take notes by re-inventing | obsidian

Photo by Ryan Quintal on Unsplash

I often fall into the trap of just transcribing notes while learning. My mind somehow switches off and I’m in a mode of just pouring information into my brain. After some time, I realize that I remember nothing.


I have the problem of just consuming content and transcribing notes when I have difficulties understanding a concept. I’m either confused by the concept or I’m overwhelmed by the details. I’m basically just too impatient to take the time to understand it properly. But understanding and being patient are crucial.

If we have difficulties understanding a concept, we shouldn’t accept it blindly, transcribe our notes word for word, and move on. This only leads to building our understanding upon poorly placed bricks — or in our case poorly written notes — and everything will crumble eventually.

Instead, take the time to understand. Don’t rush writing notes, think first. Don’t expect to have perfect notes from the start. Restructure, reorganize and rewrite them if needed.

break and rebuild

One way to study a concept is by breaking the concept down and re-building it in your own way of thinking. Break it into single simple chunks. But be careful. Don’t rush into the fine details right away. Learning doesn’t start with small details.

You first need a rough overview and a rough understanding. You need a simple breakdown — a simple structure of what you want to learn. This simple structure will provide a place for all the details that will come. But we need this simple structure first.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. — Albert Einstein

This breaking and rebuilding process might look like this:

Skim the material and break the concept down into smaller chunks, categories, or groups.

Understand the relationship between the broken-down chunks. Form connections.

Make the rebuilding directional and not chaotic. Ideas and insights shouldn’t be connected chaotically. They should be connected in a logical and directional way — chunks A and B are the base and both lead to chunk C which in turn leads to D and E. Don’t make it like everything is connected to everything.

Add questions you have or that come up while you are trying to re-build. Be it questions regarding the relation or questions regarding single chunks.

You can also already add details you might know or might remember from skimming the material. Even if they are wrong. If they are wrong you will at least benefit from the hyper-correction effect. Your brain will put emphasis on remembering the correct insight and on forgetting the misconception you had.

Understanding simple ideas and building a simple structure is much more beneficial than worrying about the overwhelming amount of details.

re-inventing in Obsidian

Obsidian and its graph view are ideal for this breaking and re-building. You break big concepts down into single notes and connect them.

You can pull up your empty literature note and the materials you want to consume for the study session.

Skim the material and take notes by ignoring the details and by breaking the concept down into smaller chunks, categories, or groups of ideas. Your notes can be messy. The goal is not to write the perfect notes yet.

The literature note is a great way to make this breakdown one-dimensionally. But the one-dimensionality has its limits. Once you recognize the one-dimensional breakdown is not enough because of the connections you want to make, you can move to the graph view.

Split the literature note up into single notes and connect them meaningfully. As mentioned above, try making the connections directional and not chaotic. Ideas don’t have to be connected all over the place. The flow of ideas and the logic behind it is much more valuable.

Now you should have a simple structure and hopefully a simple understanding of the concept.

The next step would either be to break the chunks and categories further down and repeat this process or to consume the materials in more detail and add insights to your simple structure so that it can grow further.

The idea is to re-invent what you are trying to learn. And, it is okay to reread or rewatch content. The first time you consume it to build a simple structure. The next time — or times -, you do it to add more and more details and connections.



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