World of Textfiles: Daily Use

I think this blog post is only for me and a few people who want more about taking notes, zettelkasten, Drafts.app, iOS Shortcuts, and vimwiki… but I need practice writing so tally-ho!

This system works on a couple key principles:

  • easy capture
  • automated organization
  • related recall

A knowledge system is a body of information. It is also a system and rituals for getting data into that system. I will not describe the way you organize this information… I just will present some interesting strategies for structured content into it and accessing that content.

Where Text Starts

As I move through my day… I take notes. Somewhat obsessively. some examples from one day last week.

  • Five or six meetings.
  • A particular problem or ticket that I’m researching.
  • A funny story I want to tell my wife when I get home.
  • The details of an important conversation with a friend.
  • Some notes/quotes on a book I’m reading.
  • A comment or summary for myself on a link I just read or a podcast I just heard.

Depending on when/where these moments occur, I could be at my laptop, writing on my phone, or just a bullet journal. On screens, I use Drafts. In my bullet journal, I have a separate area for scattered notes rather than organization, using a clever hack I learned from Matt Ragland.

Either digitally or physically, I have an unrestricted, lightweight inbox for thoughts and notes. It doesn’t have to be placed correctly or organized… yet. I don’t know when I’m writing it whether it’s even going to be important. More than half of everything I record just doesn’t matter longer than an hour. Do not waste time organizing things that aren’t important.

Exceptions… you don’t always need an inbox

If I’m sure I know where some content should live, or When I am editing an existing document, I’ll use a tool specific to that task. On desktop that is frequently vim. Not everything needs to go through the inbox first.

For instance, I’m working on a research document for work. When I set time aside to groom the personal wiki, do some reading on the topic, I’ll often just edit that document directly.

Where Text Ends

I am unfortunately an obsessive organizer. Left unchecked, I will waste hours trying to find the perfect place to put a file. Because of this weakness, I try to delay the processing till the end of the day so as to use my energy for my best work.

I have a block of time set aside to review and plan for the following day/week. At the end of the work day I take some time for gratitude, journaling moments of joy, then I’ll process my inboxes. I’ll go through my slack and email, adding tasks to Things as I go. I’ll block off time the next day or two to address the most important things in my world. I’ll also go through my different inboxes:

  • My bullet journal.
  • Drafts. (I have a workspace for this… it’s essentially untagged drafts.)

Booknotes

Booknotes are relatively straightforward… at the moment, the unfinished booknote lives in Drafts as a file tagged “booknote” until it is completed. I have a workspace in Drafts to easily see what books am currently reading. I’ll use this if I’m talking about a book to a friend, or just to catch up on what’s happened so far.

booknotes workspace

As I read or listen to a book, I’ll jot down or dictate fragments along the way into Drafts. Just a small complete thought. Sometimes as I hit chapters I’ll record the chapter title too, so that when I merge everything together it has a semblance of the book’s outline.

photo of the booknotes

At the end of a reading session, I’ll often just run the Append to Booknote action I’ve created to merge the fragment with the full booknote. It lets me choose which of the current Drafts tagged “booknote” to which I want to append this fragment. I therefore build up an stream of consciousness series of thoughts on the reading experience.

If I haven’t already handled them, I’ll select and merge the draft fragments and run the booknotes action at my review time.

When I finish the book, I’ll pull my kindle highlights and notes using bookcision, write an executive summary, and trigger my Magic Wiki action. Because the draft has a “booknote” tag, Magic Wiki parses the title line and saves it to a folder based on the current year.

Not every book gets an epic note taking treatment. More often than not it is a single line of my gut impression and my favorite part of a sci-fi novel… just so that I can find it again if I’m looking for it.

I probably should figure out a way to get it to goodreads.com too.

Blogposts

Blogposts typically live in Drafts while in an outline and writing mode. (This post has been lingering in that workspace for… two months now!) As with booknotes, this is merely a draft tagged “blog” with an accompanying workspace.

As the blogpost approaches completion and it’s time to edit… I’ll typically save it to Dropbox so that I can post it to my blog, or just copy it and paste it into a vim buffer.

I am currently using Dr. Drang’s dbox action to save the file directly to where I want it on Dropbox. I may in the future adjust this, but that lets me work on the post on my phone and on my computer in vim simultaneously. I can open my phone, reload from Dropbox, write and rearrange prose on the go, and save back to Dropbox.

I may try to make something more automated eventually… but this works fine.

Meetings

I take notes during meetings as Field Notes says: “not to remember it later, but to remember it now.”

To honor other people’s time, I try to not bring my laptop to meetings, but if the meeting is technical, large, or prone to action items I’m not above it. Most of the time, it’s just my bullet journal and my phone.

I take notes to engage my creativity and to remember important tasks or facts. Sometimes, those notes are helpful just for connecting the speaker’s thoughts to my work, sometimes they record requests for me or tasks I need to complete. When the meeting starts, I rarely know which it’ll be.

In the moment, I just take notes. At the end of the meeting, these can become the basis of a wrap-up email. On other occasions they turn into tickets to be added to the backlog. Either way… I don’t worry where it needs to go yet, I just capture.

During my review of inboxes at the end of the day if there are meeting notes that are valuable, I want to save them in a logical place. I extract any critical ideas or references as zettel. I then want to save the note as a sort of meeting minutes… so I can search for it later.

One of my principles is “automated organization.” In order to normalize the format of my meeting notes, I run a drafts action. I can choose a past meeting from my calendar, and it populates a template with all the details from the meeting. This new draft is formatted, named, and tagged such that all that is left is to merge my note fragment with the template and run my Magic Wiki action.

Magic Wiki when it’s run on a draft tagged “Meeting” assumes some formatting such as a date in the title. It then saves the note in the Vimwiki diary folder. Now I can search by name or tag for any meeting notes about UX… or see a summary of my meetings generated in Vimwiki.

If the meeting notes are in my bullet journal, at the moment I just make a note of it in the week index of my bullet journal.

Links are still a work in process… it works very smoothly… 50% of the time.

If there’s something worth reading, I pretty much always send it to Instapaper. I have an ifttt.com automation that whenever I “like” a link on instapaper, sends a file to a folder in my wiki on dropbox. I then can search for it on my computer and add a comment, or on mobile I have an iOS shortcut that lets me select and comment on it.

I use these links for reference when I need to remember that handy link later, and to generate my monthly link posts.

The only thing that’s not great about it is if I just find a link somewhere and want to save it, I first have to save it to instapaper, like it, archive it, then I can work with it. I need something more direct for if I’m just searching/browsing the internet.

I think like most my automations, this will likely end up in Drafts eventually.

What I like about my system.

Ownership.

It’s mine. I can control all aspects of it.

Because it’s just plain files on a hard drive, it should last. If dropbox goes out of business or I stop using macs, I don’t lose access to my notes. I’ll just keep them with me as I move to the next thing.

Quick Capture

At the moment… it’s very easy getting text into the system just because Drafts is awesome.

What I don’t like about my system.

Too much in too many places.

Life isn’t that segmented… it’s weird to have a two digital journals, a wiki, a bullet journal, and a personal journal. It’s slowly evolved a bit to make more sense, but it’s still… messy? I don’t like it. I kind of want everything in a stream where I can connect all my life and thoughts.

Brittle.

Because my automations don’t really talk to each other, I can’t change one piece without changing all the other connecting pieces. I’m writing this document partly as documentation to remind myself how all this works. :P

Rituals are hard.

I’m changing too much too fast… it’s hard to stay on top of it a little bit. Having Drafts be a digital plaintext inbox helps… the imperfect trick is getting a document or thought into the zettelkasten permanently.

A key part of the whole Zettelkasten idea is that before you file a settle, you search to find out where it should live first. Dropbox lets me have full text search of content and titles, but it’s not perfect. On desktop I have a range of search tools including rg and ack, but it’s harder on mobile. As it is, I typically place notes on desktop and record on mobile, and that works pretty well.

Conclusion

This is still a moving target. I still don’t have a good way to manually file something in my actual knowledge system. I’ve solved the temporal stuff… meeting notes and random things, but I technically need to move those things out of my diary and into my knowledge system. I’ve started a vim command for transforming a vimwiki diary entry into a note, but it’s not perfect yet.

Addendum: Why don’t you use vim for quick capture on desktop?

I guess I could make a binding that makes a file based on the current unix time stamp… this would guarantee that it’s a unique file and I’m not going to incur the buffer already open error. Draft’s capture implementation is lightweight and just for capture… that makes it easier for me at the moment.

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