My knowledge management system

This is a follow-up on my previous notes about Zettelkasten; Thoughts on Zettelkasten and the slip box. Since then, I’ve had a chance to read and think more about the problems I listed out with trying to adapt a Zettelkasten style slip box for my knowledge management system.

I’ve found a few answers and I’ve come up with a new system that I hope will serve me better.

Why did I struggle with using the Zettelkasten?

The most important learning I’ve had while searching for an answer to this is something that should have been obvious to me from the start.

A Zettlekasten is a system designed to facilitate publishing. It’s wasn’t meant to be used as a general knowledge management system.

This fact very quickly cleared up why the slip box wasn’t working for me as a knowledge management system.

When you’re using a Zettelkasten system, you “ask” your slip box for questions you should find answers to. This “asking” can be by looking at questions you have open in your notes, or by seeing where you’re forming lumps or groups of notes and expanding on the knowledge already there.

Since the starting point for your reading and research is a bunch of notes already in your slip box, any new notes will be taken with an eye towards linking it to your existing notes. You naturally build up a group of interconnected notes.

This is the reason why a slip box doesn’t need much hierarchy or a well maintained index/table of contents. Most notes you add will be linked to older ones. You build up your graph by adding connected notes to it. You seldom add a completely unconnected note to your slip box.

I didn’t need a system to facilitate publishing. I needed a system to store knowledge. These 2 goals might overlap a bit, but they are quite distinct.

Most of my notes are on completely unrelated topics. I read based on whatever I find interesting on social media; Hacker News, Indie Hackers, my collection of books on disparate topics, etc. Sometimes I read to understand a topic better by trying to answer questions I had in older notes, in which case I can build a small network of notes - but that’s an infrequent activity for me.

A Zettelkasten is a poor system to hold notes on a wide variety of subjects, with only few notes per subject. It’s difficult to go back to disconnected notes you have written without maintaining some sort of hierarchy. Trying to shoe horn a hierarchy into a Zettelkasten felt foreign, and was frowned upon in most literature I read about the subject.

My new system

With this new information, I can finally get rid of the self-inflicted pain of trying to use the Zettelkasten system to manage my knowledge. Using hierarchical tools makes sense, because my knowledge graph isn't well connected. It's mostly a set of disparate notes.

Some notes form lumps or groups when I become interested in researching something in detail. Most don't. I need a system I can put my knowledge into and get it back out when needed, without relying on linking between notes.

I will use MOC (Map of content) instead of folders. Folder give me everything I need for building a hierarchy, but miss out on 1 important feature. There's no way to demonstrate relationship b/w notes in the same folder. In a MOC, notes can be near to each other when they are related, can form a hierarchical relationship by being indented under other notes, etc.

I got introduced to the concept of MOCs by this excellent blog post from Nick Milo. He also has a course - Linking Your Thinking, that talks about building a personal knowledge management system.

I’ve decided to use Logseq as my writing tool. Here’s how my new system will work day to day.

  • I take fleeting or literature notes anywhere. They all come to my dashboard through the queries I have. Mostly this means these notes are in the journal pages.
  • Once a fleeting or literature note is done, it's marked as status:: complete and it disappears from the dashboard.
  • Permanent notes have to be created from one of the MOC pages. This includes MOCs for topics, but also MOCs for courses, books, etc. This allows me to have a browsable list of notes in my system.
  • What do I make permanent notes out of? To answer this, I need to answer a deeper question. What is the primary reason for my writing?
    • To make things clearer to me, to understand deeply. Thus I can make notes of things that I want to make sure I understand. Topics that I don't care about don't need a permanent note.
  • I can add any tags that I think are necessary. Not sure how I can make this more efficient now, but I will add tags for now as another way to discover related notes.
  • When I want to write for publishing, I will use Ulysses as I really like that interface and I can then easily copy to my blogging platform from there. This does mean that I end up writing twice, but I think of my notes in Logseq as a first draft. Rewriting them again before publishing makes the final piece better.

This system is very much an experiment. Once I have been using it for a few months, I should have a better idea of how effective it is in helping me manage my knowledge. I might do a follow-up post then.