This article is one of a series about Tiago Forte’s ideas on productivity and creative work for knowledge workers, including his system called “Building A Second Brain”. The next online course will take place in April and I already signed up here. (For context, I teach Academic Writing to EFL college students in Japan and am learning as much as I can about this and Notion before the next academic year starts in April.) My particular interests in this topic are:

  • how to make notes that I am more likely to use in future, note that don’t just accumulate then stagnate in Evernote-limbo
  • how to improve the quality and quantity of my writing
  • how to create notes that I can easily find again, saving me time and stress searching or trying to remember.


My earlier articles on Tiago Forte’s work are –

  1. Learning Notion (it was in some Notion YouTube videos that P.A.R.A and Building a Second Brain first came on my radar)
  2. More on PARA and Building a Second Brain
  3. Conversation with Tiago Forte, my notes on the first half of his first filmed interview, in which he discusses his 10 principles of Building a Second Brain
  4. A Manifesto for Human-Centred Work, my notes on the 2nd half of that interview.

This post is about a couple of articles by Forte on using Evernote productively and why tagging is broken. It’s my take on those two articles, not an accurate summary. As Forte wrote,

Have you ever read a book in which someone else has taken notes? The margin notes either don’t make sense, or their conclusions are totally obvious.

“How to Use Evernote for your Creative Workflow” – Tiago Forte, Forte Labs.

You’ve been warned.

Progressive summarization

Tagging is Broken” and “How to Use Evernote for your Creative Workflow” form background explanations and justification for Tiago’s own design for notes which is progressive summarization (part 1 and part 2) Essentially, the idea is to progressively summarize a note through 4 or 5 stages until you’ve got its essence, instead of using tags or hierarchical folders to store it.

“Progressive Summarization II: Examples and Metaphors”

Tagging is Broken

Forte eschews tags. Why?

  1. Tagging takes up valuable time and mistakes can occur, and
  2. once tagged, notes become linked to those tags in the mind of the tagger, limiting potential future connections with other ideas.
  3. When almost every word in your note is a potential tag, why tag? To find stuff, search in your notes, not your tags: “energy required to tag every note > energy required to run multiple searches”

relying primarily on a tagging system to organize notes necessarily requires you to make multiple decisions about each and every note that enters the system.

When you rely heavily on tags, you have to perfectly recall every single tag you’ve ever used, and exactly how it is spelled and punctuated.  (Been there, done that. Was it “Essay” or “essay”? Or maybe “essays”? No, wait: “essaywriting”? – Ed.)

As good as your brain is at recognizing patterns, it is terrible at storing and recalling multiple patterns precisely, since the patterns of neuronal activation interfere with each other. Yet this is exactly what you’re doing with tags. What a terrifically unnecessary expenditure of mental resources.

We’ve reached the point where search is so good, effectively the whole document is made up of tags, and the cognitive load of meticulously tagging every note becomes truly unforgivable.

Tagging is Broken – Tiago Forte

Tags limit the creative mind by associating ideas with categories. Here’s a list of tags Forte used on one (long) note:

complexity, cybernetics, decision making, GTD, information management, information overload, knowledge work, neuroscience, notes, optimization, prioritization, problem solving, productivity, project management

At first glance, this seems like a wonderful job I’ve done associating this note with so many categories. But … these tags represent a constraint on my future efforts to link this information with new and unexpected ideas. These tags represent, by definition, pre-existing problem frames through which to view this information.

“How to Use Evernote for your Creative Workflow” – Tiago Forte, Forte Labs.

Tiago Forte’s Evernotes article begins by reminding us of Evernote’s original mission: “To give you a second brain” . What does that mean? Not remembering things (which human brains aren’t so good at anyway) but thinking, something humans do rather well (though some might dispute that).

Forte uses Evernote to keep track of his evolving thinking about a subject, particularly about things he’s read, by using his system of progressive summarization: revisiting his notes on a subject over a period of time, each time highlighting the previous highlights until he’s boiled it down to the essence (see graphic above).

The slow burn

This distillation over time is what he calls the slow burn. (I think he took this term from HIIT, but whatever.)

This post is itself the product of a long, slow burn. It uses 25 direct sources, and many other indirect ones, collected over more than 2 years, but once those pieces were in place, it only took 18 hours to sit down and write.

How to Use Evernote for your Creative Workflow

Some time later, when I started a project drawing on this area, I reviewed only the bolded parts and highlighted (using Evernote’s separate highlighting feature, in yellow) only the very most important parts, leaving me with only 15 highlighted sections from a whole book.This note has now become a potent information weapon, its ideas and facts ready to be used in a wide variety of future contexts, at a moment’s notice.

How to Use Evernote for your Creative Workflow

Tagging then filing (and more often than not, forgetting) is obviously counter-productive if you’re writing long, complex articles that pull together information from many different sources. He’s essentially not sending a note to memory, to the past, but to the future, his future self:

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.

Progressive Summarization: A Practical Technique for Designing Discoverable Notes

Compression vs comprehensibility, and Note Design

Sending your future self bits of knowledge obviously requires thinking about note design, and involves making choices between compression and comprehensibility (Forte uses “comprehensiveness” but I think he means the quality of being intelligible, not of being comprehensive.)

I propose we make the design of individual notes the primary factor, instead of tags or notebooks. … A note-first approach to knowledge management means we have to think about design.

Progressive Summarization: A Practical Technique for Designing Discoverable Notes

The lowest level of note is the entire original text. This maintains maximum context. A summary of this inevitably means cutting out some context for the sake of brevity (compression). But since you don’t know WHEN in the future you will need this note (if ever), you must retain enough context to avoid having to go back and re-read the whole original text. Your note should remain intelligible to Future You.

Making a note discoverable involves making it small, simple, and easy to digest. We accomplish this using compression: creating highly condensed summaries, without all the fluff. But we also want to make our notes understandable. This involves including all the context: the details, the examples, and cited sources to be sure nothing falls through the cracks. .. If we compress a note too much… we lose the context and it loses all meaning. … the information [in a note may be] highly discoverable … But if I come across this note a year from now, I [may] have no idea what it means or why it’s important. But … [i]f we make something totally understandable … if we include every little detail and bit of context, it loses its discoverability.

Progressive Summarization: A Practical Technique for Designing Discoverable Notes

To write this post, I used an Evernote version of the entire text, to which I applied progressive summarization. But I sometimes wished I could link directly to my highlights in Forte’s original article, in the same way you can link to a particular time-point in a YouTube video. I think this is not possible, but there are some alternatives.

One is to share my Evernote. Another is an app called LiquidText which can show only the highlighted portions of your annotated text which looks very useful but I haven’t tried this yet. A third alternative is a tool called Liner that Forte mentions in his Evernote article. It seems to allow you to share a page with your highlights or just your highlights.

Liner share options

Thought-provoking Questions

I’ll finish with my selection from the several thought-provoking questions Forte asks in the 4 articles I used for this post (Tagging is Broken, How to Use Evernote for your Creative Workflow, and Progressive Summarization One and Two):

  • which behaviors are desired and undesired when it comes to organization?
  • when you have an idea, any idea, what do you do with it? Do you obsessively write every single one down, but never look at them again? Or do you let it pass, thinking “Well it probably wasn’t that good of an idea anyway”?
  • What would it look like to use Evernote as the basis for a creative workflow, in line with known neuroscience principles?
  • What exactly are the conditions required for high-performance creativity, and how can we use Evernote to create these conditions?
  • What is our most scarce resource?Or in other words: What are we optimizing for?
  • What makes one note more valuable than another?
  • What then is the main cognitive barrier to comparing two ideas?
  • What is the best way to intelligently manage a scarce resource?
  • 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?
  • How do I make what I’m consuming right now easily discoverable for my future self?

Do you have a design for your note-taking? Do you have a system? If you consider yourself a writer, check out Tiago Forte’s progressive summarization.