How to Take Notes (The Enhanced Piranesi Method)

I’ve tried many note taking methods over the years. Some were effective, but most were either too complicated to implement quickly (meaning I wouldn’t actually use them) or they were easy to use but didn’t have enough structure to be useful in the future.

Take journaling, for example. During my grad school years, I journaled about 600 pages a year. That was great for processing my immediate thoughts, but the chief downside was that I had no organization, so the only way to find interesting ideas now is to sift through hundreds of pages of mostly fluff and crap.

On the other hand, at one point I was trying to follow along with the trend of using complicated programs like Notion or Evernote to take “atomic” notes with backlinks and tags and a complex web of interconnections, that would supposedly allow me to find anything with ease. The only problem? I felt overwhelmed by the amount of work required, and the result was that I simply took fewer notes.

To make things worse, I like to write in cursive in Moleskin or Leuchtturm1917 notebooks. Digital note taking is already hard to organize, but once you’ve got a handful of physical journals to deal with, it’s almost impossible.

I needed something that would strike a balance between simplicity and organization.

I could give you the history of various note taking systems I’ve tried and explain to you the advantages of a so-called “Zettelkasten” (or “slip box”) system or its variants, but the truth is, there are already too many YouTube videos on that exact topic. And to be honest, many of them are bullshit.

Instead, I’m just going to lay out my preferred note taking method immediately, and then I’ll make a few comments on other systems below.

The Piranesi Method

I call my system The Piranesi Method after the method used by the fictional character, Piranesi, in the eponymous novel by Susanna Clarke. If you haven’t read Piranesi, it’s an excellent piece of speculative fiction that feels similar in spirit to the writing of Neil Gaiman or Ray Bradbury. It’s magical.

Without giving anything away, the protagonist, Piranesi, keeps a set of journals and has a clever way of indexing them so he can find old ideas quickly. Piranesi keeps a diary and then devotes one journal as an index. When he writes about a unique topic, he creates an index entry for that topic and lists the journal and page number belonging to that topic.

Piranesi’s journaling technique could also be called the Index Method, and it’s quite powerful. It will work for any number of journals, and can be translated from physical to digital formats (or back) very easily. My system builds off of Piranesi’s idea, but let’s first see how the Piranesi Method works. Here’s the general plan if you were just using physical journals:

  1. Start with two journals: one labeled “Index” and the other labeled whatever you want, preferably a single letter or character (I used to use Greek letters, but I’ve recently switched to plain old English). For example, let’s just say you call your writing journal “A”.
  2. Look up the relative frequency of English letters used in the language, and devote a proportional amount of pages to that letter. For example, about 11% of all English words begin with the letter e. Therefore, you want 11% of your Index to be set aside for entries beginning with e.
  3. In your writing journal, A, enter page numbers (if you use a Leuchtturm1917, they’re already included). I just label the odd pages, allowing me to infer the evens and save on writing.
  4. Begin taking notes in A.
  5. When you are finished with an entry in A, underline the keywords or concepts that best represent what the topic was about. Let’s say you were writing about finance on page 80. Next, go to the Index, in this case the F section:
    1. If there is an index entry for finance, enter the name of the writing journal (A), followed by the page number of your most recent entry. In this case, you would write: A80
    2. If there is no index entry, create one and enter the page number as above.
  6. Don’t worry about alphabetizing the index entries within a certain letter. For example, you want to make sure “Finance” is found somewhere in the Index under the letter F but the F entries can be in any order.
  7. If you want to add another writing journal, label it by a different letter, say, B. Follow the same steps above to make entries in the index.

Let’s say you have four journals (A, B, C, and D), and you write about finance a lot. Your Index entry for finance might look something like this:

Finance: A80, B65, B72, A94, C26, C18, A101, D3,

This tells you where to look in each journal to see your writings about finance. Notice it doesn’t matter what order things are in. The example above shows that C26 and C18 were written in opposite order in Journal C, and you probably forgot to enter C18 into the Index immediately. No problem. Just make sure it gets entered, if it’s important enough you want to reference it later.

Obviously, any given entry will cover multiple topics. In general, there are three or four topics I’m writing about at any given time. If I were writing about finance, I might also be exploring the idea of inflation. So, I would want to make an entry under I for inflation as well as under F for finance. This creates redundancy in the Index, allowing you to get back to a given entry in the future in many ways depending on what feature is most salient to you at the time. This helps you form more connections in your mind to the various topics you’re writing about and will enhance your memory as well as inspire cross-fertilization of concepts leading to higher creativity.

By the way, you don’t have to have two journals for this method to work. You can also devote the first 50 pages or so of any given journal to be an index. You can then use it as an index for that journal alone, or you can reference other journals as well. It just uses up a lot of pages to do that. Alternatively, you can just devote a few pages to the index of a particular journal and use no alphabetization. This works well if you’re only going to use one physical journal and eventually scan entries into a digital index. Here’s an example from my most current physical notebook (crossed out entries below have already been entered digitally):

That brings us to the Enhanced Piranesi Method.

Enhancing the Piranesi Method

There are advantages and disadvantages to the Piranesi Method. The main benefit is that the system is a little bit slow and so promotes organic thinking. You have to take time to look stuff up, and this means you’re likely to stumble upon old ideas you might have forgotten. It is this slowness that likely led to such high creative output for German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, famous for the Zettelkasten method.

The big downside to the Piranesi Method is that you will be limited by the size of your index journal, and if you want to take notes on the go, you’ll need to carry your physical journal(s) around with you. Plus, there might be purely digital types of information you want to capture that won’t be easy to reference in the physical journals.

There is a better way.

To enhance the Piranesi Method, it’s a good idea to create a Master Index in digital form. You can do this in several ways with a variety of software types, but I like to use Apple Notes and Obsidian. Both programs allow for linking notes together and hyperlinking to external sources, and this is an incredibly powerful set of features.

Obsidian is free to use, but it costs money to sync it across devices. Apple Notes, on the other hand, is both free and syncs across devices, provided they are Apple products. I’ll show you how to use Obsidian as a Master Index, since not everyone prefers Apple and Obsidian is available universally.

The great thing about Obsidian is that it stores all your data as markdown in local files (unless you upgrade to share across devices, in which case they’re stored on the cloud). Markdown is probably never going to go away, so even if you decide you hate Obsidian in the future, you can still access all the files using any app that will read markdown, and your links between notes will be preserved.

  1. Download Obsidian
  2. To set up, you need to create a “vault”. Just follow the prompts on the screen. It’s easy and basically just means designating a folder on your computer for your notes to go.

A warning before we move on to the rest of the steps. There are a bunch of things Obsidian can do, and for our purposes, you won’t need most of them. You can play around with themes and aesthetics later. Don’t worry about all the plugins. They are a distraction. Most of the relevant plugins will already be turned on by default. The only one that I make sure is checked is the backlinks, in case I want to be able to see what notes link to a particular one in the future.

  1. In the sidebar, create one folder and label it “Index”:

I can tell you from experience that making a system with a bunch of folders is a bad idea. It gets cumbersome quickly. Just create an Index folder and that’s it. Next, we want to create an entry for every letter of the alphabet. This is tedious, but it’s really the final step in setting things up.

  1. Create a note with the title “A” and move it to the Index folder. For example, here is my (blank) note for all the “X” index entries (I don’t have any entries for X yet, so this is a good example of what you should create for every letter of the alphabet):
  1. Create a note for every letter of the alphabet. Make sure to add the letter notes to the Index folder. All other notes will remain outside any folders. Once all alphabet notes have been created, click the “sort” button and sort by “File name Z-A”. Your Index folder should look like this:
  1. Now, create your first real note. Click the “compose” button, or use the hotkeys (ctrl+n on Windows). Obsidian will automatically make whatever you type first the title, and it will put it in a large heading. Just type the number 1 Then hit enter and start writing:

There is a reason we sort this way. From now on, we’re going to make the title of each note a single number. Think of it as a digital page number. By sorting Z-A, the most recent note will appear at the top of the list under the Index. For example:

This way, when you’re ready to create a new note, you’ll know exactly what to title it: the next number in the series (e.g. my next Obsidian note will be titled 75).

  1. Once you’re done writing, consider the topic(s) you were writing about, and go to the Index folder to find the proper index note to enter the reference.

So let’s say you were writing about finance. Go to the Index folder and open the F note. (Alternatively, you can use the hotkeys ctrl+O on Windows to pull up the menu and type “F”. The F note should show up immediately). In the F note, write the word “Finance” followed by a colon and then create a link to your first note (see step 8).

  1. To create a link, type “[” twice, i.e. [[ . Obsidian will automatically close the brackets and place the cursor inside. All you have to do is type the number of the note you want to link to, i.e. “1”. Hit “enter” or click outside of the brackets, and Obsidian will turn the number into a link to that note. It should look like this: [[1]]. When you click away from it, the brackets will disappear, and the 1 will be a link to the note with the title 1.

Here’s an example of what my index for the letter “R” looks like:

Notice that there are unlinked entries as well. These refer to physical journals.

You can now see the power of this system. By combining the two systems above, I have implemented a Master Index process, where I can reference anything, whether digital or physical, from one spot.

Adding in Apple Notes

I like the aesthetics of writing in Obsidian, but I don’t want to pay to have it sync across my devices. Instead, to take quick notes throughout the day, I use Apple Notes. What’s great about Notes is that it also allows linking. In fact, you can follow almost the exact same process as above to create the same Master Index in Notes, since Notes also allows linking and subfolders:

There is one advantage Notes has that Obsidian doesn’t (as far as I’m aware). Notes allows you to scan documents. Since I like to write by hand, I often scan the journal entry immediately and index it to Notes:

You might be wondering how I fit this all into the Obsidian system above.

The answer is that the links to Apple Notes entries are “deep links”, so copy/pasting them into any program with search functionality within iOS will prompt the machine to open Apple Notes. If you paste a note link into the Google Chrome search bar, for example, the computer will ask you if you want to open Notes. The same is true in Obsidian.

That means I can just copy/paste index entries from Notes over into Obsidian. If I’m working in Obsidian and I click a Notes link, the machine will automatically take me to the Notes app where that file is.

For example, suppose I click the link to “AI” at the bottom of index/A (notice the little arrow, indicating an external link):

I’ll get the following message:

If I select “Open this link”, the computer will open Apple Notes to the correct file.

Final Comments

The best note taking system is the one you will actually use. There are more powerful note taking methods available than the one described above. As I mentioned, a popular use of Obsidian is to create a Zettelkasten, or “slip box” system. There are countless videos and blogs about this topic online, and there’s even a whole website devoted to the idea.

Many point to Niklas Luhmann as the progenitor of the Zettelkasten system, lauding Luhmann’s incredible prolificacy as proof of the method’s power. Luhmann wrote more than 70 books and 400 articles in his life, so he is something of a hero to a lot of people. But there are a couple things to keep in mind.

First, as elaborated in excruciating detail by writer Scott P. Scheper in The Antinet Zettelkasten, Luhmann’s system used an extensive hierarchy of concepts in a totally analog way, which although extremely thorough is difficult to implement quickly. Most of the writers, bloggers, and YouTubers talking about “Zettelkastens” don’t appear to be very familiar with Luhmann’s real system, relying on tag-based or backlink-based methods. Those methods can work, but Scheper is almost certainly correct that they are inferior to Luhmann’s true method, because they are actually too quick. Luhmann’s process was slow, perhaps deliberately so, and this allowed for a lot of organic thinking.

Secondly, building on that last point, Luhmann spent several hours per day “talking” to his Zettelkasten. The way he describes it, over time you forget what you’ve written in various notes, but by engaging with your notes regularly, you will be led on various rabbit trails down into your previously recorded thoughts, since notes link to each other. This has the effect of conversing with another mind, as if you had an external subconscious you could talk to.

There’s something interesting about the idea of externalizing your subconscious in this way, and with new technologies such as LLMs like ChatGPT, it’s not hard to imagine that eventually a note-taking system will emerge as true conversation partner, admitting of back and forth discourse.

But for now, if you’re like me (and probably most busy people), it’s unlikely you’ll want to devote hours of your time to your note system.

That’s why I advocate for the system above, the Enhanced Piranesi Method. It takes a few minutes to set up and get used to, but it’s very fast to use, and it represents a good balance between organization and organic thinking.

If you have additional comments or suggestions about how to improve the system, I’d love to hear them! Comment below or email me at

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Be Compelling

If there is one thing you absolutely must learn as a creator it is this: be compelling. You can learn to be compelling, and you must, no matter what your preferred vehicle of creation–blogging, video, even visual art. This is like how writer/YouTuber Dan Koe says you have to learn to be persuasive. The art of persuasion can be learned, and you need to learn it, because it is the only non-violent means by which to allocate the power to get things done. It doesn’t matter who you are, you still need to do this. Two things that are no longer optional for creators are:

  1. Social media
  2. Writing

Here’s why. To be a creator is not the same as being expressive. Lots of people are expressive. When I was a kid a family member got pissed while cutting wood and threw a chainsaw. That was expressive, but it wasn’t creative. A lot of amateur artists fall into this thought pattern. They think that because they are expressing their emotions violently on canvas by smearing paint around with their body, or whatever other unthinking postmodern claptrap is their preference, that they are being extremely creative. But the act of creation is an intentional act. It’s not just about creating chaos that reflects one’s inner turmoil.

Professional artists are different — even postmodern ones. The creator-artist knows that art is really about casting attention on to specific ideas. When Marcel Duchamp created “Fountain”, he was acting deliberately and intentionally to highlight a certain idea, which was to refocus the attention cast on art towards intellectual interpretation. Even Maurizio Cattelan did something unique with Comedian, or as a lot of people probably know it: the stupid banana duct tape thing. You may not care for the aesthetic or think that it’s stupid, but the fact that we’re talking about it at all demonstrates conclusively that it was by a certain measure brilliant for directing human attention.

To be a creator, you have to harness expression–all the violent turmoil of emotions that impel you to create. But there’s more. You must also direct that creative energy toward an idea. That’s what it means to be intentional. You must direct your own attention and the attention of others.

Social Media

Social media is not optional anymore. Social media is a means of allocating attention. Nowadays it is the means. If you don’t have a social media presence, or if you’re not using it well, then you’re missing out on the opportunity to act more intentionally. All your creative output will result in, at most, garnering the attention of a small number of people around you, such as friends and family members. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, if that’s what you really want. Some people are fine with just creating things for themselves or their friends.

But there is a difference between craft and art. True art cannot properly emerge unless it is under the aegis of an idea, and to really tap into the sphere of ideas in a relevant way, the creative act must have its basis in the social world more broadly. That’s the only way for novelty to emerge. Sure, it’s possible you could stumble upon something nobody has ever thought of before and express it in a unique way. But it’s super unlikely. There are over 8 billion people on the planet, and more than 100 billion have existed before you. It’s highly unlikely you will come up with something totally new in a vacuum.

Don’t get me wrong. Creating new things is absolutely possible. It’s just that to do it, you need to be part of the social fabric. You have to read and learn and discuss. That’s what society is for. In short, you have to cast our attention on society and contribute reciprocally to allocate attention on your own creative output. This will sharpen your ideas and help you to discover your unique contribution.

That’s why social media matters. Social media is where the attention is. It used to be the television, and before that it was the radio. Before that it was the world of books and letters, and for most of human history it was word of mouth. But now it’s social media. You can, of course, explore those other media as well. Books, for example, still play an outsized role in public discourse. But if you want to go to where the attention is at its greatest focus, you need to be on social media.


Writing is for many things, but from the creator’s perspective, its primary function is as a means of persuasion. In order for attention to be really harnessed and put to work, it’s not enough to just have a bunch of it. There are many bad ways to allocate attention online. You can easily find examples of this by looking for cases of “dogpiling”, where somebody says something most people don’t like, or often just a subset of people find disagreeable, and hoards of comments pour in upon the person to demonize them and tell them what’s what. This is especially common in political discussions, but it can happen almost anywhere and on any topic, especially as the public becomes more polarized and politicized.

Some people are great at navigating negative attention. They have the skill or the thick skin (or skull) necessary to use the momentum of that attention to further advance their own ideas. Take for example, Donald Trump. He gets plenty of negative attention, but whether you love or hate him, it’s practically impossible to ignore the reality of his skill at navigating bad press. To the surprise of many, more often than not, he has been able to use the negative attention of his detractors to further rile up is supporters. That works for him.

Still, unless you have remarkably thick skin or just really like an uphill battle, there’s usually a much better way to utilize attention. Namely, to persuade. If you can master the art of persuasion, you don’t have to worry about negative attention. You will be able to get exactly the attention you want, both in quantity and quality.

That’s what writing is for. Writing is thinking, and writing publicly is helping others to think. If your writing is good, it will be clear and compelling. The more you do it, the better you will get at it.

Clear writing is compelling writing. The reason has to do with a basic principle of human psychology that nearly everyone fails to adequately appreciate: you cannot change other people’s minds. You really can’t. The only reason it seems possible to change another person’s mind is because you’ve changed your mind in the past. You might have changed your mind after listening to a friend’s point of view or maybe you read an interesting book or listened to a podcast. Probably the change was slow, and you likely had to encounter ideas in a variety of formats for the change to take place. The mind generally resists having its beliefs changed, because it’s hard work. Our brains didn’t evolve to track the truth, per se. We evolved to be good at surviving, and often simply doggedly believing the easy thing has greater survival value than believing the true thing, because beliefs don’t usually need to be perfect to confer survival value. They just need to be good enough. Understanding that when it thunders it’s going to rain soon is good to know. It doesn’t really matter if you think thunder is caused by the angry gods or because atmospheric electrostatic potential has a propensity to discharge in a violent clash of clamorous molecules.

When you write clearly, you’re not trying to change anybody’s mind. You’re instead giving others an opportunity to think with you and to understand you. You’re helping them to understand a line of reasoning, a way of thinking. You’re giving them the perspicacity to make their own decision on the matter. If your reasons are good, your words thoughtful, and your sentences clear, people will change their own minds. That’s persuasion.


Clarity in writing stems from two distinct factors: clarity in expression and clarity in thought. Clarity in expression has to do with the types of sentences you choose, what vocabulary you deploy, and the complexity of your style. All of these components depend on your audience. If you’re writing for the lay person, you generally should avoid sentences that are too complicated or vocabulary that is too erudite. For example, if I were just now writing for the average person, I wouldn’t choose to use the word “erudite” in that last sentence. I would use “stuffy”. But I take it most of my readers won’t be of the average sort. They’re probably readers, writers, creators, and generally thinkers, so it’s probably okay to use a word like “erudite” occasionally.

Expression has two main parts: rhetoric and syntax. The latter is what I pointed to above. Syntactically speaking, clear writing depends on using good grammar and choosing the right level of vocabulary for your audience. Rhetorically speaking, clear writing is about choosing the right types of sentences to convey mood, or direct attention in some way other than articulating reasons aimed at preserving the truth. It’s about pointing rather than saying outright. Or showing rather than telling, if you prefer that phrase. Clear writing that is rhetorically powerful makes use of metaphor and analogy (something I’m bad at) to get the point across. There are entire books about this subject, and I won’t dive into the issue any deeper here.

Clarity in thought is, in many ways, much harder to develop than clarity in expression. That’s because clarity in expression doesn’t have to pay attention to the truth in order to be effective. It might pay attention, but it’s not a requirement. Clarity in thought, however, has to pay close attention to the structure of thoughts. To write clearly in a thoughtful way means to pay attention to the logic.

As I’ve mentioned before in a video, this is one of the main reasons learning philosophy can be a powerful tool in the creator’s toolbox. In the video, I explain that philosophy essentially functions to help you understand yourself, your ideas, and why you believe what you believe. That is, it focuses the mind on reasons for beliefs rather than emotional or tribalistic in-group appeals (which our brains love). This, in turn, will strengthen your beliefs, especially if you adjust them when they are unreasonable or out of step with observable reality. In short, your beliefs will become resilient, and this will help you to develop a sense of confidence that will allow you to successfully project authenticity to your audience. The projection of authenticity is what creates trust, and trust is social cement. (And for those of you wondering how to make a buck with your content, it’s worth noting that money is just quantified trust.)