The Modern Swipe File
15 Unexpected Uses for Digital Notes
One of the most common questions I’m asked is “What should I save in my digital notes?”
My typical answers include “highlights from books,” “website bookmarks,” and “social media favorites.” Those are the bread and butter of online content.
But they are also just the very tip of the iceberg.
There is a whole universe of kinds of information that are worth saving in what I call your “Second Brain” – a system of knowledge management that lives outside your head and helps you keep track of your most valuable knowledge. Once you start getting comfortable with the idea that you can store knowledge indefinitely in a reliable place, you will begin to see everything around you as potentially useful information.
In this case study, I’ll share 15 unexpected uses for digital notes, including concrete examples I’ve saved in my Second Brain to give you a taste of the stunning range and diversity of information worth saving. I’ll explain what I was thinking when I captured each one, how I might use it in the future, and include a link to the original notes.
Here’s the list:
- Marketing assets
- Mementos and keepsakes
- Troubleshooting steps
- How-to checklists
- Ideas for content
- Favorite resources
- Repurposed content
- Call/meeting notes
- Models or examples to follow
- Everyday observations
- Notes from courses
- Research findings
- Guidelines and procedures
- Project plans
1. Marketing assets
Marketing assets are one of my favorite types of content to save. This practice has a long legacy: for decades, advertisers, public relations executives, and copywriters have kept “swipe files” with examples of ads that they wanted to borrow from or be inspired by.
In this example, someone had sent me a newsletter issue by a popular YouTuber named Ali Abdaal. I had seen his videos before, and through this newsletter issue I learned that he was a fan of my ideas.
I filed this note under “BASB 11,” a project notebook for the upcoming cohort of my course, as a reminder to reach out to Ali to see if he was interested in becoming an affiliate. When the time came, he was indeed interested. He also became an Alumni Mentor, and we’ve enjoyed a great working relationship on multiple fronts since then. You never know where a note can lead you.
2. Mementos and keepsakes
I highly recommend using your Second Brain to save keepsakes, mementos, and evidence of past successes, whether personal or professional. These small wins are exactly the kind of thing that tends to be forgotten over time. But they have a very special purpose: reminding you of where you’ve been and what you’ve achieved for those times when you need a dose of encouragement.
In early 2020 I published an ebook with the best writing from my blog, which I do every year. It was called The Heart is the Bottleneck, and for about a day it was at the top of the Amazon charts! Well, the free ebook charts, but still it’s a nice milestone to look back on.
In this case, I used the Evernote web clipper to take a screenshot of the Amazon page. I keep these keepsakes in an resource notebook called “Press/testimonials,” which I look through any time I need some motivation or proof-of-credibility for my marketing materials.
3. Troubleshooting steps
You can think of your Second Brain as a “reference library” full of bits of information that you have to refer to often. Because you’ll be accessing this information again and again, it’s worth keeping in a centralized place where you always know where to find it, and can share it with others easily.
In this example, I often need to share these instructions with anyone who encounters an error when trying to purchase one of my ebooks on Amazon. Usually it is because they are located in a foreign country and need to log in to their own country’s Amazon store to make the purchase. It’s a simple fix, but requires a few key details. I don’t want to waste my time or my assistant’s time answering the same question again and again, so this note allows us to resolve their issue with a single shared link.
4. How-to checklists
Often you’ll encounter a helpful resource, but you’re not quite ready to put it to use. In this case, I found this extremely thorough list of questions for employee performance reviews via a newsletter I’m subscribed to.
I knew that eventually I’d want to draw inspiration from this list, but I had just hired my first employee and his first review was months away. I saved the webpage using the Web Clipper and saved it to an area notebook named after my employee. I knew that was the first place I’d look when it came time to do his review.
5. Ideas for content
As a content creator I constantly need new ideas for content I could create. The Internet is a hungry monster with an endless appetite, which means I need an endless pipeline of ideas to explore, skills to teach, and frameworks to develop. I have to draw inspiration from anywhere and everywhere.
In this case, I noticed that a throwaway line from my course was one of the most common quotes I heard from my students. It seemed to really strike a chord with them, so I made that line the title of a new note. You can see that I jotted down the first few ideas that came to mind, but otherwise this will serve as a placeholder for future thoughts. This is how most of my blog posts start – as small seeds of insight that slowly grow as I think of new points to add.
6. Favorite resources
An excellent use for your Second Brain is to save your favorite resources. You probably find that people in your life or at work tend to ask you for the same kinds of referenves again and again. Chefs get asked about their favorite places to buy groceries. Residents of a popular city are asked for their top recommendations of places to visit. Designers are asked for a list of their favorite design resources.
Instead of coming up with an original answer time and again, which is time-consuming and repetitive, I recommend answering those frequently asked questions once very thoroughly, and then saving your answer to your notes. In this example, I saved a list of my most recommended productivity apps, which is something I am constantly asked about. Now anytime someone has this question, I can reply with a simple shared link.
7. Repurposed content
Often in creative work, parts have to be cut in order to produce a final deliverable. Sentences or paragraphs might get cut from an article you’re writing, scenes might be deleted from a film you’re making, or parts of a speech might get dropped when you’re trying to keep within your allotted time. This is a completely normal and expected part of any creative process.
But that doesn’t mean you have to throw away those parts. One of the best uses for a Second Brain is to collect and save those bits and pieces that didn’t quite make it into your creative work in case they can be repurposed for other uses. You never know how they might be useful or where they might end up. A slide cut from a presentation could become a social media post. An observation cut from a report could become the basis of a whitepaper. An agenda item cut from a meeting could become the agenda for a separate phone call. The possibilities are endless.
This note was cut from a blog post I was writing on the principles of knowledge management. It was a little too nuanced for the piece I was writing, but I still believe is a perfectly valid point. I’ve revisited it when writing my book, and in the future could become the starting point of a dedicated blog post. Knowing that nothing I write truly gets lost, only saved for later use, gives me the confidence to aggressively cut my creative works down to size without fearing I’ll lose my work forever.
8. Call/meeting notes
Calls and meetings take up significant time and energy, but if you’re going to attend them, you might as well take some notes on the main points that were discussed. And if you’re going to take those notes, you might as well save them. If you have an agenda for the call or meeting, I recommend taking those notes right there within the same note.
This note was from a call with a book publisher as we discussed an early draft of my book proposal. Notice that it isn’t anything like a full record of what we covered. It includes only a few of the ideas and phrases that really stuck out to me, or that surprised me. In this case, I took their recommendations and incorporated them into the proposal, making it stronger.
Conversations with other people can be an incredibly rich source of ideas and insights. There are usually a lot of things happening – different people sharing their perspectives, asking and answering questions, introducing new possibilities and ways of seeing things, or mentioning outside events or resources you may want to learn more about. All of these are candidates for saving in your digital notes, and the process of writing them down can actually help you pay closer attention and stay engaged.
Brainstorming is a long-established practice that has become part of organizational culture around the world. The practice is well known, but what do you do with the results of a brainstorm? Often the whiteboard gets erased or the Post-Its taken down and thrown away, all that effort going into the trash.
This note is an example of a quick brainstorm that helped my wife and I in our house-hunting efforts. Sitting in the car before a home visit, faced with dozens of choices and tradeoffs about what we wanted, we took a few minutes and brainstormed a list of the most important things we were looking for in our first home. We took a couple more minutes to prioritize it from most to least important…and voilá! Suddenly we had a prioritized checklist to guide our decision-making.
10. Models or examples to follow
It is incredibly useful to start a task with some kind of model or example to follow, rather than starting completely from scratch. Whenever possible, I try to find a good example of what I’m trying to create, and then use it as a jumping off point for my own ideas.
This note contains an email I saved when I signed up for a free resource on a website. When I received it, it immediately struck me that it used a personalized, yet also professional approach to confirming my email address. I decided I wanted to use it as a model for a similar message that we would send to people who signed up for free resources on our website.
Instead of sitting down to a blank screen and trying to come up with good ideas, or asking my assistant to create an email like this without any guidance, I was able to send her a concrete model of exactly what I was looking for. The Internet is full of models for any kind of document or deliverable you would ever need to create. Take advantage of it (and cite your sources)!
11. Everyday observations
A powerful feature of digital notes is that they are always with you. You might have a dedicated notebook at home for ideas, or client records at work, but you don’t usually have access to those kinds of specialized tools on the go. But as long as you have your smartphone with you, you always have your notes on hand.
One way to take advantage of this is to write down everyday observations from your daily life. Our days are full of little moments of insight, beauty, irony, and humor, and I’ve found that noting them down strengthens my ability to notice such moments. Sometimes they can even become the seeds of future writing, jokes, stories, or creative works.
In this note, I wrote down something I noticed as I was working on my documentary film project: that people seemed to be more comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings on camera than they would be in normal conversation, to my surprise. Noticing this and taking the time to write it down strengthened my resolve to continue with the project, confident that I wasn’t making people feel uncomfortable. Such observations also became the building blocks of writing I later did on my experience of filmmaking.
12. Notes from courses
The Internet has become the greatest source of education in the world – full of countless books, educational videos, informative articles, and online courses and tutorials on every topic imaginable. You can learn anything you want online, but only if you have the organizational skills to organize and structure that tidal wave of information.
I love online courses, but have noticed a paradox: I’m usually only ready to put to use a small fraction of the knowledge they contain. I might need to chew on and try out the first 10% or 20% of the curriculum before coming back and consuming the rest. But when I step away to do that, it’s often impossible to find the time and motivation to return to the course later.
This note is an example of the solution I’ve found: to take notes on the course and create my own reference guide to it, with only the ideas and lessons that are relevant to me. That way as I make progress on implementing it, I can refer back to my notes, and not have to go back and review the course again.
I took these notes on Pat Flynn’s online course Power-Up Podcasting, which teaches students how to create their own podcast. As you can see, there was a lot of wisdom I found valuable, from big picture advice down to the smallest technical recommendations. With these notes in hand, I could set aside the course materials knowing that I had my own copy of the most important parts.
13. Research findings
Sometimes in our web browsing or while consuming content, we come across interesting facts or research findings that strike a chord with us. We might not have any idea how this information might be put to use, but it seems valuable and important enough to keep.
In this example, I came across this graph of how many hours the average American spends engaging with digital media per day. I knew this could be a supporting point for my work teaching knowledge management. Within seconds I took this screenshot, saved it to my digital notes, and continued with my reading without even breaking my flow.
14. Guidelines and procedures
We’ve looked at a number of examples of content that is interesting or insightful, but often notes contain information that is exactly the opposite: so boring and utilitarian that you never want to have to think about it again. Your notes app will remember anything for you: both the good and the bad!
This note contains the guidelines for submitting a cover image for my podcast. It was important that I follow these guidelines, but I didn’t want to spend even one neuron trying to remember them. I followed these guidelines to create the cover art for the first season of my podcast, and I know I’ll have them handy the next time I need to do so.
15. Project plans
A Second Brain isn’t just a dusty old archive – it is also a project management system. If you don’t do actual work with your notes, they’re always going to be an afterthought. To keep the ideas you save there alive, you should use your notes as building blocks for your most important projects and goals.
This note is an example of some planning my team and I did around an online product launch. I had learned a new framework for launches, called Opportunity-Transformation-Roadmap, and I wanted to apply it to our own efforts. It ended up being very powerful, giving us a framework for sequencing the launch in a way that appealed to people. This note helped us zoom out and see the big picture of our 6-week launch in just three major stages.
There are many specialized, complex, expensive software programs out there for project planning and project management. Sometimes you need those heavy duty tools. But for most projects, most of the time, for most people, we can get away with much lighter, simpler tools. Not only can we get away with them, they are actually better, because they free us to focus on the more creative aspects of the project. My advice: use the simplest, most informal tool for the job.