Writing, not collecting

This post is part of the Workflow series.

I’ve written a bit about my note-taking on this domain because I think systems of organizing knowledge are quintessential for anyone that is a learner or knowledge worker. To be frank, I find it quite ridiculous that in my university education I’ve not learned how to manage my knowledge base, not even basic academic skills like managing references efficiently. I’ve too often repeated the pattern of following a course, learning for an exam, and not being able to reproduce everything even six months later. (I’m painfully aware of the “forgetting” part, as I took a decade of university courses …)

Nobody has a perfect memory, so I don’t blame myself for not recollecting everything I’ve been taught throughout the years. But the thing is that for each course and for each paper, I did make extensive notes to compensate for my human limitations. All these notes are scribbled down in barely organized old notebooks or in docx files (!), organized in folders scattered across various back-up drives. They are recorded, yet I do not remember. How come?

This little example shows a core paradox of note-taking. I took notes to record insights and knowledge in order to remember. But I had no productive way of applying the recorded knowledge and hence, I forgot. My old notes are locked in a dead past, instead of being a living memory.

This points to perhaps the most dangerous pitfall of note-taking. It’s very tempting to convince yourself you are learning just because you are writing down - in the sense of passively recording - what someone else says or writes. What we ultimately should care about is being able to use our knowledge to produce something new, whatever that may be. To not merely reproduce you must understand the material. And understanding requires application, a hermeneutic principle that particularly Gadamer worked out extensively. If you really want to measure your level of understanding, you should try to apply or explain something to yourself or someone else.

I distill this insight into a very simple principle for note-taking:

notes are things where I explain something to myself.

This also means, somewhat counterintuitively, that note-taking is not about collecting notes! The note is a tool for thinking. It is about tickling the primordial soup of the archive to stimulate yourself towards producing something, anything really. It is to write in the active sense of the word.

The Zettelkästen system embodies this change in mindset. Instead of focusing on folder hierarchies, organizing, and categorizing, focus on interlinking ideas and traversing the network of notes. This allows you to enter the archive at any place and follow traces, of which some may open very surprising lines of thought!

I committed to a flat file directory for all my notes. I’ve also stopped using the tagging system . Rather than helping me find and create ideas, I found myself managing and refining the tags. That is, even though the idea was about interlinking, it de facto ended up as a futile attempt at organization. This type of organization is simply not scalable and future proof. In a few years, you’ll change your tagging conventions and will have to battle the desire to revisit all your other notes to update the archive. The same holds with folder organization: for another project, you’ll prefer another organization and you’ll be dissatisfied with your old solution. You’ll probably end up with a new directory, copying old notes over and duplicating them. If you notice this urge to organize, take a step back and do nothing!

This desire to archive and organize comes from the fear of losing notes. But as we’ve said before, recording something does not prevent you from losing it. You lose it when you don’t actively use it. If you mainly rely on interlinking notes for finding notes, it can indeed be that there will be many ghost notes without incoming links. But this probably means that what was written in the note, wasn’t that useful after all! It’s OK! On the other hand, notes that are productive will solidify their position in the rhizomatic network, because increasingly many paths lead to and from them. In the end, you’ll actually remember what’s in these notes because their insights are used and engage with other ideas.

I know it’s scary. I know it’s hard. I still succumb to Archive Fever once in a while. But when you do, you must explain to yourself and repeat as a feverish mantra:

Writing, not collecting…

Writing, not collecting.

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