Note-taking tips

Today I want to share a few tips I have gathered over the last couple of years about the business of taking notes. Specifically, taking notes with the goal to create a database of knowledge. This is different from making to-do lists or jotting down recipes or collecting famous people's quotes. That is, I am not talking about notes for a common-place book. These observations of mine relate to what has been called "knowledge work", and apply mainly to people whose "main capital" (to use Wikipedia's phrasing) is knowledge. Discovering the Zettelkasten-way of making notes (more on that below) was revolutionary for me, as I've long had the goal to master a technical subject but never had the discipline to follow a systematic method to reach it. I want to share this discovery. But, first, let's look at what I found out was the main obstacle to truly good notes.

The problem

As I mentioned in my Linux-journey post, the first step I took that would eventually lead me away from Windows was using the Vim text editor. Before discovering Vim, I used Notepad for quick & temporary notes and OneNote for longer and more permanent ones. Notepad is great for jotting down thoughts quickly, without all the distraction that comes with formatting. However, it's only able to create separate text files, so it's not great if your aim is to create a repository of knowledge that works like a second memory. OneNote, on the other hand, is a giant electronic notebook with the ability to create secondary notebooks, sections, pages, and subpages. Like any standard editor of the type WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) it comes with the standard MS Office formatting toolbars. It also allows you to embed different types of media in the body of the text, like PDFs, images, audio recordings, links to services, among other things. The disadvantage of OneNote is that even with all those features, it eventually becomes very difficult to organize your notes and your ideas!

The different branches of human knowledge seldom have clear lines of demarcation. Often a single thought can span across different lines. Let's say you are working on a note about Wittgenstein's notion of *language games*---Where would you put it in OneNote? Well, it obviously goes into your Philosophy notebook and not on your Food Recipes notebook. But then, does it go in the section on Philosophy of Language, Logic, or the Philosophy of Mathematics? The answer may be "all of them"! It is no good to create a section dedicated to Wittgenstein, for a thinker's ideas are never entirely his own. The more sections and subsections we create, the worse things become. Ideas, especially philosophical ideas, resist being pigeonholed.

An additional problem with OneNote and WYSIWYG editors in general is that there's always the temptation to worry too much about formatting and presentation as you write. Because these editors do not force you to separate content from presentation, you worry about the latter instead of the former, with the result that your writing is slowed down. In my experience, all Microsoft programs eventually make a mess out of your formatting, especially if you use styles and the presentation has reached some level of complexity. It an awful waste of time to try to fix the mess, when your main efforts should be directed to writing.

The last two disadvantages of OneNote I want to mention are, 1) its embedding (mis)features, and 2) the difficulty or impossibility of carrying your notes across platforms. As for the first disadvantage, it seems to me that OneNote (and similar software, such as Evernote & Joplin) make it easy to simply "dump" information onto the notebook without any real thought processing going into it. In no time you become a hoarder and the file-size of your notes grow exponentially. The last disadvantage is, I think, quite obvious. What happens if you want to transfer your notes to another note-taking application? Or maybe you want to convert your notes to another file format? Proprietary software, i.e. software that is closed-source, often has the nasty consequence of locking you into their ecosystem. Imagine having your thoughts shackled to the whims of a corporation!

The Zettelkasten method

Before moving on to Vim, my current choice of a text editor, I want to touch on some of the principles that should guide note taking. How well one writes and organizes one's notes in order to create a knowledge base is not just a matter of having the right tool. One must also have the right knowledge and skills to use that tool effectively.

The set of principles I'm going to suggest you follow are the ones that underpin the "Zettelkasten method". The method was devised by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, and it is driven more by *interlinking* notes than by categorization. The man was a prolific author, writing 70 books and having some 400 academic articles to his name. When asked, he said he accomplished this thanks to an ingenious use of slip boxes (in German, "Zettelkasten"). I will provide some links below that can explain the method better and in more detail than I can here. There's also the book "How to Take Smart Notes" by Sonke Ahrens, which is the book that completely changed my perspective on this subject and steered me away from the note-taking apps I mentioned in the previous section. Here's a very quick summary of how this method works:

With the Zettelkasten system, we do not worry about categorization or hierarchies. All notes go into a single directory, and each note receives a unique identifier. Since I am not using a physical slip box, writing instead on my computer, this means naming each note (each file) with a fixed URL. In my case, the unique identifier is a stamp of the date & time, e.g. 202104201130, which should be read as 2021-04-20 11:30 a.m. That's right, the identifier doesn't even need to give you an idea of what is in the note. Therefore, we do not need to invent some kind of code system to classify our notes. Any unique numeric (or alphanumeric) string can serve this purpose. This solves the problem of *where* to put a note---it doesn't matter, what matters is referencing the note from any other note that relates to it.

Now that the notes are referencing each other, you may wonder how you would look for a particular note. After all, if I open my notes directory, I would only see files named with strings of numbers. And, as I said, there's no descriptive element in the filename to give me a clue which note is about *language games*, for example, and which is about *roast beef*! This is where an *index* file comes in. The index contains the jumping off points to the appropriate *nodes* (sub-indices) that will eventually lead to my language-games note. So I can start at the index, then follow the link or URL to Philosophy --> Philosophy of Language --> Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Language --> language games note. If I did my job right, however, I could also get to it through another route: index --> Philosophy of Mathematics --> ... --> language games note. Notes that span different branches of knowledge can now be reached through multiple entry points, like they should!

As you can see, it really does not matter where the note is placed, as long as it is linked from (and links to) other notes, you *will* find it.

It is worth noting how this system works like a second memory. Your starting point are general ideas that lead you to more and more definite ones. This jumping from one idea to another also fosters creating connections where there previously were none. This is how our mind works. It is why I think the Zettelkasten method is so powerful.


Luhman's own description of the Zettelkasten

A useful guide

Stay tuned for part 2!

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