Capturing Motive and Rediscovery Enhances the Usefulness of Notes

Written by Mark McElroy

What’s my motive for taking this note?

When would rediscovering this note be useful?

Adding these two questions to your note making template can make the act of note making more intentional … and decrease the odds that your notes will gather dust.

Why Did I Start Using These Questions?

When I first started taking notes, they tended to be long. Some still are!

Atomic Notes to the Rescue

But most of my notes now are atomic — short, focused facts, quotes, or observations. Atomic notes are linked back to the sources that inspired them, and, as ideas, they are strong enough to stand alone.

As useful as atomic notes are, they also have their challenges. For me, the biggest challenge is establishing the appropriate degree of context for each atomic note.

The Challenge of Context

On the one hand, I don’t want too much context. I want my notes to be “free to dance.” Atomic notes are easier to shuffle, remix, and combine. Their lack of a confining context makes them easier to work into a variety of posts, essays, and presentations.

But, on the other hand, I don’t want my notes to have to little context. Without strong connections to their source and to other notes, atomic notes just pile up over time. Especially when this lack of context is paired with haphazard practices that jam a lot of notes into an unstructured collection, notes that could have been catalysts for creation become dusty piles of useless information.

(By the way, “dusty piles of useless information” is a pretty good description of what my notes in Evernote became!)

Creating Context as a Deterrent for Packrats

My practice of adding motive and rediscovery fields to my note making template arose when I reviewed my process and found I was making too many notes. My inner “information packrat” had taken over, and my note making was driven more by fear (“What if I need this in the future”) than by intention (“Why do I need this?”).

I needed a practice that would dampen my urge to be an information packrat and encourage useful (and joyful) rediscovery. I wanted a solution that increased my odds of finding just the right information at just the right time.

The Context of Motivation Combats Information Hoarding

As a way of being less fearful and more intentional, I added a simple question to my note taking template: “Why is this note important to me today?” Over time, that question has been revised. In its last iteration, it became, “What’s my motive for taking this note?” Today, the question has been reduced to the name of a single field on my template: motive.

Motive anchors a note in the present moment, establishing why Present Day Mark found an idea valuable enough to record. As an example, here’s a note I took on the last video I watched, along with the context established by the motive field:

Atomic Note: Actor Jake Gyllenhaal says “a story has a power beyond anything that you think you have control over or are a part of. The story is the power. And when it goes out into the world, it becomes everyone else’s.”

Motive: In the context of [[Fiction Writing]], this resonated with me as a fiction writer. While engaged in the [[Writing Process]], a story is exclusively mine. But once I release a story to others — once it begins to resonate with readers — it acquires an energy beyond what I imbued it with when crafting it. As it evokes memories or changes perceptions or shifts awareness or elicits responses, the story becomes something larger and stronger and more vital than I could have anticipated or intended. I’m no longer in control.

In addition to capturing my reason for making a note, the motive field helps me establish context for a note by connecting it to others.

Sometimes, I do that as I did above: by linking the text of my motive statement to domains (any of a dozen or so areas of interest I’m tracking over long periods of time) like [[Fiction Writing]] or the [[Writing Process]].

Other times, I do this using a set of tags that establish logical relationships. The tags I use most are:

  • #ConflictsWith
  • #ConnectsTo
  • #Supports

And I apply those tags, of course, whenever an idea I make note of conflicts with, connects to, or supports other notes in my Obsidian vault.

Recording a motive statement for each note I take does require an investment of time and effort … but it has, in the long run, made my note taking less reflexive and more intentional.

(A bonus benefit: knowing that I’ve got to write a motive statement for each note I take leverages my innate laziness to my own advantage. If I don’t care enough to write a motive statement for a note, that note probably doesn’t belong in my vault in the first place!)

The Context of Rediscovery Links A Note to Productivity

Knowing why a note is valuable in the moment is one thing. Finding a note valuable in the future is another thing entirely.

I’m not taking notes to win a prize for having the best collection of notes. I’m taking notes as a way of shifting from information consumption to information creation. In other words: for me, the whole point of creating input today (making notes) is to have an impact on creating output in the future (writing useful texts I can share with others).

So, in addition to capturing why a note resonates with Present Day Mark, I need to anticipate how or when a note might resonate with Future Mark. Inspired by Tracy Winchell‘s journaling practice of writing a note to her next-day self, I added one more question to my note making template: “When would rediscovering this note be useful?”

Over time, I reduced that prompt to another one-word field in my template, labeled simply: “Rediscovery.”

When answering my rediscovery prompt, I’m building a connection between a note and my own personal future. In addition — and this is key — to answer this prompt, I have to a time when Future Mark, engaged with a project I haven’t imagined yet, would be delighted to see this note resurface.

In this way, the rediscovery prompt helps me tie note making to the very practical and productive business of creating content. By engaging my desire to create, I subvert my tendency to hoard.

Here’s how the rediscovery field looks in the atomic note on Jake Gyllenhall’s observation about stories belonging to the audience once released:


  • I’d like to come across this again when I decide #ToWrite a post about the time readers assigned overtly sexual themes I never intended to one of my stories.
  • It would also make a good point #ToWrite when outlining the [[Writing Process]] for beginning writers, talking about how publication, to some extent, means giving up absolute ownership, not just in terms of rights, but also in terms of the themes, messages, arguments, and purposes of a story.
  • This #ConnectsWith and even #ConflictsWith [[Dramatica Theory]], which posits that every work of art is an argument: the artist’s mind working out a problem in public. That may be true, but this suggests that the act of reading and reacting to a story engages another “story mind” — and not just the author’s. The author’s intention is just the beginning — not the end — of the argument!

As I do in the motive field, I use linking and tags (including #ToWrite, #ToRecord, and #ToPublish) in the rediscovery fields to help establish useful future contexts for a given note.

Establishing Motive and Envisioning Rediscovery Extends a Note’s Useful Life

I’m seeing lots of tweets and posts lately exploring the degree to which notes taken today will prove useful come tomorrow, like this one, from Nick Milo:

In my own practice, I’m finding that these two questions:

  • What’s my motive for taking this note?
  • When would rediscovering this note be useful?

have significant impact on the quality, quantity, and long-term usefulness of the notes I take.

As an experiment, why not add these to your own note making template, try answering these questions as you make notes for the next two to four weeks, and then look back to gauge the impact this practice has on the perceived value of your notes?

Thanks for investing your time and attention in reading this piece. If you try this practice out, please let me know how it works for you!

About the author

Mark McElroy

I'm a writer and professional facilitator. I'm the author of a dozen or so non-fiction books and hundreds of corporate video scripts. As a professional facilitator, I coach individuals, committees, and teams to change how they meet, make decisions, and plan, so they can get out of their own way and do work that really matters. I use this site to write about writing, adaptive strategy, travel, and spirituality ... and to "learn out loud" by sharing works (and what doesn't).