In the past days I have been both exploring my process for second order note taking, and part of that is evaluating tools. I’ve been trying the note taking process in both WordPress and Evernote. In parallel I have also been looking at other tools for note taking. I’ve looked at a few tools that say to have implemented the Zettelkasten method, but I don’t want tools that assume to shape my process. I want to shape my tools, based on my routines.

In terms of tools that support me, I want tools that increase networked agency. Tools that treat data as fully mine, the tool itself as a view on the data, and its interface(s) as queries on that data.

Between WP and Evernote, the first does that, the second most definitely not. At the same time Evernote makes note taking much easier than WP can ever do. This is not surprising as WP is a blogging tool that I am using as a wiki on my local host while Evernote was designed for note taking. From the other tools I looked at, Joplin and Obsidian stood out, both tools that use markdown. Joplin because it is open source, allows easy import from Evernote, and can save webpages locally, can sync with Nextcloud allowing easy mobile access. It does store notes in a sqllite database which makes accessing my data more difficult.

Obsidian is still in beta but already looks pretty amazing to me (similar to Roam it seems). It operates on text files in a folder, thus allowing direct access through my file system to any data I add. It provides a view on that data that allows easy linking between notes, and you can split off any number of panes in the interface with whatever content or query. This means you can have a variety of notes open, pin them, see what links to what etc. There is also a graphical view, that allows you to explore notes based on the cloud of links they form. That makes it look a bit like the Brain of old. It’s all in markdown, so easy to use on mobile with a different client if I sync it through Nextcloud. I added the same notes I previously added to WP and EN in Obsidian, to experience differences and commonalities. In comparison with the other notes tools I tried a key difference is that I left this app open since I started it up this morning. A key difference with WP and EN is that I want to add notes to this tool. It does mean I need to relearn markdown, which has gone rusty since I last used markdown (in a locally hosted wiki), but of course it was easy to make a note and pin it to use as cheat sheet.

Obsidian screenshot, list and search pane on the left, a graphical overview middle top, a note middle bottom, and my markdown cheat sheet on the right

Having used Obsidian for a day, I am now wondering if I still need my local WP instance. The combination of Obsidian and Zotero which I started using for reading references even looks like something to replace Evernote with. This is the first time I’ve thought that in the past 4 years for longer than an hour.

I’ve been exploring my note taking, trying to shape it as a more deliberate practice. As part of that exploration I’ve been reading Sönke Ahrens ‘How to take smart notes’ on Luhmann‘s Zettelkasten (now digitised). More later on that book. What stands out in all things I find about note taking is the importance of taking time to process. Going through notes iteratively, at least once after you created them first.

My own main issue with a lot of the stuff I collect, is just that, it’s a collection. They’re not notes, so the collection mostly never gets used. Of course I also have a heap of written notes, from conversations, presentations I attended etc. There too a second step is missing, that of going through it to really digest it and lift the things out that are of interest to myself and taking note of that. Putting it into the context of the things I’m interested in. The thing I regularly do is marking elements in notes I took afterwards (e.g. marking them as an idea, an action, or something to blog), but that is not lifting them out of the original notes into a place and form where they might get re-used. Ahrens/Luhmann suggest to daily take time for a first step of processing rough notes (the thinking about the notes and capturing the results). Tiago Forte describes a process of progressive summarisation, every time you happen to go back to something you captured (often other’s content), for up to 4 iterations.

There are different steps to shape in such a process. There is how material gets collected / ends up in my inbox, and there’s the second stage of capturing things from it.
I started with looking at reading non-fiction books. With my new e-ink reader, it is easy to export any notes / markings I make in or alongside a book. Zotero is a good tool to capture bibliographic references, and allows me to add those exported notes easily. This covers the first step of getting material in a place I can process it.

The second step, creating notes based on me digesting my reading, I’m now experimenting which form that should take. There are several note apps that might be useful, but some assume too much about the usage process, which is a form of lock-in itself, or store it in a way that might create a hurdle further down the line. So, to get a feel for how I want to make those notes I am first doing it in tools I already use, to see how that feels in terms of low barrier to entry and low friction while doing it. Those two tools are a) Evernote (yes I know, I want to ditch Evernote, but using it now is a way of seeing what is process friction, what is tool friction), and b) my local WordPress instance, that basically works as a Wiki for me. I’m adding key board shortcuts using TextExpander to help easily adding structure to my notes. I’ll do that for a few days to be able to compare.

I made 7 note cards in the past 2 days, and as the number grows, it will get easier to build links between them, threading them, which is part of what I want to experience.

I’m intrigued by Zettelkasten, that Roel Groeneveld describes in his blog. Zettelkasten means filing cards cabinet, so in and of itself isn’t anything novel. It’s all in the described process of course, which originates with systems thinker Niklas Luhmann. I recognise the utility of having lots of small notes, and the ability to link them like beads on a necklace, which is much like the ‘threading cards‘ I mentioned here recently. A personal knowledge management process is extremely important, and needs to be supported by the right tools. Specifically for more easily getting from loose notions, to emergent patterns, to new constructs. Balancing stock and flow. Zettelkasten coming from a paper age seems rather focused on stock though, and pays less attention to flow. Crucially it encourages links between notes, a flow-like aspect, but to me often the links carry more meaning and knowledge than the notes/nodes it connects. The reason for linking, the association that makes a link apparent is an extremely valuable piece of info. Not sure how that would find its place in the Zettelkasten process, as while links exist, they’re not treated as a thing of meaning in their own right. Also some of the principles of the process described, especially atomicity, seem prone to creating lots of overhead by having to rework notes taken during a day. That type of reworking is I think best done in the style of gardening: when you are searching for something, or passing through some notes anyway, you can add, change, link, split off etc.

Tossed out filing card cabinets of the Manchester City Library (NH/USA), image license CC BY SA

In terms of tools, I am on the look out for something other than Evernote that I currently use. What I like about it is that it ‘eats anything’ and a note can be an image, text, web page, book, pdf, or a drawing, which I can add tags to, and can access through scripts from e.g. my todo tool, etc. Zettelkasten is fully text based in contrast. As a strong point that means it can be completely created from plain text files, if you have a tool that allows you to create, edit, search and put them in an overview extremely fast. But very often ideas are contained in images as well, so dealing with media is key I think. The Zettelkasten tool The Archive is worth a try, but lacks precisely this type of media support. Devonthink on the other hand is way over the top, and let’s one loose oneself in its complexity. The Archive keeps things simple, which is much better, but maybe too simple.