The Myth of Compounding Notes

Why hoarding your inputs for 10 years is bad
May 9, 2022

The idea of “compounding” can be dangerous in unexpected ways. The investing concept compound interest has been meme’d to death, popularized, and applied to all other areas of life. If you do something little each day, for years, then you’ll reach an exponential nirvana in a decade from now. This framework has been translated towards relationships, skills, and knowledge.

A writer might think— “If I capture 10 notes a day, for 5 years, I’ll be able to write from 18,250 notes of abundance.” This is true. But, I’d argue that a long-term horizon around our inputs can be detrimental to our outputs.

When we’re so focused on the future, we turn into an obsessive archivist— connecting and tinkering with our ideas. It feels like a noble pursuit to organize information so it’s helpful for our far-future-self. But for OCD-heads like myself, it can go to ridiculous lengths. It’s a colossal waste of juju to try to and organize every thought of yours into some half-constructed digital palace.

The reality is— 95% of my raw notes suck— and they’re worth forgetting.

In fact, if I don’t forget, delete, or archive my old notes, a kind of negative compounding occurs. There’s a leak in the system. Digital hoarding leads to overwhelm and confusion. It’s hard to see because it’s all hidden in folders, but it’s the equivalent of letting your living room fill up with receipts and plastic grocery bags.

If your goal is to write online, then a custom-wiki of private knowledge is worthless without the practice to filter, re-structure, and express your inputs.

By no means am I against note-taking. I think it’s crucial. I just think we need to change the time-horizon of our inputs. They’re not high-glory assets that are meant to survive into our elder years. They are eggs, and they rot every few weeks. My newest system thinks of notes as bread-crumbs. They remind my near-future self where my mind has been, and they give me an abundance of ideas to write about. I don’t need a perfect constellation of knowledge to emerge before I’m ready to write. I need flint.

Capture as many ideas as you want— meeting notes, epiphanies, shower thoughts, links. But only 1% of those will convert into potential essays. Ideally, at the beginning of each week, I look at a menu of 50 possible essays, pick the best 5, and archive the rest. I’ll wrangle in another flock of ideas next week. They grow on trees. If I don’t purge periodically, my Notion will wreak of rotten eggs.

A top-tier idea that you spend an hour refining is at least 100000000x more valuable than a raw input you captured in a frenzy. Think of a single-session one-hour essay as a “minimum viable output.” These low-lift outputs are the things worth categorizing and carrying into the future, not notes.

Just because tools like Evernote, Notion, Roam, and Obsidian allow us to create granular idea palaces that last forever, doesn’t mean we should. Capture all your inputs, turn the best ones into outputs, and let the rest fade away.