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A Comprehensive Guide To Hierarchical Note-Taking

16 Min Read

No piece of information is created equal. Every time you take notes, create to-do lists, manage projects, or draft documents, you subconsciously process and organize information in a hierarchical way. Hierarchical note-taking is a method of capturing and organizing knowledge that’ll help you become more mindful of this process and use it for all things creative.

taskade hierarchy 1

In today’s article, we explore the concept of hierarchical note-taking and its benefits. You’ll learn why it’s essential to compound information and how to do it effectively. 

  • 🗒️ Take more detailed and useful notes.
  • 🪨 Break complex ideas into digestible bits.
  • ⚡️ Speed up the note-taking process.
  • 🔗 Connect bits of information together.
  • 🧠 Harness the power of metacognition.
  • 🌳 Outline all kinds of tasks and projects.

💡 Before you start… Our team of knowledge management nerds has done a lot of research to help you learn and work more effectively. Check these articles when you’re done reading.

  1. 👑 A Case For Hierarchical Thinking: Solve Complex Problems The Easy Way
  2. 📚 Tsundoku (積ん読): Beat Digital Hoarding in Remote Teams
  3. 💫 Reinvent Yourself with Personal Knowledge Management (PKM)

🤔 What Is Hierarchical Note-Taking? 

The human brain is hard-wired for thinking, creating, and communicating in hierarchies. We can observe this in the way words make sentences and tones combine into musical sequences.

💬 “The strongest evidence in support of the fundamentally hierarchical nature of thinking is our quest for the unification of knowledge, reflected in the unexamined compulsion to discover a unified theory of basic forces in physics or a unified explanatory model, which amount to the same thing.”

—“Hierarchical Thinking, Grammatical Structures, and the Originary Scene”(1)

Hierarchical note-taking takes advantage of this phenomenon in two ways:

  1. 📥 It helps you identify and distill key insights–thoughts, ideas, and facts–and discard everything that doesn’t contribute to what you’re working on. 
  2. 🗂 It makes it possible to quickly organize the captured information based on its intrinsic value and position relative to what you already know.

And this is where outlining comes into play.

💡 Outlining is a process of creating hierarchies to contain whatever you’re thinking or working on. An outline breaks complex problems, concepts, or projects into smaller, more manageable bits.

Every element of an outline belongs in a hierarchy. High-level tasks/ideas are placed to the left while lower-level elements are indented and “nested” under parent elements.

  1. 📑 This is an outline
    • ➡ Level 1 (parent)
      • Task 1 (child)
        • ➡ Level 2
          • Task 2
            • ➡ Level 3
              • Task 3

Introducing the concept of a hierarchy into note-taking, either through the use of high-level outlines or systems like Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal (BuJo), will help you capture information quickly and effectively, the way it’s meant to be.

🧰 Hierarchical Note-Taking Starter Pack

Taking notes with pen & paper has its limitations. That’s why we recommend using a word processor, text editor, or outlining software for your hierarchical notes.

Your note-taking toolbox should be lightweight and fast but also include a few key features. Look for a note-taking tool that comes with cloud backup, search, styling options, and keyboard-oriented navigation. The simpler, the better.

If you don’t have a favorite note-taking tool, check our previous articles where we compare some of the best outlining tools and text editors in the wild. 👇

Alternatively, open our demo page in a new tab and play with the test project. 

Ready?

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at three basic operations that make hierarchical note-taking possible—nesting, folding/unfolding, and cross-linking.

Nesting (Tasks/Subtasks)

Most of us take notes in a linear way. We simply throw ideas on the page, without paying too much attention to individual elements. Chances are your notes look like this. 👇

Regular notes taken using Taskade.

In hierarchical note-taking, however, the way information is visually organized on the page reflects the hierarchy of the content itself. A quick reminder: the most important (parent) elements are placed on the left and lower-level elements (children) are indented and moved to the right.

Here’s the same set of notes but formatted as an outline. 👇

Hierarchical notes taken using Taskade.


Indentation helps increase the granularity of notes simply by modifying the spatial distribution of text on the page. The farther to the right, the more detailed the notes become.

Folding/Unfolding (Collapse/Expand)

The overarching purpose of hierarchical note-taking is to highlight the connections between individual elements within a system. But you don’t always need a bird’s-eye view of your notes.

Folding/unfolding lets you filter out elements of an outline and hide levels you don’t need at the moment. For instance, you may want to fold elements to learn in a sequential way, unfolding or “expanding” more detailed sections as you go deeper down the rabbit hole.

image2 4


The ability to “collapse” levels of a hierarchy/outline helps organize bulky notes with many dependencies. You can’t do that with pen and paper.

Cross-Linking

A piece of information is worthless without context. Cross-linking lets you mesh information and “attach” new notes to an existing body of knowledge.

One of the best examples of cross-linking (although in an analog form) is the Zettelkasten. A brainchild of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the Zettelkasten uses physical index cards indexed and connected together with unique IDs.

Niklas Luhmann's Zettelkasten schematic.

Zettelkasten schematic by David B(2)

The good news is you don’t have to scribble your notes on stickies. Modern outlining software lets you cross-link notes much more effectively (we’ll get to that in a moment).

So, how is hierarchical note-taking better than regular notes?

🌟 5 Cool Benefits of Hierarchical Note-Taking

1. Enables Metacognition

💬 “We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture—and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds.”

―Alain de Botton

We live in a confusing world. Every day, you’re bombarded with a staggering amount of data that needs to be digested, processed, and organized in a meaningful way.

With so much going on, you need to be extremely selective about what to store and what to discard. Hierarchical note-taking aids metacognition—the awareness of one’s thought process—which, in turn, improves your information vetting capabilities.

brain metacognition


Feeding information into your hierarchical note-taking system is an excellent way to filter out the fluff and organize everything else in high-level hierarchical structures.

2. Bridges the Knowledge Gap

💬 “Knowledge is a skyscraper. You can take a shortcut with a fragile foundation of memorization, or build slowly upon a steel frame of understanding.”

—Naval Ravikant

Knowledge doesn’t exist in a void. The problem is that most of the stuff you hear or read ends up on a pile of assorted facts, disconnected from what you already know.

If you don’t mesh ideas together, you create knowledge gaps that’ll eventually come out to haunt you. The inability to create meaningful connections between “old” and “new” stuff also means you’re missing out on the compound interest of knowledge.

chain links

Writing stuff down hierarchically is an excellent way to juxtapose new knowledge with your past experiences and fit it in a wider context, just like a jigsaw puzzle.

3. Improves Organization

💬 “For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.”

—Benjamin Franklin

The romantic vision of a messy desk is… alluring. After all, if great minds like Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and Virginia Wolf thrived in chaos, why can’t you? 

The thing is we live in a productivity wonderland, full of powerful productivity tools. Why would you want to keep your (physical) notes in an exploded view when you can actually have them tagged and organized in an easily searchable format?

yellow folder


Hierarchical note-taking is geared toward a more thoughtful knowledge consumption. Every bit of information that ends up in the system is precious and part of a high-level hierarchy. 

4. Leverages Visual Devices 

💬 “If I try to articulate every little detail in a drawing, it would be like missing the forest for the trees, so it’s just about getting the outline of the forest.”

—Jeff Koons

In comic books, the majority of the action unfolds outside the reader’s vision. You get a limited number of panels and your brain writes in the story happening in the “gutter.”

This is possible thanks to what Gestalt psychology calls “closure.” Closure takes place when your eyes see a partial image and your mind knows how to fill in the details to make it whole.

This is similar to what happens during hierarchical note-taking.

eye

When you use the outline format to take notes, you save time and space by omitting plenty of details. The good news is your brain can still connect the dots, even if some parts are missing.

🐑 How to Take Hierarchical Notes in Taskade 

Taskade is free, collaborative outlining software that’ll help you capture and organize information inside high-level hierarchical outlines. Watch this short video to see how it works. 👇


Taking hierarchical notes in Taskade breaks down into three key steps.

Create a Framework (Outlining) 

Taskade organizes everything you work on into Projects. This is the basic work unit that stores your notes, to-dos, documents, and more. It’s an infinite digital canvas.

To create your first hierarchical note, simply add a few lines of text inside a Project and indent them using the ⌨️ Tab key. This will create a “child” element and a superordinate “parent” block above it.

💡 Visit our live demo page and play with the test project (click).

image4 2 2


Outlining in Taskade is really intuitive. You can quickly outdent a task/element using a ⌨️ Shift + Enter keyboard shortcut. To rearrange the elements of your outline, select one or several content blocks with your mouse and drag-and-drop them anywhere inside the Project space.

image5 2 1


🌟 Pro Tip: Taskade lets you easily collapse and expand hierarchy levels to show the information that’s relevant at the moment. Use the ⌨️⌘ + ⇵ shortcut to try it.

Organize Everything (#Tags) 

Tagging is one of the key components of hierarchical note-taking. Adding #tags to your notes lets you organize information beyond nesting and make key ideas stand out.

Notice how our previous note mentions several keywords that are repeated throughout the text. You can create custom #tags to quickly filter those elements. 

Go ahead and add a few #tags to your note.

image3 2 2

🌟 Pro Tip: Taskade lets you search for custom #tags inside Projects. Simply type the “#” sign in the search box and enter the phrase you’re looking for.

Connect the Dots (Cross-Linking) 

Remember how we said that knowledge doesn’t exist in a void? Let’s create another Project and connect it to the one we prepared earlier.

You can easily cross-link existing notes using the @mention functionality. Type “@” and select the target by typing the name of the Project you want to hyperlink to. It’s that simple!

image2 3


Congratulations! You just created two hierarchical notes and connected them together. Continue adding more bricks and aggregating knowledge in your system.

And that’s it!

👋 Conclusion

Stephen Hawking famously said that “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” And is there a better way to adapt to the galloping information age than by improving on the ancient art of note-taking? Taking hierarchical notes will help you connect bits of information in a meaningful way and speed up the process of aggregating knowledge.

So, are you ready to build your future-proof note-taking system? Create a free Taskade account today and start taking hierarchical notes in an aesthetic and distraction-free way.


🔗 Resources

  1. http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap2502/2502ludwigs/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zettelkasten#/media/File:Zettelkasten_paper_schematic.png