Life tends to be lived in chunks. Hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years - these are familiar if slightly artificial concepts. But what’s the best-sized chunk of life to focus on? Some would advise living in the moment, by which they don’t really mean the 86,400 seconds that are available in a single day. They effectively mean no chunks at all (or infinite chunks, perhaps).
Reading an article on why you should divide your life into semesters reminded me that I’ve already come across this idea in the shape of the book The Twelve Week Year. I actually bought The Twelve Week Year for Writers, which I’ve skimmed but haven’t read properly yet. I’d like to have a structure to my year that’s more than just “get through it”. But I’m daunted by the thought of needing something concrete to show for my time spent on earth. What did you achieve in your chosen chunk of life? This question won’t be answered by heartbeats or breaths, by sunsets or swims. It would be OK maybe if it could be answered with dollars, but that’s not really acceptable either. It’s too soulless. The question, what did you achieve? needs actual achievements. It needs productivity of the sort I’m not very available for.
@visakanv says “the meandering mind is a feature not a bug”. Why can’t I accept this? Perhaps because I keep putting myself in situations where the meandering mind is a bug not a feature?
I can just about manage to write a short note like this. And then another one… and so on. Austin Kleon calls this “Sisyphus mowing the lawn”. And indeed, I’m happy writing my short notes. If I can’t manage to organise my life into semesters, perhaps I can organise it into atomic notes - the shortest possible viable writing session.
I saw on the zettelkasten.de forum that some members log their note-making productivity on a 10-day rolling tally. One person has written 16 notes in ten days, another has written 33.
They are inspired, as am I, by Sonke Ahrens' exhortation to work as is nothing counts other than writing (well, some of them are).
"If writing is the medium of research and studying nothing else than research, then there is no reason not to work as if nothing else counts than writing.
Focusing on writing as if nothing else counts does not necessarily mean you should do everything else less well, but it certainly makes you do everything else differently.
Even if you decide never to write a single line of a manuscript, you will improve your reading, thinking and other intellectual skills just by doing everything as if nothing counts other than writing."
I’d like to know what kinds of time you find yourself dividing your life into. Do you mainly live in days, or mainly in hours, or perhaps weeks? Do you instead devote yourself to living in the moment? If so, which moment?
The child who learns Esperanto learns about a world without borders, where every country is home.
Yes, Esperanto is idealistic…
The Prague Manifesto of the 1996 World Esperanto Congress promoted seven objectives, goals or principles of the Esperanto movement.
It positioned Esperanto as a movement for:
- global education
- effective language learning
- equal treatment regardless of language - language rights
- language diversity; and
- human emancipation
…and what’s wrong with idealism?
Even without knowing any Esperanto, I applaud these aims. They’re idealistic and so am I. But if the aim is human emancipation, is it possible that the language itself is just a MacGuffin? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as they’d say on Seinfeld.
On the other hand, perhaps it is still possible to imagine not only a different language, but a different kind of language - one that by its very existence helps promote the kind of values outlined by the Prague Manifesto.
If you’re an Esperanto speaker, or if you speak another ‘international auxillary language’, I’d like to know what you think.
📷Day 6 | Well #mbsept 🏡
📷 🏡A couple of weeks ago we visited CERES urban farm, with its community garden, cafe, bike workshop, nursery, bookstore, playground, market, chooks and, yes, a food forest. Worth a visit if you’re ever in Melbourne.
📸 Day 3 | Precious
Three days into the Micro.blog photo challenge already! Time spent simply relaxing in the back garden is precious.
On Mastodon, Evan Prodromou asked “How many books are you reading?” and I was slightly shocked by the results.
Only 5% of 569 people said they were reading six or more books. I thought I was quite normal, but it turns out I’m not. Currently I’m officially reading seven books, but that doesn’t include the four books I’ve finished recently that never made it onto the ‘currently reading’ list. Somehow, having a list of books I’m reading makes me want to read different books. I get through about 35-40 a year, which isn’t a terribly low number, so even though I get stuck on some books, seeming to take months to finish them, I still manage to read quite a few.
Perhaps I’m just starting into my to-be-read pile too early. Maybe I could resist this.
Actually I don’t think I’m at all normal, but everything I do feels normal. And who am I kidding? I can’t resist starting new books. Can you?
📸 Day 1 | Abstract The Micro.blog photo challenge begins! Most of the paintings in our house are abstract. This is part of a tryptych by Sara Cunningham-Bell.
Feels like Summer here in Sydney, even though it’s the penultimate day of Winter. 26C by lunchtime, followed by an afternoon thunderstorm.
The early morning cloud was lifting over Spectacle Island 📷
A linked note is a happy note
A great strength of the Zettelkasten approach to writing is that it promotes atomic notes, densely linked. The links are almost as valuable as the notes themselves, and sometimes more valuable.
But once you’ve had an idea and written it down, what is it supposed to link to? Is there a rule or a convention, or do you just wing it?
How are you supposed to make connections between your notes when you can’t think of any?
When I started creating my system of notes I didn’t know how to make these links between my atomic ideas, and this relational way of working didn’t come naturally to me. I would just sit there and think, “what does this remind me of?” Sometimes I’d come up with a new link, but more often than not, I didn’t. The problem is, the Zettelkasten pretty much relies on links between notes. An un-linked note is a kind of orphan. It risks getting lost in the pile. You wrote it, but how will you ever find it again? And if you do somehow stumble upon it again, it won’t really lead anywhere, because you haven’t related it to anything else.
Fortunately, there are some helpful ways of coming up with linking ideas that can really aid creative thinking and unlock the power of connected note-making.
Make a path through your notes with the idea compass
Niklas Luhmann, the sociologist who famously (to nerds) kept a Zettelkasten, didn’t exactly say this, but each atomic note already implies its own series of relations. Each note can be extended by means of the idea compass - a wonderful idea of Fei-Ling Tseng, as follows:
- N - what larger pattern does this concept belong to?
- S - what more basic components is this concept made of?
- E - what is this concept similar to?
- W - what is this concept different from?
Notice how the first two questions promote a tree-like hierarchical structure, with everything nested in everything else, while the second two questions promote a fungus-like anti-hierarchical structure, with links that form a rhizome or lattice. Alone, the former structure is too rigid and the latter is too fluid. But put them together and they can be very powerful. The genius of the Zettelkasten system is that it absorbs hierarchical knowledge networks into its overall rhizomatic structure, without dissolving them, and allows new structures to form (Nick Milo helpfully calls these ‘maps of content’).
Find the larger pattern
Each atomic idea might be thought of as part of a larger pattern. In a sense, every note title is just an item in a list that forms a structure note at a level above it. Say I write a note on ‘functional differentiation’. I realise that this is just one component of a structure note that also includes ‘social systems’, ‘communication’, ‘autopoeisis’ and so on. I write this list, call it ‘Niklas Luhmann - key ideas’, and link it to my existing note. Now I have some ideas for some more notes to write. But will I write them all? No - I’ll only pursue the thoughts that actually interest me, or seem essential. The rest can wait for another day. Actually, I’m suddenly intrigued by what you could possibly have instead of functional differentiation (i.e. what is this note different from?), so I write a new note called ‘pre-modern forms of social structure’ - and link it back to my ‘functional differentiation’ note.
Look for the basic components
Going even further, the atoms, which seemed to be the smallest unit, turn out to be made of sub-atomic particles and so on, all the way down to who knows what (well, particle physicists might know, but I don’t). That means each atomic idea is really just the title of a structure note that hasn’t been written yet. So I take a new note and write: ‘Functional differentiation - the key points’. I imagine this new structure note to be like a top-ten list of important factors, each one ultimately with its own new note - but I’m not going to force myself to write about ten things that don’t matter, just what I find interesting.
When making links, trust and follow your own interest
It’s really important that you don’t try to answer all four questions with a new link. You’re not creating an encyclopedia. Instead, you should only make the connections that actually matter to you. The trace of your own inquisitiveness through the material is, in itself, important information. If it doesn’t matter to you, don’t write about it! Since the notes are atomic, and the possible links increase exponentially (?) the possibility space you are opening up is almost infinite and it can feel overwhelming. So just go with the flow. The key is to find your own curiosity and run with it. That way (as I’ve said before):
you’ll write worthwhile notes that address your own questions and
this hook of curiosity will help you remember as you learn.
That’s what I’ve been doing this morning. At no point have I stopped to think “what shall I write next?” In this sense, the Zettelkasten is a kind of conversation partner. Niklas Luhmann said he only ever wrote about things that interested him. This seems unlikely until you try it for yourself.
And if you keep asking yourself these questions, you’ll find that over time the linking starts to come naturally. It will be increasingly obvious to you what relationships matter. The questions in the idea compass will become intuitive and fade into the background. Well, that’s my experience, but YMMV.
Apply a framework that intrigues you
Another way of making connections, besides the idea compass, is to apply a conceptual framework (or mental model) that interests you - and see where it leads. Here’s an example: Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects.
The idea here is that any new technology changes the whole landscape or ecology, by bringing some features into the foreground and pushing others into the background. It’s called a tetrad because there are four questions to ask of a new technology:
What does the medium enhance?
What does the medium make obsolete?
What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?
(This really clicked for me when I puzzled over why my kids don’t use smart phones for talking to people. It seemed crazy to me, but then I looked at question 3 and realised the new technology had retrieved asynchronous communication, which the telephone had previously made obsolete. But I digress.)
Anyway, I’m suggesting you might be able to take these four questions and ask them of the ideas in your notes. For each atomic note: what does this idea enhance, make obsolete, retrieve, or reverse?
Another simple but powerful example is Tobler’s law: “I invoke the first law of geography: everything is connected to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things”. What would it be like if you made everything about physical location?
It’s important to say these are just examples, and they may not work for you. Nevertheless, you may be able to think of frameworks from within your own line of work that allow you to ask a similar set of questions about your ideas. In my experience these frameworks are everywhere and yet are quite under-used.
This article is a lightly edited version of a Reddit comment.
You might also like to read about how a network of notes is a rhizome not a tree.
Currently reading: The Real Work by Adam Gopnik 📚
The Real Work is what magicians call ‘the accumulated craft that makes for a great trick’, and the enigmatic S.W.Erdnase was a master. Adam Gopnik’s book on the nature of mastery devotes a whole chapter to him, so I was amused to find him also mentioned on the new series of Good Omens. This is a great example of the chance happening that people often confuse with serendipity. But as Mark De Rond claims serendipity isn’t luck alone. It’s really the relationship between good fortune and the prepared mind:
“serendipity results from identifying ‘matching pairs’ of events that are put to practical or strategic use.”
On this account it’s not luck or chance that matters, but the human agency that does something with it. From two chance encounters with S.W. Erdnase that seemed to match, I’ve constructed this short post. In his 2014 article, ‘The structure of serendipity’, De Rond identifies some examples of much more significant serendipity in the field of scientific innovation.
It strikes me that one significant feature of mastery is to be able to spot a lucky opportunity and then make something of it. The expert can’t help but see it. Everyone else would miss this chance moment, or else be unable to execute the essential implementation.
Reference: De Rond, Mark. “The structure of serendipity.” Culture and Organization 20, no. 5 (2014): 342-358. https://doi.org/10.1080/14759551.2014.967451
Hey @joshua , what did you end up doing during your last 48 hours in Paris? The suspense is killing me 😁
I use Tiddlywiki as a writing tool, and as a heavily customised Zettelkasten (an ‘index box’ of notes). I love how readily this toolkit can be tailored to suit my workflow and requirements. That means there isn’t really a best version, since it can become what you make of it. I was slightly confused when I started, since it’s different from other writing tools. But you can just start simple and slowly add the functionality that you like to use. Reminding myself to document all my changes and experiments, inside my TW, really helps. Superficially, it’s just a wiki app, but there’s so much more to it than that.
I find Soren Bjornstad’s online version,Tzk, very inspiring. It really shows some amazing possibilities for a personal Zettelkasten-style notebook. His GrokTiddlyWiki tutorial is fabulous too, but it’s a bit of a rabbit hole. Maybe better to just get started and then do the tutorials.
I love the look of Projectify and have used the notebook palettes that it comes with.
To enable backlinks I have found a couple of basic plug-ins really useful and would strongly recommend:
This adds a footer to your notes to show backlinks and freelinks.
This enables automatic renaming of titles and other items across links.
For a to-do list, I greatly admire Projectify, but what I actually use is the simple but effective Chandler, written by the late Joe Armstrong. He talks you through how he wrote it, which in itself is a masterclass in how to customise TiddlyWiki.
Finally I’ll mention the active and very helpful user forum.
If you’d like to discuss any aspect of TiddlyWiki or note-making generally, I’m all ears.