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A brain with an arrow pointing to a notebook

Keeping knowledge

You may not have heard of Zettelkasten before. Here's a quick and dirty overview:

  • Zettelkasten generally refers to a notetaking technique meant to free the brain from idea storage so that one can focus on idea gathering
  • Individual notes should be "atomic", meaning that the topical scope of an individual note should cover one basic piece of information
  • Notes should be flatly organized (not nested into categories) and indexed so as to be searchable
  • Notes should be linked insofar as the concepts they represent are linked, so that a "web of knowledge" materializes in the database of notes over time
  • Notes will serve as a personal resource on various topics in the event one must remember key information, as well as providing building blocks that enable synthesis of larger and more complex ideas

This intro isn't exhaustive by any means, but there's plenty of material already written about Zettelkasten on the internet if you want to dive in.

My interest in Zettelkasten began a few months ago when I came across Jethro Kuan's Braindump. Jethro wrote a series of blog posts detailing his Org-mode workflow for notetaking in Emacs that scratched an itch I didn't even know I had.

I spend a lot of time reading articles, browsing technical material, listening to talks, etc. I throw a lot of content at myself on any given day. But I fear very little of the valuable content I expose myself to actually sticks and becomes knowledge. I don't want to waste my time; I want to learn.

My brain isn't a hard drive

Computers extend our human abilities. In some cases computers even replace our abilities. Normally I'd hesitate to outsource an innate ability of mine to a computer, but in the case of remembering the impossibly vast array of data that comes my way any given day, I'm happy to let a hard drive take over.

A hard drive on its own doesn't do anything. We need input. That's where having "a system" comes in. Your "system" is every step you take between encountering a piece of information and storing it. Jethro's system involves a capturing step, a processing step, an entry/storage step, and a publishing step where he makes his notes available on the internet. I like these steps, so I've given them my own spin:

  • Capturing: In a small notebook if I'm on the go, or directly into the computer if possible.
  • Processing: This is the controversial part of this post, since I'm not doing much processing of notes before I store them. For now, I want my notes to be a mixture of more general outline-style notes (on topics) and more specific atomic/Zettelkasten-style notes (on concepts). This will evolve over time, but I want changes to be organic. My notes are intended to change over time (split into separate ideas, add new information, etc.), so my take on the "processing" step technically encapsulates the entire system.
  • Storage: I made my own personal system for note entry. It's pretty bare-bones, but that's the point. I don't want any distractions in my workflow, and my system is fairly flexible/extensible if the need arises.
  • Publishing: I'm not afraid to copy a cool idea. I wrote a nice Perl script that imports my notes into templates during the build step for this website, so my online notes will stay synced with each deploy. Check it out. I'm pretty happy with it so far.

Reverse-engineering thoughts

Someone recently mentioned the connection between Zettelkasten and first principles thinking, referring to the "atomic" nature of Zettelkasten notes. One encounters a piece of information and then, before storing it, distills the fundamental parts from it. These basic elements of the greater idea become their own notes. This allows links between notes to be cleaner, since it ensures that a linked note won't be half-irrelevant due to peripheral information that was haphazardly included. I'm convinced that I'll end up beefing up my "processing" step in light of this insight, since I want to maximize my ability to synthesize new ideas in the future.

I feel good

Spending this small amount of time defining "my system" has made me more confident in my knowledge gathering. It takes just an ounce of intent to capture a thought for later storage before it flies away, or to open up a new note in Vim before I read a chapter on machine learning. I'm figuring it out as I go, but this new superpower of stuffing knowledge into duffel bags (or sandwich bags, if I'm really distilling the ideas) has removed the existential dread of my incapacity to remember.