Tools versus Systems

26 July, 2023

In a previous post, I shared my opinion about why I don’t think most people need a system for taking notes. That post received more than a few reactions. Some of those reactions seemed to conflate tools for taking notes with systems for taking notes.

Yes, the two are different.

Tools are just that. Software, online services, mobile apps, even the venerable combination of pen and paper. They’re implements for jotting down thoughts, ideas, snippets, and more.

Systems, on the other hand, have more moving parts. Tools are components of a system, but a system consists of more than just tools. And, it’s not uncommon for some folks to push their note taking systems into intricate territory. Here’s an example:

Capture whatever in a Midori notebook using a Lamy pen. Then, at some point, transfer what’s in the notebook to Emacs + org-mode or Obsidian or something else. There, tag and classify and link those notes. Unless, of course, you’re taking notes while reading — those notes are saved on a Kindle or in Instapaper and need to be transferred, usually manually, somewhere else. And let’s not forget the bookmarks that pile up in Pinboard …

Then, rinse and repeat. Several times a week, if not daily.

That’s not the most convoluted example of a note taking system I could come up with — I’ve seen over engineered systems that incorporate a dozen tools or more, many of which do similar things but which don’t talk to each other.

A system like that, or even the one that I sketched out a couple or paragraphs ago (which is real, by the way), is overkill for the average person. It’s just too complicated. It involves too many components. It’s just too much.

I know more than a few productivity hackers who smack their lips greedily at the thought of complex note taking systems. But the most productive people I know keep how they take and manage their notes simple. They use one, at most two tools. They don’t use systems. They don’t spend time twiddling and twerning. They don’t obsess over organizing their notes.

No, those folks use their notes. They get things done with their notes. And that’s how it should be, shouldn’t it?

Scott Nesbitt