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 | pbcopyis 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
- Don’t be afraid to cheat by putting in some
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.