Consistent, Current and Context-driven

The podcast episode, Consistent, Current and Context-driven, is a scant 5 minutes and 43 seconds long. You’ll probably want to pause and take some notes. After it widens your eyes, go revisit your copy of Getting Things Done—or omgbecky buy a copy, …how do you not own a copy?

Everything I have ever accomplished is because I have systems within which I can think and operate; our brains are for having ideas, not for remembering things [such as: to-do lists, dates, reminders, etc.]

slip:4c2ge2a.

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Brain-slipbox alignment

A faithful reader hit reply recently and asked…

How do you get your brain to be consistent with your slipbox? I’m thinking it would be an excellent thing to do/have, but I also know that if I was filing thoughts under a tab where I thought it should go, there’s a good chance that when I look for it later, a different tab is where I’m going to think it should be.

The short answer is: I don’t get them consistent; I don’t actually want them to be consistent. That’s not what the slipbox is for.

And then a two-part longer answer:

First: It is vastly better than my brain at keeping track of things. For example, if I have a name, I can find entry points into the slipbox by using the index of people. That’s at “4c1”. “4” is the common place book. “4c” is slipbox indices. “4c1” is for people. It’s a visually easy to spot section of the cards though. I use 3×5 tabbed dividers to find the main letters. Grabbing a random card— “4c1lo” (that’s four-C-one-L-O) has people whose last name starts with “L” then first vowel of “O”. The card has “London, John”, “London, Jack”, “Lombardi, Vince”, “Loomis, Carol”. In this case names that actually start “LO…” but that is not usually the situation. Next to “Low, Steven” is a reference “3/211027a”  … and I know what the “3” section of the slipbox is: recorded conversations. So that’s a conversation I had with the person on 21-10-07. To summarize: Given any name, I can find them in the slipbox; or I can tell they’re not in the slipbox. In other situations, I can go into the box: “what were my notes on that book?” I can find books (digital, physical, essays and papers too) are in the “2” section of the slipbox.

Second: The slipbox is not meant ONLY to be a card catalog system. It’s not ONLY a giant index of things. It’s primary goal is to have a conversation with the entire collection [whatever I’ve put in the slipbox so far] of my thinking. It’s not a database of bits of information (“Harrisburd is the capital of Pennsylvania”) but rather a database of thoughts about things.

I admit it’s all very obtuse. After a year of fiddling with it, I’m convinced that it’s adding value to my life, but I still find it very hard to explain. One parting thought from a book about note taking is that one needs a context and system within which to think. Not a strict plan for how to think. The context and the system need to be as UNstructured as possible to enable the flexible thinking.

Finally, there’s a tag for all the slipbox posts, that might yield additional breadcrumbs if you flip through them, https://constantine.name/tag/slipbox/

Hope that helps :)

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How does one take notes…

…when the goal isn’t to end up with a pile of notes?

There are many scenarios where, over time, I do want to end up with a collection of notes. This is straight forward; start taking notes, and keep them somewhere. Bonus points if you review them, or use them as reference, or do anything with them.

But what if I have a scenario where I want to “do a better job” but I don’t care at all about the notes themselves. Suppose you have a regularly scheduled recurring meeting, but you don’t need a historical collection of notes. In fact, suppose you don’t actually need notes, but you think: It would be nice to know what we did last time, so we can follow-up next time.

And so I’m thinking this would be easy. I’ll just have a pile of notes (physical, digital, whatever) and I’ll go through them and … wait, what, actually? Recopy them? gag, that’s tedious. How many do I keep? How long do I keep the old ones? Here’s what I came up with…

I’m working in a single digital document. I have a heading, “Ongoing,” at the top that has the big things we currently have on our radar. The list has some dates with notes; “Oct 2020 — started that big project” and similar things.

Next I have a heading, “Jan 5, 2022” with the date of our next scheduled meeting. When that meeting arrives, I start by doing something very weird: I add “9876543210” on the line below the heading. Then I take simple bullet-point notes under that heading. “We discussed the foo bazzle widget needs defranishizing,” and similar items. Before our meeting ends, I add a heading for the date of the NEXT meeting, ABOVE this meeting’s heading. This pushes the heading and notes down the page a bit.

Then I continue reading. The heading just below this meeting’s, is the date of our last meeting. Just below the heading is “9876543210”, which I put there when we had that meeting. I delete the “9” from the front. I read my notes from the meeting. I may even edit them. Sometimes things that were obvious then, don’t seem so obvious a week later.

Then I continue reading. The next heading is the one from two meetings ago. Just below it is “876543210” — think about that, if it’s not obvious that last week, I read this part and already removed the “9”. So this week, I remove the “8.” Read the notes.

I work my way down each of the historical dates. Snipping a lead number, off the front of the line after each heading. 7. 6. 5. etc.

At the very end of the document, I find a heading that is from 11 meetings ago. Below the heading is “0” — because I’ve looked at these notes 9, 8, 7, 6, etc deleting a digit each time. These notes are now quite old. In fact, they should be irrelevant after 11 meetings. If they are not, I figure out what I have to add to “Ongoing” (the very topmost heading)… or perhaps I put a note under the coming meetings heading (just below “Ongoing”.)

It sounds wonky, but it’s magic. One digital document, you can skim the entire thing right in any of the meetings. You can search in the document. I can be sure I’m not forgetting things, but I can be sure I’m not making a huge collection of crap I’m never going to look at again.

Care to guess where that delete-a-digit each time comes from? It’s an idea from book printing. When they used to set type (physical lead type in trays) they would put “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10” (or other orderings of the numbers) in the cover plate. Then print the book. What printing? This one is “1” Next printing? …they’d just chip off the “1” and print “2 3 4 5…” in the book… second printing. They still print those weird sequences of digits in digitally printed books. I believe this one is a second edition, 3rd printing…

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First anniversary

tl;dr: Yes, it really does work.

It’s been one year since I started collecting my thinking in a slipbox. In the photo, the box on the left is full of materials—blank slips, dividers, etc. The box on the right is the older portion of my collection of quotes; It’s the portion of the quotes which has been released as daily podcasts for the Little Box of Quotes. The center box is the meat of the slipbox and contains over 1,000 new slips, with about 250 of those being new quotes. But, enough with the statistics.

What can I do with it? A startling amount of interesting things come out. I’m not going to write up an article right here to prove it. But suffice to say I’ve recently been dipping into the slipbox to augment something I was writing. I’m trying to remember, any time I’m writing anything, anywhere to pause and ask the slipbox about it. When I do that, I almost always find something to add.

One really big question I had when I started the slipbox was whether I wanted it to be physical or digital. I’m happy to report that I made the right decision. So much of my life and things that I do are digital. I’m so tired of digital stuff. Any time I can be doing something in the physical world, that’s a plus. Never once have I regretted not being able to free-text search the slipbox. Instead, it remains a pleasantly tactile experience to search, retrieve, and create.

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Connections between it all

Digital gardening is the work we do to make an organic mess less messy and more useful. It’s certainly not a new idea but I think it’s something that is becoming a major problem for may digital spelunkers. We’ve never had a greater variety of information inboxes and it has never been easier to capture new information into these boxes. The problem now is with recalling the information and making connections between it all.

~ Gabriel Weatherhead from, http://www.macdrifter.com/2021/06/on-digital-gardening-blogs-and-knowledge.html

Weatherhead goes on to list several specific problems, but not much in the way of solutions. And that’s perfectly fine; Having a clearly defined problem, (or two, or three,) demonstrates a lot of thinking and a lot of hard work has been done in search of a solution. We even have an adage for that: A problem well-defined is half-solved. He mentions in passing that a lot of his bookmarking, (saving, marking for later reading, staring, adding to lists, etc.,) is done as an aspiration. Becoming aware of this was a key turning point for me.

At some point, someone will carry the last of my worldly possessions… and deposit them in a dumpster. At some point, all of my digital files will be given a shrug and summarily deleted. I currently aspire to stop collecting things “for later” and instead use, read, compose, share, create and inspire now.

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When in doubt

We once spent 7 years remodeling our house while living in it. *shudder* Note to self: Don’t ever do that again. In such a journey, you must learn to navigate a precarious balance between perfection, and omgbecky just get it done! Reflooring the entire house? …maybe lean toward the former. Gutting the only bathroom to subfloor and bare stud walls? …maybe lean toward the later. (Ask me in person and I’ll tell you some stories.) But there is a huge swath of work that falls in the middle area.

“When in doubt, rip it out,” became my matra in those years. Yes, we could fix, cover, repair, patch, shift, or ignore whatever-it-was. And we’d then forever live with the fixed, covered, repaired, patched, shifted, or… well, you can’t ignore it forever. So any time there was doubt, we ripped it out. Dug it up. Tore it down. And then—as time, energy, and money—were available we did it the right way. Or at least, the way we wanted it.

This principle works spendidly too for things other than one’s physical domicile. “What would be the right way, or at least the way I’d want it to be?” will lead you on a journey of exploration.

What’s the right way to repair the crown wash atop our chimney?

How should I convey all these features, benefits and doo-dads to new community members?

How should I organize this book I’m writing?

What would whatever-this-is be like if I did it the Right Way(tm)? …why is that the Right Way(tm) and what if I did it differently?

…but this is actually a post about my slipbox. I’ve not posted recently about it, and it continues to grow. Mostly I continue collecting quotes. But the main part of the slipbox is growing slowly as well. The topmost-level numbers are major divisions, conceptually. “4” is a hierarchy of analects. (I’ll pause while you search.) And “2” is for books.

Any time I want to refer to a book, I add a reference like, “(2b2)” on a card. I had setup the 2nd-level-letters to be MDS leading digits. So that’s a reference to the 2nd book in the 2b section. The point isn’t to understand the structure, when I see a reference… I can just go find the slip. I’m simpy explaining how it was setup. When I set it up, I thought a structural organization would be the way I’d like it.

I was thinking I’d put notes about the books elsewhere in the slipbox. Turns out I’d rather keep a few notes directly “under” the slip for the book itself. But that means I can’t easily find Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow—great book by the way. I have to go find its MDS number and then go into that slipbox section. So yesterday I pulled all the slips out of the “2” section and redesigned the entire thing.

“When in doubt, rip it out.”

The section is now simply organized by title. That book is now under “2to1″ —”to” from the title, first book under “to”. But the first rule of a slipbox is that you cannot change the address of a card. Other cards likely refer to it. And my blog posts have slip addresses on them. And I have digital documents with slip addresses in the names.

So I spent hours hunting and searching through everything, updating blog posts, updating filenames of digital files, updating notations on slips, … hunting down the physical books and updating the notes I keep in the books. It was a big undertaking.

If you’ve been following along with my slipbox journey, you’ve seen me write about how the slipbox enables having a conversation… with the ideas in the slipbox. It sounds wacky, I know. But my experience yesterday showed me it’s true. Every idea, every slip, were mine originally—I put them all in there. But I had an entire day’s worth of new ideas, connections, rereading parts of books, making new notes, … it was totally worth every minute, (yesterday and to date creating the slipbox.)

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Destroy later

I’m a process person. Recently, I was asked if I thought some course-material would be better if it included more process instruction; more step-by-step processes on how to do things. I pointed out that I’ve never been very successful simply handing people a process. I think it’s easier to teach people how to think about processes as a way to solve problems once. When the problem appears again, the earlier thinking—in the form of creating and refining a process—pays off.

Anyway. Today I’m going to do the exact opposite and try to hand you a process. :)

You have “sensitive” papers— things you need to keep around for a while, but probably not, you know, forever.

You have a good shredder— omg if you don’t own a good shredder, stop here and buy a good cross-shredder.

And therefore you have tension between wanting to remember to safely destroy “sensitive” papers— and not wanting to destroy them before you are sure you’re done with them.

  1. Create a set of “destroy later” file-folders. Find a place to keep them where they won’t be randomly disturbed. (On a shelf out of the way, in your safe, whatever.)
  2. Grab some file folders. If you want to keep things for 3 months, you need four, file folders. If you want to keep things for 6 months, you need 7 folders.
  3. Every time you have a “sensitive” paper, place it into the topmost/frontmost folder.
  4. Each month, take the topmost/frontmost folder full of “sensitive” stuff and move it to the back/bottom.
  5. Destroy the contents of the folder which is the new topmost/frontmost.

Revel in that tension evaporating, knowing all things will be appropriately destroyed later.

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Postscript: This is a “tickler file” system. But instead of the usual reminders in a tickler system, we’re reminder ourselves to shred the contents of the tickler system.

A structure to work _in_

Having a clear structure to work in is completely different from making plans about something. If you make a plan, you impose a structure on yourself; it makes you inflexible. To keep going according to plan, you have to push yourself and employ willpower. This is not only demotivating, but also unsuitable for an open-ended process like research, thinking or studying in general, where we have to adjust our next steps with every new insight, understanding or achievement—which we ideally have on a regular basis and not just as an exception.

~ Sönke Ahrens from, How to Take Smart Notes (2017)

I know I’m reading the right thing when—POW—I feel like a whole bunch of loose threads in my mind suddenly make sense. I’m a master at plans and organizing. (Outlines, processes, Allen’s GTD system, etc..) But my current quest for a knowledge system began in earnest when I could no longer ignore the aching feeling that there was something I’m missing; there’s something I’m not doing correctly. Ahren’s point about “imposing structure” on oneself is the insight. There’s a time for that. (And again, I’ve got that sorted.) I’m gleefully skipping off into experimenting with a new structure to work in. This isn’t all clear to me yet, so these blog posts aren’t going to be perfectly clear either. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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slip:4c2ko1a.

Now I feel like I can read this book

The things that worked out weren’t _supposed_ to work, so I realized on my birthday: I had no plan for after 40. As often happens at forks in the path—college graduation, quarter-life crisis, midlife crisis, kids leaving home, retirement—questions started to bubble to the surface.

~ Tim Ferris from, Tribe of Mentors

If you’ve not heard of this book, my pull-quote is from Tim’s Introduction… eight lines into the book. The book is 597 pages, and the pages of the book—not including the hard covers, just the pages—are 1-and-three-quarters inches thick. It’s can serve as a functional foot-rest in a pinch. (But interestingly, not as a doorstop since it’s mysteriously light for its size. I keep wondering if the back half of the book is hollowed out, as in a prison escape movie, hiding a whoopie-cushion full of Helium.)

Anyway, if you’ve not heard of this book, find a copy and start reading the Introduction.

This book arrived in our house November, 2018. I started into it and it is, as one would hope, chock full of stupidly interesting ideas from so many different people. I got through 64 pages before, for some reason which I only just today realized, I put it down one evening. And then I didn’t pick it back up for, well, two years. I mean I moved it around a lot, but whatever it was that made me _want_ to read the book, there was something else that made me _not_ want the book.

You ever have sand slipping through your fingers? I didn’t realize it, (until today,) but that’s what made me walk away from the book. Yes there’s some malarky and woo-wu in the book; But there’s so much that I want to dig further into. Back in 2018, what was I going to do with that? …blog about every other page? Instinctively I knew that wouldn’t do _me_ much good.

But today? Today I’m comfortable knowing that I can bump into ideas, mull them over, and produce a contextualized, reduced to something I’m interested, idea… and drop that into the Slipbox.

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I am not the only one

I think there are some specific reasons why Zettelkasten has worked so well for me. I’ll try to make those clear, to help readers decide whether it would work for them. However, I honestly didn’t think Zettelkasten sounded like a good idea before I tried it. It only took me about 30 minutes of working with the cards to decide that it was really good. So, if you’re like me, this is a cheap experiment. I think a lot of people should actually try it to see how they like it, even if it sounds terrible.

~ Abramdemski from, https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/NfdHG6oHBJ8Qxc26s/the-zettelkasten-method-1

If you’ve been following along with my personal knowledge system, Zettelkastën and Slipbox journey of discovery you might be interested in this deep, DEEP dive someone else wrote. This is one of the many things I read all over the place before beginning my experiments. I don’t agree with his “30 minutes … to decide”; It’s taken me a little bit /sarcasm longer than that. But I do agree with his assessment. And everything else in that link.

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