After writing 700 Notions I see a pattern emerge w.r.t short, ‘right’ and long ones

Then last week I came across this click-baity posting by Tim Denning, advocating max 200-word posts to reach ‘virality’, while reflecting on my blogwriting pace. Checking the length of my Notions, I looked at the ones that feel just right. Those are around the 200 mark. I suppose they are bite sized enough to not have to make a ‘mental summary’ during reading.

I also looked at other Notions:
Shorter ones are not developed enough, basically stubs.
Longer Notions are mostly not edited enough, either there are multiple notions packed into one, or I’m unclear in my formulation or understanding or both.
The ‘right’ ones fit much better into emergent outlines, where I collate several Notions.

I started calling the optimal notion length ‘Notion Mass Index’, and an NMI of 200 seems a healthy one. (This blogpost has 194 words, the Notion it is based on has 177.)

This morning I watched parts of Andy Matuschak’s stream that shows him working on processing his thoughts and notes from a book he read.
It’s about 100 minutes of seeing him making notes….

There is much value in getting an insight in how other people actually do their work (the master-apprentice model is important for a reason), and it is not often you get to see how knowledge workers organise and do the things they do. It’s why I e.g. documented the way I currently use Obsidian for my PKM system. As a resource for my future self, and as a way to offer others a glimpse so they may take some part of it that fits with their own practices.

Andy Matuschak basically took the idea of live streaming your gaming adventures, to live stream a note taking session. And it’s highly fascinating. Because it shows it is actual work that takes time and energy, digesting a book, following lines of thought, doubling back, referencing earlier material, looking things up in the book in question etc. Also of interest is he is focusing on the tensions that what he read causes with other things he knows and has read. He’s not just lifting things out that chime with him, but the things that cause friction. Because in that friction lies the potential of learning.

I had come across this video earlier already this summer, and then only watched the first few minutes. Then I was expecting something else, that the video would show his set-up. I didn’t have time to watch someone go through their actual process. Now I re-encountered it in a different context and the video made much more sense this time 🙂

Browsing through Andy Matuschak’s public Digital Garden is also interesting to do.

Extending my note / notion collection in the past three months has emerged a new tagging practice.

I’ve started tagging notes that I encounter with the keywords that led me to wander through the notes and encounter such a note.

A significant difference between my current notes collection and my previous use of Evernote for it, is the ease of linking between notes. Adding new notes means linking them to relevant existing ones. Following those links later means I end up in notes from a thought or association that led me down a path. If one of those notes strikes me as relevant I find myself adding tags based on the thoughts or associations that led me there.

This is an extension of my existing tagging practices, as it adds traces of my searches through the collection of notes, or rather my findlings.

Existing tagging practices already included adding tags naming the reasons and associations why I made the note, what triggered my interest. (An article ‘the 10 biggest tech developments to watch in 2021’ might be tagged ‘prediction’ and ‘2021’ e.g.)
I also use as tags the terms with which I think my future self should be able to find them, tags allowing search in different languages (I write notes in 3 language, but have notes with parts in at least 4 other languages which I can read ok enough to keep the original), and tags denoting some time, status or action (urgent, waiting, sharpen etc, year/month/day of creation) which taken together means usually tags are words that do not feature in the content of the note otherwise (which would already surface in a full text search). I don’t use tags as objective descriptors much, as mostly those terms will be in the article or note already, and they don’t add much meaning for me other than as pretend categories.

The way I look at other people’s tags is how their use of different words than mine for the same things is an expression of socio-professional distance. Others likely will be using their own jargon for things, and the more different that is, the more likely you are part of a different community than the circles I operate in. This lets me use tags as a pivot to find other people and communities of interest and connected to my own current interest. (Allowing me to e.g. extend my feed reading by social distance to additional voices unlike the ones I already follow. This was what I appreciated in the Delicious bookmarking service, as it showed you the tags used for your bookmarks by others, and let you navigate to their collection and profile).

With the new tagging practice, adding tags to a note over time based on how/why I found that note will allow me to see how my own language evolves. This leads I think to a similar measure of socio-professional distance, but now between my past, current and future selves. It will be highly interesting to watch over time if that happens.

Tags to me are a tool to aid associative emergence of connections and meaning, and I think this new tagging practice I find myself adopting will aid in that.

This is a brief description of how I make my ‘notions’, which are permanent notes I keep as part of my private digital garden (titled ‘Garden of the Forking Paths‘). I choose a title and type “.nu” which inserts the current timestamp (as shown above in the title), ensuring unique titles. I use Alfred (and previously used TextExpander) for such keyboard shortcuts. This means I don’t have to use e.g. the ‘Zettelkasten’ plugin for my note taking tool Obsidian, or deal with the fact that such plugins never precisely match your personal preferences. It also means I can change my process anytime I like.

If the notion is based on a blogpost or presentation or other material I wrote, then I will change the timestamp (and the tags at the bottom) to reflect the date of that post / presentation / document.

Then I write the content of the notion.

I include at least one link to an existing notion e.g. something like [[Notes input tactics 20200728173504]], but usually more.

If I think it needs more work then I can do now, I add the tag #aanscherpen (Dutch for ‘sharpen’)

Where applicable I include references of one or more of three types:
Ref: something I just directly name here, a person, book, or ‘my presentation 2018 at conference X’
Ref blog: the url to one of my own bloposts
Ref Zotero: something that can be found in my reference library in Zotero.

I add tags of different varieties, either inline or underneath the note’s content:

  • tags naming the reasons and associations why I made the note, what triggered my interest. (An article ‘the 10 biggest tech developments to watch in 2021’ might be tagged ‘prediction’ and ‘2021’ e.g.)
  • tags as the terms with which I think my future self should be able to find them,
  • tags allowing search in different languages (I write notes in 3 language, but have notes with parts in at least 4 other languages which I can read ok enough to keep the original),
  • tags denoting some status or action (urgent, waiting, sharpen etc)
  • tags which look like #2020-, #2020-09, #2020-0913, which represent the year, year and month, and date of the creation of the note. This is done by using a shortcut (“/now”) as well. These tags allow me to search by year, month and exact date, as well as allow me to create timelines if needed. E.g. the screenshot below shows my Notions dated July 2003, found by searching the tag #2003-07

This morning I wrote my 300th notion, the term I use for my permanent notes (it was on how the societal impacts of novel infrastructures change the scope and paths of your empathy). These notions I started writing from July 8th, so it took about two months. I hadn’t written almost any in the past week or two, and that felt uncomfortable. Thinking about it I realised I wasn’t going through my old presentations as much anymore, and just picking a presentation from the list helped me get back into it. Regularly those presentations contain 1 idea per slide, so they are a rich source. A second much used source are my existing blog posts. Each day I look at which postings I created on this date in the previous 17 years of this blog.

These first 300 notions are mostly my notions, the things that are core to my thinking about my own work, and the things I internalised over the past 25 years or so, of doing that work. Likely there will be a point where I’ve worked through most of my existing material, and new notions will come more from reading novel material, reading other people’s material. This will take more effort I expect, because I’d need to digest my reading and think about it before lifting out the bits I want to keep. That’s different from what is now basically transcribing my slides or my old blogposts. Likely it will need a slightly different process, with more notes in the process of turning into notions in parallel.