What would you learn about yourself if you temporarily stopped using the tools that make your life easier?
That’s the main question in this Big Think video with author Tiago Forte, who describes what happened when he changed the way he took digital notes.
The utility of note-taking depends on the context, Forte says. During face-to-face conversations, he found that taking notes was helpful for him, but it came at the cost of being less connected to the person in front of him. In contrast, taking notes while he’s by himself — walking around a city, for example — is more beneficial, and often ends up influencing his work in a positive way.
TIAGO FORTE: Someone once told me that every solution ultimately becomes a crutch. And I found this to be true. Every tool, technique, shortcut, hack, that you depend on, eventually becomes a crutch. Try going a day without your phone, try going a day without the internet, try going a day without social media. Everything in your life, even things that are good, that are positive forces in your life, you can, at the very least, learn about yourself and learn about resilience and learn about adaptability, by simply doing without it for a while. It can be very gratifying to just give yourself the permission to experiment, to test, to swap things out when they're not working, or even if they are working. Because ultimately the point of all this is to live a meaningful life. If personal knowledge management can enhance that feeling of satisfaction, I would turn to it, and if not, find what will.
Let's talk about the limits of digital note taking for a second. The extent to which you find these techniques useful depends on the season of your life. I find that I really turn to knowledge management during periods of intense change. When I first get a new job, you know those first few days and weeks, you're just trying to find your bearings, there's so much information coming at me. I just need a place to put it while I kinda make sense of things. When I move to a new city, there's all this new information coming at me. When we had our first kid, there was so much information that I had to learn. Those are moments that I especially lean on knowledge management. But it's not that you perfectly do the same number of things all the time forever. It waxes and wanes, just like any other habit or routine or ritual that you turn to in your life. There are situations where what's most important is not to perfectly capture specific pieces of information.
So for example, I used to take digital notes when I was talking to people in face-to-face, one-on-one meetings. And I'd be there on my computer, and I noticed over time that they were kind of distracted, they were looking at my computer, they were looking at me. It seemed like they didn't really know if I was listening. And eventually I realized, oh, even if I tell them, oh, I'm taking notes, I'm listening intently, oh, this is just my note taking application. There's something, and in fact, studies have shown, that just the presence of a digital device makes you distracted. The priority in that moment was that the person felt heard, and felt like I was present with them and felt like I was fully paying attention. That was more important than my perfect documentation of every detail.
There's the world of technology, and let's call it the world of mindfulness. At first, they seem at odds, they seem like polar opposites. But I think something also happens when you become more fluent. You become more fluent with how technology works. And when that happens, I actually think note taking complements focus and presence. One example is I love taking notes walking around cities. I'll take a photo of a poster, or a mural on a wall that someone painted that I think has some kind of edgy, cool designs. I'll record some sounds, I'll record a voice memo, I'll write down some thoughts that I have, I'll write down a quote from a plaque on the side of a building. And it's just amazing to me that surprisingly often, that photo that I took of a mural ends up influencing the design of a logo for a product that I'm creating. I'm actually paying more attention as I walk through a city, because I know that I'm taking notes, I'm looking for something, I'm on the hunt. This soft awareness, but also very, very sensitized to my environment is a state of mind that note taking evokes for me. It's inherently something that is valuable to me.