Digital note-taking for enhancing creative output

Externalize your thinking

There are four main ways a digital note-taking app can enhance your creative thinking & ultimately your creative output. These are things that are very hard for your biological brain to do on its own:

1. Reveal unusual connections between pieces of information

Research found that creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections. Put this way, you can start to see that anything that makes it easier to recognize associations and connections will naturally improve your creativity.

Steve Jobs put it even more simply, he said, "Creativity is just connecting things."
Researchers in Experimental Psychology found that the skills we have developed for dealing with the external world exceed those we have for dealing with the internal world.

That is in essence because no knowledge is ever new, every new insight you have is just a mashup of pieces of information you get from the outer world through your lens, how you perceive it and express it is what makes it new. Even the most significant works over the history, they were just mashups. Newness often emerges from connections.

2. Create visual objects that can be interacted with

We have skills such as pattern recognition and spatial reasoning, some of our most powerful capabilities, that only work when they're applied to things in our external environment.

Essentially, it not only takes less energy for us to interact with things in an external environment, but we perform better at it. This is the reason behind why it's so important to externalize your thinking, get your thoughts and your ideas out of your head and into some sort of external form.

You've probably noticed this, if you've ever taken notes on paper, that when you write things down and you get them in a physical, tangible, visual format, suddenly they're easier to think about, they make more sense, they're not as emotionally charged, and you can actually start to work with them, combine them and split them apart.

There's a great story from the book "Learning To Think Spatially" that tells a story of how the scientists drew on the work of other scientists to discover the structure of DNA. And this is a great example because these were some highly trained abstract thinkers, I mean, mathematicians, biologists, not people who really need a crutch when it comes to analytical thinking, and yet even with them, their breakthroughs came when they built physical models.

They needed to be able to touch, manipulate, mix and match these physical models to see what emerged. So, while we can't always build physical models, the next best thing that we can do is just to make our ideas visual, get them onto screens, into software. This can be a very good way of externalizing ideas & thoughts: We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains.

“Notes on paper, or on a computer screen do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavor easier, they make it possible” 

–neuroscientist Neil Levy concludes in the introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, summarizing decades of research

“If you don’t have an external system to think in and organize your thoughts, ideas and collected facts, or have no idea how to embed it in your overarching daily routines, the disadvantage is so enormous that it just can’t be compensated by a high IQ.”

–author Sonke Ahrens in his book How to Take Smart Notes

3. Incubate ideas over long periods of time

When we see how most people create a new piece of work, whether it's a painting, an essay, a report, or an event, they almost always do heavy lifting. A heavy lift is when you set aside a huge chunk of time, you maybe drink a ton of coffee, and you spend many hours and a ton of effort as if you're lifting the entire project onto your shoulders, it's really onto your brain, but you're lifting the, the entire project from start to finish through sheer effort. This is almost the default way that we take on projects. Now, heavy lifts are sometimes necessary, but over time they aren't a sustainable strategy. There are fewer and fewer huge blocks of time available these days, with even shorter attention spans, plus, it's getting harder to justify the mental and physical toll that these heavy lifts take on us.

A different way of working would be not always doing heavy lifts, but instead, sometimes doing a slow burn. With a slow burn, you let ideas simmer on the back-burner as both your first and second brains slowly chew on and make connections between ideas. It's kind of a mysterious process but your brain is always working in the back having to process and digest what you've learned.

Your second brain can also do this, when you have an insight or an epiphany, all the details of what you learned or what you realize can be perfectly preserved in your notes, you don't have to waste time trying to remember them and risk losing your idea. It's kind of like having a rich stew slowly simmering & marinating on the stove, getting richer and more tasty with each passing hour through no effort of your own.

Slow burns are powerful because: a. they take little energy and b. you could have many slow burns going on at the same time. The passage of time actually becomes your friend (marinating), instead of your enemy (forgetting).

"If you haven't written along the way (during previous work), next time you start something new you have to either start with something completely new (risky) or retrace your ideas (boring). Both require brainstorming as now your first brain is indeed the only place to turn to."

–author Sonke Ahrens in his book How to Take Smart Notes

4. Provide the raw material for unique interpretations and perspectives

A "writer's block" isn't a sign of some sort of character defect or evidence of your laziness, all it means is that you haven't gathered enough material. When you're working on your creative projects & in any way encounter resistance or feel blocked even a little bit, don't dwell on it, don't beat yourself up, just pivot quickly to something else and wait to come back later until you have enough material to work with. You'll never be really blocked for long because you'll have different kinds of things that interest you.

“I never force myself to do anything I don’t feel like. Whenever I am stuck, I do something else.” A good structure allows you to do that, to move seamlessly from one task to another, without threatening the whole arrangement or losing sight of the bigger picture.”

“I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.”

–(Luhmann et al., 1987, 154 f.)

Far more valuable than your knowledge, is your perspective, your unique way of seeing and understanding the world. Now, what separates a perspective, from merely a random opinion, is your ability to support & defend that perspective.

That's how a perspective becomes something tangible and concrete that others can buy into and support you in. But defending a perspective takes ammo, it takes supporting material. These could include examples, illustrations, screenshots, links, statistics, diagrams, book notes, quotes, etc. The more of this raw material that you have to work with –the more diverse your sources–, the stronger and more original your perspective will be.

“Each added bit of information, filtered only by our interest, is a contribution to our future understanding, thinking and writing. And the best ideas are usually the ones we haven’t been anticipated anyway.”

"If you want to learn something for the long run, you have to write it down. If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words."

–author Sonke Ahrens in his book How to Take Smart Notes

All of the concepts discussed are developed by Tiago Forte in his course Building a Second Brain.