Jot it down

We started Bytebase with the belief that the note-taking systems we rely on are too formal. When it comes to writing notes, the first order of business is to just get it down.

Too often, friction gets in the way of jotting notes down. Obstacles might come from the shortcomings of our note-taking tool, or from the rules of the note-taking methodology we’re trying to adhere to. Each obstacle makes it a little less likely that we write something down that we’ll wish we had later.

It is tempting to imagine what an optimal practice might look like, whether it’s note-taking or something else. We envision a dream scenario, like pristine notes, or the physique of a Greek god. Then we construct an elaborate plan for achieving that outcome. We set out with the intention of following through, but we lack the determination and commitment to do the (always underestimated) work required to put it in practice. And this is often for the best: our time might be better spent elsewhere.

We are better off adopting a practice that is a little less ambitious, but more in-line with our actual needs. When we take on too much, it’s almost inevitable that we give up. So we fall back from our lofty goals to square one.

Keeping our practices simple and lightweight make it more likely that we actually apply them. This requires embracing imperfection. A simple strategy that’s easy to keep up with is preferable to a heavy-duty strategy that doesn’t stick — even if the latter promises better outcomes.

Bytebase is designed for busy professionals who don’t have time for sophisticated notes methodologies. While we admire the beautiful notes some folks are capable of producing, we want to enable a dependable approach to notes that fits into our lives with minimal overhead. To that end, we’ve found that one of the simplest and most effective strategies is to separate the “Dump” phase of notes from the “Refine” phase.

Separating the Dump and Refine phases

For long-form writing, it’s common wisdom to start with a rough first draft. Then you can go back to refine, re-organize and edit in subsequent passes. Separating these phases is important: if we stop to self-critique as we write, we are likely to slow, if not entirely block, our forward progress.

While it’s tempting to improve content we know needs improvement (I myself, the author of this post, am struggling with this temptation as I write these words), it’s best to focus on getting our thoughts down in the Dump phase, and leave refinement for later. We can reassure ourselves that we’ll have the opportunity to make things better during that Refine phase.

We’ve found this separation to be equally applicable to writing notes. By honoring the Dump phase, we lower the bar to jotting things down and make it more likely that we stick to our practice.

The Dump: Embracing Messiness

Ernest Hemingway is thought to have said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Andrew Stanton, co-writer of Toy Story, told his colleagues when working on the early stages of a project, “Can we just all agree right now, this is going to suck? Whatever we’re talking about now, no matter how much we’re getting excited, let’s just all understand it’s going to be a mess.” In our daily lives, we more often see polished final products than we do the dirty work and many iterations that it took to get there. It’s liberating to accept that your first attempt at anything non-trivial will probably suck.

When we have something to write down, we should just write it down — in the simplest, most efficient way possible. We call this the Dump.

During the Dump phase, we should withhold judgment and embrace messiness. All that matters is getting it down. We shouldn’t worry about where to organize what we’re writing. We shouldn’t obsess over word choice or strive for eloquence. The requirements are modest: that we can find it later, and that the core of it is roughly intelligible to our future selves.

We recommend having a designated Dump location for your notes. This ensures you can find what you’ve written later. It also removes all doubt and friction when choosing where to jot something down. In Bytebase the designated Dump location is called No Man’s Land. The Dump location should be a welcoming, safe space for messiness. This ensures that nothing holds you back from getting things down.

Speed is of the essence in the Dump phase. You might be in the middle of something and want to get back to the matter at hand. At other times, like when brainstorming, your head is filled with thoughts. Getting them down quickly is the best way to avoid missing something. Reducing friction helps us Dump our thoughts efficiently.

Refine: One Small Step at a Time

Once we have things written down, we can return to what we were doing and rest easier knowing that information isn’t lost. However, as time goes by, our messiness accumulates and may pose a risk to our ability to find things or refer to relevant subsets of our notes. To keep things manageable, we’ll need to do a bit of clean-up: getting rid of obsolete things, grouping related things, and de-cluttering our workspace.

Something we’ve seen time and time again is that busy people will allow their mess to accumulate for some time. Eventually they muster the willpower to do a major overhaul of their notes. Sadly, soon after this effort, the messiness begins accumulating again and history repeats itself.

At Bytebase, we believe that part of the problem is that organizing is too high-effort in most note-taking tools. And so, it’s natural that users avoid organizing until it becomes unavoidable.

We think it’s possible for organizing to happen in a lightweight, incremental way. We don’t need to resort to massive, big-bang overhaul events to keep things in check. Instead, we can improve our notes by taking a small, easy step at a time, with greater frequency and less effort and stress.

In Bytebase, your notes are separated into small, self-contained units called bytes. You can organize your notes a little bit at a time by performing keyboard-friendly actions on individual bytes.

Bytebase provides a flexible structure in order to reduce friction during refinement. You should be empowered to choose where things go, and to make changes as your needs change.

Even when you decide to make bigger changes, you can tackle them incrementally. When broken down changes into small, manageable chunks, tasks feel less overwhelming. We can preserve our sense of flow and forward progress — just like we try to do in the Dump phase.

There’s No Finish Line

Unlike writing an essay, there usually isn’t some formal artifact that we’re working towards with our notes. There isn’t a final outcome. We might share portions of our notes with others, but often our notes are just for our own benefit. As long as they are useful to us, they are serving their purpose. We don’t need to strive for perfect, beautiful notes — we just need our notes to keep up with us as we go about our busy lives.

Jotting down things that matter and taking small, incremental steps to keep things reasonably organized is the foundation of reliable note-taking. Even though our notes won’t be perfect, we can adopt a lightweight strategy towards notes that serve us well for the long haul, and embrace the journey.


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