My minimalist approach to taking notes

    How applying a minimalist philosophy to note-taking stopped the information overwhelm.

    I don’t take many notes these days. My workload, hobbies, and learning haven’t slowed down either. So, why have I significantly reduced the number of notes created each week? To answer this, I need to explain what was happening before I made the changes, as well as why I had made the changes I now follow.

    Enter note-taking or note making alongside the word ‘app’ or ‘PKM’ (or whatever word you can think of in this space), and you will quickly see people online advocating for their favourite productivity app. Their staple in organising and distilling information each day is paraded as a badge of honour. More noticeably, Notion and Obsidian are the hot contenders to take this throne of note-taking.

    Some users even stir the pot and proclaim their shiny new tool is the best note-taking/making tool on the market. It will make you more productive, didn’t you know? (insert sarcasm here). Cue the flurry of responders with the affirmations what app is the best and why other apps suck, etc.

    I, like many others, have fallen for the endless loop of searching for a great note-taking tool. I have tried too many to admit. Both money and time have been spent on this endeavour. Just this year alone (three months — Jan to March 2024), I have used Apple Notes, Twos, Craft Docs, Anytype, Notion, xTIles, Supernotes, OneNote, Upnote, Obsidian and Workflowy. That is a lot of apps to play around with. In reality, I only need one app, but I wanted to test out what each of them had to offer. Furthermore, I wanted to see how my way of capturing, organising, distilling and expressing was compatible with these apps.

    As you can imagine, these applications all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some apps were stronger than others. For me, I put offline-first apps at the front of the queue. The reason for this is a productivity hack I have used for six months where I disconnect my MacBook from the internet. I get fewer notifications, increased focus and an impressive battery life on my MacBook. Furthermore, the always-connected approach weirds me out. Why do apps and services want to persistently track everything I do? Talk about creepy.

    Information enlightenment

    I was in the middle of a weekly reflection when I realised I had taken over 3000 words of notes in the space of five days. That’s a lot of notes for something that was not a blog or report. I thought to myself I would probably not access these notes in the future. What is the point of writing them?

    I’m done with finding the perfect app for my notes. My information is spread across an array of apps to the point I couldn’t tell you where something is. I sat down and looked at the situation. I sat down, saw the mess, realised what I needed to do (it was recorded in my notes) and set out to divide my information between three apps. This way, I could focus my attention on the structure and approach I would take with each of the three apps.

    By being selective, I have eliminated the need for a super note-taking app. My information is now mostly split between three apps. I have a blog coming out soon with apps I use every day, but I will mention three of them now with the addition of one I use occasionally for specific use cases.

    The Trio of ‘Takers

    • Twos App — used every day as my digital bullet journal. Just like a bullet journal, the entries are short and to the point. The quick capture is perfect for my use case. Any thoughts or ideas go into a list called 00 INBOX. I am using it more for work these days than for personal use. It’s a free piece of software with the option to buy PRO features. To be honest, you can unlock the features by gaining coins through tiny daily onboarding missions. I’ve got a few posts and a YouTube video of how I use Twos at the bottom of this post.

    Planning out my day in Twos app.

    • Apple notes — used for capturing/accessing home, personal, financial and family-related content. Projects around these listed areas remain in Apple Notes. Apple Notes offers me the best of everything I need at zero cost (apart from hardware). Subtle integration with the other Apple services has made Apple Notes a pleasure to use. I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate the OCR and Apple Pencil capabilities.

    Apple Notes helps me manage my personal notes and responsibilities.

    • Upnote — Here is a note-taking app that has made a significant impact. All my coding, teaching and blogging material goes in Upnote. Contextually, this is where I go to create. I made a one-off payment of £24.99 nearly two years ago. I haven’t regretted that decision. Upnote is overlooked. Recently, they have added workspaces, meaning I can separate my personal and work-related notes. Even better, I can lock those workspaces, so no-one can access them. The web clipper is handy for capturing entire webpages. Apple Notes isn’t perfect. Upnote bridges the gap, especially when I want to access notes on other platforms.

    I can capture my coding notes and add code blocks.

    As you can see, I have reduced my subscriptions to zero. When I was paying for software, I felt obliged to use the software, and it was done so aimlessly. I am currently evaluating what I use because I would like to reduce my app stack further. The fewer apps I have, the better chance I have at mastering them.

    Changing my attitude

    I thought to myself — if I stop taking notes (or limit them), I have fewer things to organise and more time to do other things I value. Essentially, the need for a shiny new tool is no more.

    Extreme as it may sound, I have applied the same principle of less to my digital life like I have for my possessions and finances. I aim to record as little as possible without losing clarity in what I am doing each day. No notes, no problems. I have to be realistic here. There will be many times when I need to record information for my future self and my legal obligations at work. However, I have broken out of the bind to record notes for the sake of recording notes. I very rarely refer to them or utilise them in a way I find helpful, anyway. What I am trying to say is I am exceptionally good at sophisticated procrastination. I am changing, though. Less but better I need to remind myself.

    What does it look like?

    I am stricter on what I capture. Since I decided to approach note-taking and note-making through the lens of essentialism, I have found myself suffering from less decision fatigue over what to record. I ironically took notes on how to take better notes. I had been approaching the topic wrong for decades.

    Selective note-taking lets me focus on capturing key points, main ideas and concepts without the need to transcribe everything I read or think. Most notes are snippets of information in bulleted fashion. This is my minimum viable product of note-taking. If I can use pictures to support the notes, I will. Do I need to tell you how many words a picture paints?

    If the average person has six thousand thoughts per day, how many of them are ideas? Do we really need to capture them all? I feel that secure ideas will re-emerge if they carry any weight. In the past, I had a tendency to capture every idea and let it sit, abandoned, somewhere in a random folder in a forgotten app somewhere. That has changed.

    If the idea is a recurring thought, I will place it in my folder called 00 INBOX within the Twos app, and it is tagged with #owls — oozing with loveable sparks. If that so-called spark does not prompt any further action past thirty days of incubation, I simply delete it. No archive treatment. No collecting dust in the inbox. Ruthless is my middle name. Owls are not exclusive to Twos. It is simply the frequently captured location of choice.


    I don’t enjoy taking notes on the books I read. I want to enjoy the experience of reading it. If I do take notes, they are actionable and help me by point of reference. Book notes are the only notes I actually search through for more than three times a year.

    When I am reading a book, it tends to be in the evening to wind down. Reading is a mindful process for me. I would rather not be racing with ideas and thoughts, taking notes before bedtime. Instead, I bookmark the page, add a little comment to myself and review it on Saturday.

    I will outline the key ideas or concepts in the Twos app. If I want to pad the information out, I will transfer the information to Apple Notes where I can add additional images, sketches, articles, PDFs, and audio snippets I have recorded. Still, I do this with the minimal amount of information.

    Fun with folders

    I would occasionally get giddy with throwing handfuls of attachments into my notes apps. Again, with my new approach, I am utilising the good old file explorer (or Finder) to store attachments. My files stay in folders, not notes. All references to them get recorded in their respective note-taking app. For example, the Twos app does not support attachments (yet), so I record where a certain file is on my work’s server. I reference to the file without saving it to the notes app. The exception is Apple Notes where I store specific receipts, recipes, manuals in PDF form and photos as reference to a project.

    The approach has reduced the amount of file storage I need in my notes apps, too. There’s no need to worry about going over storage quotas. Pages in Upnote and Apple Notes run quicker. I can focus on the context of the notes without being distracted with what is attached to the note. So far, I have not come across any problems. Both apps are fast with synchronising and I haven’t experienced any loss of data or duplication.

    The minimalistic approach to note-taking will take time to nurture.

    Of course, it is early days in my approach to note-taking. I am sure there’s some kind of flaw to what I am doing. I need to experience that for myself. Likewise, I genuinely love the minimalistic lifestyle and I feel so much better for it. In one month, I have seen how much calmer I am when it comes to taking notes. There’s no pressure to make things perfect. I have more time to act on my information. Less time is occupied, pondering on what to record and how to act on it.

    I feel I have broken out of the shackles of switching between so-called productivity apps. The feeling is liberating. A principle during my coding course has taught me a lot — KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). I intend to stick to it.

    Moreover, I feel more present with what is going on around me. I am spending extra hours, here and there, with my family. My son appreciates the time to spent playing football, basketball or any other activity that genuinely exhausts me.

    I hope this post resinates with some of you. Have you done anything to capture less and live more? What strategies have you used? I am interested in finding out about your experiences.

    Related links

    Bullet Journal to Twos ⚡️✌️

    One Year of Twos!

    As always, thank you for taking the time to read my post.

    Mark @ CodeMacLife

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    If you are interested in using Twos for your bullet journaling, please sign up with my referral code: codemaclife.

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    Reconnecting with Minimalism

    My time with maximalism taught be I don’t need much stuff

    I have to be honest, I have let a lot slip in the past few months. To me, I had it in the back of my mind that I had to try new things that would usually be ignored. New experiences, lifestyle choices, a ton of new apps, different approaches to social media use, and to live a little with maximalism, just to name a few.

    I’ve had fun, discovered new things and lived to tell the tale. But it comes at a cost, mentally, physically and financially. Just my overindulgence in apps has been overwhelming and costly. A lot of time wasted, but I learnt new things that I can apply across over apps.

    A collection of note-taking apps I have spent two months testing out together.

    The brunt of the whole experience will not be paraded all over this blog. The details of my endeavour will be stretched over multiple blogs (I’ve got to earn that money somehow).

    If anything, the experience of going all in with maximalism showed me the impact the world has on the human mind and body. I could not imagine living in a part of the world where you are subjected to advertisements everywhere you go, junk food galore and excessive debt (you know where I’m talking about).

    The less you own, the more freedom you have. — Angela Horn

    Simplicity is best.

    Simplicity is best. You would be mistaken to think minimalism is all about having less. The only part that is ‘Less’ would be ‘less stress’. Just like Horn mentions in her TEDx talk, we actually experience more. More money and more time for a start.

    Not only have I wasted money on stuff I have recently acquired, I have spent too many hours consuming or messing around with stuff. None of it brought me joy, money, or my time back. I am in deficit, in fact.

    I am happy I have experimented with the life I would have led if it weren’t for my fortunate discovery of minimalism, alongside stoicism and essentialism (plenty of isms, I know).

    But now — it is time to go back to my happy place. Somewhere I know I thrive and become a happier person. Some might see the journey as doing without. It is. It is doing without the things I don’t need in my life.

    Just this morning, I cancelled three subscriptions and deleted three apps from my life. The list will certainly expand. Tumblr and Reddit went, too. By focusing on less, you give other things more value.

    Less But Better

    There was an adorning moment when I was reading Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Gregory McKeown. Gregory spoke about a lead designer at Braun who thought everything was noise. He had an eye for observing what was truly essential. Dieter’s design criteria can be captured in three simple words — Less But Better (translated from the German words: Weniger aber better). He changed an industry by inventing the clear top record player, which was a far-cry from the furniture infused offerings at the time.

    Emphasising Dieter Ram’s point, we can get better outcomes with fewer things in our life. Both minimalism and essentialism have a pursuit of less but better. Get rid of the trivial many to focus on the essential few.

    Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

    As much as people knocked Steve Jobs at Apple, he had it right when he was re-instated as interim CEO. Getting rid of all the products and focusing on a small handful, but doing them better. On his return to Apple, he removed 70 percent of the stuff on the product road map. Jobs’ “Think Different” opening to Apple Employees on 23rd September 1997 was a poignant moment, as he said they would only work on 30 percent of the products. To get back to basics and do it better.

    To quote Steve Jobs on his drive for Less But Better — “A lot of this doesn’t make sense, and it’s way too much stuff, and there’s not enough focus.” There lies the issue with myself presently, and I know millions around the world could relate. We are absorbing and chasing too much stuff to truly get the basics as perfect as they can be.

    Dieter Rams and Steve Jobs both knew that we need to have fewer distractions in life to truly enjoy life. This is essentially what I am doing. I’m removing everything I don’t see as essential and focusing intently on those things that stay in my life.

    I will keep you posted on my progress. There might be some shock changes along the way.

    As always, thank you for taking the time to read my post.

    Mark @ CodeMacLife

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