?

~ Epictetus

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Fan-boy mode, on

Neither our economy nor the demands of a life well-lived dictate that everyone should aspire to be sitting alone at a desk in rural Narashino, crafting literature to the light of the rising sun. My growing concern, however, is that such real commitment to thought has become too rare.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/06/16/haruki-murakami-and-the-scarcity-of-serious-thought/

I’ve read every post on Newport’s blog. I have both Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Digital Minimalism is in my “priority” subset of my wishlist of books. (Yes, I am aware that I have problems.) But I’ll out myself: I’ve not read either of the two Newport books that I already have, and see no point brining the third into the mix until I do. But whining about my privileged-problem of having too many books, isn’t my theme here. Rather, I want to think about why is it “that such real commitment to thought has become too rare.” Because I totally agree that such is so.

(That’s all. I’m thinking about it, and now so are you.)

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And sometimes panic sets in

Inspired by a reader’s question to me, I thought I’d ask our followers on Facebook and Twitter for an answer to the question: What books would you recommend someone read to improve their general knowledge of the world.

I must say the number and quality of the responses overwhelmed me. The box Amazon just delivered reminds me that I ordered 9 books off this list.

~ Farnam Street from, https://fs.blog/2016/09/books-recommend-someone-read-improve-general-knowledge-world/

I know there are too many books—old books, new books, red books, blue books … A friend of mine just published a book, Before You Say Anything, and Jiminy Cricket I’d love to read it— I hovered on the add-to-cart button. But I paused, managing to trigger my habit-change “wedge” of repeating: “simplfiy. simplify. simplify.” I digress.

I skimmed that list of books from Farnam Street and felt I should probably read every one of them. Instead—simplify. simplify. simplify.—I noted I’ve read several, have several more already in my possession, and several others on the wishlist. With a life-is-short shrug, I’m passing it along to you and moving on with my morning.

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Mastery, purpose, and autonomy

A highly influential book for me in designing Automattic was Daniel Pink’s Drive, where he eloquently introduces the three things that really matter in motivating people: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Mastery is the urge to get better skills. Purpose is the desire to do something that has meaning, that’s bigger than yourself. These first two principles physically co-located companies can be great at. But the third, autonomy, is where even the best in-office company can never match a Level 4 or above distributed company.

~ Matt Mullenweg from, https://ma.tt/2020/04/five-levels-of-autonomy/

I’ve read and listened to a bunch of stuff from Mullenweg and he’s consistently someone with his head on straight and his priorities—particularly those related to the many people working for his company—in order. If you just went, “Matt who?” definitely read that little post, and then, perhaps, dip into his podcast, Distributed. (Maybe try the episode, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg on building a fully distributed company, to get a good taste.)

Also, yes, more autonomy for everyone.

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Just one good idea

I believe the standard how-to book contains too much new stuff for a human brain to take on board once, or at least it does for my brain. Implementing a single habit – flossing before bed, for example – is something most people can do if they’re really focusing on it, but even that is hard. Converting your workday into the full-bore Pomodoro system, or (God help you) the GTD system, represents a dozen or more habits that all have to come online more or less at the same time.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2021/06/how-to-get-things-done-when-you-have-trouble-getting-things-done/

This is an unusual post from Cain. It is very much nuts-and-bolts material—ending in a pitch for a book of his own—rather than his usual philosophical pontifications. To his observation quoted above I’d like to add the following: If I am able to find just one good idea in a book which I can implement, then I get very excited.

For example, one can read many books and come away with new ideas. (Man’s Search for Meaning, or Leaves of Grass, spring to mind as examples.) But the vast majority of books do not contain actionable things that can be implemented to make a difference in your life. An idea like, “be the change you want to see in the world,” is sublime. But how—be specific in your thinking here—do I do that? There are many examples: “Practice gratitude.” How, exactly? And compare that to the same idea, in actionable form: “Begin each day by writing down three things for which you are grateful.”

I’m not trying to denigrate great ideas. I’m trying to explain my sheer delight when I do find a great idea which is readily attemptable. Many of those actionable ideas still fall by the wayside, but a few of them have really stuck and served me well.

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