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-need 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)_/¯
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.
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.
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.
Only recently did I become aware of the key point of a Slipbox: It can capture your thinking and enables you to have a discussion with your own thinking. I’m aware of this key point, but I’m not entirely certain it will work. I am convinced that the only way to find out is for me to try the experience.
There are many ways to do capture, and those ways are useful for various things. For example, capturing information with the context necessary to use, or do, the thing captured:
GTD is based on storing, tracking, and retrieving the information related to the things that need to get done. Mental blocks we encounter are caused by insufficient ‘front-end’ planning. This means thinking in advance, generating a series of actions which can later be undertaken without further planning. The mind’s “reminder system” is inefficient and seldom reminds us of what we need to do at the time and place when we can do it. Consequently, the “next actions” stored by context in the “trusted system” act as an external support which ensures that we are presented with the right reminders at the right time.
Other examples are: A collection of books (at personal or institutional scale); personal journals; note-taking (think school studying); at-scale capture of information (Evernote, and ad hoc ways of doing that oneself). There are many more: Personal or team Wikis; Online collaboration systems (Miro, Emvi, et al).
I’ve tried all of the above. Some I’m still using—big time using! Collections of books, notes, journals, Wiki’s, and others.
And yet, something was still missing. The first problem was that I could only sometimes sense there was something missing. The best I can describe it: It’s like hearing a sound and not being sure you heard it. Later, in a very different location, you think you heard the sound. Eventually, you know the sound, without being able to describe it. It’s a sort of pattern in my mind, into which something should fit.
So the current experiment with a Slipbox is my attempt to place a ‘something’ into this pattern— this concept-shaped hole. I will continue to write about this as I go along. Today I wanted to try to take a snapshot of the hole.
Today, a deep dive into how slips get added to the Slipbox. I’ve been working on the Slipbox the last few days—I cannot wait to look back on these posts and the Slipbox in another decade. :) But mostly it’s been meta work: Deciding on format for the slips, and beginning to sketch out the conceptual superstructure of the Slipbox, … tedious and boring and the sort of process and organization work which I flippin’ love. *ahem* What follows here is a story, with photos. I’m going to go through adding three new slips to the Slipbox.
I was reading this book (image below) and I came to the section in the lower right. I thought that was interesting. The underlined bit in particular is a really great sentence about Stoicism. (I’ll get to the actual sentence in a moment.)
You might be wondering how I manage to make books lie open so neatly. There’s a clever hack (image below) for that. See also, Book holder for paperbacks. I’ve graduated from using a pencil, as I describe in the Life Hack linked, to using these gorgeous steel rods I found. Furthermore, because I’m insane, I used heat-shrink tubing in a lovely shade of blue to cover the ends so they don’t mark up tables and such.
Back to that sentence which caught my eye as I was reading.
I grabbed a blank 3×5 card—what I’m using for the “slips” in my Slipbox—and I copied the bit I want from the book. (image below) I did not write that “5a1” at the top initially; After I did a lot more of what I describe in this post, it occurred to me to write this post, and I didn’t feel like rewriting this slip to take a photo without the “5a1”.
This slip has the bit I wanted to capture, then the page number, and the “(2a1)” is a slip reference; it’s the address of this particular book’s slip in the Slipbox. These things don’t have to be in any particular layout. They are all obvious in the context. What page number could I possibly mean, other than page 33 in the book itself? What could possibly be a (2a1) in the Slipbox—a book, but I could also just go look at (2a1).
All our books have a note in the front (image below) which say “LT” and which has the major Dewey Decimal System number. I’ll let it settle in, the level of commitment it takes to have done this for every book in the house. But it’s easy to maintain, just do it for each new book as they arrive. The “LT” is a reference to Library Thing, which is a magical web site that tracks library contents. In LT I know every book I’ve ever owned, which are currently in the house, I have a wishlist, etc..—going to a bookstore is magical when armed with that knowledge.
I may as well mention that the Dewey number is on the spine too. (image below) Yes, on every book. Yes, the books in the house are also shelved by Dewey Decimal. I learned a lot about what librarians actually do when I tried to find the Dewey Decimal number for a book—hint, it’s an art, not a science.
So it’s easy to figure out that the book I’m quoting from on this new slip is in the Slipbox at (2a1) because it’s on the postit in the book. I jot that on the slip, “this is where I got this from: Page 33 from the book at slip 2a1.”
Ok, I’ve capture that little quote. Where do I put this new slip in the Slipbox? Well, I think it’s a great idea about Stoicism, and Stoicism is in the Slipbox already. Below is a photo of the slip whose address is (5)—that’s the “5” at the top left. This is an “early days” slip so it has a silly-short address. This slip is just a list of topics I have under “Philosophy,” today just the “a” section for Stoicism. There is a boring “5a” too (not shown.) This seems silly, until I get to “g” under Philosophy, and that slip is 200 slips farther along in the box. Then I’ll be flipping through looking for that “silly” (5g) slip.
So (5a) already exists, and it is the home of “Stoicism” in my Slipbox. So where do I put my newest slip with this little quote from book (2a1)? I flip to (5a) and realize there’s nothing after it. So this new slip becomes (5a1). I wrote that (5a1) on there dead-last. And then I tossed it into the Slipbox behind (5a).
I did all that stuff to make that new (5a1) slip, and then I went back to reading the book. A few pages later I find this…
I scribble on the margin (above) since this is interesting. There’s a tiny “16” there. I look at this book’s notes—the book I’m reading in the photo—and it’s a reference to a book I actually have. (There’s also a tiny “17,” but it’s not a book I have.) I grab the referenced book and find the referenced page, starts lower-left (image below)… (I’d love to say the Dewey shelving was handy, but I am also reading this book! So it was sitting close at hand already.)
I had started reading this book before I had a Slipbox. When I looked at it today though, I realized that I’d have captured this exact bit… if I’d had a Slipbox.
Not shown: I made a (2a2) in for this book. Looks much like the (2a1) image above. I added (2a2) to the note in the front of the book.
Then I made a new slip (image below) for this bit about Stoicism… (I also added “pg 20” after taking this photo.) The note in the front of the book says “LT 171 (2a2)”—but I just made (2a2) anyway.
The cool part about this is the slip can lay around if I feel like having it close by. It’s a thought, and I know where I got the thought. When (if!) I want to put it into the Slipbox…
I flip to (5a) for Stoicism… there’s a (5a1) already, so this slip becomes (5a2). I add “5a2” to the top of the slip, I date the slip (the dates are “when it was added” to the Slipbox, not “when I wrote it”,) and toss it in the Slipbox.
A Guide to the Good Life by WB Irvine is the first book, way above. That’s the one I was reading this morning that started all of this. The next image is (2a1), the slip I created for this book.
Don’t panic. I’m not adding a slip for every book. This isn’t a card catalog for the entire library. This slip got added to create a home for the next card…
I have a feeling that this book is going to be referred to often. (Often enough to warrant adding it to the Slipbox.) Now, as I find (2a1)—aka references in the Slipbox to this book—when I flip to (2a1), I immediately see (2a1a) which tells me what the book is about. Or least what Irvine hopes the book is about. :)
Continuing my thinking about personal knowledge management systems, it’s time to set down my method for pointing to the things on the Internet from a paper system.
The obvious way to do this is to simply write the URL. This is also horrible. URLs are long, and worse they are often, (but not always,) case-sensitive. I’m never going to write a URL in cursive, so I’m left with printing it, and my preference is an all-caps block style, which doesn’t render lowercase characters. The solution of course is what’s called a URL shortener. Hold that thought.
But there is a bigger problem: URLs change. Or more correctly, the resource goes away or is moved. This is referred to as “link rot.” I want to create links in the context of a Slipbox, which I’m expecting to use for a few decades. All the URLs will surely rot. So I’d love to find a way to make links to URLs a little more like a reference to a book, journal, or other physical object.
First, it’s important to remember that such a link would be in the context of a slip in my Slipbox. So the “why is this interesting” will be on the slip. If, (when!) that link rots, I’ve obviously not lost what I captured on the card. What I want, in my solution for linking from paper to the Internet, is some way to capture a little bit of the actual resource—the thing the URL refers to.
Hey! I have that already, it’s my blog. I frequently quote a little and then describe what I’m linking to, and then perhaps riff off that, go deeper, or make some connection.
Recall that every slip in a Slipbox has an address. It’s a baklava-layering of letters and numbers and they are easy to read/write. So I could create redirections on my blog, (this is easy to do.) I could make “a42o17x3”, (some card’s address on which I want to link to a URL) would lead to the blog post with the actual full URL. On the card, I just leave an indication that there’s a URL—maybe that’s a litlte ↬ or something easy to write. Then, when creating the slip to capture the link (and its context/why) I go to the blog and create that redirection (and the actual blog post of course.)
I suspect you’re boggled, but to me that’s easy. But I can make it easier: Just put the slip’s address somewhere in the blog post. Now I’ve eliminated the entire redirection / URL-shortening system. (Which is digital, and therefore will eventually break or become overloaded and crash etc.) I’m already working hard to backup and protect the contents of my blog, so just add a tiny little string in the blog post; I could simply type slip:a42o17x3 and I’m done.
There’s another thing that clicks into place: All the URLs I’ve already captured on my blog might be things I want to import into the Slipbox. How on Earth would I do that? Turns out it’s easy. I already have a website serialize tool that knows how to “show me one year ago today” as a link to my own site. (and any other year-back, so each day I glance at a few previous year’s today’s posts.) This ensures I’ll soon glance at all the URLs I’ve already captured giving me the opportunity to create slips in the Slipbox.
I feel like some things are starting to come together here. ymmv. :)
Weeks ago, I wrote a number of posts about my quest for a personal knowledge system. (See my tag, Knowledge systems.) I’ve continued to think about this, and I’ve conducted a few more experiments. Today I want to unpack my thoughts about using a physical system.
I started into this quest with an open mind. Any physical system—slips of paper, note cards, etc.—will not have the features of a digital system. When thinking about “features” I’m imagining what that feature enables, if anything. So both types (physical/digital) capture data, but the digital system is easily searched, and so on. My thinking was that the digital system (there are actually several) had all of the features of the physical system, and I’d steered towards digital.
One misconception about digital is that it is more durable. I contend that physical slips, (3×5 cards, etc.,) are more durable. Nothing short of theft or a catastrophic fire endangers them. Digital, on the other hand I don’t trust at all—I know enough about how things really work, and I’ve seen enough problems in my 25+ years in tech. But I’d thought, “the digital system is the enemy I know,” and I thought I’d be willing to invest the extra effort needed to maintain the digital system. (Yes, I believe the digital system is more effort to protect and maintain.)
But I think the deal breaker on the digital side is a missing feature of the physical system: The ability to hold many notes in view at once. In a digital system, I’m limited by my display space. In a physical system, I can cover my desk, a table, the entire floor even, (I’ve done it,) with notes and sweep over it quickly. Short of a touch screen the size of my desktop, (have you seen the touch-wall in Minority Report? …jealous,) any digital system will fall short on this feature.
I’m left with one feature missing in a physical system: How to capture URLs. How do I capture links to resources on the Internet? I have an idea about that…
Continuing my deep dive—hopefully it doesn’t become a drowning—into Knowledge Systems: Yesterday I spent a little time tinkering with Discourse to see what I could do with it. There is a mind-numbing array of tools that could be used, but I keep coming back to the point that I don’t actually understand what I’m trying to build.
I’ve spent significant time thinking about that, and reading about that, but it’s still not clear. It’s like standing in an aisle of tools each shiny and powerful; I know people who have piles of tools. Fortunately, the best way to understand is to build. And so building I am. (Out of sight privately, sorry.)
I seem to recall hearing a metaphor about house building: Start with a sofa in the lawn, add features as needed. Be prepared to knock it down and start again.
Zettelkasten is usually mentioned as a note-taking method. However, the end goal of Zettelkasten is not gathering and collecting notes, but rather creating a competent and knowledgeable communication partner. The main interaction with the slip-box is not when we are writing and adding new notes, because the slip-box is not there to be an archive of our memory and knowledge. Slip-box is there to be an apparatus with which we think. Therefore, the main interaction is when we communicate with the slip-box by confronting ourselves and our thinking with our prior knowledge.
This appears to be part four of a series: On knowledge systems, Push and pull, and Commonplace notebooks. Depending where you are on your personal journey you may have been sitting back, chuckling, waiting for me to “discover” zettelkasten. …to which I reply, “y u no email me about zettelkasten?!”
Now this idea I definitely have seen before. I can recall stumbling on the idea very early in my personal productivity and self-awareness journey. Without looking, I’ll bet I found it first on 43 Folders. I had the distinct pleasure of following along through Merlin Mann’s journey—trying to keep up, but not succeeding at the time. (Posts on that site run from 2004, through 2011.) If you just went, “43 Folders? …what’s that?” You need to go look at 43 Folders.
…oh sorry, I was off on a tangent there. I just realized Mann has a podcast that’s on episode #503. Shit. Another thing I probably need to listen too. I’ll just say: My web site serialize tool can drip podcast show notes pages at me too, so I’ll drip all those so I can skim the show notes, and I’ll just listen to the few that are “must listen” [in my opinion of course.]
*shudder* I’m all over the map today. Zettelkasten, right.
When I first encountered it, I got stuck on the idea that it’s “notes” in “boxes.” Why would anyone want to do that, now that we have (back then) web sites where you can tag stuff, search, edit, etc.? Now I see this part—trimming my lead quote down—is the neat part:
The end goal of Zettelkasten is creating a competent and knowledgeable communication partner. The slip-box is there to be an apparatus with which we think. Therefore, the main interaction is when we communicate with the slip-box by confronting ourselves and our thinking with our prior knowledge.
Do you see it now? The slip-box system can be slips of paper, digital notes/files, or many other implementations. The original slip-boxes (physical things, pre-Internet… actually, pre-electricity,) were used by one person. Using modern technology we can implement one that allows people to collaborate too. (If we wanted. Not saying I necessarily want that.)
Oh, and guess what I built four years ago. A very complicated, (that’s not a compliment,) system for weaving together references, summaries, and articles on a site called Hilbert’s Library. It was literally my first attempt to build a knowledge management system. I’m now thinking it’s over-designed—I mean yes, sure… I over-think and over-design everything. But I mean that now I see why the design I built into it actually gets in the way of it being maximally useful as a knowledge management system.
What? Oh, yes, people have built lots of ways to implement slip-boxes. Notably, Emvi does that (among other things, because zettelkasten can be confusing so they pitch it in various use cases.)
Continuing my train of thought from On knowledge systems and Push and pull, today I want to dive into something called a commonplace book. (For the third time: no denouement today.) In line with more modern language usage, I’m going to prefer commonplace notebook; books are today commonplace, and we use the word “notebook” for the ones we create privately.
Settle in, this is about to get tangential.
I first encountered this idea at 8am, November 13th, 2020. Literally. I’ve never heard of the idea of a “commonplace book” previously. And here I am in the midst of finally pulling on a thread which I’ve been calling a quest for a knowledge system… trying to solve a problem which is as yet ill formed. I’ve been reading through the entire Farnam Street web site; it’s like 5,000 non-trivial web pages skimming a few every day for well over a year. This November 13th a little before 8am I happen to reach, John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books. Which, probably is not worth clicking through. First off, “common” modifies “place” so we can drop “common” without fundamentally changing the meaning—so sayeth grammar. Therefore Locke’s method is for organizing books about places. I very nearly didn’t even skim it. But I did. And realized it’s his method for organizing commonplace books. Oh my god Becky, that’s completely different. Wait, what’s a commonplace book? (There’s a link in that post about Locke’s method.) POW!
Commonplace books are personal knowledge libraries; notebooks full of collected ideas and bits of wisdom all mixed up together. Here, we take a look at their history and benefits.
Am I on Candid Camera? This is so apropos of my recent thinking, it’s H.P. Lovecraft level eery.
The knowledge system I’m seeking is not simply a repository into which I want to toss everything. For example, Evernote is not a solution that will work. It’s too easy to put things in. (Likewise for any home-grown version I might cook up with documents or cloud storage.) Sure, Evernote and other solutions are eminently searchable—that’s a good thing. But I continue to avoid such tools because… well, because I don’t want simply a giant collection of everything. I don’t want to simply amass everything I’ve ever been exposed to. (We already have an Internet. We don’t need Craig’s Internet assembled within the other.) But, I’ll call these desirables the “power” features.
I’m intrigued by the commonplace notebook solution as it requires a good bit of effort to add things. Effort is required to evaluate each new idea to be added. Effort is required to see how it “hangs together with” the rest of what I know, at the time when I encounter the new thing. This suggests individual, manual and mental labor, [meaning I have to do everything, possibly even including manually writing things down on paper] is also a desirable feature.
Some combination of those “power” and “manual” features feels like a sweet spot.