Defining 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.

1.

In the last article, I proposed that there exists a set of note-taking strategies and systems that generate or discover connections between ideas: “Creativity Systems.”

The reason for this extra definition: the PKM/Zettelkasten1 community fights small holy wars over technique. While technique is important, we forget to study and celebrate the shared benefits of linked notes. (Don’t believe me? Search for “ZK ID in digital systems” or “folgezettel”. I’ll wait.)

The idea of Creativity Systems frees each person to pursue the techniques and strategies that best empower their desired outputs. Sascha said it best in the Zettelkasten Introduction:

there is one Zettelkasten per person, and one person per Zettelkasten. Thinking is a different process from communicating with another person. You want your Zettelkasten to be a personal thinking tool.

Through the transformations of my Creativity System (or Simple Markdown Zettelkasten), I admit to having been tool and technique focused. The experimentation and research has identified a few advantages of an intentional Creativity System (or note-taking) system: Connecting the dots, filtering to the vital few, and developing original thought.

2.

Filtering to the Vital Few

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

Since I started taking hyper-textual and atomic2 notes it has changed the way I read and listen. Every book, article, blogpost, conversation and sermon become part of a giant conversation that your mind is having with itself. No longer attempting to drink the ocean and capture everything, I find myself hunting for the vital few3, fleeting slips that fit into that greater conversation.

Because I hold to the “restate, not quote” constraint, I find myself taking more notes on less topics. I am constantly asking myself in process and techniques: “is this worth taking a note on?” For now, my process is usually:

  1. Capture into Drafts.app or Bullet Journal.4
  2. Let it stew until the end of the day… many potential notes show their lack of value simply by sitting.
  3. At the end of the day, I adjust and re-state the remaining few into my Creativity System.5

If nothing else, this process of “stewing” and “restating” is a form of spaced repetition6. Since I’ve started putting several layers of filters between my hand and my system, I’m surprised how often a note doesn’t make it all the way.

Developing Original Thought

I wish I had learned this a decade ago. I spent so much of my life as merely an aggregator and router of knowledge. I used to have Google Reader hooked up to Twitter, and as a result I mindlessly blasted some 20k+ links. (I am not proud.) I wanted to share and create… but I merely added to the noise.

I am no longer content to consume and regurgitate. I want to contribute something new and personal. A useful first step is the “restating” of an idea that I talked about in Filtering the Vital Few. After you’ve made a note, you must cultivate and revisit the most promising trains of thought. Having filtered to the Vital Few, high-quality dots ready to connect… something personal and creative can emerge!

Some of the ways I’ve used to develop ideas…

  • Rewriting.
  • Outlining.
  • Transforming a written idea to visual and back.
  • Mind mapping.

Mike Schmitz’s7 article about why mind mapping works drove home me that capturing ideas isn’t enough, they have to be developed. I don’t think it’s an accident that he chose mind mapping for developing ideas. Relating ideas by strong connections allows exploration and discovery… so powerful.

Connecting the Dots

Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made by siloing everything off into its own space. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.

― Austin Kleon, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

This is the reason to try a Creativity System or zettelkasten. Creating high-quality links between thoughts is powerful and fun. A link between two thoughts allows you to:

  • ask the question “how are these related?” (Often creates more notes)
  • follow a train of thought
  • Discover related ideas that you would not have put together.
  • so much more!

Other advantages I’ve noticed while working in a digital hyperlinked system (a zettelkasten):

  • I have found that “what does this relate to?” is easier to answer than “where does this belong?” (Especially for abstract ideas.)
  • In most note-taking systems I’ve used the only relationship type is “proximity”: same tag, same folder, similar title or date. Nick Milo (Linking Your Thinking (LYT)) wrote a very good article about the value of useful relationships between notes.
  • Trails of links can record and “replay” a train of thought. As I navigate through my system, leaving links in my wake… I record the thinking I had. I am even starting to “fork” a thought, pursuing multiple courses of thinking simultaneously! This feels as powerful as branching in git, and I can’t wait to see how it improves my thinking and writing.8

3.

These three attributes of Creativity Systems fascinate me. While I favor atomic, hypertextual notes, there are so many ways to accomplish the same goals. A different system that jumps to mind is Jerry Seinfeld’s system for developing standup, as described to Tim Ferris:

  1. Capture into a little notebook.
  2. Restate the good captures onto the legal pad. (Filter raw material)
  3. Sit down regularly in front the work: Developing and Connecting the raw observations into polished jokes.

I do believe that this Filter -> Develop -> Connect framework describes the work practices of many successful writers and thinkers.

The goal of any Creativity System is to build a consistent, pleasant system that helps you filter, develop, and connect. Atomic hypertextual notes are simply one (highly effective!) path to get there. Your system should be your own… pick and choose the tools and techniques based on who you are and what you are trying to do.

Next up… I’m going to discuss the recent transformations of my system, the problems I’ve faced, and my current implementation.


  1. One could argue that you could simply use the existing Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) initialism, however PKM contains systems that only answer “where does this go” and don’t have any connecting power. 

    Using the phrase Creativity System allows freedom of invention in your particular system… and it keeps me from being a hypocrite when I call my mutant system a “Zettelkasten”. 🤣

  2. Let us begin with the most important traits of a Zettelkasten: 

    • It’s hyper-textual.
    • It adheres to the Principle of Atomicity.
    • It is personal.

    Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method • Zettelkasten Method

  3. I believe this comes from the Pareto Principle, but it entered my lexicon after reading Essentialism by Greg McKeon

  4. Instant capture means that you can capture anything, but it doesn’t mean that you should keep or process everything. 

  5. Nick Milo calls the difference between capture and restating notes “taking notes vs. making notes.” 

  6. Spaced repetition is the principle that long lasting learning is created through repetitive re-engagement with the material. 

    The single biggest change that Anki brings about is that it means memory is no longer a haphazard event, to be left to chance. Rather, it guarantees I will remember something, with minimal effort. That is, Anki makes memory a choice.

    Augmenting Long-term Memory

  7. And he’s recently playing around with Obsidian. 🤷‍♂️ 

  8. I believe (and could be wrong) that this aspect of forking and trains of thought is the “truest” attribute of a Luhmann Zettelkasten, and is one that I intend to foster and continue in my implementation. 


Changelog
  • 2021-03-08 17:22:09 +0000

    Fix reference

    I incorrectly attributed "vital few" (in my life) to Deep Work. Although
    it may have been in that book, I picked it up from Essentialism.

  • 2021-03-08 16:49:25 +0000

    Mild changes:

    - Add link to Simple Markdown Zettelkasten
    - styled the headers

  • 2021-03-08 15:48:59 +0000

    Post: Defining Creativy Systems