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“Going down the rabbit hole,” has come to take on an entirely different meaning than perhaps Lewis Carroll implied. It is now where we go to get lost in the twists, tangents and tributaries of the internet, often emerging hours later not quite remembering what we started looking for in the first place. The rabbit hole that is the internet doesn’t have to be a place of procrastination and lack of productivity (although you may prefer it that way, and I choose not to judge). The key is knowing what you are looking for and how to productively sort it out (while perhaps leaving a trail of metaphorical breadcrumbs behind you).
I have been down the rabbit hole, exploring my process of note taking, systems and organizing over the last few weeks. It has been an intensive and extensive journey, and one that I have detailed here. It started with a frustration with the continued dysfunction of my files and references, and expanded into a more general indictment of how I take notes. Sönke Ahrens’ “How to Take Smart Notes” provided some valuable prompts about what is possible with notes, and in particular underscored for me an essential function that I had long been ignoring. I find myself at a solution that I believe will work for me, which is what each of us needs to find. What I’ve learned may not serve you directly, but it may offer some insights for your own journey.
It is a little astonishing how this happens. You start with a problem, work back to first principles, figure out how to proceed forward and then find yourself back in the same vicinity of where you left off. In my case, I started with a systems problem around files that turned into a much broader exploration of notes, ideas, thinking and how I work. Now that I’ve landed on most of an approach that I think can work for me, I’m trying to figure out how to manage and organize that in reality. This brings us right back to software and systems, and the realization that what I hope to do may not be quite so easy as I had anticipated.
My thinking about notes has hit a bit of a wall. I thought that might simply be the normal resistance to change and shifting to a radically different way of working. As it turns out, there are some larger underlying problems that remain unresolved that my subconscious has clearly been wrestling with. The theoretical simplicity of the slip-box hides some potential complexities as I start to consider its actual practical application. This might just be a product of the kind of work that I do and how I approach it. I’m not wholly sure of that, however, so in the interests of radical disclosure I’m sharing my thinking process.
What if you never forgot anything? Consider what it would mean to remember every idea you have ever come across, and where it originally came from. Even better, imagine building on that knowledge to identify ideas you want to explore, papers you want to write, research you want to do or projects you want to pursue. Sound far-fetched? Perhaps. But an obscure (to most of us) sociologist named Niklas Luhmann devised a system to support doing exactly this. The essence of the system is absolute simplicity. This isn’t to say that actually building one doesn’t involve some significant complexity and work.
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10 November 2021 Naming something gives us power over it. When we name something, we are unavoidably adding information to what we’re naming, one that is often self-referential. A name enables us to understand something better. It creates a focal point and a placeholder, defining its importance and making us more sensitive to encountering the…
6 October 2021 Words have power. The words that we choose have a great deal of impact on what we say, and more importantly how our message is received. The average active vocabulary of a typical adult is about 20,000 words. That seems like a lot, and probably more than enough to be getting on…
30 June 2021 Problem solving is a core skill in all walks of life. With it, we can help teams function more cohesively, fly drones on Mars, and develop lifesaving vaccines faster than ever before. Without it, we have difficulty even getting dressed in the morning. Yet, despite its importance, it’s an underserved and underexplored…
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