We live in the era of Google, in which free and instant text search is the dominant way of retrieving information. It’s great. But it is not the only useful way of organizing information, and it does have limitations. Try looking up the name of an actor whose name you don't remember. Not impossible, but it takes a different type of thinking.
A much more difficult obstacle in the search-mindset is how to engineer for serendipity. I’ve taught more than 2,000 people on how to use notebooks – both analog and digital – to manage their creative thinking, and one of the core mechanisms of creativity is the serendipitous collision of ideas.
One effective way to do this is to scan through old notes in a new context. For example, when you look at a challenge you had last year through your eyes of today, you have new skills, resources, and ways of overcoming it.
But not all old ideas make sense in your new context, so there is a huge benefit in being able to look through old ideas quickly. This is why using visuals in your notes can be so much more powerful than pure text notes. Using visuals is not about avoiding words. Most of my notes are text. But if you have one strong visual per page, it can serve like an anchor, and your mind will often be able to reload the entire idea into your memory in an instant without you having to read through all the text again.
In this way you can scan through hundreds of ideas and see which ones spark a thought or memory.
So how do you create a good visual anchor? You can do it before or after you write. Here are a few examples from my daily life:
I love to cook and bake. The other day I wanted to capture my recipe for the strong vinegar essence that I make for bearnaise sauce. It contains a lot of tarragon so I simply took a photo of the tarragon and stored it along with the recipe.
Last night, I was reflecting on how many things in my life seem be aligning around learning. I work as a learning designer, and I’m serving as an advisor to learning-focused startups. I teach a lot; I try to learn new things for myself. I typed notes on my phone, but afterwards I did a little illustration of four arrows aligning, as a quick way to remind myself of this note.
Last week, a friend shared with me an amazing definition of purpose as the overlap between what you are good at, what you love doing, what the world needs, and what you get paid for. I didn't have much time to write it down on the spot, so I made a very quick Venn diagram and wrote the notes:
I later took the time to recreate the model in more detail on my iPad in Paper.
With the new Paper, adding visual anchors to your notes is extremely easy and fast and it makes it so much more enjoyable to flick through old notes. This sense of joy makes me more likely to actually do it, and the more I do it, the more likely that idea collisions will happen.