How I take notes: Structure with Now Next Notes

2024-02-13 #pm #knowledge

I rely heavily on taking notes. I don't necessarily take notes to refer to in the future, they're part of my thinking process. Writing things down brings clarity and tranquility.

After years of iA Writer I recently switched to Obsidian. But this article isn't about tools—I'll will write about that in the future. Here, I want to talk about structure. How I structure notes isn't tied to a specific piece of hard- or software and can be applied in many contexts.

First I want to establish which kind of notes I take. If your note taking habits are completely different than mine, how I structure things might not be compatible. To me, "notes" are a mix of things I'm doing, things I've done, things I want to do, things I'm writing, and things I want to remember.

Things I'm doing & things I've done. I often switch context during work. Logging my process, progress, and microdecisions help me think. This is a great tool to pick something up where I left it off later on, or when doing a retrospective of a project that ran for a few weeks. These also contain notes I take during meetings. I often scribble during meetings and clean them up while they're still fresh.

Things I want to do. I like to keep a list of ideas for projects. This helps me prioritize what to work on next. When I finish a project, I often have a list of things I came across that don't fit in the scope or got cut. Those get collected in a separate note for the next time I pick up that project.

Things I'm writing. I like to keep drafts for articles close to my notes, no need for a separate app.

Things I want to remember. Quotes I like, thoughts on things, references to fall back to… Not necessarily related to a specific project.

Inspired by PARA, I organize my notes by actionability. Notes live in one of four folders: Now, Next, Notes, or Archive.

01 Now/
Introducing Our New JavaScript Integration
Now Next Notes
Obsidian Setup
Flare JavaScript Integration
Ray Docs Redesign
Sidekick Redesign
02 Next/
How to Build a Blog With Statamic
Jumpable Guard Rails
Never Skip Twice
Laravel Event Sourcing
Snapshot Assertions Update
03 Notes/
Setting Goals
The Tao of Pooh
04 Archive/
2024-01-08 Tabular Assertions
2024-01-31 Performance Review

Each folder is prefixed with a number so they're logically sorted in the file system.

(For those who know PARA: the main difference is that I don't differentiate between Projects and Areas, as both coexist in Now or Next. Resources are stored in Notes, and Archive remains Archive.)

Now & Next contain notes about things I've done & things I want to do. They contain notes for projects I'm actively working on. Depending on the size & status of the project, a note could be for the entire project or a specific feature.

For example, when I'm not actively working on Mailcoach I'll probably only have one Mailcoach note. When I'm involved in a specific large body of work for the project, I'll create additional notes like Mailcoach Marketing Redesign.

Another example: I have a Laravel Event Sourcing note in Next to gather ideas for the package. When I decide I want to work on a new major version of the library, I'll create a Laravel Event Sourcing Next Version note with everything I want to tackle at the moment. Ideas I don't want to work on yet might stay in Laravel Event Sourcing . After finishing the Laravel Event Sourcing Next Version project, I'll gather thoughts & ideas I didn't implement and (re-)add them to Laravel Event Sourcing.

It could also happend that another, more important, project came up and I want to shelve the next version for a while. In that case, I'll just move Laravel Event Sourcing Next Version to Next until I'm ready to pick it back up again.

At least once a week—generally on Monday—I review the Now folder and move what I'm not actively working on to Next. The goal of Now is to have an explicit view on my current responsibilities. It's important that anything in Now is actively moving. If the list is too long at a given point in time, I'm probably spread too thin and need to reprioritize to manage expectations with myself and others.

I also store writing drafts in Now/Drafts and Next/Drafts. If I haven't touched a draft from Now/Drafts for a week or two, I'll move it to Next/Drafts until inspiration strikes again.

When a project is completed or becomes irrelevant, I prefix the note with the date it was completed and move it to the Archive folder, for example 2024-02-12 Laravel Event Sourcing Next Version . Writing drafts often get deleted instead of archived, as they're published elsewhere I don't need to hoard them in my note taking tool for future reference.

Notes contain notes about things I want to remember. Notes are more about general topics instead of projects. In theory, notes never move to archives, they're a knowledge base that grow over time. An example file in Notes is Quotes, where I keep a list of quotes I like.

That's pretty much all there's too it. The goal is to spend most of the time in Now, occasionally review Next, and dive into Notes and Archive when needed.

In future posts, I'll share how I structure the contents of a project note, and how I specifically use Obsidian.