In this next part looking at my use of Obsidian I want to describe in more detail what notes I take and how I take them.
Taking better notes is the actual reason I started using Obsidian. Using Obsidian for my work, day logs, and task management came later, and that covers the hierarchical part of my PKM system. The note taking part is the networked part of it. The system works for me because it combines those two things and has them interact: My internal dialogue is all about connected ideas and factoids, whereas doing activities and completing projects is more hierarchical in structure.
I make four types of notes: Notions, Notes, Ideas and work notes.
That last type, work notes, are the project and task related notes. Things I write down during meetings, notes from interviews, or ideas on how to move forward in a project. These live in the hierarchical structure I described in Pt 2. They can be linked to Ideas, Notes or Notions, or may give rise to them, but they serve a purpose firmly rooted in ongoing work. They are always placed within the context, and folder, of a specific project. This post isn’t about those notes.
The other notes live in the non-hierarchical, networked part of my system. They are added as I go along based on things I think about and information I come across. They become part of the system and get context not by the folder they are placed in (as is the case with work notes in a project folder), they become part of the system because they get linked to existing notes that I associate them with. They are never not linked to at least one other note. The links over time form patterns, and emergent patterns lead to new insights. Those new insights get expressed in additional links and in new notes.
These networked type notes come in three shapes, Notions, Notes, and Ideas. Each has their own folder to keep them separated from other material.
The folders are named Garden of the Forking Paths (for Notions), Notes (which I may yet rename), and the Ideas-greenhouse. I will discuss them one by one.
The ideas-greenhouse holds ideas I have, ideas that seem like something that can be put to action more or less quickly. They may be connected to notes in the other two folders, or to notes in the project folders. An example would be, that I jotted down the idea of making a digital garden for my company two months ago, triggered by a posting on how a community should have its governance documented in combination with having reread the communication handbook of Basecamp while thinking about remote working. It has since morphed into building a collective memory, and turned into a budding internal website documenting the first few things. This is useful when we are onboarding new people, and as a reference for all of us, so colleagues feel better equiped to decide something on their own or ask better questions if they do need someone else’s advice on a decision. So the ideas greenhouse contains ideas that can be acted upon after some tweaks. They may be refined over time, before such action, or connected to and recombined with other ideas in the greenhouse.
Notes, things I come across that strike me as interesting (filtered by my current favourite topics, but not exclusive to it, to aid serendipity), which I jot down while adding why I find it of interest. They’re more like general resources, in which I can keep/find examples, quotes or pointers, extended with some notes on what I think of them. Notes are things that may result from work notes (something someone said in a meeting, an example held up), or from feed reading (pointers to things, perspectives found in someone else’s blog), regular browsing and reading, or questions that I come up with. It’s a mix of stuff, and that’s why it still is called simply ‘Notes’. I may yet come up with a different name for them. An example would be a note I made last week, called SensRnet. SensRnet is the attempt at creating a national database of sensors placed in publice spaces, by local and national government entities. It came up in a meeting with a client. I jotted it down, adding a few links to its source code on GitHub published by the Dutch Cadastre, and links to articles written by some local governments about it. I also mention the outcome of a project my colleague Marc did a few years ago writing local regulations governing the placement of such sensors in public spaces, and doing an analysis from the legal viewpoint. That’s how a Note starts. I may copy some text into at some point, and summarise it over time, or add other context in which I encountered the same thing again. Notes are ‘factoid’ like, resources written down with the context added of how I found them and why I was interested. That’s different from Notions which are already at creation more about the future use it may have.
Notions and proto-notions
Notions are conceptual notes taken from my own work and experience mostly, and give my own perspective on these concepts. Most of the current well over 500 come directly in my own words from my blogposts of the past 18 years and presentations I gave during that time.
As they are more conceptual than factual I started calling them Notions to distinguish them from the other more general resource Notes. I keep these Notions in a folder called Garden of the Forking Paths (see the name explained)
Each Notion links to at least one other Notion, and while I write them I think about how what I am writing connects to other things already in the Garden of the Forking Paths (GotFP). I may also add additional links or tags, as I come across a Notion while pursuing something else.
Usually while writing a Notion, I show the graph of how it connects to other Notions/Notes alongside it. I set the graph to show not only the 1st level links, as that only shows the links already apparent from the text I have in front of me. I set it to show 3 steps out at the start, and reduce to two steps when there are more links. That way you see the entire vicinity of a Notion, and it may trigger additional perspectives and associations. It’s a way to leverage the ‘weak ties’ between Notions, which is the place where new information generally comes from.
Below you see two graphs for a Notion called ‘3D to navigate information’, gleaned from a 2006 blogpost I wrote. The first image is the graph for direct links, showing two links. The second image is the graph for a distance of 2 (links of links), and it shows a much wider picture. It may well be that seeing that graph being created alongside a Notion while I am writing it, leads to adding in another link.
The Notion ‘3D to navigate information’ is linked to two others, one on how the physical and information landscape overlap and correlate, and one about what I think would be useful functionality for social software tools.
If you look at the same graph with distance 2, the layer of additionally visible nodes show how my new Notion might be connected to things like online identity, using the environment to store memory and layered access to information. This triggers additional thoughts during the writing process.
I spin out notes and potential Notions from my project notes, as I encounter things in my work where some idea or thought jumps out. Those potential Notions I put in a folder called proto notions, inside my GotFP.
Processing notes and proto-notions
Both the notes and proto-notions I touch upon every now and then, further summarising them or adding explanation and perspective, rewording them, linking them to other notes (this is what Tiago Forte calls progressive summarising). Proto-notions may yet become Notes and not evolve into Notions. Some of what starts as a Note may become a Notion in the GotFP, but most will always remain notes. Most ‘factoids’, even if reworded and put into the context of why I find them interesting will always be Notes. Notions usually are about concepts pertaining to vision, values and practices. Linking them is a key part of those concepts, as it binds them into my network of concepts and thoughts, it puts them as atoms into the constellations that make up my perspective of things. Notes can be specific examples of Notions.
I previously described how I use certain tags and referencing and naming conventions for Notes and Notions.
Using Notions and Notes
I use Notions and Notes in my work directly, pulling them into project notes, by transclusion, or e.g. when writing project proposals. I regularly call them up in conversations when something related gets being discussed, so I can re-use parts of them.
I also use Notions to create new blogposts and presentations. Last month I gave two presentations which were entirely created from collating a few Notions and adding a line or two to have them flow over into each other. One was on government core (base) registers, the other on Ethics as a Practice. Two months ago I blogged about how I see the role of cities, and that too was constructed from Notions.
Next to actual output, I pull together Notions, and sometimes Notes in what I call ’emergent outlines’ (Söhnke Ahrens in his book about Zettelkasten calls them speculative outlines, I like emergence better than speculation as a term). These are brief lists to which I add Notions that I think together flow into a story. As I use transclusion I can read them using the underlying Notions. Emergent outlines are a lightweight and bottom-up way to write more, that has a much lower threshold than thinking up a writing project and sitting down trying to write it out.
Feedreading and Notes / Notions
Feedreading is a source for Notes, sporadically for Notions. I notice a rising need with myself for higher quality material as input. Blog reading is conversational to me, and for a long time I’ve been content with that conversation as it is. Now I more often want to look into things more deeply. A blog conversation is no longer mostly the endpoint and more frequently the starting point for an exploration, leading me down a trail of links deeper into a topic. In the past three months I’ve read more scientific articles than in the past 3 years I think. Scientific articles and other documents I keep in Zotero, and from my notes I reference the Zotero entry. This difference in how I perceive my feed reading will likely shift my focus to how to read those feeds much more ‘inside-out’, i.e. starting from a question or topic, and checking what specific people in my blogroll say about them. This is funcionality more or less missing from feed readers, so it may lead me to want to tinker some more.
This concludes the 4th part of describing how I use Obsidian. There’s one more coming, which is all about Obsidian’s functionality as a viewer on my markdown files: the use of workspaces.