There’s a lot written these days about how to organise your digital notes and it is certainly an exciting time for note-taking applications. With new players, such as Roam Research and Obsidian joining seasoned players such as Notion and Bear notes, and not forgetting the veteran of all note-taking apps, Evernote.
One area of growth in this field is the idea of contextual notes. What this means is your notes are linked together by keywords, topics and ideas. It’s built on the same way our brains store information. We notice a smell as we walk down the street and that smell triggers a memory of a time at school. Suddenly, our thoughts are filled with images of that time we were at school. It does not have to be a smell, it could be a sound, or an image even hearing a song you listened to when you broke up with your first love can evoke emotional memories.
That’s how our brains make connections with all the various stimuli it encounters and these new note-taking apps are attempting to recreate that way of organising and managing your notes in a digital form.
However, this may not be the most effective way to manage your notes.
When it comes to organising our stuff, we do not normally follow this pattern. Take a simple example. The cutlery in our kitchen. If we were to organise our stuff contextually, we would put teaspoons with our coffee cups, tea bags and milk because when we make a cup of tea, we normally need these items to hand. Likewise, we would put our knives and forks with our plates.
But that’s not how we organise our kitchen utensils. We put cutlery together in the cutlery drawer. My tea bags are kept with my coffee making equipment and my plates are kept in the plates’ cupboard.
The same applies to our clothes. If we were to organise our clothing contextually, we would put our suits, dress shirts, dress shoes, underwear and socks together in the same place. Yet most people separate suits, shoes and underwear in different places.
While our brains organise our thoughts and ideas by complex interconnected neurons, the way we organise our stuff is very different. We group things together by similarity. Knives, forks, spoons and teaspoons go into a drawer for cutlery. Suits and coats have their place in our wardrobe (closet) and our underwear is usually kept in a separate drawer. Personally, I have a separate socks and underwear drawer even though I would normally wear both socks and underwear simultaneously. They are connected but they are stored separately.
We separate our things this way because it builds familiarity with where things will be. If you go to a strange house, you have to ask where the knives or plates are. That’s because where one person organises their stuff is often quite different from where other people organise their stuff. When I am at home, in my kitchen, I am so familiar with where things are, I do not need to think about it. I need a Sharpe knife to cut the carrots, I reach out to the place I keep my vegetable knife. No thought, just reaching out.
The problem, here is, if my kitchen was a “smart” kitchen it would determine I want a knife to cut the carrots as that is what I usually do, but perhaps this time I want the vegetable peeler, so I can remove the skin, so I end up with the wrong tool.
This is where I have difficulty with machine learning and AI. The concept of these ideas is fantastic, but fall down when you consider we are illogical human beings. Machine learning and AI may logically be able to decide that because you exercise at 6 AM most mornings, you want to see your exercise apps and notes at 6 AM every morning. Yet we may wake up feeling sick, or did not sleep well and decide we will not exercise. AI and machine learning do not know if you twisted your knee while running the day before. There’s just so many factors involved.
I have no doubt as machine learning and AI develops in the future it will get better, but I am also aware we are very illogical beings. Humans love consistency. It’s why we like to park our cars in the same spot in the car park and feel mildly irritated when someone else parks where we normally park. It’s why our coffee cups, coffee machine and milk are in three separate places. It’s also why we like to sit in the same seat on the bus or drive the same way to work each day even though there may be a quicker way because of less traffic. It’s not necessarily logical, but it is a pattern we are familiar with, and we like it that way.
When it comes to organising our files we naturally group things together by topic. The way we organised filing cabinets in the pre-digital age was alphabetically, not because that was necessarily the best way, but because that way meant we would be able to find a file quickly. If we were to organise files contextually, we may have client A’s file stored with product B one day, and then when Client A decided they did not want product B but product E instead we would have to move the file to another location.
I understand that theoretically, it makes sense to have our notes and files managed and organised by connections. After all, I may have had an idea two years ago about a business model that I since forgot about, and have a similar idea today. It would be great if my notes app would make that connection for me. But there are far too many variables.
I have a notebook stack in Evernote where I keep all my online course notes. Each course has its notebook and in those notebooks I keep relevant information for each course. I created those notebooks myself and I decide what goes in each notebook. I also have many articles and ideas on productivity and time management stored in my resource centre. I know when I collect an article or add a note if it relates to a course or is more general reference material.
In theory all those productivity and time management articles and notes are connected to all my courses. All my courses are related to these subjects. But I know that an article on time blocking is not connected to my Email Mastery course. Unfortunately, contextual apps do not know that, so it connects all these articles together. I see the subtle difference, AI and machine learning does not.
So, before jumping on the contextual notes apps bandwagon, think about how you like to organise your stuff. We are all different and you know how you like to organise and manage your stuff. For some of you this contextual way of managing your notes and files may make sense. For others, it may not. You know yourself and you know what you like. You know where you like to park your car or where to sit on a bus. Don’t let technology change that. Technology does not know you. You know you.
Thank you for reading my stories! 😊 If you enjoyed this article, hit those clapping hands below many times👏 It would mean a lot to me and it helps other people see the story.
My purpose is to help as many people as I can live the lives they desire. To help people find happiness and become better organised and more productive so they can do more of the important things in life.
If you would like to learn more about the work I do, and how I can help you to become better organised and more productive, you can visit my website or you can say hello on Twitter, YouTube or Facebook and subscribe to my weekly newsletter right here.