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for my work I'm trying to take notes electronically, to easiser sort, search, find and cross-refrence them. I'm using Emacs org-mode for that purpose.

My problem: I'm struggling to find a systematic and universal approach for organizing those notes. In general, my software allows to create a hierarchical tree structures with nodes and sub-nodes, which at the same time can be tasks.

Are there instructions, how to build a structure for storing and cross-linking such notes in a concise way?

EDIT: to make my question more clear:

I do not search for a(nother) specific software that helps me organizing my stuff - I am happy with Emacs org-mode (I'm still learning how to use it, but it is already very powerful and useful for me).

I'm searching for instructions,

  • how to take electronic notes of meetings, phone calls, ideas in a structured way
  • and cross-link them together
  • or mark them with a well-defined set of tags
  • to be able to find the right thing later at the right time
  • with the least possible number of duplicate information

Emacs org-mode lets me mix everything - notes, tasks, project structure, diary, time tracking, calendar information - which is on the one hand extremely powerful, but on the other hand can get quite disturbing, if there is no clear and well-defined system how to make use of it...

For example: I can organize information in a hierarchical "tree" structure like:

Project 1
- sub-project 1.1
- task 1.1.1
- task 1.1.2
- sub project 1.2 - meeting notes ....

Project 2
- sub project 2.1 ...

I could do this chronologically, which makes some sense as it helps seeing what happened step by step later when reviewing a project.

Then if e. g. in a meeting concerning sub-project 1.1 there was a question about budget I had to get answered from Person A, I'd note in the minutes of that meeting:
TODO Phone Person A: budget for project?

If I now do that task later (after the meeting) and add the answer/result together with this TODO (= within the meeting notes), I'm breaking my chronological structure.
To keep the chronological structure, I would have to create the task "Phone Person A:..." on the same level as the meeting notes and somehow link it to the meeting, so that if I or somebody else later reads the meeting notes, he can see that one result of the meeting was to ask Person A for the budget and where to find the answer.

Maybe it is now easier to understand what I mean by "cross-linking".

A similar question is how to set up a well-defined set of tags to be able to sort/filter notes and tasks later from different perspectives.
For example: in my work tasks are linked to different products that I'm taking care of and mostly are linked to different industries and specific applications. So it seems to be a good idea to create tags for products, industries and applications..

EDIT - concerning points mentioned in the answer(s)

  • Separating note-taking from organizing the stuff sound like a good idea. I agree that note taking on paper might be the best choice for creativity, but in my daily work I see that it is very difficult to process my hand-written notes and transfer the important points into my electronic tasks list and information system.
    However, if I take notes electronically directly, it is much easier to transfer them and have them usable in my "system" - especially if it is for long meetings with a lot of content.
    You're right, I mostly do not like to use Emacs for this purpose, but in such a situation I'm using Mindmaps (with Freeplane) where I can easier create nodes and move and regroup them (even if the Outliner Emacs org-mode lets me create a quite similar structure) and then later copy them to my org-mode files.
share|improve this question
Search for 'Personal information manager' (PIM) software for your OS (you might add that as a tag to your question) and try some of them. – Jan Doggen Jun 21 '13 at 6:54
@JanDoggen: thanks for your comment! I've found a list of PIM software at wikipedia: . However, with Emacs orgmode (and the un-avoidable Microsoft Outlook) I am already using one of those. :-) So that leads us back to my question: how to use it systematically and consistently? – MostlyHarmless Jun 21 '13 at 11:12
I meant the tag to add was your OS ;-) – Jan Doggen Jun 21 '13 at 11:14
ah - I see. :-) I'm using both Windows 7 at work and MacOS X at home, so I'm generally interested in platform-independent solutions. – MostlyHarmless Jun 21 '13 at 11:16
Well you should read about GTD (Getting things done) methodology developed by David Allen. This will allow you to process your notes / tasks in proper way. There are also software for this. You may look in Google for this one. – Marek Kulesza Jun 21 '13 at 18:32

I think you will be overall more effective if you abandon the idea of categorizing your notes as you take them. Take notes in one step, then organize and categorize as a separate step later. You'll get better notes, and better organization.

You are attempting to conflate (at least) two different concepts and types of thinking into a single process. One is the act of taking notes, the other is organizing those notes into some structure or set of structures that lets you make use of them later. You are further constraining your activities by requiring that they be all electronic, and in fact must work within Emacs org-mode. I doubt you will find a fully satisfactory solution within your constraints.

Note taking is a very different kind of thinking than organizing. You will generally be more successful if you separate those activities. My experience is that you will be more effective taking notes on paper than electronically. That is despite the fact that I type 130-150wpm and have terrible handwriting. Paper is still better for notes. I can recommend the Cornell Note Taking System as highly effective. See for the one page summary, there are many other resources about it on the web that can be found by search. When using the system for business purposes rather than class lecture notes, the important things to be looking for and calling out are deliverables - who does what by when? - in addition to important reference information.

Once you have your notes, you want to transfer them to your reference / task / whatever electronic system. It isn't clear from your original post whether you are keeping reference material as well as tasks in Emacs org-mode. If you are, you might consider separating them to keep a hard edged clarity about what you need to do vs. what you need to know. The problem of how to organize this is very large, and not suitable for a one-size-fits-all general answer. Search for "knowledge management" and "taxonomy" for hits that give you an idea of the size of the problem. You'll need to figure out for yourself how best to organize the data in a way that makes sense to you.

You can use both hierarchy and tags. The hierarchy might be date based, or project based, or interest areas, or any other system that makes sense to you and your world. In my productivity systems, I've discovered that hierarchy doesn't work well for me, as I too often have items that either fit in multiple places in the hierarchy, or are outside the hierarchy I want to maintain and end up in a catch-all "other" category. Your world might be enough different from mine that it could work for you.

Tags allow you to cross-cut a hierarchy, or construct multiple virtual hierarchies on the fly. Applying tags to items from your notes will generally require a little reflection, which can't be done in the heat of note taking, or you'll miss the next things you should be taking notes about. At least, that's been my experience.

Tags that I find useful to add to any item tell me who the item relates to, what project or concern it is for, what start and end dates may apply, locations in which the item should come up on a list or software needed to do something with it. That lets me create GTD @Agenda and other context lists dynamically.

Some example tags: project, p-{projectname}, phone, Phil, due20130627, start20130701, tickle20130705, excel, eclipse, home, home.yard.

share|improve this answer
thanks, Dennis, for this long and well-explained answer! I've edited my question with some first comments to your points. Already during having to make my question understood I learned a lot about my problem, which seemed quite diffuse to me before, and now is at least a little more clear... your answer helped me getting one step further. I'll think about it and then get back to you here with some comments. :-) – MostlyHarmless Jun 24 '13 at 20:40

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