Mastering Your Notes App — The Power of Creating Links

jannik-selz-45375Making links between ideas that seem unconnected is the essence of creativity. In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler called this bisociation — the “perceiving of a situation or idea…in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.”

Matt Ridley and James Altucher describe this in more graphic terms as “letting ideas have sex with each other.”

Koestler’s book is loaded with examples of bisociation. You can spot more on your own.

Recently, for instance, I re-read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Jack combined his love of jazz with his writing technique in a quest to marry the two art forms.

In Belief and Technique For Modern Prose, Kerouac described his ideal: “Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better.” This led him to write long-flowing lines with strong beats and dizzying cascades of data points — much like a bebop solo by Charlie Parker:

…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!

Incubating notes for creative connections

A major reason for using a notes app to create a personal knowledge base is linking ideas in ways that surprise and delight you. This happens as you collect notes from many sources on many topics and let those notes all sit together in one place.

While reviewing your notes, you might find that unexpected connections leap out by surprise. It’s as if your notes have a mind of their own — an “emergent intelligence.”

For example, collect a bunch of your favorite quotations on a specific topic and place them on the same page. Compare and contrast. Do you see contradictions? Might these be paradoxes? Can you see ways to resolve contradictions by creating a new viewpoint that reconciles apparent disagreements?

At this point you are close to creating something original.

The Internet of you

Notes apps such as Evernote, OneNote, nvALT, and Bear give you another option for creative thinking — the ability to create visible links of your own choosing between individual notes. This makes your knowledge base even more robust by turning it into a personal wiki. Behold the Internet of you, where the links are not between Web pages but different parts of your own brain.

For example, here’s a page from my Projects notebook in OneNote. The underlined words in blue in the first sentence are not links to Web pages. Instead, these are links to notes that I’ve created and stored in other notebooks:

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 12.29.31 PM

For the sake of clarity, I refer to these as notelinks to distinguish them from Internet-based hyperlinks.

Why notelinks matter

You might look at note-linking features and say meh — no big deal. I did at first. Over time, however, I saw notelinks as a hidden path to mental superpowers.

Stacey Harmon, author of Untethered With Evernote, offers this explanation:

Note linking is the single skill that converted me from casual Evernote user, to an all-in Evernote zealot. Why? Because note links create structure in Evernote, which, by design, is an unstructured and flexible platform. And this structure is a key aid in me being able to quickly navigate to what I am looking for, no matter where I’m accessing Evernote from.

In short, notelinks create “bread crumbs” — visible reminders of connections that you’ve already made between ideas.

In addition, notelinks:

  • Allow you to move between notes at blazing speed with a single click — more quickly than doing a search or scanning long lists of note titles.
  • Create connections that have special resonance for you — more personal than a list of “hits” delivered by a search engine’s blind algorithm.
  • Create serendipitous connections based on changes in your thinking over time. Notelinks that you created 5 years ago, for instance, might differ from those you’re making today.

Some practical points to remember

As you play with note-taking apps, look for ways to link notes.

Apps differ widely in how they implement this feature. I’m not an Evernote user, but I’m told that this app only allows you to link individual notes. In contrast, OneNote allows you to create links between pages (individual notes), sections (note groups), and entire notebooks (section groups).

Check out the differences between desktop, mobile, and web-based apps. Note-linking might only be available in the desktop versions.

Also remember that notelinks can break if you retitle a note, revise the body of a note, or delete a note altogether. Your app will not update notelinks, so you’ll need to fix broken links manually.

Some other ways to create useful notelinks:

  • Use keyboard shortcuts to copy and paste multiple notelinks at a time.
  • Use multiple notelinks to create dashboards, overviews, and tables of contents — links to all the notes you’ve included in a specific section or notebook.
  • Use notelinks to connect a to-do item to related information in your project notes.
  • Use notelinks to navigate from a destination note back to the source note.
  • Remember that the text of any notelink can differ from the title of its destination note. Make the notelink text descriptive and meaningful within the context of the source note.
  • Experiment with pasting notelinks into other applications. For example, I can take OneNote notelinks and paste them into Microsoft Word documents. This creates smart connections between the two applications.

Also see

Mastering Evernote: Your Complete Guide to Note Link Nirvana by Stacey Harmon

Why You Should Set Links Manually and Not Rely on Search Alone by Christian Tietze

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten by Christian Tietze

Do you want to write a book that will help people create positive new outcomes in their lives? I can help you produce a finished manuscript that’s grounded in principles of adult learning and behavior change.

For more information, email me at

Photo by JANNIK SELZ on Unsplash