Organization for the Distracted Information Junkie, part 2 - Notes as mental support

Posted on December 17, 2020
Tags: note-taking Zettelkasten learning skills 100DaysToOffload org-mode org-roam

Tim Lavoie

Why We’re Consuming Content

I’ll start off with a basic premise: there is reading or viewing online content just for entertainment value, and then there is the idea that this might go somewhere. It is this latter case that I’m concerned with here, where something I’m reading right now might need further investigation and understanding.

Much of what I read might start out as entertainment, and then I’ll catch a snippet will seem especially insightful or interesting. It’s that step I’m currently working on, and seems to be a useful dividing line between passive and more active reading or listening.

What follows is the evolution of what feels like it is working well for me (and in various forms, for others).

Capture Something

Not everything I read is online, but much of it is. For years now, I have been pretty quick to use bookmarks to capture at least the existence of some interesting link. As we’ll see below, I don’t think it’s sufficient, but it is a useful start.

I’m a pretty early user of Pinboard, which is a one-man operation by Maciej Ceglowski. He did work at Yahoo, though I don’t recall if he worked on the original del.icio.us site. In any case, he owns it now, and Pinboard is in the same vein. Essentially, it’s a bookmarking site that makes it trivial to capture a bookmark on his centralized service via bookmarklets on your browser. You click a button when on the web page you want to capture, and get a pop-up with URL, title, and suggested tags. While of course you’re trusting him, he seems like a pretty reasonable, and (IMHO also important) funny guy. You can control the level of privacy around your bookmarking on the site. The procedure for saving bookmarks is here.

Tags give you a reasonable starting point for searching for something, and on the site, you can search either your own or everybody’s public bookmarks for a given tag. As far as finding something you’ve bookmarked, it’s not bad. The whole process is quick, simple, and easy. He even has an API for working with your bookmarks programatically. I use it to automatically back mine up to a local CouchDB database. As Ceglowski is fond of telling people, he could get hit by a bus at any time.

While the process works very well, what it doesn’t do for me is build a sense of structure, with thoughts on why something is important, or relations that aren’t captured in the tags.

Personal Wikis and other apps

I’ve tried a few, and most left me unsatisfied in one way or another. I don’t want to discourage their use though, one might be a great fit for you.

  • TiddlyWiki is a browser-based wiki, where everything goes into one file. Originally, the browser could easily update everything in-place, but this got more complicated due to restrictions on browser file access, so now it tends to involve some Node.js setup. That was less to my liking, and I also wasn’t thrilled about having everything embedded in one file that would be a pain to extract or employ version control.

  • The YAWS web server comes with a nice little wiki in its example Erlang code. However, I have been known to switch around web servers as I play with stuff like that. So, it’s not a stable solution for me. YAWS is pretty cool though, as is Erlang in general.

  • Ikiwiki is a Perl-based CGI, and mostly does what it says on the tin. There was more to setting it up than needed, and I’d really prefer local-first.

  • Standard Notes is cloud-based and cross-platform. It does some things really well, like encryption that I control. What it doesn’t have on the feature list (or near future) is cross-linking between notes. So, while I subscribe, it’s not a replacement just yet.

  • Obsidian is pretty cool, but is desktop-only, and somewhat heavyweight for what I wanted. (Yet another Electron app)

Enter Org-mode

For quite some time now, I’ve been using the Org-mode add-on for the Emacs text editor for all sorts of text-based note-taking, time tracking and so on. It’s quite wonderful, and has just a ton of great features all on its own.

I already have a mobile app, Beorg, syncing with a NextCloud personal cloud. This allow me to create reminders, shopping, and to-do lists using my phone. I can still access the rest from my desktop. I’ve heard Orgzly is good for Android users as well.

Org-mode supports a couple features that are immediately helpful, to reduce the friction that keeps our productivity from slowing down.

  • Capture works to trivially record some quick thought on the fly.

  • Capture templates mean that you can factor out the regular boilerplate, for anything that you find yourself adding to each note.

There’s a ton more besides, org-mode is quite insane really for all that it has available. All that, and the files are still plain text, never locked away in an opaque format.

With this combination, I always have notes available on my phone with Beorg, or the daily-driver laptop that I spend much more time on.

Zettelkasten, via Org-Roam

Zettelkasten, German for “slip-box”, is more of a process than a concrete solution. The original creator did it all with literal boxes of paper slips, and a system he’d come up with to be able to find his way around. A great intro to the process and its advantages is in the book, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

The 10,000m view is that memorizing facts is of limited use, when what works well is a process that defines a way to structure snippets of information, thoughts, and how they’re all linked together. This process could use a wiki, boxes of paper, or various other technical solutions.

The 5,000m view is that you want to be able to capture a thought quickly when it strikes, and then make a point of going back regularly to see how it fits with the rest. In this manner, you can establish a very organic structure that doesn’t depend on a specific entry point to find the rest. This element of going back and grooming your notes also helps keep the salient points fresh in your mind.

Finally, a big part of all this is that this isn’t a mere crutch. Rather, the idea is that you are “thinking inside the box”. This process feels a bit like a super-power, when what you’re used to is less efficient at remembering things and making connections.

Org-roam leverages the broad capabilities of Org-mode and Emacs, and makes it very easy to support this overall knowledge management system

In the screen shot below, what you will see is one Emacs window, with two “panes” representing separate files in my org-roam folder. In each pane, there is structure delimited by the "*" and "**" headers, which in Org-mode define a hierarchy within the note. You can fold the text to hide an entire sub-tree, move them up and down in levels and so on. The “People to encourage:” one is folded, indicated by the “…”, so a whole list of names is currently out of sight.

The “See also” section, and its three sub-sections, are part of a template I’ve added. That idea came from this blog post. Since any given note will often link to others, having a section for common categories is a great idea.

Now, when I create a new entry with a simple key combination, it comes pre-populated with that template. Links indicated by the underlined parts are either standard web URLs, or internal links to other notes. The latter are trivially found when making the link, via Org-roam’s search listing.

Screenshot for org-roam

If you do try out the Zettelkasten system, or any other, some sort of editor integration is a huge help.

The key is to have a way to capture thoughts quickly, and a process to make it fit later. At teh very least, I encourage you to keep a pen and paper handy. You never know how it’ll be important until later.

Note: This is post #4 for #100DaysToOffload.

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