I love learning from online content as much as I do from books. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an article, an email newsletter, or a tweetstorm—if there’s a lesson I can gleam related to an area of interest, I want to write it down.
Up until recently, I didn’t have a good system for reading online. I would star an email newsletter in my inbox… and then forget to do anything with it. Or I would bookmark an article forwarded to me… and let it join the countless others to collect dust in its digital folder.
I even bought annual subscriptions for Pocket and Instapaper, the two most popular read-later apps. But I soon forgot which login I used (Google? Facebook?)… and which app I favored that week… and then realize the app hadn’t saved the whole article.
Then I tried Notion.
After much research and iteration, I now have a simple, reliable process that helps me read better online. In this article, I’ll explain how I save, read, and take notes from, articles, email newsletters, and more. I’ll also share the importance of selection (what you read is as important as how you read) and how to link to related ideas to aid retention.
My Notion Note-Taking System (Step-by-Step)
- Be More Selective with What You Read
- Save Articles in Notion
- Take Notes (and Link to Related Ideas)
Step 1. Be More Selective with What You Read
As mentioned above, I used to save articles I planned to read later. I saved forwarded articles, articles that I “should” read because influences I liked shared them.
Heck, articles with a bold headline was enough for me to save for later. The barrier for entry, I’m embarrassed to admit, was low, if not non-existent.
What’s wrong with that? You might ask. Is it not better to save an article and not read it than to want to read it and not have it? We’ve all cursed ourselves at one time or another when we’ve failed to recall a quote verbatim while in conversation. Or misremembered an article’s title when asked for a recommendation. If you’re a writer, you know the frustration of trying to cite an article or a podcast episode… and misremember its source.
To answer the above question, no, it’s not better. Our time is limited, and I’ve realized that, as we should with books, it’s better to view information through the lens of “just in time” rather than “just in case.” This is an important point and one I have to remind myself of often.
The former benefits you right now. Just in time knowledge is a solution to a current problem or a new branch in a knowledge tree you’re growing. Just in case knowledge, in contrast, benefits you later—if, that is, the problem you foresee does indeed arise.
Lest not forget the issue of prioritization. You have 15 minutes to kill before a meeting. Which article do you read? The one with the best headline? The most recent? I lost count of the number of times I skipped reading because I couldn’t decide which deserved my attention.
This brings me to my other main point: it’s better to be selective and read fewer, better articles than to be indiscriminate and read zilch. Morgan Housel recommends we “have lots of inputs and a strong filter” when it comes to reading books, but the same rule of thumb applies to online content.
Tiago Forte, who coined progressive summarization, the popular note-taking method, shares a similar view on filters:
My filter for what to takes notes on:
What should I save from this document so that I’ll never have to read it again, but still retain most of the value?
— Tiago Forte (@fortelabs) January 18, 2021
Bottom line: before you save an article ask yourself, “Is this information just in time or just in case?” If it’s the latter, do yourself a favor and skip it for now. If it’s that important, you will remember if and when it’s needed.
Step 2. Save Articles in Notion
Once an article has made it through your filter, add it to Notion. To do that, install Notion’s web clipper for Chrome on desktop (if you don’t have it already).
Once installed, click the Notion icon. Then, click “Add to” and choose where in Notion you wish to save the article.
Finally, click “Open in Notion” to view the article in Notion.
If you have a GTD setup in Notion, you can save the article to a Read/Review list. However, I prefer to add articles to my Resonance Calendar for reasons I’ll explain in Step 3.
Before I read the article, I’ll add when the article was Last Updated, its Source, and other “meta-data” that I can use to better sort and filter the article. (More on this in a moment,)
“Last Updated” is one of my favorite properties because it allows me to add a Notion calendar view. This is helpful if I want to retrieve a recently saved article, or if I’m curious how my reading habits change over time.
Now let’s discuss the most important step: how to take better notes.
Step 3. Take Notes (and Link to Related Ideas)
As I read, I bold and highlight key takeaways. I leave comments for ideas that need further explanation. I fix typos and reformat the article if need be for better readability.
If I see an idea that I’ve read about before, be it in a book or another article, I’ll add a callout box and link to that resource within my commonplace book.
If an idea comes up a lot, I’ll create a parent page to link to. This allows me to build a commonplace book of sorts for all that I’ve read on a specific topic.
For instance, the above example mentions Charlie Munger in the article. So, in addition to linking to reading, I also link to my Charlie Munger page. Here, I can see all the articles that mention Munger, both as a source, and, as with the above example, mentions in articles.
I’ve written at length about how I use bidirectional links to build knowledge trees and remember what I read. To learn more, I recommend reading my article, “Notion Backlinks: Why I Love Them (and How I Use Them).”
Writer David Perell calls note-taking “a form of time-travel” and “a rebellion against the entropy of memory.” If that’s true, then Notion is the perfect vehicle to help bridge the gap between our present and future selves.
In this article, I’ve shared my Notion note-taking system, and while it isn’t perfect, it is a reliable way of learning from the best online and documenting your learning for years to come.