Attention management for writers, part 4: Research notes

Research notes. A bombastic name for what is usually a bunch of half formed thoughts and snatches of typos. But you know what I mean.

Why am I talking about research notes? Because, at least for me, messy notes – especially if they’re physically scattered among multiple sources (notebook, bits of paper, several different files) – break my focus. I tend to think this is just my emotional response to chaos, but it could also be that having to shuffle through multiple notes, digging through unrelated content and constantly stopping what I’m doing to find that other thing I needed, doesn’t do much for my focus.

Not only do organised notes keep me focused – I can also use them to get focused to begin with. Being able to sit down and read structured content before I start writing pulls me in.

So for the purposes of this blog post, let’s all agree about this one point: Disorganised research is bad for our attention.

One thing you can do this week: Pick a research notes app and consolidate things.

Which app?

Much like a to do list app, it’s down to what you like using. There are a few really famous ones, like Roam, Obsidian, Bear, Notion and Evernote, all of which are reviewed and explained in great detail on YouTube. Some, like Bear and Obsidian, are really focused on writing things down. Some, like Notion, offer features that are either life changing or overkill, depending on what you like.

One thing these apps all have in common is that they display all your files in a consistent navigation pane, rather than treat each file as a standalone the way Word and Pages do. This is one of the features that makes these apps suitable for collections of diverse research notes: you are always within the context of all your research.

The files are also quite easily linked to each other from within the text, can usually be tagged and sorted in different ways, and can sometimes include pencil doodles if you’re on a tablet.

Tidy your own way

Shoving all of your information into a single file in your notes app is not a huge improvement over not using an app. You need to organize your files. But different people – and apps – have a different idea of what “organized” means.

When it comes to the app you choose, one question is how much of a structure the app creates for you. For example, Evernote comes with a baseline structure for the notes, whereas Obsidian and Roam let you build your own structure from scratch. I am very organised but I don’t like any of that order enforced on me, so I use Obsidian.

I have folders. And sub-folders and sub-sub-folders. I keep images in a sub-folder of the text folder, which is usually already a sub-folder. I think an infinite stack of turtles is a tidy way – indeed, the only way – to arrange a universe.

I may have a problem.

Coming up…

Not much to say about notes – tidy them – and not much left to say about attention management. So coming up: conclusions.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Good point about different people having different organising methods. I myself get bothered seeing files haphazardly thrown into a folder without proper naming conventions and capitalisation. But that doesn’t mean I do anything about it until things get out of hand, lol. Thanks for this post!

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