Hey it's December and it's my second blog of 2020. Almost a year since my last update. Let's not talk about the strange year of 2020… sometimes I do an unintentional Big Thing(tm) for me, learning-wise or tech-wise of the year. A few weeks ago I figured out what 2020's was and why not share it now?

I've never been really good at taking notes before. Not really sure why. Some of it was stemmed from "Sure you can write it down but you will never find it when you need it" and some other was "You fight the tools to do it well."

There is a concept called Zettelkasten that is becoming very popular. I suggest you read that article or this one to get an idea. You can google the Zettelkasten name yourself and see what is out there, what tools are our there. If you want a good book to convince you more and more details see How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens . I'm not going to get in the nitty-gritty details of how to do it (because I'm not sure I'm doing it well) but simply a note should have three things outside of it's content:

  • tags
  • links to other notes
  • A title to find

It took me a little bit to find my own system to make it work for me. I declared bankruptcy on my Emacs config and started using Doom Emacs. Doom make it easy to install Org-Roam, which is a re-build of the Zettelkasten system Roam built on top of the ever-powerful OrgMode. I use Deft to quickly lookup notes.

This is all fine and good on my Mac but I'm not always on my Mac. What if I find something I want to remember while reading on my Android phone or iPad? this is Trickier. If it's just an article I want to read (again) later, I add it to my Todoist. If it's something I want to remember… well sometimes I still add it to Todoist with a comment and add it to my Org-Roam later. On my iPad I've started using (and paid for) Bear to write notes into. I think (usually) copy the notes out of Bear and into an Org-Roam note later. Bear is really a joy to write with – it gets out of my way, let's you (or makes you) do Markdown, and generally does the right thing.

This is all about implementation and workflow, which I will admit isn't great and is evolving. But the idea of Zettelkasten is great for me and while the literature talks about it for writing, it's really useful for all knowledge workers. If I figure something out in the application that I'm writing, I make a Org-Roam note about it. Or something I want to try, I make a note (and generally a Todoist item to revisit it eventually). And if I run into something, I looked my notes before Googling around about it. And hey sometimes I write a note about "Look how cool X is!" and then later I figure out it isn't go cool, so I make another note how I fixed it and make sure that links to the original and then edit the original to say "hey use this instead".

Basically, little by little, I'm making my one Wikipedia, but better because it has my own thoughts and opinions in it. I'm not terribly picky about what I put in – technical, other soft-skills reading, etc. As Ahrens said in his book:

Working with it [Zettlekarsten] is less about retrieving specific notes and more about being pointed to relevant facts and generating insight by letting ideas mingle. Its usability grows with its size, not just linearly but exponentially. When we turn to the slip-box, its inner connectedness will not just provide us with isolated facts, but with lines of developed thoughts. Moreover, because of its inner complexity, a search thought the slip-box will confront us with related notes we did not look for. This is a very significant difference that becomes more and more relevant over time. The more content it contains, the more connections it can provide, and the easier it becomes to add new entries in a smart way and receive useful suggestions.”

So really, the bigger the better. Personally I looked up five different notes together to write this article.

The thought came to me the other day how different I have become to notes when I was working on a church Bible Study, Book in hand, iPad on my lap. The iPad is in split-screen with Bear on one side and the Bible passage on the other, ready to take notes. The Mike from last year would have squeezed his answers into the fields but now he wants to keep them later.