The Serendipity of Note-Taking

I always write a shopping list before I go to the grocery store: eggs, salmon, steak, pasta, greek yogurt.

You know, the usual.

But somehow, I always buy something I didn’t expect. Last time, it was NutZo almost butter. The time before that, fresh figs. 

My grocery experience falls into two categories: remembering the specifics and following serendipity. I see the same buckets whenever I use my note-taking system to write an essay. 

Your note-taking system shouldn’t just help you save ideas. It should help you generate new ones too. Let’s pretend I’m writing about NASA’s Apollo 8 mission. I’ll start the research process by looking up notes from my favorite book about it: Rocket Men. Within 30 seconds, I find specific details: the Saturn V rocket reached speeds of 24,208 miles per hour and the moon is 238,900 miles away from Earth, roughly 58 times the distance Columbus sailed when he discovered the Western world. But just as the best part of going to the grocery store is finding things you never expected to buy, note-taking comes alive when you transcend the limits of memory and step into a galaxy of surprising ideas. 

Good note-taking systems help you discover ideas like grocery stores do with food. When they do, your writing can travel in a new, more productive direction. But too many people try to make their note-taking systems too orderly, which reduces the serendipity that makes note-taking so useful in the first place. Order is a tradeoff. Even though it helps you find what you’re looking for, it reduces creativity-inspiring randomness.  

Returning to the Apollo 8 example, a tour through my notes reveals a mind-bending statistic about the New Horizons spacecraft which took 9.5 years to travel 3 billion miles and reach Pluto within 1 minute of the time NASA predicted when it launched. Then, it reminds me of two stories: the time I visited Cape Canaveral with my father or the time I saw the Apollo command module at the National Air and Space Museum. Within two minutes, I’ve fallen into a black hole of stories I’d forgotten.  Rather than being disappointed by my ever-decaying memory, I am propelled by the compounding advantages of a notes collection which numbers in the thousands. 

It turns out, I’m not the only person who buys things impulsively. One University of Pennsylvania study found that 1/5th of in-store purchases are unplanned, which is why American consumers spend $5,400 per year on impulse purchases. Just as some retail stores are as profitable as their ability to generate unplanned purchases, your note-taking system is as useful as its ability to generate serendipity. 

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