Creativity Systems

images of nodes, describing filtering, developing, and connecting ideas.

I have been exploring Zettelkasten-esque hyperlinked notetaking in markdown since my early experiments with Vimwiki. I’ve begun referring to it as a Creativity System because it’s not a strict Luhmann Zettelkasten.

As the interest in zettelkasten grows, I’ve become aware that I’ve been using the word wrongly. A Luhmann Zettelkasten is a very specific system, one of a whole family of related systems and tools, all united by the linking of notes.

All of these are Personal Knowledge Systems (PKM), but within the realm of PKM there are other systems focused only on storage and retrieval. Idea generation through idea connection is a special quality of systems similar to a Luhmann Zettelkasten. I am finding it helpful to categorize these idea-linking systems as Creativity Systems.1

From Productivity to Creativity

Ever since David Allen released Getting Things Done there has been a healthy cottage industry constantly talking about “Productivity Systems,” new ways to… get things done.

I have studied “productivity” for over a decade. If I’ve learned one thing, it is that not everyone needs Omnifocus. Some problems are best served by a simple paper list.2 Each time I have chased a tool (solution) instead of understanding my particular needs (problem) I end up frustrated. Simple is better. As you encounter more complex problems you can adopt more complex solutions, but start simple.

A progression of increasingly complex problems for Productivity Systems to solve:

  1. Remember you have something to do. (String tied around finger, flip a ring, etc.)
  2. Remember the actual task you have to do. (Paper to-do list, writing on hand)
  3. Be reminded at the right time to do the task (Reminders.app, calendar, Bullet Journal)
  4. Hide most of your increasingly large list of tasks so that you can focus on that which is doable in this context. (GTD, Things, Bullet Journal, Omnifocus)

A temptation is to skip steps 1-3 to attempt solving a basic problem with a complex solution. I’m often guilty of skipping because one of my internet heroes gushes about a useful tool that solves a specific need for them… and I adopt it just because it is cool.

Do not adopt a “level 4” solution unless you have a “level 4” problem to solve.

Hang onto that thought…

Note-taking, Memory, and Creativity

Consider a future device …  in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”3

Long before Vannevar Bush wrote about his “memex,”3 people have been figuring out ways to extend or empower their memory.

In many “Productivity Systems” notes are simply “context that isn’t actionable.” (This is largely the way I have used notes most of my life.) We acknowledge the benefit of being able to find things later, and we also have an innate understanding that the act of recording seems to help us remember even without the tool.

Describing some levels of complexity for notes similar to my outline for Productivity:

  1. Quickly store information for near-future use.
  2. Archive information for long-term recall.
  3. Organize the archive such that recall is easier for the future.
  4. Use the structure and organization of the archive to surface new ideas.

Just like to-dos, not everyone needs a system with contexts, reviews, domains, custom queries, etc. Each person should choose the simplest system that solves their particular needs.4

During the process of considering my inputs and outputs I realized that I do have a “level 4” notes problem. Not only do I need to store and recall simple facts, but my creative outputs benefit from connecting the dots in new ways.

That’s what attracts me to Creativity Systems: not simply to remember and recall, but to discover and generate new ideas.

This is the core attribute of a Creativity System: it allows us to explore and create connections between ideas. The value of a Creativity System increases with the strength of those connections and the signal/noise ratio of the ideas.

That’s where these posts are headed… talking about my zettelkasten-esque creative system, how it’s changing and what I’m trying, and why I think it’s helpful.


  1. By this definition, a true Luhmann Zettelkasten is a species of Creativity System, and so is LYT Kit, and Zettelkasten + Folgetezettel, and so on. 

  2. Products and systems like Ugmonk’s Analog and the Bullet Journal have capitalized on the shift away from raw efficiency towards effective focus on the vital few. 

  3. Vannevar Bush, As We May Think - The Atlantic, The Atlantic, 1945. For a frightening futurist take on the same idea, check out: Charles Stross. Accelerando. Penguin, 2005. 

  4. For the past ten years, simple plaintext with a powerful search has been the recall tool of choice for me, although I still like to write notes by hand. It’s good for my soul. 


Changelog
  • 2021-03-07 03:30:05 +0000

    Add new series

  • 2021-03-03 16:26:32 +0000

    Fix trailing spaces

  • 2021-03-03 16:17:59 +0000

    Fix capitalization on the series

  • 2021-03-03 16:15:32 +0000

    Add link to Luhmann ZK

  • 2021-03-03 16:14:30 +0000

    New Post: Creativity Systems