Your Knowledge Base as a Wiki

This last July, I came across an article by Christian Tietze that piqued my interest: Create a Zettelkasten for your Notes to Improve Thinking and Writing. Zettelkasten, as I learned, was a system that helped many researchers keep their small ideas filed away so they could find them later but also keep these little notes linked in important ways.

That idea stood out at me.

Each note was not just a thing—not just a text file in a directory listing—but a node on a network of interconnected ideas. If you tend to think in themes like I do, these notes, jotted over time, compile in to great bodies of work. If filed properly, that relationship would cause surprises for you over time, zettelkasten promised.

In 2012, I became captivated by the idea of carrying a pocket notebook. In Jotting Notes and Stealing Ideas, I wrote:

Paging through the little book, I found that even though the ideas weren’t all novel or penned by me they became mine in the way they were threaded—connected—page by page, in the same messy scribbles, in the same voice and shorthand, all working together towards the same goal.

These notes, at the time, are just ephemera. We don’t know what they mean yet. But:

When you capture an idea it’s just a small piece of something bigger. Something you can’t really picture or describe yet. But when you look back through the pages you start to see how the ideas connect and the shape of something begins to come together.

A note could be connected to a simple idea from years ago that you rediscover, the way you pull an old notebook off of your shelf and stumble across the thoughts of your younger, more impressionable or more spirited self. Our digital notes could have an impact like flipping through an old notebook if it had a bit more context, like the adjacent pages in that weathered book.

Thinking Is The Work

Whenever you want to think to some purpose, you should consider writing it down.

Christian also revealed that wisdom in his post. This isn’t “productivity,” just plainly about efficacy. If you’re spending time thinking, you should document your thoughts so they can be useful for longer than their fleeting moment in your mind.

I’ve often confused productivity and efficacy. Being effective doesn’t always have a “shippable” end product, yet the non-fruit-bearing work can still be useful. This work is all research. It’s the thoughts, articles, evidence, meeting minutes that are all going to eventually lead to some idea connecting. You may not be a scholar but as a knowledge worker, the more of that knowledge that you collect and process, the more power you have. I haven’t been in my career very long and already I’ve wished many times that I’ve had maintained notes on design decisions from previous jobs. I’ll run in to the same design problem years later and wish I had documented my learning. Your career path will likely follow similar roles and responsibilities over decades and these notes and connected ideas will only form stronger ideas, more solid proof, or evidence of past learnings. Those problems you’ve solved (and hopefully documented along the way) is the work you do. If you’re smart, you’ll make sure those solved problems will be of use for you again in the future.

Just to make sure you’re with me so far:

  • Your notes are ideas that are interconnected
  • If it’s worth thinking about, it’s worth writing down
  • What has happened can help inform you of how things are going to unfold in the future
  • Notes aren’t just notes, they are the research and documentation of the work that you do

I wanted those things. I wanted to change how I documented my work, my thinking, and my research. Zettelkasten is often done on notecards and I wasn’t enticed by the paper knowledge base it suggested. I try to make very deliberate decisions about the tools I use. I think a lot of bloggers will tell you that and then drop an affiliate link to their tool of choice, wrapped in an eloquent exposition of how said tool changed the way they work. Watch out for those people. (Question everything I have to say, alike.)

This was going to be a breathing knowledge base of the things I jot down, the products I develop, the failures I make, and that work mattered to me. I wanted something that would endure. The choice that was clear to me after testing a few options was MediaWiki. If the world felt comfortable using it as a platform for our global knowledge, I did too.

An Unordered List of Notes I’ve Been Collecting About Using Mediawiki

  • Self-hosted MediaWiki on hardware I own
    • You control your knowledge base, you control your information
    • I’m not relying on anyone else to store my data safely; backups are my problem
  • Internet architecture wins
    • Extensible and open source
    • No company is making money off of your life’s knowledge work
    • Web APIs > Applescript
    • Server-side software = light (Rule 8)
    • Take the tradeoffs of slower and web-based for longevity
    • Include JS tools, like Mermaid
      • Mermaid, by the way, is hot shit. Doing charts and process maps inline with your other documentation is so lovely
  • Everything is just a page. Simple.
    • Make pages basic—just few words or a sentence—or compile ideas together using transclusions
    • Don’t worry up front about categories or how you organize; just do your work
    • After a while you’ll start to feel a trend in how things are organizing themselves and start following their lead
  • Plain text is simple for typing notes but doesn’t connect ideas together well
    • No, “search” is not connecting them
    • Nodes are connected by hypertext
    • HTML with hyperlinks connects the world’s data, your notes can benefit from this
    • Internal links in apps like Evernote or nvALT are nasty
    • Easily link ideas just by wrapping the name of the page you want to link to in square brackets, like [[Linked Page Title]]
  • Leave yourself future breadcrumbs with red links
    • You don’t need to create a page to leave yourself nuggets of ideas
    • Create a red link and come back to the idea later
  • Change history; see how things evolve over time
    • Commit messages help give you a summary of changes and the reasoning you made
    • Recent changes in wiki sorted by date
  • Connection of ideas > simplicity of capturing
    • nvalt can still be a quick way of creating notes but they should be managed somewhere else long term
    • Using a notepad on your desk or a scratch text file is a very fast way of capturing
    • What you write down when you capture is different than how you would write something for retention, so don’t convolute these in to the same step (Ever write shorthand in a quick note and then have note and then have no idea what it means tomorrow or two years from now?)
  • Customization hinders simplicity
    • Pretty urls will break on upgrade. K.I.S.S
    • Extensions and templates are helpful; don’t get carried away though
  • WikiMarkup isn’t markdown but it can be powerful
    • Don’t be afraid to cheat by putting in some <nowiki> blocks if MediaWiki markup drives you nutty for big blocks of notes you copy/paste
    • pbpaste | /usr/local/bin/pandoc -f markdown -t mediawiki | pbcopy is your friend. It takes markdown that you’ve copied, from say your scratch text file, converts it from markdown to mediawiki markup and puts it back on your clipboard, ready for you to paste into the web form

What This Has Meant For Me

I’ve been using a wiki for my notes for over 6 months now. Thinking of my body of notes as a knowledge base rather than a stack of text files helps me keep the different ideas connected. I now think of my note pages like I would read them on Wikipedia, explaining to myself where ideas came from and predicting where they’re going—the history of the thing and how it was executed. It’s not just notes from a meeting but notes on an interaction with people, who have their own motivations and goals, on a project that has a history and a roadmap. They are all connected and I want my system of documentation to compliment that.

Simple Needs

“I’m a person of simple needs.”

I like this because it’s not making one out to be a “simple” person but it’s the needs that are simple. Still, the mind can be complex, the desires great, intentions pure, and friendships in abundance. I feel like often being called a simple person has a negative connotation, like a farmer being a simple man (and maybe why “minimalist” has proliferated… calling yourself simple while still being fancy). Understanding that you have simple needs and forming your life around that has a strength and vigor behind it.

Hacking Better

A couple years ago (see: archives) I was very much in to finding or writing hacks to help smooth out the little bumps when software wouldn’t quite work the way I wanted it to. Some of these hacks were quick, inelegant fixes just to satisfy my itch of trying to solve a problem in a different way and some were bigger projects that I thought might get a decent amount of use over time. With that passage of time, different jobs, and work styles, only some are still in use while many of those hacks have become irrelevant, abandoned, and forgotten.

I’ve learned a few things while <airquotes>hacking on my workflow</airquotes> that I’ve only recently became cognizant of:

  • It you want your “hacks” to be functional for a long time, don’t do much funky stuff
    • The problem here is that if you’re new, you don’t know what’s funky and what isn’t
    • Funky stuff includes (but is not limited to):
      • Referencing outside dependencies which aren’t controlled; links break or files move and your script fails
      • That clever solution you thought of which was just too clever (clever = complex; complexity = evil)
  • See if other people have built it (and done a better job)
    • I heard a saying once: “A new engineer thinks, ‘Hey, I could build that’ while an experienced engineer thinks, ‘I bet someone else has built that”
    • Building might be fun but maintaining isn’t, so leave that to other people as much as you can
  • Document what you’re doing
    • The path to how you solved this problem is really important and will prove valuable in the future (probably more valuable than the script you’re writing)
    • The links, StackOverflow posts, and mailing list archives that helped you solve this will help you again next time, or when this breaks
  • Document what you’ve done
    • Not for others but for your future self
    • Documentation doesn’t always need to be inline because you should be writing readable code
    • Keep a wiki of what scripts you have, where they’re expected to live, what other scripts might reference or execute them
      • I easily finished the below script when I found an old one that I had totally forgotten about that did a similar thing
      • If I would have had a scripts database to search through (like I do now) I would have solved this problem a lot easier
    • Equal parts writing code as writing documentation; if you’re spending 5 minutes thinking, you can spend 5 minutes writing about what you were thinking. You don’t get that time thinking back but you can keep that knowledge if you write it down
      • There’s a good chance that you’ll never use this hacky script again but you’ll probably use this knowledge again, so actually learn something for good by writing it down
    • The good developers I know document everything
  • Build in checks to see if everything is working as planned
    • I’ve spent enough time writing scripts, testing them out, and then loading them in to Lingon only to have them fail in the next day or two after I’ve forgotten about them
    • I don’t check back and this backup script script hasn’t ran in 6 weeks
    • I’ll be honest that I don’t know a good way to programmatically check that something hasn’t happened but it’s a good thing to think about and build in to your scripts if you’re smarter than I am

Here’s a good example of not doing funky stuff.

I was writing this script today that I’ve wanted for a while but just haven’t sat down to do. It would take the first line of a text file in BBEdit, make it in to a URL-friendly slug, and save the current text file with that slug as the filename. I’ll use this for every blog post I write (which doesn’t happen so frequently anymore).

At first I had this:

set title_slug to do shell script "echo " & quoted form of title_text & " | ~/Dropbox/bin/sluggify.rb"

where I reference an external script (sluggify.rb) which takes “A Title Like ‘This’” and does some gsub foo on it and turns it into “a-title-like-this”. What happens if, say down the road, I stop using Dropbox to sync and take my belongings to some other cloud? This script breaks because it can’t find ~/Dropbox/bin/sluggify.rb and I have to go fix it. Instead, I can do something kind of less funky like this:

set title_slug to do shell script 
        "ruby -e \"input = "
            & quoted form of title_text
            & "print input.gsub(/[ [:punct:]]+/,'-').gsub(/(^-|-$)/,'').downcase\""

where I take that ruby code and execute it inline. Less external dependancies, less funky stuff. Here’s the full script, by the way (because I like you):

set user to system attribute "USER"
set drafts_folder to "/Users/" & user & "/Dropbox/hackmake/drafts/"
set ext to ".md"

tell application "BBEdit"
    tell text window 1
        set title_text to contents of line 1
        set title_slug to do shell script 
            "ruby -e \"input = "
                & quoted form of title_text
                & "print input.gsub(/[ [:punct:]]+/,'-').gsub(/(^-|-$)/,'').downcase\""
        set draft_path to drafts_folder & title_slug & ext
    end tell
    save document 1 to draft_path
end tell

You’re not what you make–You’re the problems you solve.
—Internet Contrarian, Sean Korzdorfer in An Annotated Life

I’ve been drifting back and forth in the last year about how important “they way we work” is. Is Microsoft Word enough? Or do we need to find a fancy way to do something as to satisfy our feeling of being a special snowflake artist-type? I used to put more value in the things I make but, over time, I’m realizing that a lot of those things just whither away or are never paid attention to in the first place. That doesn’t mean stop making but I think I’m putting more energy in to reflecting and trying to understand the process that got me to the end of a project—that’s what makes me better at what I do.

The problems I solve and the things I learn along the way are a much better indicator for me of “working better” than what’s in my toolkit. I focused a lot on capturing what I needed to do but not capturing what I had done and learned. With this post-productivity mindset, I’m focused more on what I’ve learned not what I’m doing and that helps me hack better and work smarter.

Added Post-Productivity Toolkit

The Simplest Tool Built for the Job

A few months ago I moved in to a new apartment. It’s taken me a little while to settle in and I finally got around to hanging up some shelves and a bike rack. In the past, I’ve used whatever hack possible to sink a drywall anchor because I didn’t want to spend the money on a drill and didn’t really want the extra things to store in a tiny New York flat. I finally wanted to get a drill so I could properly sink the drywall anchors on not have my bike crashing down from its hanger. When I was at the hardware store I looked around and found a manual, crank-by-hand drill. It was small, inexpensive, and tailored exactly for what I needed. No extra features, no batteries. It wasn’t the best drill on the market. It was the simplest tool built for the job and it was the perfect tool for the job.

We can’t forget to look for what’s the perfect fit for us, not just what’s the best based on features or what other people think.

Changing Perspective using Trello

I think I was in 9th or 10th grade when my older brother brought home a copy of Getting Things Done. I don’t really remember the way he described it or what convinced me to get in to it but he gave me a copy and I dug in. At that age you’re easy to influence and like many I’m sure whose brother came home with beer or drugs, I got in to GTD at a time that it greatly impacted my perspective.

I picked up GTD at a time where I needed a map for life but now I think it’s been leading me off course.

I started using Things in the early beta days and used that through highschool and college. A few years ago when I learned about people who were using OmniFocus and really trusted it, so I made the move. You’re always changing so your processes should evolve too and eventually I felt over OmniFocus. It just didn’t fit the model of how I wanted to work and live. I don’t believe that switching software can lead to transformative change but I do think it can help nudge your habits enough to starting seeing things differently—from a new perspective.

Trello is about giving you vision in to what you’ve written down, not about actually doing it. It’s almost a stale trope at this point, but I’ll reiterate it anyway: we don’t need to do more things we need to be more conscious about the things we do. Just like the world around us not really caring about what we do, neither does Trello. It doesn’t sit there taunting us, telling how much we haven’t gotten done. A blank card is just a blank card. It’s not an obligation, a promise to yourself, an expectation, or another opportunity for you to let yourself or someone else down. A card is just a card. Use it for a project you want to do, a reminder for a thing you should say to someone special, a divider or break point in a list, a thing that makes you happy and that you should do more often. The card isn’t begging you to check it off as done then evaporate. There isn’t even a check box on the card. Let your Bucket List sit right beside your Today list. Who’s to tell you that your work today is more important than the rest of your life? Leave it there, let that list sit in front of you all day, everyday. Don’t let that thing disappear. Let it fester as a reminder of what’s important to you and let fade away your little tingly feeling of marking off another thing as done.

From the Trello launch blog post in 2011:

Trello is probably the simplest thing in the world: it’s a web page where you make a bunch of lists. Each list contains cards. Each card is a thing that someone might want to work on.

It is simple (and you should keep your life that way). Here are some things I like about Trello:

  • It’s a website
    • Forget about sync, updates, OS compatibility
    • The web links a lot better than apps, internally within Trello and externally
    • Trello’s success isn’t at the hands of Apple approving their updates (I’m becoming that guy)
    • Web back ends have APIs
      • I’ve wasted so much time hacking at things like of-export to get information
      • HTTPS is king
      • I could actually build reliable tools using Trello data
  • The back of a card is a workspace
    • It does markdown
    • Half of this post was written on the back of a Trello card
    • OF’s notes field and file attachments suck
  • Comments
    • Leave comments/log for myself
    • More than it’s done but how I did it
    • See progress as an idea evolves
  • Trello, Inc
    • Now its own company, not a part of Fog Creek
    • Joel knows how to build exceptional companies

Maybe some day I’ll go in to more detail about how I use Trello but I think that’s less relavant since the process of setting it up fresh without a lot of bloggers telling you how to use it is a great opportunity for introspection on the way you work and good practice in figuring out what you need. I’ve been using it full time for 3 months now actually kind of enjoy using it. It’s given me what I need and nothing more. I don’t obsess about what’s in Trello or how it’s organized like I did with OmniFocus. I don’t need to do maintenance to keep it useable. I go in, get my work done, and get out.

I’m starting to reduce what value I perceive these tools to be in my life and that’s causing the perspective shift. GTD was a user manual for a tool that I followed until I began to master the craft. With a little more experience, I recognized that the tools just helped guide me through the craft until I was comfortable doing my work without those instructions. I used to depended on them for success but now I can lift my head out of the manual and go learn something else.

Made to Last

Gear that’s made to last simplifies my life. Build quality tends to be the first consideration for whether gear will last but it shouldn’t be the only one. Other factors beyond durability could mean that a piece won’t always work for you.

I’ve come to appreciate the BuyItForLife subreddit1 as a good source of discussion around the values of quality gear.

Buy It For Life, or BIFL, is this idea that you can buy something of quality once and it’ll last for a lifetime. Once you’ve purchased that item, you don’t need to ever think about it again; you just use and enjoy that gear. Even if you invest a large amount of money in buying that one thing, its value shows over time because it’ll last so long. My mom, who is Polish (and hence frugal), used to teach me that when I could, spending money on something of quality often meant it lasted longer than the extra you paid. So a $150 Jansport backpack wouldn’t just last 3 times longer than a $50 backpack, but if I cared for that gear, it would probably last my lifetime. That backpack is over 10 years old already and my Dad uses it now.

But how much you pay and the quality of that gear doesn’t mean it’ll last forever. After the last life cycle of jeans, I decided to spend about twice as much to get a higher quality, 18oz Japanese denim in hopes they would last. The good news is that they’ve lasted longer and still have a lot of life left in them. They’ve gone through repairs once and are held together in a few places with the best hand stitching I could do with just the memory of what my mom showed me years ago. But they finally need to be replaced and not because of quality: I started weight training a few months ago and have been putting on some much needed weight. Adding fifteen pounds has made my skinny jeans a little too skinny and though they’re still in decent enough condition to continue wearing, the fit isn’t there anymore. I spent a lot of money on these jeans and, much sooner than I was expecting, I’m no longer able to wear them. I feel almost like I’ve duped myself into thinking that even if it’s as simple as a pair of jeans, money can always buy something immortal.

So some factors to consider when choosing Made to Last gear:

  • The ease of use/experience of using a product: Sure it may be built like a tank but it being built like a tank could be its downfall. Maybe it’s heavy, clunky, or using it is just a pain. It’s easy to buy something thinking it’ll last forever but you only end up using it for a few months before you get annoyed and it just sits there on a shelf.
  • Style: This matters mostly for clothes and outerwear. I know that jacket you bought in the 80s was really well made. But it was also purple with green stripes and now you can’t really wear it out in public. Buying gear that has a traditional and lasting style, like 1000 Mile boots will allow you to wear them through the decades.
  • Sizing: Just like my too-skinny skinny jeans, clothes are tough to be considered BIFL. The hope is that as we age we keep our lean, tight, 25-year-old bodies but somewhere along the road, gravity and ice cream will both have their way with us.
  • Regimen of care: All gear needs to be cared for but is the amount and frequency of maintenance sustainable? My dad has a fishing boat motor that was passed on to him from a friend. It’s from the 60s and still starts on the first pull. It needs care but draining it and the end of the season and storing it indoors, then cleaning and oiling it at the beginning of the season is enough to keep it working well. If you need to constantly be maintaining the gear for it to work well, chances are that at some point, you’ll lapse with that regimen and that will cause issues.
  • Repairability: Lasting quality doesn’t mean your thing will be in mint condition in 20 years. You’ll need to care for your gear and over time, repairs will help keep it in working condition. Shoes made with a Goodyear welt are easily resoled which adds life to the shoes.
  • Warranty/Guarantee: Whether it’s for repair or replacement, items with guarantees can last indefinitely. My sister had bought some Tupperware at a second hand store and when the lid cracked, she was able to send it back to the company and have it replaced. She’s now guaranteed to have a working, functional container forever—whether it’s that exact piece or not.
  • Reliability of the company: Lifetime guarantees only count if the company is still in business, so take this in to consideration. I wouldn’t bank on being able to fulfill your lifetime guarantee on that bag you bought on Kickstarter.

It’s been taking me years to get the hang of this for even a few good items I’ve purchased (and that’s, like, forever, for an increasingly short-attentioned 25 year old). Part of taking ownership of your belongings is investing your attention in them before you even buy them and taking these factors in to consideration will help you commit to, love, and use that gear for a long time to come.

  1. If you shy away from Reddit, I encourage you to read my guide on getting started

Paradox and Perspective

I had thought I’d found some place of enlightenment. A quite little place in my head where I recognized that my practice of managing the things that need to get done in my life wasn’t important and I could just move on. I could just walk away from the 5 step process and be free.

Distancing myself from that has felt like I’ve distanced myself from one of the only things I’m good at. It’s heartbreaking as I realize while typing this that GTD is one of the lone things in my life I’ve been working to master. Not being a socialite, not some extreme sport, not the cello—I’ve been focusing on getting arbitrary things checked off a list so I’d have more room to do other arbitrary things. I do feel like this method has led me to some valuable accomplishments but there has to be more to it than this.

So I started to spend less time reading, writing, and generally practicing towards mastering the way I work to spend more time mastering the way I live. Through this, I have began to unveil more of life but often feel left as the master of nothing.

Maybe it’s a paradox of passion. I still have feelings for the way I used to manage my work. I’ve stripped it all down but I don’t think I’ve quite let it go. There’s been a thread through everything I’ve done for almost a decade and moving on from that can leave a sting. I feel less sharp, less on top of things, and sometimes less driven to get work done because I want to let life happen.

The trusted system I’ve long worked on is pretty much abandoned. Having a trusted system means you gain the mental capacity to take on more but do we always have the human capacity to take on more? Our goal when we organize our lives and work is so that any time we sit down with our list of things we want to do, it’s clear what needs to happen and we can jump right in. But the most rewarding stuff in life doesn’t manifest itself on a list, so our focus on organizing life is futile.

I’ve been struggling with this balance: organized enough that the tasks get captured—out of my head—and done, but freeing myself from the grips of obsessive organization to give me the mental and human capacity to live.

The above was a draft that I was struggling to shape over a week or two, sitting in my drafts folder mocking me that not only had I slipped from my comfortable perch as a productivity guru but also as a productivity blogger—unable to connect the ideas and simplify it so you could digest it, flipping through your RSS feeds while sipping your particularly brewed morning joe. It just wasn’t meshing. I couldn’t grasp where I wanted the article to go. I couldn’t find where I wanted to find myself in the article, what hacking on the keyboard could teach myself. So I left it. I went to the woods for a weekend away and while reading on Sunday morning, held down in the little wood shelter in the Adirondacks by the down-pouring morning rain, something shifted. The above remains unedited from where I left it and the below is the part that matters.

Stephen Covey in the introductory paragraphs of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

It becomes obvious that if we want to make relatively minor changes in our lives we can perhaps appropriately focus on our attitudes and behaviors. But if we want to make significant, quantum change, we need to work on our basic paradigms.

Forgive his use of paradigm. Originally published in ‘89, it was much before the modern-day marketers and executives got a hold of the word and made it meaningless. The way I read it, Covey uses paradigm like perspective.

My perspective was self-serving and the basic way I saw things needed to change. Productivity was only ever about myself and though I’ve been seeking something more significant, clinging on to old “attitudes and behaviors” held me to minor changes in how I can impact others.

It wasn’t that those habits were containing me. The angst in Strip It Down was directed at the way I was working so I tried to strip away those behaviors to make way for change. The behaviors or attitudes themselves weren’t to blame but the focus on them was distracting me from putting in the work to see things from a new perspective.

I want to change the way I look at my life, the people around me, and the way I work and these are a few ideas that I want to build my new perspective on:

  • Just stay above water enough with the tasks I have to do to give people in my life the time and respect they deserve—it’s probably much more than I’m giving them right now. Try to shift my perspective of mastery and craftsmanship of bits and lists, to people and relationships.
  • Use the scaffolding I’ve built to better grow and support these human relationships.
  • The more I bow to others, the more I’ll be able to bow to myself, and somewhere mixed in, I’ll be granted the time and ability to make great things.
  • Pay less attention to tracking and accomplishing what happens day-to-day and figure out how to see patterns year-to-year—that’s the timeframe where big things will happen.

When I go back and read old posts, like 20,000 Feet from two years ago, I recognize that including the needs of the people around me has always been baked in to the way I structure my tasks. And then I write sentances like that and know where everything is wrong.

Me, one sentence ago:

I recognize that including the needs of the people around me has always been baked in to the way I structure my tasks.

What this needs to be is:

People are important to me and I need to structure my life so I put them first.

That’s a different paradigm and I need more vision to do that than paper or lists can handle.

Updated Daily Carry to Add Watch and Sleeve Wallet + Money Clip

View Archive