Help – I’m drowning in my own notes!


One of the delightful things about blogging is letters from readers; an endless source of delightful validation and sometimes, interesting problems to try to solve. This letter is a case in point. Dora, a reader from Croatia writes:

The situation I find myself in is, I think, one that all researchers have found themselves in… I have reached the point where my OneNote is overflowing with notes and quotes from the I’m-scared-to-count-how-many books/articles/web sites/journals I have researched, read through, commented on, etc. I have used over 60 tags to organize my notes and have been meticulous about tagging each note I write with as many tags as necessary. I can filter my notes via these tags… BUT, I have reached the point where there are simply too many notes… I find myself having to prepare a conference abstract, a presentation or paper and being overwhelmed by the amount of data I have collected. It seems too daunting to have to reorganize everything… The only solution I see is to go through ALL of my notes, add even more tags to make them even more specific and thus have less notes under each tag. But this seems like an endless task and something that could easily turn into a vicious loop. Any thoughts?

I have so many thoughts Dora! Thanks for writing in. The problem you describe is extremely common, but it’s only actually been a problem in the last ten years or so. It’s one of the ‘good problems’ created by the awesome technologies that allow us to capture, file and index endless reams of digital data. Unfortunately, these technologies enable us to become digital hoarders as well as productive researchers.

To be clear, I’m as bad as anyone when it comes to digital mess. In fact, I feel a bit unworthy to give advice on this problem, but I’ll give it a shot since it’s aan excellent way to start putting our collective heads to a solution. I have four ideas for Dora, drawn from my own habits, which I put forward in the hope that other readers will write in with more solutions to the digital hoarding problem.

Attach the information to the task

OneNote is a great tool – but I wonder if it is too great? The problem with OneNote, Evernote, and other conventional database systems is that you can capture just about anything: text, audio, links, URLs and so on. While I’m still an Evernote fan, I use it advisedly. It’s too easy to stuff anything interesting in there — and promptly forget about it.

It’s a bit like the problem of my spice cupboard. I have so many packets of random stuff that everything falls out when I open it. The solution to the spice cupboard problem is… don’t buy as many spices! Ideally, you only buy spices if you need them or use them frequently. Similarly, most of the time I want to store information for a specific, future task, not just for the sake of it.

For this reason, I store URLs, links to documents, notes to myself and other project focussed information in my task manager, Omnifocus2 instead of in Evernote (if you’re on a PC, I recommend Asana or Trello). If I attach the information and notes to the task, I am less likely to create an unfiltered mess. You could, for example, set up a task for each chapter or conference paper and attach relevant information to the task as a file, or as a link back to your Onenote database.

I tend to take project related notes in a Literature Review Matrix, which forces me to put ideas into conversations with other ideas, rather than as isolated fragments.

Tagging structures

I always tag information with at least two categories: one general and one specific. Say I have a piece of information about a presentation for my upcoming trip to South Australia (I’m coming for you on June 22nd UniSA students!). In my Omnifocus2 task manager, I have a category called ‘writing and presenting’ which shows all the things I have coming up and when they are due. I have matched my task categories with my top level tags in Evernote. Now the searches become task bound. For example, a URL about how to do better info-graphics will be tagged ‘writing and presenting’ and ‘infographics’ (sometimes I throw in the tag ‘cool!’ if it’s particularly good information). When I am putting together a presentation and need information about infographics, I can look through everything related to writing and presenting and narrow my search accordingly.

Again, the context is more important than the information itself. If the information or note is not related to a task, but just something you think you might need someday, consider whether you really need to store it in your database at all. When I see an interesting link go by, I save it into Pocket so that I don’t have non-project related stuff in Evernote. I have so much stuff in Pocket now, I don’t even look at it, but I know it’s there – like a security blanket I guess. Which leads me to point three…

Write first, search later

Howard Becker, one of my academic writing gurus said something like ‘How do I know what I think until I write it?’. His approach to writing literature reviews is to write what you think first, then search the literature you have on file. Your searching task is simple: you are only looking for specific information to back up what you think – or challenge it, often a narrower search than a search for general information on a topic.

The first time I read Becker’s advice, I was shocked. It seemed to fly in the face of what a ‘good researcher’ does, but I tried it… and never looked back. The challenging your thinking part is important. The process is iterative: I write what I think first (sometimes as freewriting or as a list), then I look for information related to what I have written. On subsequent passes, I refine what I think, add more ideas, look for more information, and repeat the process until I am satisfied (or until I have run out of time).

With every sentence, I ask myself ‘Do I believe myself? Would other people believe me? What challenges or counter-arguments are possible?’. These questions open up multiple avenues for new information searches on your own notes or files.

Let it go!

Your problem is not so how to store things, but how to find it again. As long as information is findable, I’m a fan of regular pruning. I clean out my papers database every couple of years and have deleted my entire Endnote database more than once. My iterative process, outlined in the previous step, means if I need information again, I’m confident I will find it. It takes a certain amount of faith in yourself and your abilities, to let information go. It’s perhaps an aspirational state right now, rather than a practical suggestion, but try to focus your attention on getting the process right and less on the content.