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Nick Ang

How a Daily Note fixed my note taking process

hand-drawn illustration of a Daily Note

Since the days I was in university, I have been a notes freak. I’ve written and published numerous posts about note-taking: as a way to augment human memory, as a gadget, as an ecosystem of products, as a personal knowledge management system.

I am fascinated by digital note-taking tools because I directly feel their power. I regularly envision myself as a supervillain who, in order to reach the next level of being, must obtain the fabled artefact. To harness the power of the artefact, the villain has to not just locate the stone, he must activate it to unleash its power. Usually, he either dies trying or more likely disfigures himself while he fuses with the power of the stone, like Red Skull from Captain America.

Yeah, I’m a geek about notes.

But for me, while I possess the stone (my note-taking app), the obstacle has always remained - how do I unlock its potential?

My note-taking system often swings from having no structure to one that has too much. Neither feels right. The stone is still just a rock. No glows.

Things began to change when I started creating a Daily Note.

What is a Daily Note?

Effectively, a Daily Note is just like any other note. I believe the template should depend heavily on what you do. Here’s what mine looks like anyway:

my daily note

The power of the Daily Note lies not in the structure that it provides me within the note, but the structure it provides me for making notes as a whole.

I was inspired to do this when I tried using Roam Research, the note-taking tool with a cult status on the web among bigger note-nerds than me.

Roam auto-generates a Daily Note and makes it the default landing page when you launch the web application. The first time I experienced that, I could hear a click in my head. This makes so much sense, yet no other note-taking tool has done it yet.

I didn’t like Roam for many reasons, so I stopped using it after two weeks of experimentation. In the end I went back to my old flame, Bear app.

But it’s not the tool. The tool is the stone. It’s the process that activates the stone. Discovering this Daily Note system activated the stone for me. My note-taking app started to glow!

How using a Daily Note changed how I make notes

Before I adapted Roam’s Daily Note into my Bear workflow, every time I had an idea or wanted for any other reason to make a note, I would have to stop and think where it should belong.

For example, let’s say I just got an idea for a blog post. Where should I put it?

I’d search my notes app for “blog article ideas” and maybe I’ll find the right note after scrolling through the matching results. If I’m lucky.

Most of the time I would search and fail to find the correct note before I lose my temporary grasp on the idea for the blog post. And then I’d feel like shit, and hate my note-taking app. At this point, I might comically decide to look for a new note-taking app to solve this problem. Each time I go chase the wild goose I come back with little to show for because it’s not the tool but the process that matters.

Here’s another example with books. Whenever I come across a book I would like to jot down as a possible “to read,” I would have to go through the same process as described earlier: search by a term, hope to find the right note and insert it.

At this point, you’re probably thinking I’m stupid for not just bookmarking these few notes so that they are easier to navigate back to, right?

I’ve tried bookmarking. The problem with it is that I could only have 3-5 bookmarked notes before they become a list of things I’d need to search as well. “Blog article ideas”, “Books to read”, “Things to follow-up”, etc. Bookmarking special notes quickly becomes its own thing in need of organising, and I’ll return to square one with the problem stuck in my hand.

Perhaps now you can see what I’m alluding to.

The Daily Note serves as the default point of entry for any idea, meeting note, todo, a book to read for that day.

The first important affordance of the Daily Note is that it is the default note you engage with at any time throughout a day. If today was Thursday, 8th April 2021, then I’d have a note entitled “2021-04-08-Thu” created first thing in the morning, and for the rest of the day, I would always return to that single note.

No more trying to find the right note. The right note is always the Daily Note for that day.

The second important property of the Daily Note is, well, that it is for a specific day. I recently read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and in the book he said something that helped me understand the power of thinking in terms of a day:

Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down. Austin Kleon

“What day is it?” is a question I know I won’t ever have difficulty answering. The answer is always there, showing up on my phone screen or plastered on some digital clock. This is powerful not just because it means I will always be able to navigate to today’s note easily (no, that part can be solved easily with either “pinning” or some scripting). This is powerful because you can navigate back in time with ease and obtain full context.

Take for example a book that I noted down before as “to read” and I wanted to recall the name of the book now because I just saw the author mentioned in another article that reminded me of her work. I’m primed for more of that person’s work and all I need is to jog my memory by reading my note somewhere…

Now, I can do a search in my notes with the author’s name and land on the specific Daily Note. And once I do, the contents of that day’s note jogs my memory of the context in which I had stumbled on this author’s work in the first place. I might perhaps recall, from reading the other parts of that day’s note, that the day I made a note of that book was also the day I talked to my friend John about it. And now I might just send that friend a text to ask if he has started reading the book.

I cannot overstate the power of context, but I’ll try to throw a few more points on why it matters to me. With context:

  • I can retrace what other resources on the web link to this book as I first discovered it
  • I can correctly attribute and give credit to the person who helped me first discover a person’s work
  • I can experience the headspace that I had at the time that I originally made a note to read that book, which could colour my experience and what I learn when I start reading the book

If you care about taking your note-taking system to the next level to make it work for you, I recommend using a Daily Note as the default entry point. Your mileage may vary, but start driving.

Nick Ang profile picture
Husband, dad, and software engineer that writes. Big on learning something everyday and trying to have fun before the lights go out.
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