Developing ideas with notes

Sep 4, 2020

Just yesterday, I made all of my working notes publicly available at https://notes.alexkoen.com/. I did so because note-taking underlies all that I learn, and because I believe that by doing so I will be encouraged to continuously refine my ideas.

A lesson repeated throughout this blog is that writing serves more than to record ideas; writing is the process through which your ideas become part of the way you think. At first conception, ideas are always unrefined and incomplete. To form a coherent argument, they must be broken down, scrutinized, and reworked countless times—a process that cannot be undertaken inside your head.

Imagine trying to solve a challenging math problem. You must keep track of the different numbers, formulae, and intermediate results. If the problem is easy, this is simple to do inside your head, yet as it scales it quickly becomes impossible to keep track of it all without pen and paper.

Like in math, writing down challenging conceptual problems frees our mind from the responsibility of idea storage and allows it to focus on idea refinement. By doing so, it becomes possible to analyze, restructure, and synthesize ideas without losing track of them.

Moreover, when developing arguments in our head, it is easy to overlook points of confusion without realizing it. By writing down arguments in their entirety, their flaws become immediately apparent (this is called the Feynman technique).

As a result, there has long been an interest in developing tools to store ideas so that we may draw upon them at any time. For decades, countless note-taking apps and systems have been developed, yet they almost all fall short in one respect: they are too organized.

The problem with note-taking

Steve Jobs once famously said that “creativity is just connecting things.” Innovation occurs when we synthesize two previously-disjointed ideas to make something new. Traditionally, note-taking systems are hierarchical: notes are classified according to their subject or to another predefined structure. For example, students typically organize notes by subject and pretentious academics organize their notes by source or by project.

Yet our brains are inherently creative and do not like rigid structure. They are dynamic, constantly building new neural pathways by reorganizing and connecting information. Traditional note-taking systems, however, do not facilitate this process—there is typically little interplay between notes and deliberate effort is required to connect different ideas.

The “new” way

Consequently, a different system of note-taking—a system known as Zettelkasten popularized by the 20th century sociologist Niklas Luhmann—has recently spread like wildfire throughout academic circles. I will not delve into it’s intricacies here, for much has been written about it, but it has three defining characteristics:

  1. Notes are stored in a flat hierarchy. There are no folders, notebooks, or other manual organization.
  2. These notes are connected using links. Keywords in text are linked to other notes, creating a connection between their respective ideas. In my system, links are denoted with the § symbol. Shown below is a screenshot of my writing on the concept of first principles:
  1. These links are bi-directional. Not only can I click on links to other notes, but the software also maintains a list of all the other notes that link to this one. These are called backlinks, and they create an interconnected web of ideas that is infinitely traversable.

As a result, notes can have multiple contexts. For example, personal discipline is linked to not only from goal-setting, but also from why little is done about climate change. While these topics initially seem unrelated, this system promotes inter-disciplinary creativity by design, and that it why it is so powerful.

For the past six months, I have been building my own private Zettelkasten where I store, create links between, and build upon ideas I come across in my everyday life. The entire repository of notes can be visualized as shown below. This visualization allows me to traverse the system and find previously-unseen connections between ideas. This ability is transformative, and makes creativity a repeatable workflow.

Why I’m publishing my notes

My Zettelkasten is now publicly-available at https://notes.alexkoen.com/. Like with my writing, I wanted to show my work and pressure myself to refine my ideas in the same way that I dress better when I leave the house. I am not alone, and I hope that my ideas may be of value to you.


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