Category Archives: Note Taking

Book Recommendation: Make it Stick

I read Make it Stick last year, and it’s the book that made the biggest impact on me in 2022. It’s about the “science of successful learning”, and is co-written by researchers in the field who based it on their work studying how we learn.

The core idea is that you must use “retrieval” in various forms to learn a subject. This means that you practice remembering and applying the material instead of re-reading it. Some of the suggestions are:

  1. Practice remembering with flash cards that are spaced, interleaved, and varied
  2. Generate your own answers to problems before learning the technique
  3. Elaborate on material by writing original text that draws from the material
  4. Reflect on your learning sessions by writing a meta description of the material and your relationship to it (e.g. where you struggle, how it’s going)
  5. Calibrate your knowledge with objective third-party sources

I had been primed to accept its suggestions because I was introduced to some of them already. I discovered the book in a video YouTube recommended to me because I watch videos about these topics often.

I learned about Spaced Repetition (using flash cards) a few years ago and have been using it nearly daily since then. I spoke about it at length in Episode 14 of my podcast. While reading this book, I created cards in my Anki deck to help me remember its core ideas. When those cards come up, they test my memory, but also remind me to use the practices.

The “Elaboration” suggestion is very much like Smart Notes, which I learned from How to take Smart Notes. I am writing this review to use “Elaboration” to help me remember its lessons.

And I’m a big believer in Calibration, so I wrote problem sets for beginning programmers trying to learn Swift.

But even with that background, I enjoyed the more expert coverage of the topics with more details on why these techniques work. Since I have been doing many of them for years, I was able to come to it with less skepticism.

An interesting side-note is that they use the techniques they suggest in the structure of the book, but they are limited by what you can do in a static text. If you are interested in this idea taken to a logical extreme, I would recommend reading Quantum Country, which embeds interactive flash cards in the text.

If you struggle in retaining material or need to learn a complex subject, I would certainly give this book a read and try to incorporate its suggestions into your process.

Introducing Page-o-Mat

As I mentioned in my post about recurring journals, I decided to write a python program to create a PDF that implemented my riff on the Da Capo journal. I finished it enough to share, and put it on GitHub. It’s called Page-o-Mat.

To make it more generally useful, instead of hard-coding this particular journal, I made it read a configuration file that can be used to describe lots of journaling styles.

Right now, the paper and page types are what I needed for my 2023 journal. I am about to do a test-run with getting it printed on LuLu. After that, I might make some more page templates.

The config file is in YAML. You could just list each page you want one-by-one, but to make things easier, there are a few ways to create enumerated pages.

  • Any page could have a count, which just repeats that page
  • Any page can have a variant list, which repeats the page, setting a variable that can be used in titles
  • Pages can have lists of sub-pages, and so on.
  • Pages can have sections

In the code, it’s implemented with nested loops and recursion. The indices of those loops are exposed to the config to use in date math, so that any section of any page can have a date calculated for it. Most journals would probably have sequential dates, but a recurring journal wants you to keep cycling back to the beginning of the book, so the date math is fairly complicated.

There are documented examples in the repo that (hopefully) explain this better. Start with daily.yaml, which is just a 365 page daily journal. 2023-recurring-journal.yaml shows the more complex example.

Recurring Journals

A few weeks ago, I backed a Kickstarter for a ”Day-based Journal”. The idea is that each spread of two pages represents a day of the month. For example, when you open it up, the left page has boxes for Jan 1, Feb 1, March 1, April 1, May 1, and June 1. The right-hand-side has July 1 … December 1. So, to journal in January, you turn pages for 31 days and then go back to page 1 to start February. You go back to page 1 to start March, and you can see each day in January and February as you progress.

This has two effects:

  1. You see your notes over and over (this reminds me of spaced repetition)
  2. You can see monthly progress and eventually a years worth of progress

I love the idea and hope it gets funded, but in the meantime, I’ve started designing a riff on this idea that I will probably print out for 2023 on LuLu.

As a prototype, I drew something similar to the Kickstarter for 62 pages of my current blank journal to cover the rest of the year (Sep-Dec).

Prototype of a recurring journal showing Sep 1, Oct 1 on left hand page and Nov 1 and Dec 1 on right hand page
Prototype of a recurring journal

Since that’s just four months, each box is much bigger — half a page each month to make up the two-page spread. For me, I think that’s the minimum size. I don’t think I could use the orignal Day-based journal as a primary way to journal, since I need space to do a time block for the day.

The next thing I noticed was that each day was a different day of the week. That is mentioned as a plus in the Kickstarter, but I think in weeks. So, for me, it would be much more useful if each day shown on the spread were the same day of the week. My Mondays are very different from my Fridays, and the weekend is nothing like a weekday.

So I started to sketch out what a 2023 Week-based ”Recurring” Journal might look like.

My solution so far is to run 2023 as 4 sets of 13 weeks. That’s 364 days, and since Jan 2 is a Monday (and I start my week on Mondays), I’ll treat Jan 1 as a special day and then make 2-page spreads for the rest of the year where each box is 13 weeks apart.

One downside is that they are not aligned to months or quarters, but that’s just the nature of weeks, and I want to embrace weeks. I decided to further sub-group the 13 weeks as 4, 4, and 5 week blocks. That’s almost a month, and while it’s not ideal that they are uneven, I am also embracing the 13, so I have to accept its primeness.

Also, you are only revisiting your notes every 13 weeks instead of every month. To address this there will be 28 summary pages with 13 boxes where you try to get the essence of the day. To get 13 equal sized boxes, I’ll borrow from Betsy Ross and just use horizontal stripes. I think this would be the best way to use the original Kickstarter journal.

I’m currently building a spreadsheet where I can plan out what each page of the journal will be. In addition to daily pages, there will be pages for planning and retros. I also want enough blank pages for random note taking. So far it’s over 300 pages.

When that’s done, I’m going to build a python script to generate the PDF for the interior pages. I will open-source it, so if you are interested, then watch this space.

Building a Serendipity Machine

In yesterday’s podcast, I talked about spaced-repetition and how I use Anki to help with my memory. Anki is a flash card system that uses algorithms to show you cards just as you might be forgetting them.

If you are just using this casually, like I am, you only need to “study” for a few minutes a day (and skipping days or even weeks will be fine—Anki will catch you up). If you are a student who is using Anki to cram for exams, you would probably do it differently.

I built up my deck over time. I make new cards while reading or watching videos. I made a bunch last week while watching WWDC.

In the podcast, I said to use a single deck with all of your cards mixed together. So, if in a few months, you read books in different subjects, you wouldn’t make separate decks for each book or subject. This makes it a lot easier to just make cards whenever you want without thinking about it too much. It also makes studying a kind of serendipity machine.

A couple of episodes ago, I had spoken about how to generate ideas by combining disparate knowledge. Going through an Anki session of uncategorized cards helps me do that regularly.

So, in my deck today, I was asked about:

  • The kinds of gates you find in QUIL quantum computing (I read Quantum Country this year which is a book with embedded spaced-repetition)
  • The goals of visual design
  • A specific Typescript operator
  • Covey’s 7 Habits
  • The parts of C4

As I think it over, there is perhaps something interesting about the communication principles in C4, the communication goals of visual design generally, and Covey’s 7 Habits—specifically “Seek First to Understand”, which is the core communication habit.

I should write a note about that.

Writing While Reading

In a Cortex podcast episode about their favorite apps, CGP Grey singled out Obsidian. The recommendation was so over the top that I had to try it immediately. Obsidian is a note taking app. I wrote a little about how I use it to make reading a game.

When I say note-taking, I mean original writing, not copied notes/quotes. To fully understand this, I highly recommend How to Take Smart Notes, which is the most important book I have read in years in terms of impact on my reading/thinking/writing.

The goal of notes, according to the book, is to be pieces that can be readily assembled into publishable work. Given that, a note must be original writing somewhat ready to be published. They aren’t long, though. Most of my notes are a paragraph or two. I frequently refactor long ones into smaller ones. They are supposed to be free-standing building blocks, linked together.

What do you write? You could digest and re-explain what you have read. This kind of note will prove to you that you understand what you are reading. It is also a useful building block later if you reference the book.

A better note is driven by your own questions. I have many questions that I think about.

  1. What does it mean for game-design to drive non-game app design (but, not gamification)?
  2. What is the sound equivalent of visualizations?
  3. What are programming books trying to do and is there a better medium to deliver that (is it games?, does it have sound?)
  4. What is the right format for a programming tutorial? Is it something more vague?

I read books with these questions in mind, and sometimes I have ideas about them. If this happens, I stop reading and immediately write a couple of paragraphs in Obsidian.

After developing a note, I link it to as many relevant other notes as I can. Sometimes it’s clear that there are holes that need further thinking. I make and link to place-holder notes and tag them as needing development.

This continues like an infinite game: generate questions -> read -> write -> generate more questions -> read -> write.

When I am not reading, I sometimes just engage with the notes. I pick a starting point, follow links, remind myself of my past ideas. This will also generate notes, refactorings, questions. Most often it shows me that I have a topic that is ready for publication, so I add it to my schedule.

When it comes time to write for publication, it is much more like assembly and editing than writing, which was the goal of these notes.

Playing Non-programming Books

Yesterday, I wrote about how to play a programming book by adding bosses to chapters so that you can’t move on until you beat the chapter.

I think it’s clear how you can do this with programming books. I published “bosses” for (as of now) the first ten chapters of The Swift Programming Language. I have more coming.

But, this basic concept can be applied to other books as well, and I am using two tools, Anki and Obsidian to do this for myself. Anki is where I put the facts of the books, Obsidian is where I manage my own thinking.


Anki is a flash card system that uses spaced-repetition algorithms to aid memorization. You make flash cards while you read to help remember the facts you want to keep top of mind, and then you just “study” them once a day. All the cards you ever make are in one pile, mixed together.

You tell Anki how confidently you remembered the answer, and it will show it to you less often the more confident you are. Over time, when you have made hundreds or thousands of cards, you will still only study 10-15 per day, but Anki will have chosen the ones you were most likely to forget.


Obsidian is just a personal system to manage your own writing. There are many apps in this category, but I use Obsidian because it creates simple markdown files in a folder on my computer, and has all of the features I need (tags, links, search). I like that it is an app on my laptop, not a website.

I am following the note taking system outlined in How to Take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens. I recommend this book for the full details. The high-level summary is that you write notes while you read to develop your own thinking.

Your notes are not quotes from the book. A simple note might be your original restatement of the ideas of the book. My favorite kind of note is applying the ideas of the book to a problem I am working on. If you want to remember a quote from the book, put it in Anki or in a research note in Obsidian (a folder you create just to hold the source material notes). Most of your note taking should be original writing.

Once you have written a note, you link it to related notes, and over time you develop an interconnected web of short bits of writing. Each note is short and represents a single idea—it should be developed as finished, polished paragraphs.

When you want to publish something—a blog post, an article, a podcast script—you can draw on your notes with pre-made bits of writing that you can simply assemble, and then write the connective bits to develop it as an argument.

Playing the book

I have only been following this system for a few weeks, and I have written over 14k words in 81 individual notes. This post draws from some of my notes.

To get back to how to play books, I make writing notes and cards a gate to moving on in a book. If I literally have no original thoughts or nothing in the book is worth remembering, I give serious thought to whether I should continue reading it.