The power of atoms

Atomic notes, atomic posts, & atomic habits

The concept of an "atom" is simple: it is the irreducible form of a molecule. This concept can be extended to find the irreducible form of an idea, a thought, or a piece of information. This simple concept has proven quite useful in my ability to collect, apply, and re-use information. Let me explain.

I'm an academic - that carries with it a TON of reading. I want to act on my newly acquired knowledge. I want to minimize the danger of losing those new ideas.

To ensure this, I am developing a note-taking system to help organize, retain, and ultimately apply the knowledge I'm gaining.

Atomic Notes

I've recently adopted a note-taking style called "atomic notes" where each note is a single, irreducible concept. These notes are designed to be re-used. A good atomic note would be a defining a key concept or term, or summarizing the main result of paper. For an example set of atomic notes based on a recent talk, see this tweet.

I currently take notes in an app called Roam Research. Most note-taking apps implicitly assume that a "page" is the atomic unit - but Roam Research explicitly encourages using a single line (called a "block") as the atomic unit.

I love Roam Research. However, my key realization was not that Roam is 10x better than every other software - it was that I haven't been using a note-taking software of any kind!

I used to read papers while in the "Literature Review" phase of a project. You know, when writing the Introduction of a paper, long after the Results have been finalized.

Atomic notes allow me to read papers regularly, writing atomic notes to be re-used later for an unspecified project. I re-use them readily because they are written in my own words (no danger of plagiarizing the original paper).

Atomic Posts

Similarly, I am embarking on a new goal to write "atomic blog posts." These will undoubtedly consist of atomic notes connected together into a cohesive argument about a single, irreducible concept.

I think this style of blogging will lead to more discussion. Atomic posts have natural boundaries in the scope of topic, encouraging more pointed and direct feedback.

It will also encourage me to publish sooner. I do not need to consider every caveat and implication. I only need to frame the idea, and distill its explanation to achieve clarity. Atomic posts bring freedom to write, and to publish.

Atomic Habits

In his book entitled "Atomic Habits," James Clear begins page 1 with a definition of both words:

  • atomic:

    • an extremely small amount of a thing; the single irreducible unit of a larger system

    • the source of immense energy or power

  • habit:

    • a routine or practice performed regularly; an automatic response to a specific situation

From the very first page, the concept clicks. Intentional habits that are routinely employed can sum up to immense potential - even if those habits are very tiny.

Atomic Lifestyle

In summary, I'd like to begin an "atomic habit" to regularly create "atomic notes" which will facilitate "atomic posts" on my blog. My hope is that this routine will unleash a kind of atomic energy, which laid previously untapped.


This post originally appeared on jeffreybwest.com here.