Stream of Consciousness to Atomic Notes: A Powerful Note-Taking Workflow
In today’s fast-paced world, many of us turn to note-taking and journaling to keep track of our thoughts and ideas. At times, however, we struggle to make the distinction between notes and journal entries and the whole process becomes messy. In this article, I discuss a hybrid note-taking workflow that allows you to write freely but still stay organised. It can help you close the open loops in your mind and allow you to think more clearly.
Choose Your Tool
The first step in this workflow is to choose a note-taking app that suits your needs. Ideally, it should have the capacity to use wiki links. I use Bear for its slick UX on mobile and desktop. It also uses end-to-end encryption and allows you to add a further lock to any private notes. There are other apps out there that use wiki links, so if you’ve got one that works for you then go ahead and use that. Obsidian would be my second choice.
Every new note I take starts exactly the same — it’s a journal entry titled YYYY-MM-DD-HHmm, and tagged with #journal. this way, you can write whatever you want without thinking about how you’re going to title your note, which kills your flow. If you’re also using Bear, I have an iOS shortcut to create a new note in this format straight from my home screen, you can get it here.
This process works best in a stream-of-consciousness style. It allows your thoughts to flow onto the page without any constraints or limitations. The important thing here is to write openly and honestly, about whatever you want. Whether it’s about what you had for lunch, or deep personal trauma, it doesn’t matter. Just get it off your chest. Doing this consistently is probably the hardest part of this process. It takes time and persistence, but if you stick with it you’ll uncover a side of yourself that you didn’t know was there.
Writing in this style helps you to clear your mind and get everything out there onto the page and out of your head. The process alone is like having a weight lifted off your shoulders. Instead of constantly trying to keep track of all these things floating around in your consciousness, they’re now stored in your notes. This creates the mental space that allows you to be more present in your daily life, engaging more fully in your day-to-day activities.
My journal entries are a place to have an open discussion about what I’ve learned through reading, digital media, and my own first-hand experiences. I don’t force myself to write about anything specific, but rather let the writing take place organically. At times, it may seem like there’s nothing useful coming from your notes, but that doesn’t matter. The process of writing is the most important thing.
After following this process for a while, you will inevitably see common themes emerging in your notes. It might be the fact you’re not getting enough done because you keep waking up too late. You might keep noticing an idea from that book you’ve been reading occurring in different areas of your life. This is all the perfect stuff for you to be writing about in your notes.
Things start to get interesting now.
If you see any kind of recurring theme, there’s a high chance that there’s some kind of overarching principle at play — one that can be used to your benefit in the future.
Once you’re at this stage, you can start making atomic notes from your journal entries. These are notes that you can reference to give you direction in the future.
- Regularly write out your thoughts and ideas in a stream-of-consciousness style in your digital journal.
- See something occur in your journal entry that highlights an overarching principle which can be applied in different situations.
- Identify the principle and name it.
- Write this name at the top or bottom of your journal entry.
- Place it in [[double square brackets]] to create a new note titled with the text between the brackets.
- Click on this wiki link and it will take you to your new atomic note.
- Fill in the details and explain the principle, idea, or tool, in such a way that will be useful to your future self.
- Tag the note appropriately, and use wiki links to connect it to any other atomic notes it may be related to.
This method creates clear, concise, atomic notes that can be used in future work. These notes are also backed up with real examples from the journal entries they are linked to.
A Personal Example
Here’s one of my personal examples to show you how things work in practice:
[[The Medici Effect]]
[[Just Learn What You Need]]
I’m just watching this video with Virgil Abloh on YouTube and he’s talking about how when he was in college, he made a pact with himself that he would put just 50% of his energy into school, and the rest into the stuff he loves — music, art, food, skating etc.
This was his real classroom, and he said if it wasn’t for this then he wouldn’t be where he is today. This reminds me how important it is to follow the stuff I’m interested in and take inspiration from everywhere.
The hard part, though, is that when you have so many interests it can feel overwhelming to stay up to date with them when you’re trying to learn things.
The solution to this is to not try and learn everything, just learn what you need to, to complete a specific task or project.
This takes the burden off and allows you to follow your different interests. In fact, it puts you in a privileged position because you can draw in all these different disciplines, allowing you to form new ideas where they intersect. This is The Medici Effect in action.
Create Atomic Notes
In note-taking, an “atomic note” refers to a single, concise, and self-contained note that captures a single idea or piece of information.
The purpose of atomic notes is to capture key information in a way that is easy to understand and recall. By breaking down complex ideas into smaller, atomic notes, you can make your notes more organised and easier to review later.
After writing the entry above, two clear principles emerged. Therefore, I added the titles of these new atomic notes to the top of my journal entry in double brackets, selected them to create a new note, and then filled out the details of them as such:
Just Learn What You Need
The principle of just learning what you need to know to move to the next step of your project or task is a strategy for being efficient and productive. This involves focusing on the specific knowledge or skills that are necessary to complete the next step, rather than trying to learn everything at once.
In a business context, this principle can be applied to new product development, where teams may focus on learning just enough about a new technology or market trend to move forward with the next stage of development. By avoiding the temptation to learn everything about a topic upfront, teams can reduce the risk of wasting time and resources on irrelevant information.
In creative acts such as music production, the principle can be applied by focusing on learning the necessary skills for the next stage of the production process, rather than trying to master every aspect of music production all at once. For example, a producer may focus on learning just enough about mixing and mastering to create a rough demo, rather than spending months learning every detail of the process.
Overall, the principle of just learning what you need to know to move to the next step emphasises the importance of focusing on the most relevant and important information, rather than getting bogged down in irrelevant details. By being strategic and efficient in learning, individuals and teams can achieve their goals more quickly and effectively.
The Medici Effect
The Medici effect is a concept that describes the way in which innovation arises from the intersection of different disciplines and ideas. The term was coined by author Frans Johansson in his book “The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation”. The Medici family of Renaissance-era Florence is used as an example of the way in which the intersection of different disciplines, such as art, science, and finance, led to a period of great innovation and cultural advancement. Similarly, Johansson argues that innovation today is more likely to occur when people from different backgrounds and disciplines come together to share ideas and collaborate. The Medici effect highlights the importance of diversity, curiosity, and creativity in driving innovation and problem-solving.
Tag Notes and Make Connections
I wrote these notes in such a way that would make them useful to apply to new and unfamiliar situations in the future. After this, I tagged them accordingly so that I would be able to find them quickly in future. If I wrote an entry and the content was only relevant to existing notes in my system, then I would simply make a wiki link to those existing notes, without the need to generate any new principles. This becomes quicker and easier to do the longer you follow the method.
This way of writing allows you to write freely, clearing space in your mind, while also bringing the order of having clear, concise, atomic notes that can be used in future work.
It is effective because it helps to create a seamless connection between free writing, journaling and organised note-taking, allowing you to clear your mind and stay organised.
This workflow is easy to implement and can help you stay on top of your thoughts and ideas. Give it a try and let me know how it works out for you.
If you want to learn more about how you can organise your notes in Bear, and why it’s my note-taking app of choice, have a read of these:
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