Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

Recent evolution of my note taking systems

A year ago, I started sharing my note taking habits in my blog post The imperfect mess of note taking. At that time, my notes were all over the place. I had small things written here and there, used multiple analog and digital tools and had almost no structure or process.

Last December, I shared about my experiment to start taking notes using Obsidian. In that one, I shared some thoughts on how I take notes but it was also more focused on the technicality of using a specific tool.

During the last 2.5 months, I’ve been exploring a lot of literature and Youtube videos about different systems people use to take notes and have mixed and matched what has felt great for me.

The other day, we once again had a great discussion about notes in Koodarikuiskaaja’s Slack with my favourite fellow note geeks. That inspired me to take a look at the current system and document where I am right now.

Daily productivity, life management and journaling

First part of my current system is how I run my daily and weekly life.

I’m constantly working on many different projects, communities and events. Often things are on hold while I wait for something to happen or someone to reply.

That leads to a risk of forgetting something which in turn leads to a lot of stress.

Daily and weekly notes

In my Obsidian blog post, I wrote about my weekly and daily notes so I won’t go through everything here. However, things have changed a bit since that. I’ve added a few sections since and have been pondering about removing the daily tracker things since I too rarely end up filling them in.

Resonance calendar

For 2024, I added a Movies, TV Shows, Books, Games, etc section where I track the media I consume so I can take a look at the end of the year what I enjoyed during the year. I use a selection of different emojis (🎬, 📚, 🎮, 🎧, 🎤, ⚽️) to categorise pieces of media. I then have separate notes that collect my media consumption from individual daily notes into an annual collection.

I learned this from Ali Abdaal a few years ago and he calls it Resonance Calendar. Previously I tried starting one at the beginning of the year but the friction of marking things done in a separate note ended up the habit lasting few weeks at best.

Now that it’s part of my daily journaling, I have marked everything from this year down.

Highlight of the day

Another section I added is a Highlight of the Day section which is an experiment to practice daily gratitude. I have set it up in a way that in the future, I will see previous year’s daily highlights for a given day when I open that day’s Daily Note to remind me of the good that has happened each day.

Weekly setup

The weekly setup that I started in October has been working really nicely. Every Sunday, I go through my calendar for the next two weeks to see what I need to do the following week. I mark down everything I have scheduled like events and meetings. I then look at tasks I need to do like crafting talks for upcoming events and booking venues or speakers. I’ve found that looking into two weeks into the future at once is a good pace to get everything done in time.

Critically, I go through all the unfinished tasks from the current week. I either cross them over or move them to the new week so that I only ever have one weekly note with unfinished items at any time. Huge stress reducer.

Monthly retrospectives

I also started writing monthly retrospectives. I’ve written Year in Review annual retrospectives for years now but I always notice how hard it is to remember what I did or how I felt for a good chunk of the year. So this year, I write my thoughts and highlights down at the end of each month.

This also helps me break my year into monthly “projects” where I reflect on my life once a month instead of at the end of the year. It leads to more deliberate thinking of what in my life works and what needs to change.

Inspiration from Zettelkasten, Bullet Journaling and other systems

I have had a lot of extra time on my hands lately so I’ve read a lot about how other people make notes. I don’t want to enforce my workflow to strictly follow a system someone else created for themselves so I mix and match, picking up what feels good from different systems and adjusting as I go along. Actively pruning away the processes that don’t work is even more important than experimenting with new ones.


Zettelkasten is a system made popular by sociologist Niklas Luhmann. It seems to be all the rave in the academic community right now so I decided to take a look.

Sönke Ahrens writes about Zettelkasten style note taking system in his book How to take smart notes and I’ve found a couple of practical things that have helped me.

Zettelkasten is probably best suited for research type of note taking where the goal is to gather information, build connections and then use that system to be able to write articles or books. I do very little of that in my life.

Literature notes and atomic notes

I have started to write what Zettelkasten calls literature notes when I read a particularly good book or blog post, listen to a great talk or podcast or watch a video. I don’t do it for all (or even most) of the pieces I enjoy but I do take notes of ones that are related to topics that I work a lot with.

I capture the notes into a single note for that piece and then sometimes break them down into atomic notes that are small, self-contained notes of a single idea. These can then be linked to each other in a way that makes it easy to find other notes of a similar idea.

I have accrued quite a nice collection of blog post from different people, all about why they write. I’ve written down their reasons and how they explain them and then connect those to other people’s notes based on the atomic ideas behind them.

Another collection is people talking about their creative environments, what aspects matter to them and what they consider important in their surroundings for reaching a good creative flow.

When I’m then crafting a blog post or a talk about the topic, I can go through those atomic ideas, see who has written about them and where and make my piece much better and more interconnected, providing the reader or listener more perspectives if they want to dig deeper.

Before I started doing this, I often found myself thinking “Oh, I remember someone somewhere wrote about this in a nice way” and usually not finding it anymore. This has been a major improvement for me.

If you’re interested in Zettelkasten as a system, V.H. Belvadi has a great article about what Zettelkasten is and how to build one. His article focuses on the first principles rather than a specific technology or apps. Morgan’s video on how to build and use a Zettelkasten system is very practical and well described.

Processing fleeting notes into permanent ones

Fleeting and permanent notes are part of the Zettelkasten system but I wanted to have a separate section for them because I’ve learned a great value in them.

I have a couple of physical notebooks that I carry with me to write down notes and ideas when I’m not at home and especially when I’m with other people. Whether it’s taking notes for a meeting or just writing down something because a discussions inspired a thought, I like doing it with pen and paper rather than disappearing into a machine. Feels more human.

I also often take physical notes when I’m reading or watching something.

The benefit of this approach is that I need to process those thoughts and ideas and notes for a second time while I move them to my permanent system. This helps me structure them better, find new connections to old notes, add extra references and do the linking with other notes on a more holistic view into the idea rather than trying to do it while making the notes.

It also frees me to take notes in the moment in a way where I don’t have to think about the big picture and it helps me remember those ideas better in the future because I’ve processed them twice.

I learned early on in school that writing down notes rather than just reading them is a key to remembering them. Now I both write them once and then process them for the second time, helping me remember and understand them better.

I like this quote from Field Notes notebooks:

“I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now”

001 - Inbox

I number my folders in my note system with a three digit system. 001 is my Inbox where every new note lands. Since adopting this inbox system, my notes system has ascended to a whole new level.

A major benefit of an inbox is that I never have to decide up front where my note should go. This means I can just start a new note with a very low threshold and write something to it and worry about filing it into a right place later. Sometimes that right place is in the trash if the note doesn’t grow into anything meaningful.

Second, it helps me write quick, incomplete notes on the fly. All my new notes are in inbox so I can find recent, unprocessed ones easily when I get to my computer and can hash them out with better formatting, more references, cross-linking and so on.

After the inbox, I have different folders for different parts of my note system. 002 is for Notes (daily, monthly, yearly + other long-living notes). 003 is for my active projects: blogging, speaking, meetups, newsletters, writing projects, software projects, tabletop designs and wild ideas that could once become fun to work on. 004 is for “general notes” but I call them Inspiration. Most of my atomic notes live here. And so on and so on. 999 is reserved for archives on each level so they are always at the bottom of the listing.

I like the numeric prefixing because it keeps everything in place and folders don’t jump around when sorted alphabetically.

I also use Auto Note Mover plugin in Obsidian to help me automatically move notes around when I add specific tags to them.

Bullet journaling

From the popular journaling method bullet journaling I’ve picked up a few practical organizing habits.

For my paper pocket notebook, I keep an index page where I add every note and its page number so it becomes easier to find. To make things easier, I only keep one page of space for the index and when it is full, I create a new index in the next empty page of my notebook and add that page number to the first index. This way I never have to worry about estimating how many notes I’ll make into my notebook up front.

I started a new pocket notebook February 5th and today I’m around page 85 and just started my 4th index page.

I use a lot of different styles of checkboxes. I mark things finished, half-done, moved, cancelled or Very Important quite liberally.

My daily notes are also very inspired by bullet journaling: I keep them short and sweet and only lightly structured, noting down things at different levels of detail as I feel important at that moment.

Collecting ideas and links over time

I blog, organise events and write a newsletter - to mention a few of my hobbies. All of those require a lot of creative energy and constantly coming up with new ideas. I don’t trust my ability to come up with them on the spot every time I need to come up with ideas.

Accumulating notes

I have notes where I dump stuff. For my Syntax Error newsletter, I have one note for anything related to debugging that I find. A blog post, a video, a story, a tool, a thought - whatever it is, it goes into this one place. It’s a completely unfiltered, unstructured, unprocessed list of related items.

Whenever I then have time to work on my newsletter (either when I’m writing a new issue or just generally processing ideas), I go through those notes and links, find common ideas and see if the original authors have written more about the topic or link to follow up resources.

Collecting these ideas is crucial to my flow and the ability to write as much as I do. I read a lot which thankfully translates into a good amount of ideas and notes but almost always I still feel I’m barely keeping my head on the surface to manage another month. Without this approach, I wouldn’t - or at least the quality would plummet significantly.

I do the same with my blogging (see: Building an idea bank) and with my meetup communities.

Using small pockets of time to advance my notes

This is also a productivity hack: since I keep collecting ideas and thoughts into notes constantly, I can be effective when I have even little time to work on them. As all of these mentioned activities are hobbies I do on my free time, it means sometimes I have more time to use on them, sometimes less.

Whenever I have any time, I like having material to work with so I don’t have to spend a lot of time “cold starting”. If I’m waiting for a bus, I can go through some links in these notes, read more about the topic and expand the note. These small increments accumulate surprisingly fast.

Instead of doom scrolling X or Instagram or something like that, I’m learning new things and making my future projects easier. I call that a win. I still doom scroll way too much though.

Sometimes these individual items live under a rug for a long time before they become useful. Then I run into something interesting and I’m glad I can easily find other related things. I constantly have multiple piles of notes accumulating at different paces.

I’m a big procrastinator and I tend to get stuff done by having multiple things at works at all times so when I procrastinate one thing, I end up advancing a different one. The Instant Gratification Monkey sure lives rent free in my head.

Public notes

Another new thing I’m experimenting with is writing public notes as I work on a new thing or research something.

I wrote about them in more detail in Public notes but the short story is that I have a GitHub repository where I create a new issue for each note and then add comments as I work through it, recording small notes as I go through.

I’m trying to overcome a discomfort with writing my notes in the public. In the worst case scenario, they act as my other personal notes. In the best case scenario, they can invite others to participate or act as a learning resource to someone else who finds them when working on similar issue.

I learned about the concept first from Ryan Cheley’s DjangoCon US talk and then from Simon Willison’s talk from an earlier DjangoCon US talk.

Whether this will become a permanent part of my note taking remains to be seen but I’ve had a good time with the couple that I’ve done so far.


I really like my current setup. After the first two months using Obsidian, I had written around 300 notes. Since then, in 2.5 months, I’ve written over 600 more and now have more than 1000 notes already. A lot of that increase has come from learning how to split my notes better into those atomic notes but also from my system supporting me to make more notes.

Not only do I have more notes, they are better organized, more interconnected, easier to find and they contribute positively to my life every day. That’s a major improvement compared to how it was a year ago.

I don’t actively use Obsidian’s Graph feature but while writing these blog posts, it’s fun to take a look. Below is my current interconnected note system.

A graph with lots of differently colored circles, arranged in a larger circle. Some of the circles are connected with each other with lines and some circles are in clusters while others are more spread out.

The dark grey circles are connections that are linked to from other notes but don’t have their own note yet. I have a lot of them and I don’t stress out about them. Obsidian’s system is great because if I ever start making a new reference to something that has been linked to before, Obsidian will recommend it to me in the autocomplete which often leads to me gaining new ideas through “oh, I’ve written about this before”.

Occasionally I go through some older notes on random just to see if I could improve the connections based on what I’ve learned later as my habit of creating good, interlinked connections is still very new and improving.