In this series, we are exploring how to take your thinking seriously. Here are three previous posts in the series:
A metaphor for your mind, getting started, and on creativity and developing a personal knowledge management system.
Intended Audience: Knowledge workers, students, or anyone who wants to take their learning seriously and compound their knowledge and learning over time and does not yet have an intentional personal knowledge management system or wants to improve what they have.
(Applying what takes you 15 minutes to read today will benefit you for decades, and others for generations to come.)
Tools for thought, in the broadest sense, are any tools or technology to help humans think. Language itself, writing, pencils, paper, the printing press, and the computer are all tools for thought.
Today I'll focus on a specific tool for thought that I've been using to give you a practical example of how you can develop a personal knowledge management system. The goal here is to explore, with some concrete examples, my tools for thought and how to create a rich forest of contextual knowledge in a digital second brain.
My Digital Second Brain
Let's take my digital second brain as an example of a tool for thought.
My system is focused on a note-taking app Roam Research where I seek to externalize all the essential things I do, think, learn, and write.
It's known for bi-directional links, and I use it to connect and improve my thinking, writing, and access references. It helps me come up with new ideas and new ways of thinking about things, and I use it to improve my thinking about what I'm learning by putting critical concepts of what I'm reading into my own words as evergreen notes.
I started using Roam in August 2020, and it's been the best investment I've ever made in terms of tools for writing and improving my thinking. My most rigorous seasons of thinking have been the two different stints in graduate school and the last few years using Roam.
What I do
I externalize all my tasks into to-do lists in Roam.
What I learn
I aim to log everything meaningful that I read, watch, listen to, or experience into Roam. This is a way of collecting knowledge dots as I go so I can use and connect them in the future.
This could be anything from embedding PDFS, to entire YouTube videos and their transcripts, storing articles, listing out great restaurants, and automatically importing highlights from my books (on Kindle) and articles using Readwise).
But most importantly, this is where I write my ideas and thoughts about my learning.
What I think
I am seeking to train and improve my thinking with rigor by writing out what I think in a systematic way. I will delve into this much more deeply in the future.
"How does one person take 20 different people they're reading and start to create some sort of synthesis or math-like map of the idea space, across a bunch of different books that they're reading, or a bunch of different observations or conversations that they're having, and gradually be able to index into the individual things? So somebody else who is reading their synthesis can check and say, "Is this summary actually reflective of the underlying idea?" Or, "Does point A actually imply point B?"...
I think that you need to be able to get compound interest on your thoughts. Good ideas come from when ideas have sex: the intersection of different things that you've been reading or different things you've been seeing. So you can have better ideas faster if you are actually reviewing the old things and you are building up. You're not throwing away work.
A lot of times people forget everything they read in books and they're not often able to think, "Oh yes, this thing that I just read reminds me of this book that I read six months ago, or two years ago, or five years ago."
I think solid foundations do make you faster in the long run. That's the core idea in the Zettelkasten. You move a little bit slower as you go through a book. But you get some nuggets of thought articulated that then end up allowing you to produce, and when it comes time for you to write something, it's much faster because you have already done a lot of the work ahead of time. And so you're not duplicating it over and over again."
~Conor White-Sullivan, founder of Roam Research, in an interview.
Acorns and Knowledge Forests
Ralph Waldo Emerson is attributed with saying:
"the creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn."
Let your acorn be your daily practice of taking notes. In time you will create a forest of knowledge!
Let me show you what I mean.
I've gone down the rabbit hole with Roam, and in the last two and a half years, I've created thousands of pages.
Here is a screenshot of my Roam graph, displaying all the pages I've created, how they are interconnected with bi-directional links, and with the blue lines to pages showing the 234 times I've journaled "what am I grateful for?".
For every page I create, I make tags for that page so they become deeply interconnected.
Here is my tags page. This shows the times I've used the 'Tags' attribute (623 Linked References) and anytime I have written the word "Tags" on a page (2803 Unlinked References). This also includes, as you can see at the bottom of the screenshot below, anytime I add tags to my highlights of an article or book in the Readwise Reader app.
But of course, I didn't start here. I grew it a bit each day over time. That's the power of using a digital second brain: develop a habit of journaling and using a tool for thought, and it quickly becomes an incredible resource.
Oh, and in case this is intimidating. Here's a quick example about collecting knowledge as you go.
Remember that Emerson quote?
"the creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn."
I actually came across it while writing this post. I was taking a break (I use the Pomodoro technique of writing for 25-55 minutes and taking a 5-minute break) and while making some tea, I saw this quote.
So I added it to Roam, threw on a few tags so I can find it later, and added the quote to this essay, which I'm writing in Roam. By the way, I do all my writing in Roam. Even significant emails and texts.
Let's dig a bit deeper.
One of the pages I linked to for the Emerson quote is "Systems Thinking".
Now if you look at my "Systems Thinking" page, you can see I have 18 Linked References (times I've used the tag) and 20 Unlinked References (times the words "Systems Thinking" shows up in the text but isn't linked). So you can see how this builds together in a powerful way over time!
Planting Daily Acorns
In Roam, each day starts with a blank page for that day. A potential acorn. So simple. So powerful.
However, an acorn without soil, water, and sun will not transform into a tree, let alone multiply into a thousands forests.
Each day is an opportunity to do focused and intentional work.
Each day is an opportunity to learn.
Each day is an opportunity to grow in character and wisdom.
In light of this, each day, I track a set of daily practices that I call "Dailies." I have an automated way to call up the list of my daily tasks quickly. Here is a view of my current Dailies.
As I stick with these, over time, I create powerful habits. With these fundamental practices in place, results become inevitable.
Take, for example, a daily practice that I recently started tracking: daily writing. I've been writing regularly for a few years now, but only last month thought to track it intentionally.
This is a view of the times I've written for at least 30 minutes in the last month or so since I started tracking it. Little by little, I learn more about Roam, and I keep improving my digital second brain experience.
Seeing this view of my writing is motivating to me! It's a simple but powerful reminder to keep the streak going. And if I miss a day? No big deal, I'll just pick it up the next day.
Here is a simple example of how these thousands of pages interconnect with each other. For example, we'll choose a page I've created called "Questions." Each line has a separate page that I use as a resource in counseling.
Here is the graph view of this "Questions" page. You can see all the pages that are linked to the "Questions" page (in the center of the image).
For example, I have a page, "Journal prompt questions List," that is linked to my "Questions" page. I give clients journal prompt questions based on what they're working on in therapy. I add a bit to this page as I go when it makes sense. This could be far more organized. But for now, it's enough. That's part of the power of this system, which is that you can slowly add to it, and it gets more and more rich and interconnected as you go.
You can see above that the "Family Conflict" page is just getting started. It will grow over time.
Here is the Graph view of my "Journal prompt questions List" page and what it is connected to.
More importantly than just collecting information or resources, I actually regularly use and refer to this page of journal prompts questions, and different types of questions that I ask in therapy.
I ask questions for a living.
So I am slowly adding questions to my digital brain, then practicing asking those questions.
Those questions get ingrained into my thinking and have become easier and easier to ask. In more-and-more situations I can quickly see what questions are best to ask in a given point in a conversation.
And when I learn a new powerful or insightful question, you guessed it, I add it to the list!
Invest in a strategy
I'm sharing a glimpse into my use of Roam in hopes that it will help, showing you a small window into what I'm up to. I've been steadily adding to it almost daily for the last few years, and the results are really adding up! There are far more sophisticated things I could do with Roam, but I'm really pleased and benefiting from the simple workflows and systems I currently have in place. I can always keep adding to it as I go.
I understand that for some of my readers, this may feel overwhelming, or you may just not know where to start. Wherever you are in your commitment to learning, it's essential to take time to think about how you think and create a personal knowledge management system.
Invest in a strategy for compounding the growth in your creativity and improving your thinking.
"You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than in your current results."
~ James Clear, Atomic Habits
It's more important that you are committed to continually growing and learning than what you currently know. Your results will grow in powerful ways, but only if you implement a thoughtful strategy.
6 Steps to Get Started
Here are some high-level steps to build a personal knowledge management system.
- Research tools for thought that will help you build a digital second brain. More on this below
- Choose a digital tool and learn by actually using it.
- Collect anything you read, watch, learn, or listen to that seems meaningful in some way can be quickly collected and stored in your digital second brain.
- Set aside some time each week to continue improving your PKMS
- Develop a disciplined practice to improve your thinking. More on this next week.
- Start learning in public and sharing what you know as soon as possible. More on this in the weeks to come.
Specific tools for thought
Use one powerful note-taking app. You can have other tools feed into your central note-taking app (like I do with Readwise.io), but those tools should largely be used for collecting what you read, listen to, watch, and experience.
I'll share some current best-in-class options for note-taking apps below, but there are a lot to choose from. My point here isn't to do an in-depth review but just start your own process, in case you haven't yet. There is a learning curve for all of these, and it will take an ongoing investment in learning how to get the most out of using the specific tool. Hopefully, you will find it worth your time.
The products I'd recommend you start considering are Roam Research, Obsidian, or Notion.
Roam Research or Obsidian are very fluid and powerful note-taking apps with bi-directional links and tons of additional customization and optimization that you can learn as you go. They are both very easy to get started with but lack structure beyond a daily notes page. That's their beauty and their weakness. You have to create the structure.
Notion provides a more structured approach, with better databases/tables that are still fairly intuitive to use. They now have a version of bi-directional links, although it's not as powerful.
Tana deserves mention, as it appears to be an up-and-coming threat of the one-note-taking app to rule them all. At the time of writing, it's still in Alpha with invite-only access. Sign up for the wait list if you're intrigued, like I am. If you like to nerd out on these things, and I'd only recommend this if you're already using some kind of digital second brain system, you can get a taste of the power of using ontologies to improve your PKMS in this video.
Join their communities and learn all you can: join their company Slack, watch their Youtube videos, and learn from their documentation. There is a wealth of information to learn, far more than I can cover here.
Any of these tools have the ability for you to export your work if you decide to start using a different tool and want to migrate your data over. The most important thing is to get started, not to use the perfect tool, because the perfect tool doesn't exist, and you will learn a lot while you are using whatever tool you start with.
Now that I hope you're convinced of the benefits and principles of creating or improving your personal knowledge management system, I would love to hear what tools you have decided to start using and what you're learning along the way!
P.S. If you think of someone who might like to nerd out on this, you know what to do!