Note Making: Information Storage and Archiving strategies

Since this is a Digital Garden to help me reflect and store information, I should ramp up my note-taking skills. Here's every interesting quote or idea I found about taking notes, capturing information, and connecting ideas.

Every Personal Knowledge Management quote I found interesting.

Reading about note-taking and personal knowledge management has been my hobby and prefered method of procrastination for a couple years now. It has resulted in this wiki, and in my opinion made me significantly more productive in both my studies and my job.

A summary of my approach to note-taking is available in my Personal Wiki blog post, but this article is a deep dive into different kinds of note-taking (like zettelkasten, commonplace books), different approaches to capturing, editing and organizing data that I found interesting from around the web, and even links to more resources and inspiration like Maggie Appleton’s list of Digital Gardens, or Nikita Voloboev’s list of personal wikis (his wiki is a marvelous example of a note-taking system on its own, and greatly inspired this site).


As a summary, the Zettelkasten method follows a workflow with three steps:

Zettelkasten relies more heavily on linking than tags/searching. This is because of the use of smaller, more granulated Zettels which interlink to represent a “thought trail” (a linked list of Zettels).

In my case I prefer big chunky notes + search, but we’ll see.

“Notes (both your notes and highlights) should be turned into explicit form as soon as possible. As of now, your notes are implicit at best, and would therefore lose meaning & context quickly.

Think of it like jotting down “pencil” to remind yourself to return a pencil to your classmate. After a couple of days, seeing that reminder “pencil” won’t make sense anymore. Otherwise, if you put it this way: “Return pencil to Sara” then you won’t have any problems no matter how much time has passed.

The point is, every bit of implicit-ness must be stated clearly in words. (You can say this actually future-proofs your notes)”

“To counteract [the bias of being overconfident about your memory], write as if you’re writing for others. If only the current you can understand what you’re saying in your notes, then the notes won’t be usable in the future. Technically speaking, you are going to become a different person in the future, so you might as well write as if you’re trying to talk to someone else.” – LeanAnki

From Backlinks are Bad Links

Connecting notes is very simple. Place a link, use the Folgezettel Technique, create a tag or something like that. But this does not connect knowledge. On the other hand, connecting conclusions and premises creates arguments which is some kind of knowledge.

Capturing this explicit reasoning [of relating contexts] is the very thing that makes linking truly productive by creating a network of meaningful connected knowledge. Without explanation, without reason why there is connection at all, there is just mindless linking without knowledge connection.

Argues that the importance of links between notes lies in “link context”: the text surrounding or composing the link, that hopefully describes the relationship and comparison between concepts, etc.

It also argues a deep zettelkasten will make you pay cognitive overhead and opportunity cost on deciding whether to click each link or not, reducing your overall productivity.

“You see, built into every single note in Luhmann’s system is one requirement: he must decide where the note belongs. It forces associations, and associations stand as the fundamental building block of human memory. One must decide if the note is associated with this or something else. It is a comparative schema built into the very root of Luhmann’s antinet zettelkasten, which surfaces the magic of his system.”

Notes from Luhmann’s Original Paper on the Zettelkasten

“Communicating with Letterboxes”

The entirety of these notes can only be described as a disorder, but at the very least it is a disorder with non-arbitrary internal structure. Some things will get lost (versickern), some notes we will never see again.

On the other hand, there will be preferred centers, formation of lumps and regions with which we will work more often than with others. There will be complexes of ideas that are conceived at large, but which will never be completed; there will be incidental ideas which started as links from secondary passages and which are continuously enriched and expand so that they will tend increasingly to dominate system. To sum up: this technique guarantees that its order which is merely formal does not become a hindrance but adapts to the conceptual development.

The second mind needs a number of years in order to reach critical mass. Until then, it functions as a mere container from which we can retrieve what we put in. This changes with its growth in size and complexity. On the one hand, the number of approaches and occasions for questions increases. The notebox becomes a universal instrument. You can place almost everything in it, and this not just ad hoc and in isolation, but with internal possibilities of connections [with other contents].

Me: maybe this made more sense pre google? Luhmann makes a big emphasis in the zettelkasten as an opportunity for introducing noise and dialogue (he calls it a conversational partner multiple times) into reflection. This is kinda lost in a personal wiki, but how valuable is dialogue if the work we want to do is not as creative?

Having a short-term and a long-term cache with nightly batch processing

“In Taking Smart Notes, Luhmann is described as transferring the important thoughts from the day into Zettel every evening. Sheffler, on the other hand, keeps a gap of at least 24 hours between taking down engagement notes and deciding what belongs in the long-term store. A gap of time allows the initial excitement over an idea to pass, so that only the things which still seem important the next day get into long-term notes. He also points out that this system enforces a small amount of spaced repetition, making it more likely that content is recalled later.”

The author himself remarks he doesn’t do this, and writes directly in the zettelkasten instead.

The Zettelkasten Method

Interpreting Other People’s Ideas when Connecting Zettels

Without knowing what you’re working on it’s really hard for you to know why an idea is interesting to you. It has no context.

The linking comes when you interpret the ideas for your own work. While you’re reading you’ll think “oh, this reminds me of that other idea I had about xyz.” That’s when you write your new zettel, interpreting the work of someone else in light of what you’re working on, and link it to notes of a similar thought line already stored in your zettelkasten.

Source: Writing.Bobdoto.Computer

Commonplace Books

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity, and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each one is unique to its creator’s particular interests but they almost always include passages found in other texts, sometimes accompanied by the compiler’s responses. They became significant in Early Modern Europe.

“Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (from Greek tópos koinós, see literary topos) which means “a general or common topic”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings, such as John Milton’s example. Scholars now understand them to include manuscripts in which an individual collects material which have a common theme, such as ethics, or exploring several themes in one volume. Commonplace books are private collections of information, but they are not diaries or travelogues.

In 1685 the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote a treatise in French on commonplace books, translated into English in 1706 as A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, “in which techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, speeches were formulated. Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such key topics as love, politics, or religion. Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective. source: wikipedia

Related Reading: Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains

WebSeitz on the uses for a Wiki

“Suppose you’re thinking deeply about something. You’ll stop often. Get stuck… You’ll pull ideas from all kinds of places, often including technical ideas only a tiny handful of people can be expected to know. And you’ll want to use those ideas as rapidly as you are able, freely associating. And yet almost all of these actions violate the conventional wisdom about how to build an audience and engagement.

A natural response to the above is: well, why not just do the thinking in private, then? Why impose it on the public at large?

This is a false dichotomy. There’s a very large gap between “think and write for just oneself”, and “try to write for the largest possible audience”. And different types of creative work are best done at different places within that gap.

There’s something strangely difficult in writing just for oneself. As far as I can tell, almost no-one can do it productively. Most people find this: you think you understand something, then try to explain it to others, and find your understanding has important holes. Or you find that when you speak to others you naturally improve your explanations.

As a summary to WebSeitz’s Wiki philosophy, he proposes Wiki notes can be used for projects (with project logs and spinning off new notes), goals (tracking them and the steps we take to reach them), values, reflections on topics, and tracking areas of your life.

He also proposes tracking ideas in an Idea List:

Whenever you:

Then you should capture it in its own note.

I think this is a lower bar than I use for my own notes, but I will try this method for a while and see where it leads me. I like the idea of capturing all things I find surprising, and don’t think I have that many creative ideas in a day, but let’s see where it leads me.

“Transformative Tools for Thought”

“Let’s return to the question that began the essay: how to build transformative tools for thought? Of course, we haven’t even precisely defined what such transformative tools are! But they’re the kind of tools where relatively low cost changes in practice produce transformative changes in outcome – non-linear returns and qualitative shifts in thinking. This is in contrast with the usual situation, where a small change in practice causes a small change in results.”

Transformative Tools for Thought

On the Mnemonic Medium:

Memory systems can be used to build genuine conceptual understanding, not just learn facts: we can achieve this in part through the aspiration to virtuoso card writing, and in part through a narrative embedding of spaced repetition that gradually builds context and understanding.

Mnemonic techniques such as memory palaces are great, but not versatile enough to build genuine conceptual understanding: Such techniques are very specialized, and emphasize artificial connections, not the inherent connections present in much conceptual knowledge. The mnemonic techniques are, however, useful for bootstrapping knowledge with an ad hoc structure.

Memory is far more important than people tend to think: It plays a role in nearly every part of cognition, including problem-solving, creative work, and meta-cognition. The flip side is that memory systems themselves want to grow into other types of tools – tools for reading, tools for problem-solving, tools for creating, tools for attention management. That said, we don’t yet know what memory systems want to be. To reiterate: memory systems are in their infancy.

Essay (or tech?) idea: LLM meets TTFT to auto generate questions and answers and map them to anki, turning any text into mnemonic medium. How far are we from this being doable?

Prediction: No app based on the mnemonic medium will come in 5 years that reaches a critical amount of users. No “transformative” tool for thought coming in the near future. Defined as 1M+ users or more.

‘Thoughts On’ Journal

“There are certain subjects in your life you think about a lot. People, places, hobbies, health, plans, finances. For each subject that you might have ongoing thoughts about, start a separate “Thoughts On” journal. Whenever you have some thoughts on this subject, open up that file, write today’s date, then start writing.”

“I find it so useful to keep my thoughts on each subject together, because I can see my past thoughts and current thoughts in one place. I can see how my thoughts on this subject have evolved or keep repeating. Sometimes I think I have a new thought on a subject, so I open up the file and write it down, then afterwards I see I had that same thought a year ago and had forgotten about it. If you care about your thoughts, keep them.

Daily Journal, Derek Sivers

Assorted notes about notes and connected thought

Capture everything: Do not assume your brain will remember anything. Write it down ASAP. Use whatever will let you capture it quickest, whether that’s pen and paper or a digital solution.

Review and process: Make sure you actually look at the things you wrote down regularly and organize it. If it was an idea you need to act on (e.g. a topic for a blog post, or a reminder to look up a particular concept), add it to your task manager. If it was a thought for reference, add it to your ‘second brain’/note-taking/archive system, and add tags so you can find it easily later. Once processed, archive or delete the item from your capture system.

rosiecam, LessWrong

“I have been using plain text documents since 2001. I just make a new file with a YYYY-MM format and dump everything in there, and on the next month I start a new file. I keep them all in 1 folder.

It’s really simple to use and very searchable with grep. I like it because it’s all offline and doesn’t get in the way.

It becomes a brain dump of interesting links, notes about certain things I’m doing or whatever else I feel is worth jotting down at the time.”

nickjj on HackerNews (I just thought it was neat)

Johnny Decimal

From Johnny Decimal, A system to organise projects

Nobody can find anything any more, it’s time to get organised.

We give each category a number. Before the decimal: category id. After the decimal: auto-increasing file ID (for each new one you create).

None of the areas or categories overlap. There’s only one place anything can ever be. An important restriction of the system is that you’re not allowed to create any folders inside a Johnny.Decimal folder.

This means that you’ll never get lost in layers upon layers of folders. It also makes you create quite specific folders for each thing, ensuring that you can always find what you want.

Easily tell people where things are.

That’s a summary of what they suggest. Though I don’t know if I’d go all in on the indexing by numbers wagon, I do like the idea of using a depth-2-at-most file tree for easy retrieval and to improve discoverability.

I think this is one of those things that sounds nice in theory but would be a nightmare to implement in practice, for any team bigger than 5 people. Just imagining trying to make the teams from different provinces adopt our same indexing system sounds like it would take 4 or 5 meetings, and somebody would still get it wrong on either end. It’s a huge coordination problem.

But maybe a small squad system could work.


“Let me introduce the word “hypertext” to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.”

“It may contain summaries, or maps of its contents and their interrelations; it may contain annotations, additions and footnotes from scholars who have examined it.”

“Let me suggest that such an object and system, properly designed and administered, could have great potential for education, increasing the student’s range of choices, his sense of freedom, his motivation, and his intellectual grasp.”

“Such a system could grow indefinitely, gradually including more and more of the world’s written knowledge. However, its internal file structure would have to be built to accept growth, change and complex informational arrangements. The ELF is such a file structure.”



LYT is a way to take in, process, and link captured information in order to turn that information into knowledge, with the expressed purpose of bettering one’s life. Though, a zettelkasten regularly benefits the user in the same way—far beyond its expressed purpose—LYT comes with a much taller order. What are beneficial byproducts in zettelkasten are centered in LYT. And, it’s what’s centered in LYT that drew Nick into new note-taking territory.


Personal Knowledge Base by TKainRad

“Preserving information that is often needed but doesn’t fit in any proper documentation project.

In my case, these are things like the following:

Managing my personal knowledge base


Around thirty-one minutes into the interview, Popova explains how she takes notes on books:

As she reads, she creates an index at the front of the book that lists its most interesting ideas. Every time she encounters a passage relevant to one of these ideas she adds the page to the relevant line in the index. If its a new idea, she creates a new line for it. As she reads more, the index grows.

Get More Out of the Books You Read, LifeHacker

“I now read with a mind towards synthesis and distillation, where the idea of reading something without taking notes from it seems absurd.

Nate Liason

Synthesize things as you read.

Synthesize things as you read. Just because you’ve read something, doesn’t mean you’ve understood it; your brain has to come up with its own encoding. Whatever understanding things is, it’s related to compression. Which implies that you want to read and then restate in your own words, so that your mind is forced to compress the thing. Ideally several times, in varying ways.

Once you’ve done this, you are much more likely to retain the thing, and to actually grasp it; and if you’re struggling with this exercise, then you don’t understand the thing and should go back and look at it again. (This is also a useful bullshit filter – try and restate someone’s claim in a different way, and see if it still holds up).

When I say ‘restate it in several different ways’, one useful way would be drawing it. Just draw a schematic representation of what you thing is being said. Another would be to state it as though you’re writing an article for simple words Wikipedia.

Source: Nabeelqu’s Advice post

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13 Jun 2020 - importance: 8