You need a note-taking detox (a guide)

This guide will show you how to declutter your note taking and, by extension, your thinking.

This short guide will show you how to drastically simplify your note-taking. The whole process takes about a month, and is also a great way to kickstart a note-taking habit.

Signs you need a note-taking detox:

  • Overcomplexity: your note-taking ecosystem is cumbersome and complicated.

  • Context Switching: you jump from one tool to another, disrupting your work and thinking.

  • Losing Utility: you're just not getting as much out of your notes as you thought.

  • Enjoyment: you don't actively look forward to spending time in your notes.

A note-taking detox will bring peace and simplicity to your thinking. Instead of building a productivity system from the top down based on tools, you'll start from scratch and add only what's necessary.

How to do a Note-Taking Detox

Week 1: Start with a blank page

Week one will likely be a bit uncomfortable. You're going to scrap every tool, process and system that you've ever used and start from scratch. Initially this might feel daunting or even a bit scary.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Pick the simplest tool: Either a physical notebook with a literal blank page, or a simple note-taking app.

    If opting for the latter, force yourself to use a minimalist tool (e.g., Apple Notes for Mac users or even a basic text editor or Google Doc).

    Tools like Roam or Evernote will simply not work here.

  2. Create a new note for each day: Write the date at the top, and then create a simple to-do list or daily log (i.e. list of what happens in your day).

  3. Limit Functionality: Resist the urge to add more. Focus on building the habit of daily note-taking with minimal complexity.

What your note should look like during the first week

Week 2: Expand to ideas and thoughts

Once you're comfortable writing only the essentials down each day, start working in some other information and thought capture.

  1. Add Spontaneous Thoughts: Start including other items like ideas, meeting notes, and any information that comes to mind.

  2. Keep it Simple: Continue using a basic outline format to keep your notes organized without overcomplicating things.

Notice that your daily note on week 2 won't look all that different from your daily note on week 1. That’s intentional!

What your notes should look like on week 2

Week 3: Integrate external information

Now you can start adding more external and rich information in. Things that exist outside of your own head.

But remember that before you move to this, you must first master the art of capturing what's in your own head. So don't be tempted to start this on week 1.

What kinds of things should you save?

  1. Include External Links: Begin adding links to interesting articles, books, tweets, videos, and photos.

  2. Expand Gradually: Slowly incorporate more complex pieces of information as they become relevant to your needs.

Week 4: Start organizing with backlinks and tags

Now you're ready to start adding some actual organization to your notes.

We recommend fully abandoning the folder system. This is simply not how the human brain works. By forcing this organization system on your mind, you will always be adding friction.

Instead, use backlinks. A backlinks forms a connection between two notes, just like your brain makes associations between two thoughts or memories.

There are some other organizational tools you'll see that are completely up to you whether you decide to use them or not. Here is where we recommend starting:

  1. Backlink entities: Whenever you mention a person, place, thing, etc. add a backlink. A good rule of thumb is to backlink anything that starts with a capital letter.

    We have a video on how to backlink notes here.

  2. Assess other features: Evaluate the types of notes you take and identify key functionalities that would enhance your system (e.g., voice transcription, AI formatting, tags, etc.).

    Remember to only add the features absolutely necessary for frictionless note taking.

  3. Select the Right Tool: Once you have a clear understanding of your needs, find a note-taking tool that aligns with your workflow and preferences.

    If you’ve done your detox, you’ll find you get annoyed at apps with too many features and complexity built in.

What your notes should look like on Week 4

Looking for a minimalistic note-taking app?

➡️ Try Reflect for Free