Because my undergraduate Physics teaching drilled into me the importance of keeping a lab book, I’ve always kept notebooks throughout my professional career too. If I want to know (and I’m not sure why I would) what process I created to upgrade the Solaris 7 kernel on a Sun Enterprise 450, I still have the notes I took at the time and could reconstruct that process. Same when I moved into testing, and software security, and programming; same now, as a documentation author.
Being in computering I’ve repeatedly looked for ways to transfer that note-taking to a digital context. I’ve got about 2,300 links saved, some of which have followed my from my undergraduate-era Netscape bookmarks file. How many of them still point to the resource I intended to record? No idea. How many of them can I find when I need to? Not as many as I might like.
So I switched to clipping web pages into the same note-taking application I use to write text notes. That’s better as I now have an archive of the content I was trying to record, but now I meet the limitations of the note-taking application. The particular application I used to use lost some of the features I relied on when the creators rewrote the UI using a cross-platform framework, and then they fired all of their developers anyway so I lost faith. I exported those notes to a different tool, which has a different UI with different issues.
Those “second brain” notes tools are somewhat good for recall (though not when I’ve used my readable-to-me-but-not-to-the-computer handwriting to take notes, and not so good at voice notes), but the whole “application” thing means that I have to want to enter the note-taking context to use them. So I don’t use them: the ultimate failure of a notes tool. I have notes I’ve jotted on journal articles in two different software systems that don’t integrate with the notes application, and also on paper.
Paper. That thing that I started using decades ago, still use now, and that I know I can find when I need to. I’m leaning into paper for a second brain. There’s a lot of suggestion that physically writing things aids recall, meaning that I can learn from the notes I took without having to actually go back and rediscover them. And paper notes take away the anxiety that comes from not having curated my second brain software just right: not because I can get it right with a paper system, but because I don’t expect to. I know that everything’s chronological, I know that I usually wrote tables of contents, and I know that I mostly don’t have to go back to those old pages anyway.