Nurturing Notes and Thoughts

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.

Not all ideas are equal. Ideas have different sources, confidence levels, provability and permanence. We use different words to describe our ideas: Hunches, notions, opinions, theories, concepts, abstractions, beliefs, hypothesis, facts, laws. Our thoughts don’t stay the same either. Our minds change over time.

If there are all these ways to think about ideas… why do we use the same note-making structure to represent this variety?

showing two graphs, both with a potential link. One is unlabeled, the other labels its nodes with degrees of confidence. I'm insinutating the potential link is more valid when you know the validity of the nodes.
Would you feel more confident making that link not knowing the veracity of the two ideas, or by being able to see that both ideas are “strong?”

This has become the most impactful adaptation to my Creativity System: a simple classification system that has levels of “strength” for an idea. A “weak” idea is subject to doubt and disproval while a “strong” idea is core to my thinking.

There is an argument for only including strong opinions or strong facts in your Creativity System. By this logic every link in your notes is valid and strong. While this is tempting, we still need a place to capture and nurture new ideas. We would be creating a boundary arbitrarily in your Creativity System. However we slice and dice it, we have one Creativity System from inception to output.

Growing Your Notes

showing a progression from weak to strong, representing notes

Note-making is idea development. To create and discover we must capture new and risky ideas and connections, not just recording the safe and the known. There is great value in capturing unproven thoughts so we can nurture them to maturity.1

There are many ways to implement notes with a lifecycle, but all such systems should consider:

  • allow easy capture of new ideas
  • easy identification of the strength of an idea
  • clear path for weak ideas to become strong

Capture the Interesting

everything should have a home

Our Creativity Systems should support capturing and placing all kinds of notes into their own “home”, both weak and strong.

If we restrict our system to strong ideas we limit our ability to capture new and wonderful ideas. A huge part of a Creativity System is to allow us to capture and nuture anything that grabs and holds our interest.

Clear Identification

hunch < observation < insight < hypothesis < theory < law

Our systems should have some sort of way of discerning what is a weak note, and what is a strong note. There are many such ways to do this (I’ll detail mine in a later post) but it should make sense to you and be natural to your system and your goals.

Having this sort of identification can help us deal with a subtle but deadly cognitive bias: Humans believe we are critical of new ideas. The cold reality: our minds default to believing all we hear or read. We would like to think that when encountering a new idea we consider its truthfulness before believing… but it is far easier to just accept what we are given. We optionally (and rarely) consider a new idea’s truthfulness after our minds have already accepted it.2 By encoding new “weak” ideas with a structure that denotes their fragility, we can help ourselves defeat this bias and navigate critically in new areas of thought.

Path to Maturity

Once we have a way to capture all interesting ideas, and a clear way to discern the different kinds of thoughts and notes, we will often find notes traveling up or down the lifecycle. Once all our thoughts and notes are swimming around in the same sea, there are many lovely ways that they can grow, be disproven, or continue to flourish. Just revisiting a note after the passage of time can change its position in our minds.

Sometimes while working I’ll find strong surrounding arguments through search or links which will “promote” the idea in my mind.

1. a note appears. 2. a note is connected to stronger notes. 3. the note gets more strength from its stronger connections

Sometimes while researching and writing I’ll suddenly see a strong opinion that links together lots of weaker facts. The pattern suddenly shifts, and I’ll have a new hypothesis to start studying.

diagram showing how you can find a stronger idea by finding lots of weaker thoughts that all connect.

There are many ways that allowing weak and strong ideas to co-exist in our notes can improve our thinking. I’ve started “debate” notes, linked notes arguing either side of a controversy. I’ve found patterns in my own thinking that were then encoded as a “weak” note, studied, and ultimately rejected because there’s no proof.

***

In previous versions of my note-taking systems I either restricted my system to only “worthy” or “strong” notes, or I threw everything into the system but without a way to tell what was weak and what was strong. When only strong notes were in my system my thinking never grew, I only reinforced prior thoughts. When all thoughts were un-evaluated it was hard to navigate. By capturing everything while discerning weak and strong thoughts my Creativity System and my creative thinking has benefitted dramatically.


  1. There is a very good comparison here to the scientific method: hypothesis being proven by experiment into theories that stand the test of time until law… but there are many such metaphors appropriate for different Creativity Systems. I didn’t want to limit people’s imaginations to only one. 

  2. I cannot for the life of me remember where I first heard this. Proverbs 14:15 says it better than I could: 

    Fools believe every word they hear, but wise people think carefully about everything.

    While the replication crisis makes me leary of every social experiement, there are some works out there that highlight this idea: