Modern digital tools make it easy to “capture” information from a wide variety of sources. We know how to snap a picture, type out some notes, record a video, or scan a document. Getting this content from the outside world into the digital world is trivial.

It’s even easier to get content that is already digital from one app to another. We know how to copy and paste text, save an image from a webpage, archive an email attachment, or import a video file.

What is difficult is not transferring content from place to place, but transferring it through time.

You know what I mean: you read a book, investing hours of mental labor in understanding the ideas it presents. You finish the book with a feeling of triumph that you’ve gained a valuable body of knowledge.

But then what?

You may try to apply the science-based methods the book recommends, only to realize it’s not quite as clear-cut as you thought. You may try to change the way you eat, exercise, communicate, or work, trusting in the power of habits. But then the everyday demands of life come rushing back, and you forget what motivated you in the first place.

At this point, people take different paths. Some give up, labeling all “self-help” books a waste of time. Others decide it’s just a problem of remembering everything they read, and invest in fancy memorization techniques. And many people become “infovores,” force-feeding themselves endless books, articles, and courses, in the hope that something will stick.

I want to suggest an alternative to all the approaches above: what you read is good and useful and very important, you’re just reading it at the wrong time.

You’re reading about time management techniques now, but they will only be useful two years from now, when you become a manager and have much greater demands on your time.

You’re watching YouTube videos on online marketing now, but that knowledge can only be put to use in 9 months, when your new online course gets off the ground.

You’re talking to a prospect about his goals and challenges now, but when you could really use that information is next year, when he is taking bids for a huge new contract.

The challenge of knowledge is not acquiring it. In our digital world, you can acquire almost any knowledge at almost any time.

The challenge is knowing which knowledge is worth acquiring. And then building a system to forward bits of it through time, to the future situation or problem or challenge where it is most applicable, and most needed.

At that future point, when you’re applying that knowledge directly to a real-world challenge, you won’t have to worry about memorizing it, integrating it, or even fully understanding it. You will only have to apply it, and any gaps in your understanding will very quickly reveal themselves. By the time you’re done solving a real problem with it, book knowledge has become experiential knowledge. And experiential knowledge is something you carry with you forever.

This is the job of a “second brain” — an external, integrated digital repository for the things you learn and the resources from which they come. It is a storage and retrieval system, packaging bits of knowledge into discrete packets that can be forwarded to various points in time to be reviewed, utilized, or deleted.

I'll send you my Progressive Summarization Cheat Sheet PDF as a thank you when you subscribe to my free weekly newsletter below.

In the 4-part P.A.R.A. series, I described a universal system for organizing any kind of digital information from any source. It is a “good enough” system, maintaining notes according to their actionability (which takes just a moment to determine), instead of their meaning (which is ambiguous and depends on the context).

The four top-level categories of P.A.R.A. — Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives — are designed to facilitate this process of forwarding knowledge through time.

Note that we have re-created the tickler file, except instead of strict time-based horizons (daily, weekly, monthly, annually), they are scheduled contingently — if X happens, when Y arrives, if I want to do Z, etc.

Planning in terms of contingencies gives us all the benefits of planning and researching, without locking us into rigid routines. We have the ability to massively accelerate, using our repository of accumulated notes as rocket fuel. But the actual decision of whether or not to accelerate, and critically, in which direction, we leave to our Future Self, who is older and wiser.

P.A.R.A. answers how these “packets of knowledge” are organized: in discrete notes, sorted into 4 categories according to actionability, and resurfaced using RandomNote.

But now we turn to a more fundamental question: how are these packets made? Once we capture something, how do we structure the note so that it’s easily discoverable and usable in the future? How do we make sure what we’re saving today adds value to future projects, even when we can’t predict or even imagine what those projects might be?

That is the job of Progressive Summarization.

Note-first knowledge management

There are two primary schools of thought on how to organize a note-taking program (or really any body of information, but I’ll use terms specific to note-taking apps):

Tagging-first approaches argue that there should be no explicit hierarchy of notes, notebooks, and stacks. Notes are envisioned as an ever-changing, virtual matrix of interconnected, free-floating ideas. Because many tags can be applied to one note, there are multiple pathways to discover any given note. Locating notes in specific notebooks and folders is seen as limiting and static.

Although tags have their uses, I don’t believe they work as a primary organizational system. In my experience, relying on tagging is too fragile and requires too much maintenance, spreading attention too uniformly across all notes whether or not they are truly valuable. The virtual matrix sounds cool and futuristic, but our minds are not made to work well with such abstract concepts — we understand placing one thing in one place intuitively and automatically.

The second conventional approach to organizing notes is notebook-first. This basically translates how we organize things in the physical world — in a series of discrete containers — into the digital world.

Notebook-first is better than tagging-first, in my opinion, mostly because it stays out of the way. It doesn’t try to automate and encroach upon the deeply intuitive act of making connections and seeing patterns. P.A.R.A. on its own is a notebook-first system.

But if we stopped there, it would still be woefully inadequate for an economy based on creative output. As the tagging enthusiasts correctly point out, notebooks and folders actually suppress the serendipity and randomness that is at the heart of a creative lifestyle.

I propose a way to break the impasse: a note-first approach.

I propose we make the design of individual notes the primary factor, instead of tags or notebooks. This has many advantages: