Replied to Indexing, filing systems, and the art of finding what you have - Austin Kleon (Austin Kleon)
A writer has to have a system for going back through old work and finding ideas.... But I have a ton of material that never makes it online, and I need to get it out of my notebooks and into an indexed and fully searchable system. I think this will be easiest if I do it as I go, and keep it simple: the minute I finish a notebook, go back and type the whole thing into a .txt file and save it. (And back it up.) I suspect that rather than being totally dreary, this transcribing step can also be a creative step, and I will see patterns of thought, generate new ideas…

What I have started doing last April, following a tip by Wouter Groeneveld during the first Dutch language Obsidian meet-up, is scanning notebooks (I use a camera above the notebook activated with a foot button, so you can quickly flip through it). Those scans are available as a folder in my notes app (obsidian.md), where I work through them to create an index first, and to turn them into notes within my digital system later when it becomes useful / of interest.

Ever since I was a child in primary school, my mental image of a year has been that of a circle, with January and December at the bottom, and July and August at the top (you’ll notice that this means the months aren’t evenly spaced around the circle in my mental image, spring takes up less of the circle than the fall. It’s a mental image, not a precise graph, likely influenced by my childhood sense of the endlessness of summers, and the long period of darkening days of fall and winter).


My mental image of a year ever since childhood

This Monday I completed a full circle around that image: I’ve been reading my own blog posts from previous years on each day, to see which of those I can take an idea or notion from to convert into a note in my digital garden (named ‘Garden of the Forking Paths‘). Peter has been going around the circle with me I read today (which in turn prompted me to write this), starting from my posting about it last year. He’s been reading his old blogposts every day, not just to reread but also to repair links, bring home images to self-host, clean up lay-out etc. I’m sure I am and have been my own blog’s most avid reader ever since I started writing in this space 19 years ago, and like Peter had been using my ‘on this day’ widget to repair old blog posts since I added the widget in early 2019.

Now I’ve come full circle on reading those blogposts for a year to mine them for their ideas and notions. The next cycle until the summer of 2022 I am adding a layer.

I will of course be making another round through my own blogposts like I did before. Because sometimes I missed a day, I haven’t repaired all of them each day, and I may take new meaning from them the next time I read them.
The layer I’m adding is also reviewing the personal notes I made on this day last year. This concerns the daily notes I make (a habit I started in April 2020), the other notes I’ve created on a certain date (work notes, ideas, travel etc), and indeed the blog posts I converted to notes dated on this day last year.

I see Frank has also picked up on Peter’s posting, and is embarking on a year of reading his own daily postings as well. Like Frank, I have never blogged on this day of the year since this blog started. And like for his blog, that has now changed.

Going in circles… I suspect life is circles, not turtles, all the way down. At least when you get a bit older that is.

I have changed the way I add date tags to my PKM notes. It used to be in the form of #2021- #2021-02-26. This as my main viewer on these notes, Obsidian, only supports search on full tag names, so searching on #2021- does not surface #2021-02 as tag. In December Obsidian introduced nested tags, which you can do by adding a / in between, like in #maintag/subtag/subsubtag etc. Normally I am adverse to sorting tags into hierarchies, tags are not categories after all. But for dates a nested hierarchy is useful: now I can add #2021/02/26 as tag, but in search that will return results for #2021/ and for #2021/02 too. It took a bit of time, but I’ve now replaced all my old date related tags with the new nested tags. An added benefit is that it cleans up my taglist enormously, as all tags related to a year are collapsed into one.

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.