How often do you think about writing? We learn to read and write at such a young age that we often take it for granted. But like any skill, you can be good or bad at it.
Writing is a meta-skill; a higher-order skill that enables other skills. Writing enables better thinking, learning, and communication.
Even if you don't have to share your thoughts, writing is a great way to think out loud. You can only keep so much in your working memory, and externalizing your thoughts greatly expands how many ideas you can juggle.
Of all the writing you do, writing notes should be your main focus.
A note is a snippet of text that describes one idea. Good notes are short and trigger more detailed thoughts. Great notes communicate ideas in concise form that others can understand as well.
If you want to become successful in your job, you should become a master note-taker. Mull over these reasons. Personally, I keep them in mind whenever I write a note—giving the practice purpose and an immediate goal.
Reason 1: Notes help you think
As a knowledge worker, an inhuman amount of information is hurled at you every day. Colleagues, superiors, and just life in general all shove tasks on your plate. It's easy to feel overwhelmed, especially if you try to keep everything in your head.
Know that your mind is limited. Research shows that our minds can work with about four chunks of information at once. That means that when you're working on something complex, you'll soon run out of mental space.
Your mind limits how complex your thinking can get. To up this limit, you need to externalize your thoughts. How to do that? You've guessed it: by writing notes.
Another way writing helps is by enabling you to see connections between ideas.
To understand an idea and why it's relevant, you need to be able to see its relation to other ideas. Seeing connected ideas is easiest if you have them in front of you. It's why mathematicians use a blackboard, and writers use the page.
When you learn how to take good notes, you'll better remember important ideas and the connection between them. By creating a web of ideas, you'll be able to use ideas in more situations and better adapt to situations you see for the first time. All because you've decided to take notes and help your brain build a structure.
Reason 2: Notes help you learn
Writing is a prime tool to make sense of information. When you're facing an information load, you need to distill the stuff that's relevant for you. The easiest way to do this is by collecting the most relevant in notes.
By forcing yourself to write ideas in your own words, you discover if you truly understand them. When you have to explain something, you can no longer take mental shortcuts; you need to explain each step. This shows you the depths of your understanding.
Once you become aware of your lack of understanding, that’s a cue to learn more. This isn't much different from what you were already doing; getting input and writing down an explanation for yourself.
Learning and writing more is a divergent process; you try to take in everything that helps your understanding. But eventually, the goal is to write less; only noting down the essentials that explain an idea.
In schools, "write to learn" is a tool that's used increasingly to help students revisit what they've learned. By thinking back to new concepts and explaining them to themselves in writing, students discover ways how the knowledge is relevant.
Reflecting by writing helps you to better ingrain what you learn. Every time you write a note, the knowledge enters your consciousness and becomes malleable. You can chip away at ideas and carefully build up your understanding, simply by writing.
Reason 3: Notes help you teach
As you use text to think and make sense of information, teaching becomes a natural by-product. After all, you're essentially teaching yourself when taking notes. The main difference between writing for yourself and writing for others is that you need to fill in others on things that might be second nature to you.
Even when you are your only audience, it helps to see yourself as another person who does not understand the idea. First, it will force you to fully explain ideas and not take any mental shortcuts. Second, you will forget so comprehensive notes help your future self to make sense of the idea.
The first version of a note—especially at the start of your writing journey—will be lengthy and vague. That's normal as you don't get the gist yet. But as you prod and dissect the idea on the page, you distill its essence. Once you've spotted the core of an idea, you record it and get rid of the rest.
The more notes you take, the easier it becomes to distill the gist and write it down clearly. Starting by writing to teach your current self, your future self, and then others helps you to understand ideas on a deeper level.
If you'd see the intermediate steps of good writers, you'd see that there's a lot of junk before the clarity. Early work of brilliant teachers is always messy, but that's exactly the process they needed to arrive at their genius.
Talent is overrated; it takes grit to come to insights.
Never assume that writing is easy. You always need to go through the process; collect and get rid of the irrelevant. You will be a better thinker and teacher as a result.
Note-taking is a super power, start now
Clear writers are clear thinkers, and others notice this. Especially as knowledge work is moving online, everything is getting more text-based. Everyone is busy, so being able to explain complex ideas concisely is a huge competitive advantage.
Start by taking notes when listening to others. Write down the gist of conversations, distilling the useful nuggets. Don't rush things; just one idea is enough.
As you become more proficient, expand the sources from which you take notes; videos, podcasts, websites, and books. Then, as your notes become clearer, start sharing them. By doing the heavy lifting—thinking and distilling the key ideas—you provide tremendous value to those around you.
Become a master note-taker, and you'll thrive.