Turn Your Pile of Notes into Connected Ideas

Growing insight from Cloud Compost

I am a collector of notes.

5400 or so in Evernote, at last count.

I have notes about everything:

  • Books I’ve read

I’ve been doing this because I planned, someday, to go through all of these notes.

I had the false belief that somewhere, deep in this content, was something valuable: insights, new perspectives, articles, connections…hell, even a book.

I had the belief that, magically, these notes would sprout and grow into something insightful.

This was my compost pile in the cloud.

Yet nothing happened.

The compost just sat out there.

Nothing grew, nothing sprouted. No grand ideas. Just more compost collected.

Now, to be clear, there is good stuff here: insight from notes I’ve read or ideas I’ve come across.

Yet, I realized I had never made the effort to make sense of all this content.

In order to do so, I needed to connect these notes together.

I was never intentional about making the connections.

And without these connections, it’s just a collection. Just compost rotting in the cloud.

How Do You Create These Connections?

This book introduced me to a new process.

How To Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens
How To Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens
How to Take Smart Notes, available on Amazon

The book lays out a framework for taking and connecting notes. The framework is based on the Zettlekasten approach, made famous by the German researcher Niklas Luhmann, who used it to help write over 70 books and 400 articles.

The essence is to establish a process to document your notes, then deliberately make connections between them. Luhmann used index cards and a numbering system to make these connections.

Now, software can make managing these connections easier. I found a new, free application (https://obsidian.md/) that helps make these connections. It creates the links (and backlinks) in your content and allows you to visualize your connections, like in the graph image below.

My connections graph from Obsidian

Obsidian makes it easy for your content to connector or mingle with other content.

When ideas mingle, they have a chance to create new and more diverse ideas.

In addition, it makes the process of finding connections fun.

An introduction video to Obsidian is here.

However, Knowledge Management software is not enough. A technical link is not a real connection. It needs to be more. It requires work to find those connections.

It requires you to undergo work to uncover what your notes mean. The work comes from removing your notes from their current context and applying them to a new context. If removed, or abstracted from their original context, you may be able to apply these ideas to new contexts. The Zettlekasten and the Obsidian application are tools to facilitate that process.

The Struggle

By working this compost, mixing it up, finding connections, and letting ideas mingle, sprouts emerge.

But you have to work it.

And create a system to work it.

And stick to that system.

How To Take Smart Notes introduced me to an entire system for reading, processing, writing notes, and organizing notes. And I’m evolving it to my own needs and situation.

It’s a lot of work. But that is the point.

If there no work isinvolved, your notes lay fallow in your compost pile.

If you have a process, connections emerge and ideas grow. Your compost pile becomes something useful and valuable.

I’ll share more details of my new process in future blogs.

technologist, cultural omnivore, book nut, father

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store