Building a Place to Think

The simple power of [[links]]

Tim Sullivan
Jan 21 · 5 min read

The problem with traditional notes

There’s a stack of old notebooks sitting on my shelf, each filled with notes from books, random thoughts, to-do lists, and ideas. The notes and ideas seemed important enough to capture at the time, but I couldn’t tell you what’s in them. Today, they’re more like a treasure hunt without a map. Short of leafing through them page by page, I have no way of knowing what’s inside or easily finding old ideas.

I expect I’m not the only person with this problem. There’s a wonderful feeling of capturing our thoughts with pen and paper, but that’s often where they stay. Note-taking helps you learn, of course, but what if you want to go back to them later? The more you read or research, the more notebooks you fill, the more you have to search to find old ideas. Whatever I wrote years ago feels lost to me without paging through old notebooks.

Digital notes in Word, Google Docs, Evernote, etc. help a little, but they really just speed up your search. Search is limited by keyword matching i.e. you have to remember something from your notes in order to find them again, and they’ll still be buried among all the other search results. They aren’t much better than an overstuffed office inbox.

There are probably some great ideas here if you could only find them (via Unsplash)

Some searches can find similar content to what you searched for rather than exact matches. For example, they might return results containing “computer science” when you search for “programming.” In either case, there’s no good way to easily recover everything you’ve read on a topic and the ideas it generated. What if something you read about one topic, biology, for example, helped explain why a particular organization worked so well? How do you find and connect those ideas together?

Upside-down research

Luckily this isn’t a new problem, and there are solutions. Enter the frequently championed Niklas Luhmann and his analog Zettelkasten or “slip-box” which enabled him to author, “more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles published on a variety of subjects, including law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love.” His system reverses the traditional structure of finding a topic then researching it. Instead, research leads to topics. In the process, a small daily habit over many years constructs a web of interconnected notes and ideas you can use over a lifetime. This system, which I’ll call a linked notebook, supports the creative process taking advantage of how the brain learns and stores information.

An example note and its connections from my notebook.

It starts from the ground up. Notes taken from reading and research get recorded and deposited in the notebook with hyperlinked connections to related ideas. Simply putting [[brackets]] around a term is all it takes. Link to people, places, topics, a line from another note, anything. If in doubt, just link. These linked ideas are the framework for the entire system. Visualizing the notebook as a graph, each note is a node with edges connecting neighboring notes. As notes are added and connected, clusters form. The clusters become the topics for further development via an essay, a thesis, a novel, a piece of software, or whatever you wish to sculpt. Rather than picking a topic and then researching it, topics emerge out of your normal reading habit or explorations.

[[Idea canvas]]

If this sounds like your own personal Wikipedia, you’re close but there’s an important distinction. The linked notebook I’m describing isn’t a catalog of facts. It’s a place to capture and think through ideas. As new ideas are generated through reading they get captured and linked to existing ideas. Rather than copying or highlighting an author’s work, you summarize and expand on ideas with consideration of how a new idea connects to ideas you previously encountered. Instead of searching for ideas, as you connect a new idea into the graph, you are reminded of related ideas helping develop your understanding further. This induces learning via elaboration and spaced repetition. The notebook becomes a medium in which to think much like an artist painting a canvas. The notebook is your workspace.

Encyclopedias group knowledge by subject, but the system I’m describing is naturally interdisciplinary. If an idea from literature resonates with one from physics, the notebook will show that link allowing you to connect ideas from across traditionally isolated subjects. No longer restricted by categorization, you can flit from topic to topic tracing an idea wherever it leads.

Most of these connections are between neighboring subjects. The linked notebook lets you jump across the circle (via Atlas of Science)

Most of us don’t have the brainpower to keep track of a mess of interconnected ideas which is where these tools shine. The linked notebook supplements your thinking allowing you to maintain a larger working memory. Working memory is the capacity for holding topics and connections in your mind simultaneously while exploring or developing an idea. Our working memory capacity is limited, varying from person to person, but the notebook can help extend it, like juggling with extra arms. [1] The linked notebook scales surprisingly well. Even with hundreds or thousands of notes relevant notes still seem nearby.

I still have physical notebooks, and I still write in them. The difference is I take the time to record my thoughts in the linked notebook, and now, when I encounter a new idea, old kindred notes are close at hand.

[[How to get started]]

If you’d like to implement this system I recommend using either Obsidian.md or Roam Research. [2] If you’d like more detail about Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system, I recommend the book How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

Armed with this tool and the habit of notes, expansion, and connection you no longer have to worry about researching an essay or project topic. The topics come to you. As one person put it, “I never chose to write, Obsidian made me write.”

[1] A discussion on working memory.

[2] Both are excellent and you should try each one for at least a month before deciding. They each have excellent support, developer communities, and are frequently adding new features.

[2a] Some software tools allow page linking but only link to the page title and/or headers. This isn’t as powerful as block references where any line in a note can be connected. Choose a tool with that feature.

More of my articles:

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Tim Sullivan

Written by

I’m an aerospace engineer living in Colorado. I write about machine learning and thinking about thinking. https://www.sullivantm.com/

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Tim Sullivan

Written by

I’m an aerospace engineer living in Colorado. I write about machine learning and thinking about thinking. https://www.sullivantm.com/

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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