Writing my Notions and notes these past months as part of my revamped personal knowledge management system, I realised as the collection grew that using the collection as a thinking tool also requires remembering more of what is in there. Not to make the notes superfluous but to have more top of mind material that serves as a starting point in interacting with the notes I have, as well as to be able to weave that more easily into current tasks and work. I also expect it to aid creativity, as a large chunk of creativity is recombination of previous elements, and remembering more elements lowers the threshold to new combinations.

Both in Andy Matuschaks notes and in this long article by Michael Nielsen about his use of Anki, spaced repetition is discussed in the context of note taking, and it got me thinking (I write ‘thinking’, but it was as much working through the mentioned material and distilling the concepts key to me from it, as it was chewing on it mentally and adding that to those same notes. Thinking is more interacting with my PKM, rather than sitting down looking into the middle distance as per Rodin’s bronze).

Anki is a tool (on laptop and mobile), that allows you to train your memory with flash cards and spaced repetition. I’ve used it in the past, e.g. to increase my vocabulary in French and to better read cyrillic script, but not with much energy or effect. It felt uncomfortable to be using card decks made by others for instance. Making my own flash cards from scratch always seemed a daunting task as well.

With my now much better set-up of notes however I have a great starting point to create my own decks of flash cards. As I am obviously not the first one to realise the potential of notes collections for flash cards, there is already an Obsidian plugin that pulls out questions and answers from my notes, and puts them into Anki. It comes with a wiki that documents how to set it up for yourself, including how to mark various types of questions and answers in your notes.

The key feature is, that I can add a question and its answer as a part of any note, and the plugin will pull it out and export that to Anki. It means I can e.g. end a note on three key aspects of distributed applications, with an Anki question and answer about those three aspects, which will get exported to Anki. Better still, I can add multiple questions in different forms about the same thing to that note, e.g. a follow-up question for each of the three aspects. Having multiple versions of basically the same question means I can phrase them for different memory hooks in parallel. This will enhance my own understanding, and allows me to place notions in specific contexts for instance.

I have now installed the Obsidian to Anki plugin in Obsidian, and the Anki Connect plugin in Anki (so it can ‘listen’ for automated input).

Some things I hope this will yield benefits for is:

  • making it a more deliberate choice what I want to remember long term
  • making it easier to remember the basics of a new field of interest
  • making the effort to remember a habit
  • improving my skilled reading
  • using remembered material to better connect new notes to the existing corpus
  • making it easier to internalise new / relatively new material

The way I’m approaching it is to have all my flash cards, whatever the topic, in the same single deck. This as I see my notes collection and all the stuff I remember as a interlinked network of topics and material. Splitting it up in some sort of thematic structure precludes a whole range of potential connections and associations, and is artificial in that it makes a current perhaps logical distinction the norm forever.

The coming 12 weeks or so I’ll work on two habits:

  • adding questions to my notes as I work on those notes, and
  • using Anki daily to review those questions.

Andy Matuschak has an interesting site where he publishes his notes collection as it grows. He does that as an experiment in ‘working with the garage door up’. One thing that makes browsing his note collection pleasant is how he uses sliding panes. When you follow a link to a new note it becomes a pane that slides over the one you are coming from. It means jumping back and forth between notes that form your path through them is easy. A kind of breadcrumb trail but one that keeps the content, not just the page links, available at a glance. This allows you to maintain an overall view while you browse his site.

For Obsidian there’s a plugin that provides sliding panes ‘Andy Matuschak style’ to my notes collection. I’ve installed it to see if it reduces friction that I currently feel if I want to quickly branch out into several notes, while not actually leaving the starting note or having to add panes in a way that easily results in a hard to grasp ‘tree map‘.

Today in a conversation at the IndieWebCamp East 2020 someone mentioned the book Ergodicity by Luca Dellanna. I haven’t decided yet if I would want to read the book, but one thing did stand out: the book is not just available in various e-book formats, but also as a Roam-research graph. This means it’s available as JSON data file, where various parts of the book’s content are interlinked. This allows you to non-linearly explore the book.

This allows you to load the book directly into your note taking environment. If you use Roam research.
I myself wouldn’t want to load someone else’s book sized content directly into my own collection of Notions. Only stuff in my own words goes in there. But I do think it would be a great experience to go through an entire book like that. So I am curious to do something like that, separate from my own vault of notes.

Dellanne claims to have invented the future of e-books, with roam-books, but of course there’s a long history of book hypertexts where links are a key part of the content and experience (Victory Garden an early hypertext novel was published in 1987). Eastgate’s tool Tinderbox also allows multiple types of visualisation to let you navigate through (and automatically manipulate) a chunk of content, and it too is saved and shareable in a XML format. Then again, a Roam-book could be a website just as much, except for the graph view.

He’s now also sending out a newsletter published as a Roam-research file. I can see the appeal, with things like block transclusion and graphical representation. In Obsidian doing something like that would be a collection of small interlinked text files. Which basically is a …. website… you would send in the mail. As both Roam and Obsidian are only viewers. So that might be something, offer a newsletter in e-mail format, as a pdf or as a interlinked collection of notes. Different formats for different viewers. The added benefit is that loading a newsletter into your note-taking tool means you can immediately put it through your own summarisation / processing, throwing out the things you’re not interested in, basing additional stuff on the things you are interested in. Another benefit is that if you use generic link titles (e.g. things like [[Indieweb]]) the newsletter will automatically link to your own mention of that term (and to previous mentions of it in earlier editions of the newsletter). I don’t want to load another project on Frank‘s plate, but it sure does sound like something he might be interested in exploring.

Over the past few weeks I have described how my usage of Obsidian has evolved since I first used in early July. This is the final post in the series. Where the previous posts described my personal knowledge management system, and how I use it for daily project work, task management, note taking, and flow using workspaces in this final post I want to mention a few more general points.

These points concern first my overall attitude towards using Obsidian as a tool, second its current functionality and third its future development of functionality.

First, what is most important to me is that Obsidian is a capable viewer on my filesystem. It lets me work in plain text files. That is my ‘natural’ environment as I was used to doing everything in text files ever since I started using computers. It’s a return of sorts. What Obsidian as a viewer views is the top folder you point it to. The data I create in that folder remains independent from Obsidian. I can interact with that data (mark down text files) through other means than just Obsidian. And I do, I use the filesystem directly to see what are the most recent notes I made. I add images by downloading or copying them directly into a folder within the Obsidian vault. I use Applescript to create new notes and write content to them, without Obsidian playing any role.
Next is that Obsidian allows me to rearrange how I see notes in different workspaces and lets me save both workspaces and searches, which means it can represent different queries on my files. In short Obsidian at this moment satisfies 3 important conditions for decentralised software: I own my own data, the app is a view, interfaces are queries. Had any one of those 3 but especially the first been missing, I would be exchanging one silo (Evernote) for the next. Obsidian after all is not open source. A similar tool Foam is. Foam is currently not far enough along their path of development to my taste, but will get there, and I will certainly explore making the switch.

When it comes to current functionality I am ensuring that I use Obsidian only in the ways that fit with those three conditions. There is some functionality I therefore refuse to use, some I likely won’t use, and some I intend to start using.

I refuse to use any functionality that creates functionality lock-in, and makes me dependent on that particular feature while compromising the 3 key conditions mentioned above. Basically this covers any functionality that determines what my data looks like, and how it is created (naming conventions, automatic lay-outs etc). Functionality that doesn’t stick to being a viewer, but actively shapes the way data looks is a no go.

There are other functions I won’t use because they do not fit my system. For instance it is possible to publish your Obsidian vault publicly online (at publish.obsidian.md, here’s a random example), and some do. To me that is unthinkable: my notes are an extension of my thinking and a personal tool. They are part of my inner space. Publishing is a very different thing, meant for a different audience (you, not me), more product than internal process. At most I can imagine having separate public versions of internal notes, but really anything I publish in a public digital garden is an output of my internal digital garden. Obviously I’d want to publish those through my own site, not through an Obsidian controlled domain.

Other functionality I am interested in exploring to use. For instance Obsidian supports using Mermaid diagrams, a mark-down style language. This is a way to use diagrams that can port to another viewer as well, and doesn’t get in the way if a viewer does not support them.

Mermaid is a way to describe a diagram, and then render it. Seen here both from within Obsidian.

Future functionality I will explore is functionality that increases the capabilities of Obsidian as a viewer. Anything to more intelligently deal with search results for instance, or showing notes on a time line or some other aspect. Being able to store graph settings in a workspace (graphs now all revert to the default when reloading a workspace). And using the API that is forthcoming, which presumably means I can have my scripts talk directly to Obsidian as well as the filesystem.

I’ve now been using Obsidian for 122 days, and it will likely stay that way for some time.

Having described my overall system and how I use Obsidian in more detail for daily work, task management and networked note writing, in this posting I turn to how I arrange for low friction flow in Obsidian.

An important functionality of Obsidian is that you can arrange different panes in which you can show files or other things. This is useful in various basic ways, e.g. to have a note you are editing open twice, once to edit, once seeing the preview. Or, as in the image below, to have a note open, with search results, a graph of connected ideas, and an overview of backlinks.

Basic pane layout in Obsidian, search results, a file, a network graph and backlinks
Basic pane layout in Obsidian, search results, a file, a network graph and backlinks

Every pane can be split horizontally and/or vertically, and again, up to the point it fills your entire screen. This allows me to for instance in a client conversation have my task list for that project, notes from our previous conversation as well as in-depth notes about the work, all in one overview, next to the file in which I’m taking notes from the ongoing meeting itself. While in parallel to all that I still have the ability to pull all kinds of other information or conceptual description during the meeting. This allows me to quickly bring up things in high detail, and easily switch between high-level and low-level things, organisational aspects and the topic at hand etc.

Where this functionality comes into its own is where you can save specific pane / screen set-ups and switch between them as different workspaces. Since recently there is a workspaces plugin that does this. You can also do it by hand or scripted in the background. The current set-up is always stored in a file called workspace in the Obsidian folder in your vault. It’s a JSON file describing the screen lay-out. If you copy and rename that, you have saved your workspace. If you put it back and reload Obsidian you have reinstated that workspace. The plugin does the same thing but smoothly from within Obsidian itself.

This means I can switch between workspaces at will, such as:

  • The daily start workspace (which includes today’s daylog, yesterday’s daylog, the root task list and month map, the quarterly goals and an #urgent search)
  • The weekly review workspace (quarterly goal list, weeklog, review template, root tasklist, monthmap)
  • The month map workspace (#urgent, root tasklist, last month map, this month map, quarterly goals)
  • The conference call workspace (Project main note, project task list, last call’s notes, new notes, project details)
  • Note writing (search, graph, pane with relevant other note(s), note being written)


The workspace I use at the start of the day: #urgent things on the left, today’s log and yesterday’s log in the middle, full taks list, quarterly goals, and month map on the right.

This list of handy workspaces may still grow over time I suspect for different aspects of my work.

There’s one more posting on my use of Obsidian left. It will be more of a summary, on what makes Obsidian work well for me, and why it fits my preferences.

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.

Ideas-greenhouse
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
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.