Learn-logging > note-taking

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I'm big on journals. The morning pages exercise has undoubtedly saved my writing on multiple occasions. When I'm having trouble working through an incomprehensibly large problem, I write about it until I have what I've dubbed, somewhat uncreatively, a big thought. I've taken extensive notes on books and articles, outlined novels, and rambled through thousands of words on my daily happenings, from breaking bones to having children to mountain bike rides.

I've journaled on paper, then in Obsidian, then in Notion, then in Athens, and back to Obsidian again. But we're not talking about technology here. We're talking about the value of note-taking and why I've found learn-logging to be far more effective.

What's learn-logging? I just made up the term because it sounded nice for this article's title, but here goes:

Learn-logging is the practice of writing down only what you remember—from an article, course, video, book, or anything else that you want to retain some knowledge of—instead of taking notes on everything.

Learn-logging examples: creative writing workshops and cold pitch courses

If you ever have the (dis)pleasure of participating in a creative writing workshop, there will come a time when you're up for critique. That means everyone else in the group has read your work and conjured up some empathetic, constructive feedback for you. And now they'll all offer that feedback in what feels like the longest conversation in your life. You'll nod your head and scribble down some notes with a shaking hand. You'll leave that room with a ten-pound stack of papers all decorated with line edits and question marks, plus critique letters that detail exactly why your work is terrible.

In that post-critique malaise, you'll probably hear yet one more piece of feedback:

Go home and read through the critique letters, then put everything into a drawer. Never look at them again. Wait a week. Sit down in front of a piece of paper and think about the feedback you received. Write down the constructive, valuable feedback that you remember. That's the critique that counts.

I know I did that a few times in undergrad. Even more so in grad school.

The point of this advice—to give you brain space to distill, excise, and reorganize a mess of information—applies in note-taking, too, and journaling by extension.

Like I said earlier, I've exhausted myself in exhaustive note-taking. For example, I recently finished the Cold Pitch Masterclass from copywriter Bree Weber, and Obsidian tells me that I took 3,162 words worth of notes while watching videos and filling out worksheets.

Do I need all those notes to remember the important lessons from the course? Absolutely not. And that's not to denigrate the value of the course. Just like the creative writing critique, it's not so much the volume of information that matters, but rather what your brain has filtered out in the time since absorbing it all. I could distill the top 4 or 5 takeaways into a nice unordered list right now and use that as my reference for cold pitching going forward.

But I won't, because that would be unfair to Bree's hyper-valuable course, which is more about flipping the script on yourself and becoming more empathetic to a potential client's needs than it is any process or "trick" that I need to take exhaustive notes on.

A practice for learn-logging

Just like note-taking, learn-logging doesn't mean much unless you have a decently-baked process for recording your learnings and being able to find them later.

I practice learn-logging by having a section in Obsidian's daily note with the following:

1
- What I #learned today
2
-

Throughout the day, and separate from any note-taking exercise, I log things I've learned. They're often really simple, like:

My Tuesdays are much more fun when there's no job responsibility.

I wrote that note back in August 2021, after moving out of a full-time remote job and back into freelance copywriting. And now, reading it again, I'm happy to say that I still very much feel the same way I did 4 months ago.

Or, a key takeaway from Ogilvy on Advertising:

Creativity isn't the goal of copywriting or advertising. It's an interesting take, something I hadn't really considered. Creativity for the sake of creativity isn't a solution to a problem that anyone has.

That one convinced me to abandon what I thought my copywriting niche was in favor of something that truly leveraged my unique skillset and ambitions, like copywriting for open-source companies. Those two sentences have been far more meaningful than through hundreds or thousands of lines of notes about every single choice quote or insightful comment—of which there are many.

The advantage of learn-logging in Obsidian, through a structured format that shows up every day (complete with the #learned tag), is that I can quickly rediscover all kinds of personal about freelancing, copywriting, open source, or everything else that's called life. It's been fantastic for brainstorming content, improving my processes, or just giving myself a quick reminder of my wins.

I could improve my practice is by learn-logging directly at the bottom of the notes I've already taken on something. For example, I should go drop those 4-5 takeaways on the cold pitch course right now so that I always have a distilled reference to go back to. But I prefer the simplicity of the bulleted list—it keeps me from thinking too hard about these.

That's the point, after all. You did the hard work by learning it—make not forgetting that you learned it the easy part.