3 types of note taking - according to Cal Newport

Interesting ideas here from the slow productivity and deep work advocate in a recent podcast

He thinks about three different types of notes:

  1. What he calls “a working memory file” where you quickly jot down stuff immediately so it’s captured and you get on with what you’re focusing on. You process later.
  2. A list of “obligations” and associated details. You to do list.
  3. Big picture, deep thinking stuff about goals, insights etc.

He’s technology agnostic, and says these should be in three different places.

No sure I agree! The three buckets seem right, but Agenda works for me for 2 and 3. I use a pocket paper notebook for 1.

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The beauty (and sometimes curse) of Agenda lies in its flexibility. I can easily envision a system in which you could do all 3 in Agenda but also totally different configurations using outside task managers and other note taking apps (or a notebook).

In response to Cal’s take on this, I would fall back on the idea that your system should be as complicated as necessary but as simple as possible. Rather than leaning into the recommendation of keeping each in a separate app / location, I would just say that each of the three types should be able to be isolated from the others (as Cal states in the podcast, you don’t want notes about planning your ideal life in a cabin in Vermont to be intermingling with your grocery list).

I do agree with you that Agenda can be used for multple types of notes, as long as that is what works for you as an individual. Personally, I use Agenda primarily as a way to track my obligations with any supporting material. When it comes to longer form writing and planning at higher levels, I prefer the writing experience in Bear, with occasional linking to Agenda notes as appropriate.

Great topic - thanks for posting!

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On a related note(!), I used to create a daily note in Agenda to time block my day.

But I found having that in Agenda was too distracting - it was too easy to go down a rabbit hole of other notes, and too easy to faff around with formatting, adding links to relevant notes, rearranging etc.

I now have a weekly plan in Agenda, which I refer to when creating my daily plan in my paper notebook.

Im finding this is working well for me.

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He also answered someone who asked about that in his newest “slow distraction” episode.
I disagree completely. I use agenda for everything: daily tasks, plans, ideas, projects, study notes, documment information. Never lost focus because of the ammount of stuff. You can open a note in an individual window, as clean as you’d expect + it looks great with my yellow iMac.
Agenda has the structure for almost any system just build it to fit your needs (I use Johnny decimal now).
It can become even more powerful with the power of audio summarisation using my gpt shortcut (and so many other shortcuts you can build with it - lol, I feel like one of these sponsored youtubers talking about my shortcut here)

Link: A Siri Shortcut to Summarize audio to text using ChatGPT

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I’m not familiar with Cal Newport, I stop reading/listening when told how I should do something that is subjective. Time is the string I choose to tie the day together, Agenda helps me do that pretty well and it keeps getting better. Using a single tool to do that with depends on the expectations of the user. The ui/ux, granularity of the data i/o, planning, tracking, organizing, etc etc. If you’re getting what you expect, need, and want from it, then it’s right for you. For me, EVERYTHING starts in Agenda. From thought vomit to research, simple todo items to project analysis. Todos and tasks both personal and professional are linked to and managed with OmniFocus because it does that very well but they begin, grow, and live in Agenda. Same for a customers project report, assembled and grown in Agenda and finalized in excel and word. I don’t think of it as a hub so much as an ancillary application manager.

Also, I still keep Bear as a best web clipping tool until Agenda builds one or a universal appears.
I wish I could dictate notes, especially my Agenda version of quick notes. I just feel very self conscious about it. But then I’m sort of trying to use Ulysses but spent my formative years with wysiwyg.


I think what Cal Newport is pushing back against is the feeling everything OUGHT to be in the same programme, because the different types of note taking require different headspace and systems.

I actually agree that agenda can work well for all types of structured correctly.

I now prefer to use a paper notebook for a few aspects, a) to avoid distractions in Agenda and also getting tempted to check email, etc, and b) pulling out my pocket notebook is much quicker than firing up agenda on my iPhone 8.

Eisenhower reinvented (all over again)?


I like this logic, and I agree with you on 2 and 3. In places like Apple’s Reminders (which, synching with Agenda introduces cross-referencing), Journal, and Note apps, I can do one but I still need some kind of basic formatting as an OCD person.

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Agenda and Ulysses are my go-to tools for keeping things in order. Agenda feels more like a friendly companion that helps me document, follow, and reflect on a certain state over a specific period. Typically, I use Ulysses for my writing and then turn to Agenda to help keep track of things during the writing process. It comes in really handy, particularly when I’ve had a break from writing for a few days. I can just hop into Agenda, take a look at where I left off, and start a fresh note for a new writing adventure. It’s like catching up with an old friend - my past self - before embarking on a new journey.

Without Agenda to keep track of my musings, if I don’t look at this document for a few days, I might feel a tad overwhelmed and even tempted to let it gather dust. At times, I might feel a little daunted and think, “Wow, that’s a mountain of stuff to sift through”. I might just want to let it be, hoping it’ll miraculously tidy itself up one day.

Keeping a comprehensive account of my life memory is super crucial to me.


Great example of how the two work together, can totally see what you mean, I often see this pattern myself too, a level of high overview in Agenda, while working out the detailed document or presentation in Google Docs, Word, or Keynote. This is what I do as well.