Rebuilding My Note Taking and Management System and Model
The past many weeks I have been digging into a better note taking and management method, while also embracing what I have and my core underlying principles. A continual genre in YouTube I watch is around productivity, particularly around personal knowledge management methods and tools. A couple years back I ran into Zettelkasten Method, that comes from Niklas Luhmann, which focuses on his prolific reading and his card catalogue and related note taking system. Then a few months back I heard Jorge Arango’s interview with Beck Tench it drew Zettelkasten back into focus. The interview with Beck focussed on Tinderbox, which I love, but I also want mobile access to my notes from phone and tablet.
I have been using Notion a little bit, but my only use the last few months is as an interstitial capture for YouTube and some other rich media. [I like Notion and it seems like a modern take on Podio and has a similar downfall of not sorting out an adaptive data structure for interoperability and consistency.] But, the communities that are interested in Notion became obsessed with Roam Research, so I looked at Roam. Roam and Notion are two vastly different approaches, which can complement each other but in to way replace each other. But, each has a similar faults, no API, no standard export for structured information, and fully cloud based. That is too many common failure points wrapped into one product (Notion is working on and API, which is really good). Roam bugged me most because it relies on an outline format but has no clue about OPML exporting, but worse has no good export model. The cloud based, which requires being connected and online is a model I really don’t like as, particularly if their isn’t a local sync nor standard data format model. What I really like about Roam is its block focussed format, that is akin to purple numbers model of small chunks that are addressable and reusable.
In this time of looking what a next generation of quick note taking would look like, but long used tool, NValt failed spectacularly, in that it would not find my directory where my 1,200+ notes were stored, nor could I add new notes. Fortunately all of my notes are in plain markdown text files, so all I was missing was my tagging of the files in NValt (Brett Terpstra who created NValt has been working on a new tool that can replace NValt but has been taking forever to show up and my need became immediate). This is one of the common reasons for owning my own notes and having them locally and not using somebody else’s model and framework. But, also using the [small apps loosely joined] model where many tools pointing at well formatted / structured data / information can function to their best ability and can use their strengths without breaking anything with the information / data.
Seriously Looking at Note Taking and Management Tools
I started looking at about five or six different note taking tools. I was building out a rough attribute model of tools to help see what each offered or didn’t. I am needing to write this up, but it started with watching Mike and Matty’s, Notion vs Roam vs Obsidian vs Remnote - How to best fit note taking app for you and using their criteria as a base, then building on it. Obsidian and Remnote were already on my list, but also included Zettelnote, Zettlr, and a couple that extended Tidlywiki for a Zettelkasten type model. I also included OmniOutliner as that has been (and will be) my core outlining tool that interplays well with OPML and I can back and forth with good mind mapping tools that also output and import OPML data standard. I also included DevonThink Pro as it is my long used (since 2005) note and information storage and smart search tool (it already was indexing my notes directories) that there is no chance I’m going to give up, but also knew it didn’t have the core functionality I was seeking, wiki-style back linking.
I did a quick test or Roam and ruled it out as it broke rules I try not to break, and it broke many of them (biggest one is know now you are going to exit before you enter anything and a lack of any structure nor API made it a giant risk I’ve been burned by too many times, but the developers have a lot of arrogance about their approach that far too often leads to disasters - sometimes the kindest, smartest, and solid planning people end up with disasters that I feel very badly about but arrogance and ignorant I don’t).
Zettlr and Remnote were next. But the setup took a bit more of me managing and building things and I know when I lose focus those may not be best choices for myself (my past self 15 years ago or more would have loved it and done well with it, but those days are not now).
Obsidian Ticks the Right Boxes and Adapts to My Existing Model
Obsidian is where I put some time. I pointed its “Vault” to my notes directory (and sub-directory) where I had my 1,200 markdown notes already (some of them were .txt extensions, which I did bulk extension swap on) and it could read everything perfectly. One of my first tests was adding backlinks to some of my social lenses and social scaling notes, which worked really well by making related elements connected. I started capturing my notes about what I was doing in Obsidian and the ease of not only connecting things with backlinks, but having the ability to set empty node wiki links (many notes with the same link to a note / page that doesn’t exist yet, but have the same link to it) and then being able to use backlink following from that non-existent notes link list of things pointing to it was insanely valuable.
I have quite a few book list and book note pages already and I started linking them and linking authors and making author pages. I also found I was wanting note page templates for simple book pages in a Zettelkasten model, a book notes template, author / creator template, and a few others. I created these from existing structured notes I’ve used for years and put the outlines in TextExpander using a simple input line or two to label all of the headers with author name or other name.
I started typing out my notes and highlights from books I’ve read and annotated over the years and after the first three or so books I was deeply hooked.
The Use Where Obsidian Showed I was Hooked
Where I knew I was sold was this last weekend I went back to one of Matt Webb’s blog posts on Small Groups that is dense and has links out to great resources. I captured my initial notes on Matt’s post, and annotated relating to his sections. But, I also quickly dug through the linked materials and created and filled out structured note pages for those as well. The James Mullholland post on Small Groups was fantastic and it spidered out to more related resources, so I followed those and took notes. All of this was cross-linked and back-linked and fleshed out small group notes that I have been building as part of social scaling I’ve been writing on and presenting (talks and workshops) for years. The small group size they focus on is roughly team size, but not a team. Both of these are cooperative social models, which scale from teams, groups (small to large groups with similar social interaction models, but the dynamics shift quite a bit around 75 people and break fully about 300 to 500 people), community (everybody inside a firewall or inside an walled off construct), and network (inside and outside a firewall - so for business it is customers, contractors, consultants, vendors, etc. where there needs to be a safe model for sharing information with shared goals as different roles with their purpose come together for back and forth exchange) - more can be found in my related write-up 5 Core Insights for Community Platforms Today.
This note taking and contextualizing and cross linking to rip through and gut a series of related and interrelated pieces has been something I’ve long looked for and wanted. Many dog years ago in college I took reading notes on note cards with citations and context. When writing a paper / essay I would assemble the note cards in an order that could tell a story. Then I would build an outline in WordStar and type in the quotes. Then I would write the narrative and wrapper. Obsidian is starting to get at that, but ripping through a resource to pull out highlights, quotes, annotations, and notes is utterly fantastic. It gives me a solid resource to easily pull together ideas and supporting information.
Other Obsidian Capabilities
Obsidian can show two note pages at once so to easily copy book citation information from the structured book note file into the book note page. The multiple notes in panels also works well for copying quotes to quote pages and cross linking.
Using Obsidian and Still Working from Mobile and Tablet
The mobile use essential had been broken for a bit after Dropbox stopped supporting softlinks in Mac and requiring that to be native in Dropbox and doing the softlink from the Mac to Dropbox. I moved the directory to Dropbox, which leaves a copy locally usable should something happen to Dropbox and added a softlink for local backups. I pointed DevonThink to this directory to index and I was back running. Now I can use Drafts to take a quick note from my iOS devices and push it to the notes directory (later go back and fix the file name) and I have good inbound notes and can use backlinks (which I test later). This method also works for share sheet to Drafts from Overcast or YouTube and having the link to the media and the notes all pulled in.
Happiness with notes has been missing for a while, perhaps happiness has returned.