Some further thoughts on ephemeral versus preserve-everything note-taking.

Note-taking is about capturing ideas, thoughts, and processes. You want as little friction as possible when doing so: you don't want to be thinking the page is too small, or the paper drying up the ink too quickly so the pen doesn't move smoothly, or similar such things distracting from capturing what you are trying to capture.

I used my PhD notebook as an example of a preserve-everything approach. A serious drawback of the notebook as the sole place to capture work is the risk that it will be damaged or lost. I periodically photograph all the pages and store those photos digitally, alongside other things relating to the work. Those other things include two different private wiki instances that I use to capture notes when I'm working at the computer, as well as several Git repositories (some public, some private) for source code, experiments, drafts of papers, etc. There's also a not-insignificant amount of email correspondence.

There have been several train journeys and several meetings where I've grabbed a cheap, larger-format pad of paper and a box of Pound-shop felt-tip pens to sketch ideas, whiteboard-style. At the time it just seemed easier to capture what we were doing in that way, rather than try to do so into the notebook.

So the notebook is neither canonical nor comprehensive. Ultimately it's really another example of ephemeral note-taking, and so I think the Ephemeral model wins out.

Use whatever notebook or paper or envelope or window pane that is convenient and feels attractive at the time you need to capture something with the least amount of friction. Digitise that and store, catalogue, adjust, derive, etc. from that in the digital domain.


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The definition of ephemeral is something that needs consideration (for me anyway). Initially I rebelled at its use but on reflection, much of my note taking is close or a good fit to that. I have many tasks, hobbies, projects etc for which remembering information is valuable for saving time and aiding in the process. It may be as simple as remembering a web link to a supplier, or a set of measurements. These last weeks or months. Then at the trivial end is the shopping list I generate as a note to update as days pass. I am realising more and more that the one or two line note is of more value than I thought some years ago. 'what was that led supplier I used' was my yesterday searxh-task. Then, 'the link for an RF solenoid calculator' was another. Quantity escalates significantly when I have has success storing the recalling this type of information. So ultimately most of my notes will have value only for a few months at most. From the above, it is also clear that the 'capture all' is a close fit too. For decades scrappy bits of paper have been my sole platform for recording then usually losing and being unable to find information with any kind of speed. There was a pleasure in recording that information but deep inside I knew I would struggle to retain it. Of course notebooks of various types were used which in my disorganised life led to having many and then required me searching many for what I sought. It is sadly clear that the discipline required is absent from me for this method. I applaud those who have it, wishing it were me. The art of effective note taking, the use of pen and ink on paper, the free form flowing of ideas in ink just feels so attractive. But I fail so the digital solution while being less artful remains the viable solution for me. Friends suggested solutions like Dropbox and of course their use comes with the discipline of file naming and placement which for me got in the way badly when quick notes, my most prevalent need, need to be taken at speed then move on with my tasks. Ultimately I ended up with hundreds of files that mimiced my paper note taking disorganisation. For a few years I have been trying various 'digital solutions' with poor success. Your point is well taken, the platform must be as transparent as possible. To create a note must only take seconds at most and not require other thought than transcribing the note into digital form. As soon as other decisions are required like where to store it, what file name etc, those detract and derail the thought process. I need a "snapshot of now" to be recorded. The elemental efficiency of recording a note is key to its success. My journey has taken me through most commercial note taking applications with varying lack of success. 'notion' was the most alluring but again ultimately a poor fit to task. Its gloss did not make up for an absence of the search facilities it desperately want. At the other end 'standard notes' offers simplicity with a similar absence of searching but the test of time has shown it to be superior. I am still using it. My quest for the ultimate note taking app has now ceased as I've realised there is no app that suits my mindset. Instead I have been focused on implementing my own with FOSS tools. To date this has been a learning exercise with little result but high expectations. A key failure of commercial off the shelf apps has been the notebook metaphor. For the disorganised note taker, this requires a discipline that doesn't exist. A FLAT database is required but with superior searching and tagging, and to that end I am working. Secondly, the ability to store and manage many thousands of notes is required and essential. My work database of contacts contains 2400 records alone. Putting that into notion or other almost-solutions has brought them to their knees. My standard notes 12 month input is over a thousand records making it painful to load and search.

Thank you for your thoughts on note taking. My apologies for my poorly organised input, done on the breakfast table by mobile phone. Richard

Comment by Richard,