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.

I’ve been using Obsidian a little over 100 days now. So, with over three months of daily use it’s good to review the experience. I will do this in some detail, and it will span several blogposts. To explain both the evolution over time, as well as how I currently work with Obsidian in practice in a more detailed way, as Frank (rightly!) requested.

My system leads the use of tools

First off, a key point to make. I am using a system for myself to plan and do my work, maintain lots of things in parallel, and keep notes. That system consists of several interlocking methods, and those methods are supported by various tools. What I describe in my review of 100 days of using Obsidian, is not about Obsidian’s functionality per se, but more about how the functionality and affordances of Obsidian fit with my system and the methods in that system. With a better fit with my system and methods, I can reduce friction in my methods, and reduce the number of tools I need to use in support of those methods. At the same time, the use of a new tool like Obsidian influences the practical application of methods, it creates a different daily practice. Those shifts are of interest as well.

What I started with

The image below shows you how my overall system of work and taking in information looks. It’s a personal knowledge management system, that both takes care of the networked nature of making sense of new information and evolving interests, as well as the more hierarchical nature of working on projects and executing tasks. Both start with my general notion of where I want to be headed (‘goals’).

I used different tools for different parts of that image:

  • Excel (orange) for: listing goals (3-10 yrs out), the 3 month planning cycle I keep (along the lines of ’12 week year’), the habits I want to maintain or introduce, and tracking of those habits and project progress/fulfillment.
  • Things (red) for: areas of my life I’m active in, projects within those areas, and tasks in those projects.
  • WordPress (darkblue) for: daily logs (which I started keeping end of April this year, on an internal WP instance), week logs (internal draft blogposting), and of course for public blogging itself.
  • Evernote (blue) for: a list of all my current interests/favourite topics, all types of note taking, related to my work/projects and my information diet.
  • Other tools (grey) come into play for feedreading (Readkit), blocking time (Nextcloud calendar in Thunderbird), book reading (Kindle, Nova2), keeping references (Zotero since June, Evernote before that)

While evaluating my system, I tried Obsidian

In the spring I had started evaluating my system. I found I was not keeping up several parts of it, had fallen out of practice with a number of elements, and had changed some of my practices without adapting the flow in my tools. It had therefore suffered in its usefulness. Being at home because of the pandemic allowed me to allocate some time to take a better look, and to start testing some changes. On the tool side of that evaluation, I want to get rid of Evernote (as a silo and single point of failure) since some years.

One change in my system I was experimenting with, was keeping better atomic notes about the core concepts and key elements in how I work. Late last year I thought a bit about atomic notes, i.e. cards with individual snippets, and bringing those collections of snippets and the process of curating them and threading them into e.g. a blogpost or a line of argumentation. In January I came across Zettelkasten and took a closer look, in the spring I read a book about Zettelkasten and knew I wanted to adopt parts of it into my system (linking notes first and foremost, and storing references in a better way). That’s when I started using Zotero to keep references, and stopped doing that in Evernote (Zotero can take website snapshots and store them locally, something I used Evernote for a lot. On top of it if you give Zotero a reference it will find and store a PDF of a scientific article, very useful to read more deeply).

I started to keep atomic notes, sometimes called ‘evergreen notes’ which I to myself now call Notions, capturing concepts from my work (so not work related notes, but conceptual notes) first in both WordPress and Evernote simultaneously. WordPress (a local instance on my laptop, not online) because I already used it for day logs since April, and it allows relatively easy linking, and Evernote because it is much easier to keep notes there than WP, but linking in Evernote is much harder. I also played with some note taking tools, and that’s when I came across Obsidian. It immediately felt comfortable to use it.

How after 100 days Obsidian has covered my system

After over 100 days of Obsidian my use of it has expanded to include a much larger part of my system. Along the way it made my use within that system of Things, Evernote and almost Excel obsolete. It also means I sharpened my system and practice of using it again. This is how the tool use within my system, with the use of Obsidian in green, now looks

Obsidian now contains some 1200 mark down files. 500 are Notions, atomic notes almost exclusively about my own concepts and other core concepts in my work, in my own words. Mostly taken from my own blogposts, reports, and presentations over the years. The other 700 are some 115 day log / week log / month maps, about 100 proto-notions and notes that contain conceptual info to keep from other sources, and some 500 work and project related notes from conversations and work in progress. This sounds as a very quantitative take, and it is. I have in the past months definitely focused on the volume of ‘production’, to ensure I could quickly experience whether the tool helped me as intended. I think that monitoring the pace of production, which I’ve done in the past months, will no longer be relevant by the end of this year. I used the quantity as a lead indicator basically, but have been on the lookout for the lag indicators: is building a collection of linked notes leading to new connections, to more easily creating output like blogposts and presentations, having concepts concisely worded at hand in conversations to re-use? And it did. One very important thing, central to the Zettelkasten method, I haven’t really tried yet however, which is to use the current collection as a thinking tool. Because I was more focused on creating notions first.

On Obsidian as a tool

There are four things in Obsidian that are to me key affordances:

  1. it is a viewer/editor, a fancy viewer/editor, on top of plain markdown text files on my laptop. It builds its own local database to keep track of links between notes. Whatever happens to Obsidian, my data is always available.It being ‘just’ a viewer is important because Obsidian is not open source and won’t be. There is a potential open source alternative, Foam, but that tool is not yet developed enough.
  2. being ‘just’ an editor means using regular text files, it feels like coming full circle, as I have for the most part been note taking in simple text files since the late ’80s. Textfiles always had my preference, as they’re fast and easy to create, but it needed a way to connect them, add tags etc., and that was always the sticking point. It means text files are available outside of Obsidian. This allows me to access and manipulate notes from outside Obsidian without issue, and I do (e.g. on mobile, but also with other software on my laptop such as Tinderbox that I used for the images in this post).
  3. it makes linking between notes (or future links) as simple as writing their filenames, which is supported by forward search while you’re typing.
  4. it shows graphs of your note network, which to me is useful especially for 2 steps around a note you’re working on.

I use Obsidian as simple as possible; I do not use plugins that are supposed to help you create notes (e.g. the existing Zettelkasten and Day log plugin), because they make assumptions about how to create notes (how to name them, which links to create in them). I created my own workflow for creating notes to avoid functionality lock-in in Obsidian: day logs are created manually by keyboard shortcuts using Alfred (previously TextExpander), as are the timestamps I use to create unique file names for notes.

Timeline of three months of Obsidian use

Below is a timeline of steps taken in the past months, which gives you an impression of how my use of Obsidian in support of my system has evolved.

November 2019 I discuss the concept of cards (i.e. atomic notes), curation and writing output

January 2020 I first looked at the Zettelkasten method and some tools suggested for it. I mention the value of linking notes (possible in Evernote, but high friction to do)

May 2020, read the book about Zettelkasten by Sönke Ahrens, adopted Zotero as a consequence.

7 July started with deliberately making Zettelkasten style atomic notes in WordPres en Evernote in parallel, to move away from collecting as dumping stuff in your back yard. Atomic notes only concerning my concepts in my work.

8 July started using Obsidian, after having just started creating ‘evergreen’ notes

15 July having made 35 atomic notes, I make a new association between two of them for the first time.

28 July I’m at 140 conceptual notes. I named the collection Garden of the Forking Paths. I switched my digital tickler files (a part of the GTD method) from Evernote to Obsidian. I had stopped using them, but now it felt normal again to use them. The post I wrote about this, was made from atomic notes I already had made beforehand.

5 August I find I haven’t used WordPress anymore for my day logs ever since starting with Obsidian, and that I also added week logs (an automatic collation of day logs), and monthmaps (a mindmap at the start of the month listing key upcoming things and potential barriers). My Evernote use dropped to 4 notes in 4 weeks, whereas it was 47 the 4 weeks before it. After almost a month of Obsidian, I am getting more convinced that I am on a path of ditching Evernote.

12 August I renamed my ‘evergreen’ notes, that contain my concepts mostly, to Notions, as the generic word notes doesn’t make a distinction in the character of some the things I’m putting into notes.

12 August I write a first long form blogpost made from Notions

13 August Added Nextcloud synchronisation of the note files, allowing mobile viewing and editing of notes

31 August I keep track of tasks in Obsidian and drop Things. There was a time I always did such things in straightforward text files. Being able to do so again but now with a much better way of viewing and navigating such text files and the connections between them, makes it easy to ‘revert’ to my old ways so to speak.

13 September I am at 300 Notions. 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. I expect that going forward other people’s ideas and notions will become more important in my collection.

13 September I describe how I make notions and notes

September / October I increasingly use my conceptual Notions as reference while in (online) conversations.

5 October I gave a client presentation (about the Dutch system of base registers) pulled together completely from existing Notions.

7 October added a ‘decision log’ to my note keeping.

16 October 100 days in Obsidian, 500 Notions and about 700 other types of notes.

16 October reinstated a thorough Weekly Review (a component of GTD) into my system.

21 October I gave a brief presentation Ethics as a Practice, the second this month pulled together from existing notes.

This all as a first post looking back on 100 days of Obsidian.
Part 2: Hierarchy and Logs
Part 3: Task management
Part 4: Writing connected Notions, Ideas, and Notes
Part 5: Flow using workspaces
Part 6: Obsidian development vs my usage

Screenshot of my current digital garden

The blogpost I posted earlier today, on cities as a source of inspiration, is the first one that fully came from stringing some of my notes together. An earlier posting, a meta one about note taking, was based on notes, but this one is basically just putting notes together, and writing a few sentences to make them flow over into each other. With a twist though. Because the notes used as a basis are already in full text form (although mostly in Dutch), there wasn’t much writing involved in bringing the point across I started out with. In the end that freed up time that was then used to write additional things, ending up in a conclusion that wasn’t part of the source notes, but in itself ended up as new content for those notes. It think that is a nice example of writing/blogging as thinking out loud.

The source notes themselves were created last week. And while creating them I noticed for the first time that the notes in the Garden of the Forking Paths, form a thinking tool, not a collection, a garden, not a back yard. I started out with just making one or two notes on cities, and while thinking how it connected to other notions already in there, additional patterns stood out to me. Additionally I couldn’t remember where I got some of the notions (e.g. cities being efficient, cities being crossroads), and that had me searching for the literature I got it from in the first place adding them to my reference library (in Zotero), which in turn teased out additional patterns ending up in notes. Feedback happening, in short. At first it bothered me that what I was doing (‘making just one or two notes on cities’) took much longer than expected, but then I realised it was an effect I intended to create, and that thinking takes time. That it took me beyond those one or two notes, but not in a yak-shaving kind of way, but as an act of creation.

Both those effects, new things rising because of writing about existing ones, and spending time thinking to be able to create, are most welcome ones.

As I write this, I realise I’ve developed a dislike for the word ‘notes’ in the past weeks to describe the plantings in my digital garden, as it invokes primary/raw note taking mostly. Maybe I should call them ‘notions’ instead. My Garden of the Forking Paths now has 234 ‘notions’, and another batch that size of ‘notes’ outside it, but somewhat interlinked with it (think day logs, tickler files, ideas, raw notes, thoughts and snippets for projects). That second batch basically is a folder structure similar to my existing Evernote notebooks.

Taking Notes
The wiki I used to take both primary and secondary notes in, in 2006. It was wikkawiki which I ran locally on my laptop, with the css adapted to that of my then employer.

I just realised that it’s a month this Friday that I started using markdown textfiles and Obsidian for notes, and that I have not used my local WordPress install at all during that time, nor Evernote much. I made 4 notes in EN in a month: 1 bookmark, 1 shopping list, 2 call logs. Compared to 47 notes the month prior to it.

Day logs and work notes are now in markdown files, internal wikipages are now my Garden of the Forking Path notes in markdown files. Those were previously in my local WP install. Bookmarks aren’t mindlessly send to Evernote at a touch of a button anymore, with the vague intention of reading later and/or having it come up in a search at some point in the future. Reading ‘later’ never really works for me (Instapaper never succeeded in really landing in my workflow). So now it’s either I read it and want to keep it for reference by adding a snapshot to Zotero, or I did not read it and trust that if it’s important it will resurface at some point again. Other elements in my use of Evernote I’ve recreated on the go in text files quite naturally: Folders for each of my areas of activity match up with what I have as Notebooks in EN.

It feels like coming full circle, as I have for the most part been note taking in simple text files since the late ’80s. I started paying for Evernote in 2010, after using the free version for a while, and used wiki in parallel to text files for note taking for a number of years before that (2004-2008 I think). Textfiles always had my preference, as they’re fast and easy to create, but it needed a way to connect them, add tags etc., and that was always the sticking point. Tools like Obsidian, Foam and others like it are mere viewers on top of those text files in my file system. Viewers that add useful things like visualising connections, and showing multiple queries on the underlying files in parallel. It adds what was missing. So after a month, I am getting more convinced that I am on a path ditching Evernote.

Time to start syncing some of my notes folders to my phone (through NextCloud), and choose a good editor for Android, so I can add/use/edit them there too.

Today I came to the realisation that my ‘x years ago on this day you blogged…‘ widget is a great way to every day do a recap of those postings and capture the ideas in it in my notes. In a year it would mean all readily apparant ideas mentioned here since 2002 would be included in my notes as well as their interconnectedness, in two years it would mean I’d have had a second iteration on it.

I also realised that after a year (or two), having processed my blog that way, I could do the same thing on the thus emerging collection of notes themselves, as I have a way of surfacing all notes from e.g. July 12th in any given year.

This is akin to how I am my own blog’s most intensive reader already, reading back and forth, following links etc. But it could now be aimed at capturing some of that in a different form than the blog’s timeline.

Probably I could do the same for my existing Evernote collection, although I suspect it would be much less fruitful. My blog is my own writing, output resulting from my own thinking, doing and curation. A large chunk of my Evernote is a snippet collection from around the web without much context. Except for elements I already marked during note taking for action or as ideas, those would be easily findable.