I have a habit of documenting ideas, thoughts, learnings, etc. Naturally, I tend to try out a lot of note-taking applications in an effort to find the perfect app. Over the years, I’ve used a lot of note-taking apps. Every single time, I saw myself coming back to the default Notes.app that ships with macOS/iOS. It’s simple and always fit my requirement perfectly well. Most features offered by other apps are just feature bloat that I never used.
As I documented information, I learned that this process had a name, Personal Knowledge Management. Before the pandemic started, around late 2019, I started researching and learning more about Personal Knowledge Management and was quickly sold on the idea as it was more or less similar to what I had been doing.
Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a process of collecting information that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledge in their daily activities and the way in which these processes support work activities.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_knowledge_management
Personally, for me, PKM has proved to be helpful in capturing ideas and thoughts, organizing, extracting insights and producing better ideas.
After I started practicing PKM, I realized that using the basic Notes.app wasn’t going to cut it. That’s when I discovered the tools for thought, specifically RoamResearch.
Tools for thought
I use RoamResearch for PKM. Roam describes itself as A note-taking tool for networked thought. I love the tool due to its amazing feature set. I initially tried Roam for a month in early 2020 and it blew my mind. I instantly switched my plan from a monthly plan to Believer plan (their version of a long term subscription – 5 years) since I knew I was going to use it on a daily basis. Roam has a feature called “backlinks” and it is an absolute game changer. You can link different pages by using square braces like so [[example]]. Roam also allows you to backlink blocks. You can think of it as a way of linking different bullet points in various sections of the text like so ((example)). Seeing Roam’s success, a lot of other apps copied this functionality and you can now implement your own PKM in one of these alternatives available in the market. There are a few free open source alternatives (clones literally) such as AthensResearch, Logseq, Foam, Obsidian etc.
There’s an amazing PKM technique called Zettelkasten. It’s a way of managing your thoughts and ideas. I could never completely implement it in the original way, but I do have my own way of doing it. It’s slightly different, yet it yields good results. At a very high level, the idea behind Zettelkasten is that you document your understanding of a concept or a thought and try to create a repository of linked information. Linking these bits of information is the key here. Any new finding or information going into this repository will have to have at least one link with the existing information in some way. More the links, the easier it is to cultivate a brand new idea or thought. If there’s no link, it doesn’t go in. Over time, you’ll see new ideas pop up due to this technique as you discover different pieces of information in your repository linking with other ideas in your repository that you initially didn’t intend to link with. Finding such pattern feels magical. I’ve experienced that a few times and it is mind blowing.
After a while, you’ll see that what you’ve been doing is basically cultivating ideas by gathering information and linking them together.
I’m fascinated by how our brains work and how the tools we use work. It almost seems like humans are prone to building tools that don’t necessarily align with the way our brains work. UX designers have been battling with creating interfaces that make it intuitive to work with. We’ve only been iterating on the existing interfaces.
Typically, human brains take a top-down, depth-first approach to learning. It’s only natural to start thinking about something and when something else related to it pops up, we starting digging into it and the process goes on. In order to really understand a concept, you need to understand the basic concepts that contribute to the parent concept. Learning any related concepts is a bonus. Wikipedia is built on this idea.
When it comes to coming up with ideas, naturally, we take a bottom-up approach. We first come up with individual thoughts and then later link them together to build a cohesive and coherent idea. The tools for thought that I mentioned above facilitate with this sort of thinking by using the backlinks feature. These tools can be used to implement a system to learn, which aligns with the way our brains naturally think.
Let me know if you find any of these tools useful or if you know of any other interesting techniques to document information.