How To Turn Your Digital Clutter Into A Knowledge Base
I am a digital hoarder. I had no idea how many files I had on my computer until last month when I bought a new MacAir and the process of transferring files from Windows to Mac started.
It was like moving a house after two decades. I was hoarding information like my husband is hoarding physical stuff at our home.
I have been saving articles, blog posts, stories, emails, images, and snippets of writings for more than twenty years (since I bought my first laptop). I havn’t looked at the majority of the documents for years, and yet I can’t bring myself to delete them.
I know some of the files have to go, but others have nuggest that I could be useful articles, posts, and future books.
I needed to do something and do it fast. I am going on vacation next week, and my plate is already full with all the projects I need to finish before I leave. But I couldn’t stop myself from searching for a solution, and lo and behold, I found one.
After watching a number of YouTube videos and staying up till midnight for three nights in a row, I finally found a solution. From the past three days I have been building this system which will not only turn my current files into a repository of knowledge but will revamp my whole writing process.
It will take me some time to fully implement the new system, but I am so excited that I want to share the system with you now so that you, too can get started (provided I could get you as excited as I am).
I built this system based on three videos (listed at the end of this article) and by combining the various four elements from them.
Those elements are:
Obsidian Notes Taking App
Let me explain these one by one one.
Initially invented by Niklas Luhmann, a twentieth-century German sociologist who wrote hundreds of articles and over 70 books in his lifetime, Zettelkasten System is a system of taking notes and filing them so that they are interconnected and easily retrievable.
Zettelkasten system is well explained in Dr. Sonke Ahrens’s book How To Take Smart Notes.
Five principles of using the Zettelkasten System:
1. Rather than cut and pasting write notes in your own words. When you do that, you you have block of text written in your own voice which you can use anywhere you want. That is how you are going to build your knowledge base.
2. Everything is knowledge. Knowledge is not just in books or on the internet. Everything you encounter, your experiences, your memories, your shower thoughts, etc. Write those down as they come to you. Zettelkasten system is a non-hierarchical system of organizing your knowledge. It doesn’t think one bit of information is more valuable than other. Or inherently better than any other piece of information. And your brain works the same way.
3. Thought is the basic unit of knowledge. So when you do make a note, you should make it as irreducible as possible and yet still a complete thought.
4. Knowledge is interconnected. Every time you store a note, you should be thinking about how you should store it so that it is connected with something that is already in your knowledge base. Your knowledge is just a network of interconnected thoughts. The power of Zettelkasten system comes from the quantity and the quality of the connections between your thoughts.
5. Trust the system. It will take time to build the system. Intially it will be very frustrating. Don’t give up. Keep turning your digital files, your thoughts and whatever you read into interconnected notes. There is no magic in a few notes. But over time you will see you have in-depth information on a number of topics. The success of this system is in the quantity and quality of connections.
When you make notes in a notebooks or on your computer, over time they become more chaotic and less useful. Finding the information you need becomes a nightmare.
But in Zettelkasten system, the more notes you take and more connections you make between those notes, the more valuable your system becomes. Not only you can find relevant information easily but you can go in depth and in multiple directions.
Zettelkasten is a German word which means “slip box.” Luhmann used reference cards and “slip boxes” to store his notes. We don’t have to go that path. There are several digital tools available which can easily do the connectivity and retrivability.
Notion optimizes for organization and curation, whereas Rem Notes and Roam optimizes for exploration and creation.
I used Roam Research for about nine months but was not getting anywhere. It is a great system to record daily notes and connect them, but without a structure to arrange them, I ended up with a great pile of interconnected files. And it is pretty expensive too.($164/annum).
I wanted something better than Roam Research where I knew where each piece of information is. And I didn’t want to lose all my knowledge if for any reason I stop paying for the application.
In comes Obsidian, which is free and uses Zettelkasten System. And it has more functionality than Roam Research.
Obsidian is a new note-taking app similar to Roam Research. It is not limited to dot points notes and provides an easy way to connect and organize notes inspired by the way the human brain works.
The basic app is free and can be downloaded and run on your laptop so you don’t need to be online. It is also avaialbe on mobile phones and you can sync the two under paid plan. Since I want to keep my knowledge base on my laptop, I can use this app for free.
With Obsidian your data sits in a local folder allowing you to have the incredible flexibility of plain text files and the ability to transfer them to any machine.
It supports tags, footnotes, internal links, and graph view to easily navigate your notes.
I will not go too much into detail about the application’s functionality and usage, there are several videos on YouTube that explain the app in much detail. You can start with any that resonates with you. Also, once you download Obsidian, it has a very useful help section.
IMF Framework has been a game-changer for me (no it is not International Monetory Fund).
IMF stands for Index, Map of Contents, and Other Fluid Frameworks. It was developed by Nick Milo. It provided the structure I was lacking with my Roam Research notes.
The Index acts as your home base to ground you and as a launching pad for your knowledge base. Like an index of a book, it has all the information in one place.
Map of Contents (MOCs) is like having a curated worktable with all your relevant index cards placed on them. They are the mitochondria of a digital library. Once you use them, You’ll be able to overcome the overwhelm that arises from having notes scattered everywhere.
Other Fluid Frameworks stands for adding structure to your notes. Although having a structure defeats the purpose of the random connection, but if you keep your structure fluid, you’ll get the best of both worlds: order and chaos, excellent notes retrieval, and the serendipity of discovery.
Here is what Obsidian looks like - on the far left is the index, in the middle is the Map of Contact and on the right is the graph view showing the connecting links.
This last element came from Ali Abdaal’s video, which made the whole thing come together for me. I used to make notes in the past and categorize them into topics. For example if I find anything related to productivity, I will put it into the productivity folder, anything about motivation will go into the motivational folder.
But according to Ali Abdaal, when you have any information to store, ask yourself which project I am going to use it for and then store it there. That way that information will get used rather than sitting in a folder.
And that way you will be working in the “slow burn” mode.
My modus operandi so far has been of “heavy lifting.” I pick a project, give it an end date, and then work towards it like mad. I have been writing books within a month, articles within a day, and so on. I am always chasing deadlines. This kind of working does allow me to be creative.
The concept of ‘“slow burn” is part of the Zettelkasten System. Luhmann often remarked that he never forced himself to do anything he didn’t feel like doing: “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.”
The main idea behind “slow burn” is that you are working on a number of projects at the same time. They are all on a slow burner. For example, I have three books, two courses, and four info products in the pipeline. My method so far has been to tackle them one at a time, usually on the day (or the week) they are due. That is draining. But with ‘slow burn” I should be working on all of them simultaneously. Adding notes to each project as I read, research or ideas pop into my head. So when the time comes to wrap a project, I have to consolidate the notes, see where the gaps are, research and fill those, and I am done.
This is brilliant because I love to research and make notes. They are two of my favourite activities. The only problem was my notes were so extensive that going through them and extracting the relevant information took a lot of time. By this method, I am writing each project bit-by-bit.
So I downloaded Obsidian and started making my knowledge base.
This is what I did:
I create an Index and titled it 000 Index.
In the Index, I created ten headings.
Under each heading I created ten MOCs (Map of Contents) and numbered them. Numbering help them keep on the top in the left hand side window. I made provision for 90 topics.
Then I started creating a Map of Contents (MOC) for topics beginning with Notes Taking. As this is the subject I am interested in and will continue to explore. I might create a course and info-products on it. Hence it makes sense to keep detailed notes as I am learning it. Here is how it looks.
Then I started making individual notes. For that, I kept the dot point format of the Roam Research. But I created a format for the metadata, which looks like this:
Status: [Complete / Working]
Tags: [To connect the information with other similar topics using #]
Source: [Where I got the information from]
Links: [Make specific linkages using double square brackets]
References: [Related websites, books or other links]
Here is an example:
After three days of work, I have built quite a few notes. Here is how they look in the graph view.
Isn’t it brilliant?
I am hooked.
Rather than packing or working on a newsletter reserve, I am creating notes.
I have copied files from Windows to Mac as they are for the time being. Slowly I will go through them and turn those I want to keep into notes. The rest I will delete.
Have I intrigued you enough?
If you can’t wait to start, start by watching the following three videos in the same order.
Then download Obsidian and get started.
Have any questions, ask them in the comments section.
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