Zettelkasten Forum


Capture Flexibility and Link Density

There are frequent discussions on this forum about how to take notes while reading books and journal articles. That is surely an important skill and books are perhaps the most important source of information for those working in academia.

But, in my world, ideas for notes come from a wide variety of sources: books and journal articles, but also emails, texts, podcasts, blogs, equipment inspections, conversations, oral interviews, Slack channels, discussion forums, real-world business meetings, Zoom meetings, telephone calls, YouTube, TV, newspapers, and Mother Nature. I get ideas for notes while walking our dogs or driving to the grocery store.

Consequently, the notion of "capture"as it is referred to for GTD task management is, for me, also important for a Zettelkasten. As I do with task management, I capture for a Zettelkasten with Siri on my Watch or iPhone, or with my favorite application -- Drafts. I frequently use the Share menus from all devices. Keyboard Maestro and Alfred are available where they provide special capabilities. I frequently carry a small notebook in my back pocket.

My current choice for ZK software is Roam. Terminology timeout: Roam uses the term "page" where The Archive uses "note" or "file", Ulysses uses "sheet" and Drafts "draft."

Roam has an interesting approach to capture. The basic premise is that you should spend most of your time on a "Daily Page" recording whatever event or information is interesting, regardless of what the event is about or where it originated. I was skeptical about this idea at first, but the Daily Page concept is a surprisingly powerful idea.

I use a template on each Daily Page to record "standard stuff" -- exercise, TODOs, scheduled events, dog walks, morning and evening reviews, and what book(s) I'm reading. But, the fact that a Gila Woodpecker was feeding at one of our hummingbird feeders is also added as does anything and everything that happens throughout the day (including any notes derived from reading a book or journal article). Telephone calls, meeting notes -- just about everything gets into the system via the Daily Page.

Which brings us to the subject of (1)the ease of link and page creation, and (2) link density.

To illustrate, consider this TODO entered on a Daily Page:

[[George]] provide me with the inventory report for the [[Electronics Storeroom]] by [[November 15th, 2020]] with a copy to [[Mary]] and an assessment of its impact on the [[2021 annual budget]].

A TODO is created with a keyboard shortcut. Links and pages are created inline as you type using the [[xxx]] notation, with auto-completion speeding the process.

My TODO example would appear on the following pages, which could either be pre-existing or created on-the-fly by Roam.

  • Today's Daily Page (or whatever page on which this task was entered)
  • George's page
  • The Electronics Storeroom's page
  • The November 15th page
  • Mary's page
  • The 2021 annual budget's page

Each linked entry would be date-stamped. If a page turned out not to be useful in the future, it would exist quietly in some alternative universe, where it could be safely ignored. If you change a page's name Roam updates all of its references.

There is no downside to creating lots of links and lots of pages -- and there is almost no friction in doing so. Like our brains, Roam embraces a degree of chaos.

Here are a few lines from a recent post on this forum showing how links and pages might be applied in Roam (my apologies to @zetzazu ):

but what if I plan on using both for a life time? I'd like to have the contents of [[ZK1]] about [[sociology]], [[philosophies]], etc and [[ZK2]] for [[health]] and [[science-related]] and other interests that don't exactly fit in [[ZK1]] (eg: [[skincare]], [[working out]], tips for [[shorthand]], [[molecular structures of skincare ingredients]], tips for playing the [[guitar]], [[piano]]; any useful tips for [[my interests/hobbies]] for future reference).

That is one sentence with date-stamped links to 13 pages, discounting the Daily Page on which it was entered.

Links can be created almost as fast as you type normally because Roam uses auto-completion to help find the correct page. Type only the first few letters, say, "[[phi" and Roam would immediately suggest [[philosophies]]. "[[So" is sufficient to find the page to my dog [[Sophie]].

There are no UIDs in Roam. There are unique identifiers for pages -- and even paragraphs -- but Roam does the heavy lifting. (You can, by the way, link to paragraphs as well as to pages.)

There is no special process for creating a page. Roam creates pages as they are needed in response to "[[ xxx]]" entries.

To get a better idea of how link density works in a more realistic setting, spend a few minutes at this [link][https://www.nateliason.com/blog/roam] In particular, check out the tennis shoe entry.

Regardless of which software is used (Obsidian and DEVONthink may be reasonable alternatives) there are two things that I think are important to efficient operation -- to not allowing the management of the system to interfere with its purpose: (1) How easily can links and pages (files, notes, sheets, drafts) be created, and (2) How readily can all-source information be captured and entered into the system.

Comments

  • @bjbarry, I'm biased. I have no experience with Roam. I may sound contrarian, but I'm not. I feel like Roam is to The Archive as Microsoft Word is to Markdown. All these software apps have their place and can produce sterling ideas. Having good ideas should be the goal, not having the "best" software as there will always be a 'better' software package in the pipeline.

    @bjbarry said:
    ...Consequently, the notion of "capture"as it is referred to for GTD task management is, for me, also important for a Zettelkasten.

    Yes, capture is the right notion to have when working in your zettelkasten. Capture ideas and feed them to your zettelkasten.

    As I do with task management, I capture for a Zettelkasten with Siri on my Watch or iPhone, or with my favorite application -- Drafts. I frequently use the Share menus from all devices. Keyboard Maestro and Alfred are available where they provide special capabilities.

    I frequently carry a small notebook in my back pocket.

    Yay for the small notebook. Check out this post about capturing notes on the go.

    My current choice for ZK software is Roam. Terminology timeout: Roam uses the term "page" where The Archive uses "note" or "file", Ulysses uses "sheet" and Drafts "draft."

    Roam has an interesting approach to capture. The basic premise is that you should spend most of your time on a "Daily Page" recording whatever event or information is interesting, regardless of what the event is about or where it originated. I was skeptical about this idea at first, but the Daily Page concept is a surprisingly powerful idea.

    Yes, "Daily Pages" is a powerful idea that triggers a lot of exciting stuff. I use this primarily in my journaling and have done this in my zettelkasten when inspiration struck. I haven't made this a daily habit in the zettelkasting. Maybe I will, who knows.

    I use a template on each Daily Page to record "standard stuff" -- exercise, TODOs, scheduled events, dog walks, morning and evening reviews, and what book(s) I'm reading. But, the fact that a Gila Woodpecker was feeding at one of our hummingbird feeders is also added as does anything and everything that happens throughout the day (including any notes derived from reading a book or journal article). Telephone calls, meeting notes -- just about everything gets into the system via the Daily Page.

    I use Evernote for journaling in this way. What goes into Evernote is the stream of conscious stuff of journaling.

    To illustrate, consider this TODO entered on a Daily Page:

    [[George]] provide me with the inventory report for the [[Electronics Storeroom]] by [[November 15th, 2020]] with a copy to [[Mary]] and an assessment of its impact on the [[2021 annual budget]].

    A TODO is created with a keyboard shortcut. Links and pages are created inline as you type using the [[xxx]] notation, with auto-completion speeding the process.

    My TODO example would appear on the following pages, which could either be pre-existing or created on-the-fly by Roam.

    • Today's Daily Page (or whatever page on which this task was entered)
    • George's page
    • The Electronics Storeroom's page
    • The November 15th page
    • Mary's page
    • The 2021 annual budget's page

    Each linked entry would be date-stamped. If a page turned out not to be useful in the future, it would exist quietly in some alternative universe, where it could be safely ignored. If you change a page's name Roam updates all of its references.

    There is no downside to creating lots of links and lots of pages -- and there is almost no friction in doing so. Like our brains, Roam embraces a degree of chaos.

    Here are a few lines from a recent post on this forum showing how links and pages might be applied in Roam (my apologies to @zetzazu ):

    but what if I plan on using both for a life time? I'd like to have the contents of [[ZK1]] about [[sociology]], [[philosophies]], etc and [[ZK2]] for [[health]] and [[science-related]] and other interests that don't exactly fit in [[ZK1]] (eg: [[skincare]], [[working out]], tips for [[shorthand]], [[molecular structures of skincare ingredients]], tips for playing the [[guitar]], [[piano]]; any useful tips for [[my interests/hobbies]] for future reference).

    That is one sentence with date-stamped links to 13 pages, discounting the Daily Page on which it was entered.

    Links can be created almost as fast as you type normally because Roam uses auto-completion to help find the correct page. Type only the first few letters, say, "[[phi" and Roam would immediately suggest [[philosophies]]. "[[So" is sufficient to find the page to my dog [[Sophie]].

    I use a full-text search for this functionality, and I don't have to stop and use "the [[xxx]] notation" or worry that I might have overlooked creating some critical link. I'm not familiar with Roam, but I can also use boolean searches. Limiting results with a AND, OR, NOT. So I can find all mentions of Sophie AND philosophies. I find these types of searches more fruitful than clicking links. I feel this might be a downside to the over-dependence on linking.

    This is why I don't blend my journaling with my knowledge work. The search results would tend to be squeed. Other people's mileage will vary.

    There are no UIDs in Roam. There are unique identifiers for pages -- and even paragraphs -- but Roam does the heavy lifting. (You can, by the way, link to paragraphs as well as to pages.)

    Sure Roam has UID's - their called " unique identifiers for pages -- and even paragraphs". Roam just hides them from the user in a proprietary database, hidden from the user.

    Not necessarily a bad thing but might be and could cause export problems. My favorite journaling tool, Evernote, was an early implementer of the database of notes paradigm. Something will happen, and I may lose 13 years of journaling. Oh, well.

    There is no special process for creating a page. Roam creates pages as they are needed in response to "[[ xxx]]" entries.

    To get a better idea of how link density works in a more realistic setting, spend a few minutes at this [link][https://www.nateliason.com/blog/roam] In particular, check out the tennis shoe entry.

    Regardless of which software is used (Obsidian and DEVONthink may be reasonable alternatives) there are two things that I think are important to efficient operation -- to not allowing the management of the system to interfere with its purpose: (1) How easily can links and pages (files, notes, sheets, drafts) be created, and (2) How readily can all-source information be captured and entered into the system.

    I'd add two more, (3) How much of your own thinking have you seeded to the system. (4) How locked into a proprietary system are you?

    Will Simpson
    “Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
    kestrelcreek.com

  • but what if I plan on using both for a life time? I'd like to have the contents of [[ZK1]] about [[sociology]], [[philosophies]], etc and [[ZK2]] for [[health]] and [[science-related]] and other interests that don't exactly fit in [[ZK1]] (eg: [[skincare]], [[working out]], tips for [[shorthand]], [[molecular structures of skincare ingredients]], tips for playing the [[guitar]], [[piano]]; any useful tips for [[my interests/hobbies]] for future reference).

    It has nothing to do with Roam or any other software. But if I'd see this in someones Zettelkasten I'd advice him to drop link dumping and practice more care and diligence.

    I am a Zettler

  • Thanks @Will for your comments. As always you make me think harder.

    I use a lot of software for jobs that are important to me where loss of data or functionality is at least a theoretical possibility. Keyboard Maestro is a one-man show as is Drafts. Evernote flirted with going under. I once made extensive use of WordPerfect, Harvard Graphics, dBase III, SuperCalc, Lotus Notes, and Lotus 123.

    I back up Roam to Markdown files every evening -- one file per page. At the same time I create a JSON file of the entire system. I save those on my hard drive in a directory that Hazel watches over. Hazel (another one-many show that I use a lot) deletes backups older than seven days. The files are backed up to Time Machine, to clones, to the cloud. I don't feel unsafe, or at least no less safe than I do with other software.

    People using The Archive seem unusually concerned with whether a system is proprietary or not -- at least that seems to be the case with me. I use any number of applications to store information: Drafts, Ulysses, Mail, Word, Excel, Banktivity, Messages -- and more. None of them requires me to manage a UID and I don't spend much time worrying about whether they are proprietary.

    Perhaps these concerns are a matter of age or optimism. I lose little sleep wondering whether a note I make "now" will someday be confused with a note that I make on this date and time 100 years from now. If I thought UIDs were necessary, I could probably get by with 10 digits.

    One purpose of the [[xxx]] notation or its equivalent #xxx in Roam is to create a page. Try creating a new file in The Archive as quickly as I can type [[my new page]]. A second purpose is to link whatever you happen to be writing to [[xxx]]. Try making a link from whatever you are writing to a different file in The Archive as quickly. Then try making two links as fast as I can type [[xxx] and [[yyy]]. A fair test requires knowing that Roam provides the closing brackets for you and also assists with autocompletion.

    The reason this is important, IMO, is that managing the application is distracting. It creates a stream of interruptions that interfere with the process of recording information. It is not unlike a chime announcing the arrival of a new email (notifications that I turn off).

    Optimal system designs hide the "guts" of the operation from the user, allowing the user to focus exclusively on what they are trying to accomplish. A TV remote is an example. My wife is adept at channel surfing, but has not the vaguest notion of how the system actually works.

    You can query in Roam with Boolean searches. You can quickly filter based on keywords. If you look at a page you see (a) text entered directly on the page, (b) linked text entered elsewhere, and (c) text using words that suggest a link might be desired -- what Roam calls "unlinked references." You can quickly create links to any of unlinked references if you overlooked doing so when initially.

    That is an important distinction in usability. If I look at page [[xxx]] I don't just see information entered there. I also see information entered on other pages that were linked to [[xxx]]. There is no need to track down links -- the software finds them (as well as unlinked references) for you. The idea that you open a file and see links to it that must be separately opened does not exist in Roam. You can, of course, open a linked page and then you'll immediately see everything linked to it -- not another list of links, actual information. Contrast this system with having to sequentially open several files to see what each link to a file contains.

    This all boils down to: (a) I don't feel any more exposed to loss of data with Roam than I do with other software, and (b) From a system design standpoint, it is desirable for the system to do the management, freeing the user from overhead tasks, especially overhead tasks that not only take time but also create a stream of distractions.

    In response to @Sascha's comment re "link dumping." I didn't explain myself very well. The purpose of the dozen [[xxx]] entries was not to create links, but rather to create pages -- files in The Archive's lingo. If a person is interested in recording information about a dozen different things, then I believe that any ZK-oriented software would require that at least a dozen pages (or files) be created. With Roam, you can create those dozen pages/files very quickly. Perhaps as a penalty you end up with one initial link per page -- the link that describes it origin story. When and in what context was this page first created.

  • If a person is interested in recording information about a dozen different things, then I believe that any ZK-oriented software would require that at least a dozen pages (or files) be created.

    Page or file creation is not a bottle neck. At least not from my experience. Quite the contrary. Often, you have to set goals for creation to push oneselfs productivity.

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sascha - A bottle neck occurs when a process slows progress.

    Consider the evolution of starting a car: Cranking the engine from in front of the car, putting a key in the ignition, pushing a button while your fob is in your pocket, tapping an icon on your smart phone. In each case the car starts. The design changes were focused on making the process easier. It doesn't mean that using a key in an ignition switch is "bad" -- only that it is less convenient than pressing a button.

    When a process must be performed repeatedly, removing friction becomes increasingly important. Creating files and establishing links are good examples.

    The end result may be the same (the car starts however you do it) but the methods used to get to the result can vary substantially in their ease of use.

  • @bjbarry I understand your argumentation. However, it is derived from theory. As far as my experience with my own Zettelkasten and my clients, note creation was never an issue bottleneck.

    We are not at a point in which we crank in front of the car but already at a point in which we just have to push a button. Make the button an icon on a screen will not change anything regarding productivity.

    In fact, your example is very good. Starting the car with a button instead of a key is such a minor and unimportant factor of the overall performance of a driver that any reason to do this switch is either because no key starter cars a produced any longer or purely ornamental.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited November 2020

    @bjbarry said:
    When a process must be performed repeatedly, removing friction becomes increasingly important. Creating files and establishing links are good examples.

    I don't see 'creating files and establishing links' as friction. This is the act of making a note archive.
    I don't want to seed this critical process to a software algorithm.

    Post edited by Will on

    Will Simpson
    “Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
    kestrelcreek.com

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