How to organize your research and capture your insights

The most effective way to demonstrate your depth of knowledge is to share your ideas and insights. You can do this through writing articles, posting on social media, publishing a book, hosting a podcast (or being a guest), speaking at conferences, or facilitating a workshop. Your goal is to add to the conversation instead of adding to the noise; to provide real value to your audience.

To accomplish that goal, you need to share actionable insights. And you need to share these insights in slightly different ways again and again and again. Because repetition builds your reputation.

Finding new and interesting ways to share the same old ideas requires you to be intentional. You must look for inspiration everywhere and actively read or listen to material about your industry. And you must capture your sources, quotes, research notes, and insights so you can refer back to them. Over time, you’ll start to see your research notes as a conversation, and you’ll begin to connect the dots in new ways.

Capturing and organizing this information can be a challenge. The best approach to organizing your research and capturing your ideas and insights is the one you’ll actually use. Even if it it’s messy and not terribly efficient.

Keep a research journal.

A research journal is a simple document that captures your sources, quotes, research notes, and insights. Keep topic-specific research journals that can evolve along with your learning. For each source, include a complete bibliography. Next, capture relevant quotes. Finally, write down your thoughts and insights.

Download a copy of my research journal template.

Use an online reference manager.

There are several citation managers on the market. While they are available to anyone, they are popular among academics because they can pull information directly from the university’s library. Here are three of the most common:

  1. Mendeley Reference Manager is free desktop software that allows users to organize and store their references, create bibliographies and citations, and share their research with others. (This social aspect is quite popular with researchers.) The built-in PDF reader makes it easy to annotate and organize PDFs.
  2. PowerNotes is a $10/month subscription service that allows users to create notes and organize them by project, topic, or source. It has a built-in citation tool that can automatically format citations in multiple styles and can capture content from across the web.
  3. Zotero is free, open-source desktop software developed by a nonprofit organization. It allows users to collect, organize, annotate, cite, and share research. It is similar to Mendeley but easier to learn. It has a browser add-on for Firefox and Chrome.

Customize an alternative platform.

Many people use other online tools to collect and organize their research, ideas, and insights. These tools tend to have a number of features that allow you to customize your experience (which can be both a blessing and a curse):

  1. Evernote is a free note-taking and task-management application that archives and creates notes with embedded photos, audio, and saved web content. Notes are stored in topic-specific notebooks and can be tagged, annotated, edited, searched, and exported. The web clipper is especially helpful.
  2. Notion is a free or low-cost project management, productivity, and note-taking web application with a ton of features, buckets of templates, and infinite flexibility. It organizes information hierarchically, allowing you to nest pages within other pages. It is popular with solo professionals and creative teams.
  3. Walling is a free or low-cost web application similar to Notion. But instead of presenting information in a linear, hierarchical format, it is organized visually with the option to view information linearly. You can use each brick in a topic-specific wall to capture the source, quotes, and notes.

While it is important to capture your research, it’s even more crucial to capture your response to that research — your insights. Your insights are how you formulate your point of view or note areas requiring additional study. It’s where you begin to identify the gaps in the research or poke holes in other people’s conclusions. It’s where you figure out what you can add to the conversation that is uniquely yours.

To unearth your insights, take note of quotes that capture your attention and then explain why they caught your attention. One way to do this is to review each quote and write a statement that starts with “yes, and,” “yes, but,” or “no, because.” Those simple prompts help you dig deeper and bring more nuance to the conversation.