Where’s… everything?

It doesn’t matter how you store things, only that you do. If I know that, somewhere, I know something… and I can find it… that’s success. There are two parts to remembering (aka storing in such a way that it can be later found and used) everything: First, capture it in some form and put it somewhere intentional. Second, when you go for something and it’s not in the first place you looked (it’s instead in the 3rd place you looked), move it to the first place you looked.

These books helped educated people cope with the “information explosion” unleashed by the printing press and industrialization. They were highly idiosyncratic, personalized texts used to make sense of a new world of intercontinental trade, long distance communication, and mass media. Commonplace books could contain recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas, notes from sermons, and remedies for common maladies, among many other things.

~ Tiago Forte from, https://fortelabs.com/blog/commonplace-books-creative-note-taking-through-history/

Of course, the hard part is getting in the habit of capturing things. Our minds are terrible at holding ideas. Our minds are for having ideas (and composition and creation and more.) The best day to begin capturing your knowledge was yesterday. If you missed that opportunity, today is also good.


Knowledge management

I’ve spent decades wrestling with knowledge management. In the realm of systems administration, capturing obscure incantations, and the why’s and hazards that go with it are critical. I have a digital collection of notes going back more than 20 years. Yes, of course it’s named Grimoire. More recently, I started creating my own person knowledge system and ended up with my own variation of a slipbox.

For most of human history, knowledge was something completely inseparable from a particular person. It didn’t mean anything to point to a piece of knowledge without reference to the person from whose life experience it emerged. The idea of a “piece” of knowledge didn’t even make sense, as knowledge couldn’t be broken down into discrete units as long as it remained in someone’s head.

~ Tiago Forte from, https://fortelabs.com/blog/inventing-the-digital-filing-cabinet/

My first learning around knowledge systems was that the very act of building them is incredibly helpful at learning. The effort of composing the notes (or whatever) requires careful thinking, rethinking, adding context, imagining the future where the knowledge will be used, etc. All of which is repetition and integration—key components of learning.

My second learning has just clicked into place as I read Forte’s article: Knowledge systems are tools for later use. I used to think that by building the system up, I was somehow creating something (something as yet unknown and unexpected.) Which was silly of me, because Grimoire has taught me, over decades, that any given incantation found therein can never simply be incanted. The knowledge within is only part of the magic. Only if the knowledge within can be combined with experience and expertise will it be useful in some current endeavor. The knowledge system is working and complete as it is, if when I’m doing something, I can find the knowledge I need to continue.


Tagged out

In the beginning of this, the most recent, incarnation of my web site (like the Doctor, I myself am not certain what number I’m actually on) I purposely chose not to pre-imagine a taxonomy of tags. I learned that lesson the hard way. For a while, I willy-nilly tagged with reckless abandon. Later, I tried to get clever and always use a tag for any person, place or thing that applied. There are quite a few place tags today. There are a lot more tags for people. There’s an untold number of tags for things, ideas, threads and through-lines. Today, there are a lot of tags (in fact, 2,066 tags—go ahead, I dare you.)

Any system with an upfront access cost this high is just asking to break. This alone, in my opinion, makes tags not worth using.

But there’s more. Oh God there’s more.

~ Tiago Forte from, https://fortelabs.com/blog/tagging-is-broken/

I was delighted when I found this article (is venticle a word? venting + article? it should be) from Forte which lays out very clearly—with some humor—just what it is that makes tags hella suck.

Yet, I’m still clinging to tagging People. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I also have specific tags (eg, podcasting, meta, intermittent fasting) which I use when I want to link to a specific idea. When someone asks me a question, which I think would be well-answered with a link to a collection of blog posts… I head to the site, do some searching, do some reading, and shine up that tag. Then I share it.

If you resisted my dare above to look at 2,066 tags, I double-dog dare you to look at the page of all the Interesting Tags. It’s much shorter, but not short.


The pendulum

Late in 2023 I started working on paper to create simple mind–maps around the individual ideas that go into my writing here. Call it nostalgia if you wish, but there’s something delightful about a nice pen and nice paper. I find I have a flurry of bat-like ideas around the central idea. Not all of them make it to the paper; Some are left to flutter right back out of the belfry.

After a while, the remaining bats settle down to roost as my scribbling sputters to a halt. Then there’s a bit of time where I pause (exactly how much varies greatly, sometimes I even surrender, get up and move away from the tablet) before I feel I can shift to the digital realm to begin the writing. That period of pause though is a straight-up struggle. Every time.

“Divergence” refers to opening up your senses and taking in new sources of information from the outside world, such as at the start of a new project. “Convergence” refers to shutting off sources of distraction and narrowing your focus to arrive at an end result.

Together, these two stages form the backbone of creative work going back millennia. In any field, we move like a pendulum back and forth between these two states of mind. Once you learn to see the pattern in your own work, you’ll understand how to flow with the tide of information rather than swim against it.

~ Tiago Forte from, https://fortelabs.com/blog/divergence-and-convergence-the-two-fundamental-stages-of-the-creative-process/

It’s not clear to me that— Actually, no, I’m sure that I cannot intentionally switch from the divergent part of the work to the convergent. I just try to stay in the pause. Eventually, assuming I don’t give up and walk away, the writing feels easier than continuing to think about it. I often wonder why I keep writing on a schedule. It’s torturous. But now I’m thinking that I may have stumbled backwards into a way to push myself more quickly through to the convergent part of writing: If it has a due-date, then there’s a built-in increasing urgency to shut up, sit down… and wait, until the writing is the easiest path.


Your attention, please

I’ve a strong drive to seek attention. I’ve a desire to be seen as clever. Being clever isn’t the problem; The desire is the problem. Being clever is, sometimes, just the right ingredient to help someone solve a problem. But more often than not, being clever is not helpful.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that my work is really about attentional design.

Becoming aware of attention. Shaping and directing it. Shifting its quality and inner experience. Leveraging it to produce work of real value.

~ Tiago Forte from, https://fortelabs.com/blog/the-topology-of-attention/

Magic happens when I’m able to cleave the attention-seeking from the useful clever. When I’m able to remove stressors (stressors which invariably are of my own creation) then I’m free to frolic and create. Exhaustion can be a limit. Day-dreaming can be a limit if in excess. But ruminating is a certain road to ruin, every time. I regularly need to aim my attention inward: What specifically am I ruminating about? …and how, surgically, can I cut that out?


Changes ahead

I’m trying to sort out a problem concerning my slipbox: It’s not quite working the way everyone else claims it should. I’ve written a lot about my slipbox. Over the past 2+ years it’s grown to be about 1,000 slips (aka 3×5 cards) Plus the 1,200+ slips containing my collection of quotes.

I occasionally get a flash of inspiration and I sense the awesome power . . . and then it doesn’t happen again regularly. The problem has to do with how I’m putting things into the slipbox. This is a crucial point and (as far as I can find) it’s not often mentioned nor clearly explained. Everyone—including me—goes off into the weeds talking about how slips each get a unique address, how the addresses are fractal, etc. That’s classic systems-building nerd digression.

No the problem I have is, holding a slip with some idea on it, where do I put it? Literally, where is the specific spot in the collection of slips? …between which two existing slips do I place it?

What’s happened to me, is my slipbox is like a lawn: It has a wide collection of short blades of grass. It has few tall plants. There’s an amazing index of people, but each person usually has just one connection to something else in the slipbox. (For example: A podcast guest is usually only connected to the one slip for that conversation’s recording.) While I have hundreds of slips for my recorded conversations, they have almost no connections leading off from them. Again, I’ve a collection of ~100 slips for essays, books and other things I’ve put “into” the slipbox, and those cards have no other connections.

What I’ve built is what I build best: A large categorical archive. A library organized by thinking like a librarian. I’ve organized by topic or category. Here again, there’s a systems-building nerd digression into how you do that. But alas, it’s all just navel gazing structure for structure’s sake. Building a library is not sufficient. A good slipbox can be my library and enable me to find specific things. But a good slipbox is supposed to also let me do more. (It’s supposed to let me have a conversation with my previous thinking. It’s supposed to let my brain have ideas, while the slipbox let’s me explore all the ideas I’ve had.)

Instead of organizing by topic and subtopic, it is much more effective to organize by context. Specifically, the context in which it will be used. The primary question when deciding where to put something becomes “In which context will I want to stumble upon this again?”

In other words, instead of filing things away according to where they came from, you file them according to where they’re going. This is the essential difference between organizing like a librarian and organizing like a writer.


A writer asks “In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note?” They will file it under a paper they are writing, a conference they are speaking at, or an ongoing collaboration with a colleague. These are concrete, near-term deliverables and not abstract categories.

~ Tiago Forte from, https://fortelabs.com/blog/how-to-take-smart-notes/

After much thought—weeks of thinking, finding the above article, reading, more thinking… I’ve decided I have two problems. The second problem is the one I mentioned at the top: Where exactly do I put this specific slip? I’ve been fixated on this problem for a while, and the solution is above.

But the first problem is that I’m not generating enough slips. (Yes, I have 2,000+ slips in the slipbox. Yes, I’m serious about not generating enough slips.) I’m not capturing what slipbox builders call “literature notes” or “reading notes.” I’m not grabbing my pen and writing stuff down, right in the moment, as I’m thinking about something. I believe this started on day one, when I felt like I didn’t know where I would put such a slip (ie, the second problem) and off I went not making enough notes.

So my new focus is to jot stuff down more. Generate more literature or reading notes. At which point I should quickly get comfortable figuring out where to put stuff into the slipbox.