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Nick Ang

The newborn bubble

I have an apartment with a roof and plumbing and this is the bubble I have lived in for the last two weeks since my first child was born. A newborn bubble. I don’t sleep much and I don’t do very much other than feed, carry, coax, assist in burping, changing diapers, launder, cook, wash, eat, and shit. Notably lacking: long walks in parks, Netflix, eating out, and meeting friends.

Am I happy?

When I happen to catch Charlotte smiling in her sleep, hell yeah I’m happy!

When I notice that she’s growing, hell yeah I’m happy!

When she lazily stretches her fours after awakening from sleep, nonchalant as the world continues to chug down the x-axis of time, hell yeah I’m happy!

But when I’m unable to decipher her body language and her cries, and it exacerbates her dissatisfaction, I’m not happy. How can I be when she’s screaming in my ears for the second hour straight?

Neither am I happy when, in the stupor of our fatigue, we spill a bottle of painstakingly pumped breast milk (50ml!) and my wife proceeds to cry in the toilet.

When I do look out the window, I’m also unhappy with not being able to enjoy the final days of summer outside. It’s just going to get colder and darker, and I’m stuck indoors with a newborn. A newborn, in case you didn’t know, doesn’t interact much with you. She’s not capable of much of that yet and won’t be until she’s at least 6 months old when she can sit up and eat some solid foods with you at the dinner table.

But I think “Am I happy?” is an irrelevant question to ask yourself as a parent. Better is the question, “Does this suffering feel worth it?”

To that, my answer is a clear yes, because I’ve never felt this kind of love before. That love (which continues to grow and, hopefully, reciprocates) is worth the suffering the newborn bubble.


Retreat

I’ve decided to stop using social media indefinitely. Specifically, I’m not going to use it for engaging in “personal” conversations. That means I’ll not be tweeting at anyone to reply to something they’ve said, or commenting on people’s life updates on IG or Facebook or LinkedIn. I will be keeping my accounts but I won’t be using them much.

This decision is multi-faceted.

First, I’ve become a dad this week. Our first child, Charlotte, was born and she and her mother who is a superhero have filled my heart with so much love I know I don’t need to look elsewhere (like my work) for more, at least for now.

Second, in the rare pockets of time where I could stop and think this week while caring for my daughter and wife in post-partum recovery (with surgery), I have come to realise how shallow my relationships with people online are.

I have a handful of real friends with whom I have eagerly shared “too many” photos of Charlotte. I pick photos that cater to each friend’s interests, one by one although not painstakingly. It was joyful and it was natural, unlike posting on social media.

I find one-to-one WhatsApp messages infinitely more intimate and meaningful than one-to-many social media posts and tweets.

Friends send their thoughts directly by WhatsApp, email, or Instagram direct message where nobody else can see. Online acquaintances do the opposite and mostly reply in public, which I suppose is all part of a game. I no longer want to participate in people’s performances of their identities, and I no longer want to partake in performing my own identity online either. It’s senseless. These friends online will never know the richness in you as a person, unless they cross over to being a real friend. I’ve yet to make one lasting friend through that kind of leap.

Third, my time just got a lot more scarce. Caring for a newborn is a no-joke-full-time job and it is a wonderful time that I want to fully experience. As Charlotte grows, I want to be there as much as I can to witness as many new things with her as possible so that when I’m older we can trade stories of “do you remember that time?” To have those times means I’ll have to reclaim my time from elsewhere. Twitter, for example, where I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time on lately trying to build friendships. What was I thinking?

Frankly, I believe a retreat from social media will help me think better. No more crowdthink. No more noise. And thinking better means living better.

Alright, so those are the main reasons. So now what?

As I said, I love having deep connections that arise from one-to-one conversations. If that’s what you want as well, then feel free to send me an email. I will reply when I find the time. If that’s not your thing, then you should probably unfollow, unsubscribe, and unfriend me on the various social platforms. No hard feelings; those brittle connections hardly mean a thing to me now.

I will continue to post once weekly on this blog as I have over the last year and half as it continues to be my space for thinking and sharing broadly things that I’m working on and things that I believe matter. This blog works completely differently from social media in that it has no commenting feature and that when a new post goes live, it either goes up quietly, or it lands in your email where you can read and reply to me directly and privately.

Ciao!


9 Questions for 1-1s

After nine months of being a team lead, I’ve learned that having 1-1s (one on ones; i.e. a private meeting between a direct report and their manager) is fantastic for many reasons:

  • It builds trust, lubricating work.
  • It multiplies productivity by helping identify work-blockers ahead of time (e.g. I’m stuck on this and can only proceed once Engineering Leadership gives the go-ahead. Is there something we can do to speed up that process?)
  • It enables early detection of team problems by providing a psychologically safe space to talk about problems openly.
  • It helps both parties grow through giving open feedback.
  • Bonus: It builds friendship, sometimes extending outside of work, especially after one of you leaves the company.

Nice, right? But…

It’s not always simple

1-1s are an art. Of course it is, it involves two complex human beings! We, therefore, need to adapt to the habits and preferences of the person we’re speaking to, be that our manager or direct report.

One of my newer direct reports seemed to not be getting much out of our 1-1s, or at least I interpreted it that way as he mentions regularly that he doesn’t have anything to bring up. He’d then suggest that we skip and talk at our next 1-1 two weeks later.

When I noticed this, thoughts rolled into my mind like fresh fog. I’ve been having great, enabling conversations with my other direct reports so far, including the newer ones. What is different here? I know these 30 minutes once every two weeks are worth the time. How can I help him see this in a way that is meaningful for him?

Although it’s probably perfectly valid to not have anything to want to talk about, my hunch was that 30 minutes once every two weeks is probably still valuable, if we tried to lay structure to the call.

So I came up with a shortlist of questions that I thought might steer him to become an active participant in making 1-1s valuable for him and me. Below are the questions, accompanied with short explanations of why I think they are useful questions.

(Context: my current profile is that of a manager who can do the same work as my direct reports. This means that most of the time, I can relate past experiences to what they are experiencing. Not all managers fit this profile, even though employees are usually happier when their bosses can do their jobs. If this is not true of your profile and relationship with your direct report or manager, then filter out some of the questions below that may not be suitable for that relationship.)

1. What have you been working on? How did you find the work? Any parts that made you frown/smile?

Putting on the table some of the work you have been doing in the last two weeks helps your manager frame the rest of the discussion around specific work topics.

The second part of the question is about elaboration, through which perhaps you would be compelled to think out loud and articulate some problems that you hadn’t realised yet. It’s the equivalent of a vet asking a dog owner what’s your suspicion of the cause of the problem? before deciding which topic to go deeper into.

Another good outcome I’ve found from talking about the good and bad is that you breed a sense of camaraderie, which builds trust, which helps get things done faster and smoother.

2. What do you think about the latest tasks that the team is working on? Any opinions?

This helps your manager learn your perspective about the team’s priorities and resulting backlog, which in turn helps him improve his ability to prioritise, communicate, and find interesting work for you, specifically, to do.

3. Were there any decisions you made lately that you aren’t sure about? Or anything open-ended you’d like to discuss?

We all make decisions at our jobs. Sometimes it’s a small decision, like who from Team X you chose to reach out to collaborate on a task. Other times it’s bigger, like deciding on Approach A to building a new web service rather than Approach B. Occasionally, we’re just not sure if we made the best decision.

Bring these up during your 1-1!

It may feel more natural for you to talk about this to your manager, but I’ve also done this as a manager, opening up about a decision I’m unsure about with my direct reports. At the end of the day, openly discussing a decision should already help you make better decisions in the future. If your direct report or manager provides a new perspective, that’s icing on the cake.

4. Do you foresee any blockers that perhaps I can help prevent?

One of the main jobs of a manager is to be a multiplier for the team’s output, otherwise that manager is just a hindrance, a hoop to jump through. The most direct way to multiplying output is to remove blockers for people.

Person X need to talk to Person Y before Task Z can proceed? Offer to reach out and link them up and, even better, be the one to provide context so that things move forward.

This only works if your manager knows the blockers. Hence, the relevance of the question during a 1-1!

5. How are you feeling about work?

This is about morale. Your manager probably wants to know if you’re feeling uninspired or otherwise in a rut, so that he can find the root cause and, if it is fixable, fix it. If it’s not fixable directly, he might at least be able to help think of a workaround.

A framework I always refer back to is a Venn diagram that guides our internal hiring process at Smartly.io. It consists of three circles: competitive advantage, true motivation, and impact for the company:

a Venn diagram depicting employer-employee symbiosis I call this the magic of employer-employee symbiosis!

At any time, an employee may feel like the work they have recently done does not hit the sweet spot of leveraging their competitive advantage, aligning with their current motivations, and maximising their impact on the company. Talking about you’re feeling about work is how your manager can realise this and see how he can help. That could be anything from doing an online course on a new area of expertise, finding an exciting new project, to seeking a new role in the company.

6. How are you feeling about life outside of work?

I see this question as a continuation of the previous one, except it focuses on uncovering the true motivation part of the Venn diagram.

We live in a world where employees dabble in different roles as a way to figure out who they are and where their strengths lie. A company (and its cadre of managers) is better able to keep talent by acknowledging this reality than stubbornly resisting it. If over the weekend an employee read a random article about, say, product management, and became convinced that that’s her calling, we should at least consider her thoughts.

There’s also the chance that something had happened in your life outside of work and that it may affect your attention or energy at work. Remote work with a toddler at home has been more draining than you thought, your parent is suffering an illness or something else that just… happens. Life happens. Let’s talk about it and see what arrangements we can come up with to rough out the storm.

7. Any feedback to give to me?

If there’s nothing else that comes out of the 1-1, at least walk away with some pointers for growth!

8. Any feedback to give/given to others in the team recently?

No? Why not? You should! :)

9. What’s your focus in the coming 2 weeks?

Hearing what you’re planning to work on, your manager can provide suggestions on approach, point out potential blind spots, reconsider assumptions made, share relevant resources, offer to do something that could ensure smooth passage, and so on.

As a manager, I find that it helps to know the broad strokes of work that each of my direct reports will make in the coming weeks because then I can have an overview of the team’s work, prevent duplicate work, draw connections among related tasks, and so on. Again, this is about being a multiplier on the team’s output.


Types of Notes in a PKM explained with a Gardening Analogy (Part II)

This is part II of Types of Notes in a PKM explained with a Gardening Analogy (Part I of II).

PKM garden illustration

In part I, we talked about how everything in a personal knowledge management (PKM) system is focused on building atomic notes through various stages of maturity. We also talked about how other types of notes can help us in that life-long endeavour, discussing in detail the Top of Mind note — the first type of “other” notes.

In this second part, we will talk about the remaining types of notes that could be useful as tools in your PKM garden, including:

  1. Daily note
  2. Index note
  3. Outline of external resources
  4. Map of content (MOC)

2. Daily note

Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down. I can handle that. Austin Kleon

i. Tracing the origin of ideas

I have written in detail about the purpose and function of a daily note in my PKM before. Here is the one-sentence summary: daily notes let me navigate back in time and regain context of the origin of ideas.

You might perhaps be a little puzzled: didn’t you say earlier that you put your ideas in the top of mind note? Why would ideas appear in your daily note? Yes, I said that but as it turns out, ideas are not equal, and I needed a way of dealing with the less interesting ones.

Also, it’s important to me to not only have a process for capturing important or urgent things but also the purportedly “unimportant” and not urgent things, because those things often end up being interesting:

To illustrate the range of ideas that can come up in a normal day for me, here are a few scenarios:

  1. John tells me something about parenting at the office pantry. Something about “the Maya method.” I am about to become a parent and have been looking for things to read.
  2. I was in the toilet scrolling LinkedIn and noticed a post that my old uni friend Junqi shared about a book that has helped him lead his team with more authenticity. I am also a manager at work and I’d like to improve my leadership. This isn’t a priority for me right now, though, since I’m about to go on parental leave.
  3. I purchased new screenshot-making software and shared it on Twitter. Some people responded saying that they’d love to read my review of it. I hadn’t thought of writing a review, but I’m seeing that it could be useful to some people.

In some of the scenarios above, I can sense that there is a kernel of an idea that I can’t wait to crack open. In other scenarios, the idea feels only mildly appealing, although still worth capturing. Future me might love it.

So, what do I do with these in my PKM? I know I’d like to capture them somehow for rediscovery. But how?

Here’s what I would do:

  1. Write “Read about Maya method that John talked about” in the Top of Mind note’s inbox and follow up within the next few days.
  2. Write “Junqi shared on Linkedin (link) about reading the book [[b-7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey]] and that it helped him with leadership. Maybe worth reading.” in my Daily Note, and potentially follow-up the next time I’m looking for a book to read.
  3. Write “A few people are interested in a review of CleanShot screenshot software.” in my Daily Note along with relevant links (e.g. a Twitter thread), and then add the tag #🌐 in the same sentence, and potentially follow-up the next time I’m looking for blog article ideas.

(Primer on linking to yet-to-exist notes: In point 2, I created a link to the yet-to-exist note entitled 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Most PKM software will soft-create a note for you in the background when you try to link to a note that does not exist in your PKM yet. In Obsidian, you can toggle off a setting under the Quick switcher > Show existing only. In the future, when you type double brackets or search for a file, Obsidian will then search among soft-created notes as well.)

Okay, so imagine that you’ve done exactly what I said above in your PKM. Let’s focus on points 2 & 3 as they involve the daily note. How can you trace the origin of ideas? Why is that useful in the first place?

Say, 3 months later, someone else mentions the 7 Habits book to you. This time, you follow the same process and as you type two square brackets in that day’s daily note, to your surprise, you notice the full name of the book showing up in auto-complete.

Huh, I’ve jotted down this book once!, you think to yourself. This piqued your curiosity and so you link to that still-yet-to-exist note and finally create an empty note with that title (a simple Cmd + Click in Obsidian) since you have a feeling you’ll want to read it soon now that two people you know have talked about the book.

Now, because of your PKM software, you have in your hands an empty note that has two incoming links. In Obsidian, one way to view incoming links is using the Graph View, and it would look like this when viewing the newly created book note:

screenshot of inbound links in Obsidian You can literally see the context unfurling in front of you.

Being able to look at the note from the specific day you first thought about a book allows you to almost travel back in time to see who recommended it, why, and what you thought when you wrote it in that day’s daily note in the first place.

You can then compare your past self to your present self and make a judgement about what to do next. Perhaps, you think, you should add “read this book” to your top of mind inbox!

For this time-walk to work, we need the daily note to be as vivid and context-rich as possible. The more details from that day, the more context to come back to. Thankfully, this can come quite naturally by thinking of your daily note as a scratchpad.

ii. A scratchpad

My mental model of the daily note is a scratchpad. It just so happens to have software-enabled superpowers.

In the earlier section, I shared how you can trace ideas to their origin in your PKM and why that can be useful in the long run. Now let’s talk about how to make that origin as context-rich as possible without additional effort.

This description is going to be surprisingly short. You can set yourself up for success by making these your “sensible defaults”:

  • Set your PKM’s default launch page as today’s daily note
  • Set up a daily note template with two sections to begin with: work, personal
  • If you use templates, add a created timestamp that auto-fills the day’s date according to the filename of your daily note

Whenever I have a quick idea to jot down, I’ll launch the Obsidian app and it loads automatically to that day’s daily note. I then do a couple of line breaks and write down the thought.

This is especially helpful for rough thoughts that I’m unsure if I want to develop, but for which I should know by the end of the day. Since I keep defaulting to the daily note throughout the day when I launch the Obsidian app (same behaviour on both mobile and desktop), I know there is a high chance that I will stumble on this again before the day ends.

In short, use the daily scratchpad for everything transient and for follow-ups that feel less important or unsure-how-important. In contrast, the top of mind note is reserved for important or urgent follow-ups that you know you don’t want to miss.

The third point about adding a timestamp to templates is to automatically create an explicit connection (in the form of a double-bracketed backlink) from any newly created note that uses a template to that day’s daily note. This has helped me on several occasions to retrace my steps to the day when I first considered an idea.

GIF showing how templates with timestamp helps create an explicit link to a daily note

Using a template that has a macro adds the day’s timestamp in the same format as my daily note’s title establishes an explicit connection with the day’s note.

3. Index note

Right, next let’s talk about the index note. I use a single index note to contain metadata relating to my PKM. The way I structure my index note is heavily inspired by Bryan Jenks’ index note. For example:

  • Tag definitions
  • Types of content

Tag definitions are where I explain to myself what each of the limited number of tags that I use means. Earlier in the Atomic note section of part I, I explained that I used various tags to indicate an atomic note’s maturity:

  • #📤: Seedbox | items that I am / will be working actively on
  • #🌱: Seedling | items grown from literature notes that still need incubation
  • #🪴: Sapling | items in need of planting among other trees
  • #🌲: Evergreen | fundamental unit of knowledge work, stable for dense linking to & from
  • #🍓: Fruit | original work harvested from the garden

That list sits in my Index note under the “Tag definitions” section.

Next, types of content. Here’s my list:

  • b-: Books
  • v-: YouTube Videos
  • w-: Web articles, Publications, Newspapers, Online courses
  • p-: Podcasts
  • m-: Movies
  • @-: Person

An aside about these prefixes: I prefix notes that reference external content and people with a letter followed by a hyphen, like @-John Doe or w-Nonfiction Writing Advice by Scott Alexander. This helps me search these resources more effectively because I can search by filename and type “w-” to narrow down the search to only article titles, or ”@-” to search only people’s names. Big thanks to Bryan Jenks (again) for inspiring me to do this.

In short, the index note is the living instructions manual for my PKM. Whenever I’m unsure about my workflow, I refer to this note and I’m aware again in a few seconds.

I’ve noticed that some people use their index note more like a table of content, linking to the main maps of content (or MOCs for short - more on that type of note later). You may want to experiment with that. For me, I put that at the bottom of my top of mind note instead, as it feels more like the right place for me, and I haven’t found myself needing to refer to them very often. Maybe I will when several big areas of interest emerge over time.

4. Outline of External resources

I mainly consume books, web articles, videos, and podcasts, and as a forgetful person, consuming without first annotating and later digesting information is like eating seeds; I just pass them out later without absorbing nutrients.

This is where outline notes come in.

For me, they are very similar to the map of content note (I talk about it in the next section) in that they serve as structure for making sense of a larger piece of work. Where they differ is that an outline note is for structuring external resources, and a map of content is for structuring original work.

An outline note has a more rigid structure while a map of content is more fluid (you can compare it yourself after reading about it next). If you think about it, an external resource like a book or web article is usually pre-structured with a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes there are even page numbers (books) or timestamps (videos, podcasts). This is why I find a rigid outline format works well when trying to internalise external resources.

Here’s a snippet of my outline of the book [[b-How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens]]:

screenshot of an outline note

Three things are noteworthy in this snippet:

  1. I nest each point under the page that the idea was found. This, I find, is the most lightweight technique to point to an exact part of the source. For podcasts or videos, this would be the timestamp.
  2. I write in my own words, rarely copy-pasting. This rule acts as a forcing function for me to understand an idea, not just be merely exposed to it and suffering the mere-exposure effect.
  3. Each point can be referenced anywhere in my PKM software. Notice the point in page 12 refers to the point in page 5 with the carat (^) and randomly generated alphanumeric string.

Point 1 is probably self-explanatory. On point 2, the only time I copy-paste is if I’m trying to preserve a quote, and even then, I write my thoughts next to it.

Point 3, however, could use some explanation as it’s a new way of working with notes. It’s a feature called block references and it’s the hacker Ted Nelson’s dream come true because it fulfils the fundamental tenet of non-duplication of The Xanadu project, albeit on the smaller scale of one’s PKM rather than the worldwide web.

(Side note: block referencing is a feature that comes included in most of the popular PKM software. Obsidian, Roam Research, Logsec all have it. Conventional note apps like Bear and Evernote do not seem to support it yet.)

Why are block references useful? I have to admit, originally I didn’t get its significance either and thought of it as fancy nonsense.

Takes a deep breath. Right, but — it is extremely useful. That’s because block referencing means that once I’ve translated ideas from a book in my own words, each of those ideas become automatically atomic without explicitly making them a note of itself. As references to a particular block accrete, I take notice and eventually convert them into its own atomic note. With PKM software, you can reference any block from any note, not just from within itself.

This means that I can reference ideas within a book, web article, video, or podcast any time, from any note within my PKM, which effectively becomes an organic way for flagging up important ideas over time as references build up.

For example, if I see that there are three references to the same idea, I’d create an atomic note and write the idea in full sentences. Since I can easily find the inbound links from other notes with the alphanumeric reference numbers (handled by PKM software), I can open every inbound note and think of how they relate to and enrich the newly created atomic note.

Linked thoughts, actualised!

Over time, each outline note helps me create new, develop existing, and link atomic notes. Remember, growing the ecosystem of atomic notes is the name of the game.

5. Map of content for original work

Finally, we’ve arrived at one last type of note that I think is worth knowing about — the MOC, or map of content.

This is a term coined by Nick Milo, a person of multiple talents and interests (try boxing coach, gym owner, actor, TV editor, and YouTuber) who is a strong advocate and user of Obsidian, the PKM software that I’m using. This is the way he describes a MOC (Map of Content):

A note that mainly has links to other notes, thus “mapping” the contents of multiple notes in your digital library. MOCs help you gather, develop, and navigate your ideas. [Nick Milo](https://publish.obsidian.md/lyt-kit/Umami/MOCs+(defn)

And here, in another article, he describes his mental model of MOCs:

Using MOCs is like being in your own warehouse full of workbenches, where each workbench contains a selection of highly curated index cards for you to engage with.

I think MOCs are fascinating, and I know that I’m just scratching the surface of their utility. It’s a great concept-handle, too; its name reminds me to act like a cartographer of my knowledge.

So, when is it a good idea to try and create a MOC? For me, two main scenarios call for a MOC:

  1. Exploring a topic I’m very curious about (top-down)
  2. Experiencing a mental squeeze point (bottom-up)

Let’s talk about point 1 first.

When I’m very curious about a topic, like I was when I was trying to figure out the basic types of notes everyone should know about for their PKM, I create a MOC.

This article you’re reading started in my PKM as a top-down map of content, even though I didn’t think of it that way at first. It is top-down because I already had a topic in mind and was searching for notes relating to the topic.

Anyway, here is my process for creating a topical MOC. I create a new note, write some ideas down in bullet points, and then proceed to search through my PKM roughly like this:

  1. Type double square brackets and try different words, like PKM, personal knowledge management, linking, insights, thinking, etc. An autocomplete list will appear and be updated in real-time, revealing to me notes in my PKM with those words in their titles.
  2. Pick a few of them that seem relevant, establishing a link from this MOC note to those notes. This makes referring to those linked notes as simple as command+click from now on.
  3. Open the local Graph View of the MOC note to see the established connections and I increase the “depth” of connections I want to see from 1 to 2.
  4. Now I’m seeing the notes that the connected notes connect to, and I’m suddenly considering ideas that share proximity to the few ideas I’ve explicitly linked to my MOC. This process feels like I’m pacing through my brain, following each synapse that connects a neuron to another.
  5. Click-open notes that sound interesting (this is why note titles are important) read their contents, and if they seem relevant, I make more explicit links within the MOC to those notes, accompanying the link with a comment on why I find it relevant. For irrelevant notes, I just close and move on.

By the end of this process, I have effectively ransacked my PKM for relevant notes and laid them all over a digital workbench accompanied by fresh annotations to each note describing how I think they might relate to the topic. And now I’m ready to begin grouping my notes, revisiting each in detail, establishing new connections, and creating an outline for an original (remix?) article.

Here’s what the MOC for this article looked like when it was close to completion, visualised in the Graph View:

screenshot of the map of content for this article

For me, this use case alone makes knowing when and how to use a MOC worth it.

Next, let’s talk about point 2: experiencing a mental squeeze point (bottom-up).

In the words of its inventor Nick Milo:

A Mental Squeeze Point is when your unsorted knowledge becomes so messy it overwhelms and discourages you. Either you are equipped with frameworks to overcome the squeeze point, or you are discouraged and possibly abandon your project. This is usually followed by yet another search for the next app that will make all the difference.

The key difference between this bottom-up and the earlier top-down approach is that it is about organising existing atomic notes without a topic in mind. When we experience a mental squeeze point, it helps to go into cataloguing mode.

Purportedly, anyway. Here is where I make an admission: I have not felt compelled to create a bottom-up MOC yet. It may be that I’ll never find a need for it because I have so far been happy with the number of topics that have already emerged from topical, top-down searches. It may also be that I just haven’t crossed a threshold of notes that feels chaotic and in need of mapping. If you want to dig deeper, Nick Milo has shortlisted the why’s of using MOCs that I occasionally revisit to dig deeper into this remarkably versatile note type.

Parting thoughts

Remember that P in PKM stands for personal, so make use of this post to inform, not determine, the things you will do in your PKM. You should have seen that this process also remains malleable for me even though I may already have a working system.

Finally, as you go about implementing some of these ideas in your PKM, try not to do everything at once. You might not even recognise yourself after that. A piece of nonfiction writing advice from Scott Alexander is relevant here: learn The Right Way to do something first to develop instincts, then use them.

Try something for a while and build up a feel for whether it clicks. Discard those that don’t; keep those that do. Then use your instincts after that!


Types of Notes in a PKM explained with a Gardening Analogy (Part I)

If you’re new to PKM, I recommend starting by reading What is a Personal Knowledge Management system (PKM)?.

A skeptic would call a PKM a glorified set of notes the same way I used to call an SQL database a glorified Excel sheet. It wasn’t until I realised just how much more an SQL database provides in terms of design and features that I stopped belittling it. By applying my knowledge and using it regularly, a database became more than just rows and columns to me.

I think the same can be said about notes in a PKM. They’re not just notes. For us to be successful in creating our own PKMs that will feed us for the rest of our lives, we need to reconfigure the way we view note-taking.

Let’s start with that. Note-taking is an outdated term for describing what people are nowadays trying doing with a PKM.

As Nick Milo puts it, note-taking is just the capture step; the larger process at play is note-making where you don’t just write a note but contend with the idea you’re putting in it to make connections to your already existing notes. Pure capture without deeper consideration leads only to transient notes.

In the last two to three years, the advent of linked notes, ushered by a handful of PKM software developers like Roam Research and Obsidian, have enabled note-making. This is about externalising thinking in a way that establishes explicit and implicit connections among your notes.

One thing that helps me remember what note-making is about is to remember that a note is only as valuable as the contexts in which it can contribute. Seen this way, we reframe the goal from creating many notes to creating many connections among a smaller set of evergreen notes.

I think a good way to start reframing our perspective and mental models is to look at the various types of notes that we might have in your PKM.

Since it’s your PKM, you could invent as many types of notes as you want! But complex workflows only withstand the test of time if they’re whittled down to their essential components. So, our list of types of notes should be short at the beginning so we don’t let complexity build up at the structure level.

Happily, I’ve learned through selective copy-and-use that there are just two main buckets of notes:

  • Atomic notes
  • All other types of notes

An atomic note contains a single idea and whose sole purpose is for us to externalise what Andy Matuschak calls “a fundamental unit of knowledge work.”

All other note types exist only to assist us in developing those atomic notes and their connections.

One quick technical primer before we go deep: throughout this post, you will see examples of my notes and some feature weird double-square brackets, like [[@-John Doe]] and [[Types of Notes in a PKM explained with a Gardening Analogy]]. These are called Wiki-style links and most PKM software uses them to let users explicitly link words to another note. This simple link is an earth-shakingly powerful feature because of how it enables each note to become a single node in a network of linked nodes, and we will see a glimpse of it in the Daily Note section later.

Right, now let’s dig in, with a gardening analogy.

Atomic note

PKM garden illustration

Let’s start with the atomic note. This is the basic building block of a PKM. Each atomic note should contain a single idea written in your own words and it should have a descriptive title (or filename). An atomic note is like a seed that could grow into a great oak.

Writing an atomic note is like writing a single idea on an index card that you can hold in your hand.

The idea of the digital atomic note came from the immensely effective use of physical index cards by the prolific sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who had a private collection of over 90,000 index cards, which he used to publish 58 books and hundreds of articles, many of which became classics in their respective fields.

scan of one of Niklas Luhmann's physical index note Luhmann’s note entitled “The system as a research tool” (Das System als Forschungsmittel), from online archives.

Thankfully, we don’t need to use physical index cards. A big advantage of working with digital notes is that we can link notes endlessly and effortlessly.

Another useful thing: we can insert useful metadata that aid us with future search within our PKM. With digital tagging as simple as using hashtags (e.g. #develop), we can, for example, mark each atomic note by its stage of development.

Stage of development? Of an atomic note? What am I talking about?

Just like in reality, our ideas are at different stages of maturity. For example, I understand what critical thinking entails more than first-principles thinking.

This is why I add maturity metadata to every atomic note that I create in my PKM. Here’s how I like to think of the stages of maturity of atomic notes, adapted from Bryan Jenks’ workflow:

seed -> seedling -> sapling -> evergreen

And to indicate each note’s maturation stage, I use hashtags:

  • #📤: Seedbox | items that I am / will be working actively on
  • #🌱: Seedling | items grown from literature notes that still need incubation
  • #🪴: Sapling | items in need of planting among other trees
  • #🌲: Evergreen | fundamental unit of knowledge work, stable for dense linking to & from

With this analogy, every atomic note begins as a seed in the seedbox, waiting to be developed, and the end-goal is for me to develop it to reach the evergreen stage where it is stable and can be densely linked from other atomic notes of various maturity stages. I also link non-evergreen atomic notes to one another wherever there is a logical connection to be made.

Making atomic notes is a whole art by itself and so I cannot feasibly cover everything in this post. But what’s crucial is to know that our PKM should be all about growing these atomic notes — from seeds to evergreens — just as a garden is all about growing plants.

I will go into details of the process of maturing an atomic note from seed to seedling to sapling and evergreen in another article. For now, let’s talk about the other types of notes that are meant to help us grow our database of atomic notes.

All other types of notes

tools in the garden PKM illustration

Keeping with the analogy of gardening, let’s think of all other types of notes as tools that a serious gardener would need. A shovel, a spade, a watering can, gloves, scissors, and so on.

All of these are tools that you choose to keep around to serve you in growing your atomic notes. Even though each gardener will need to figure out what he finds essential to the task of gardening, most people will probably share common essentials. Here are some of mine:

  • Top of mind note (only one)
  • Daily note (numerous, always one per day)
  • Index (only one)
  • Outline of external resources (numerous)
  • Map of content for original work (numerous)

For the rest of this article, I’ll use various scenarios to illustrate when each type of note has been useful to me.

1. Top of mind note

This is probably the most important other note types for me because I use it every day to help me keep track of… well, what’s top of mind.

i. Inbox

In the morning of a hypothetical day, a friend or internet acquaintance shares something about raising a child. It sounds interesting, so I insert that as an item in my top of mind note, because we’re currently expecting:

- [ ] On raising kids - look into what [[@-John Doe]] said about Maya method - url, if there is one

Later in the day, I may feel like I’ve said something wrong or impolite to someone and I think I may need to apologise later, so I also put that down as an item:

- [ ] On raising kids - look into what [[@-John Doe]] said about Maya method - url, if there is one
- [ ] May have said something inaccurate and offensive to [[@-Ryan Foo]] - think & follow up

Perhaps in the evening, I get an idea that came out of nowhere and it’s something that I know that I will want to explore soon. So I scribble that down as well:

- [ ] On raising kids - look into what [[@-John Doe]] said about Maya method - url, if there is one
- [ ] May have said something inaccurate and offensive to [[@-Ryan Bass]] - think & follow up
- [ ] I noticed myself saying "first principles thinking" to [[@-Barry Foo]] recently but I don't think I fully understand what that concept entails. Find out more. Side note, I think it's popularised by [[@-Elon Musk]]

In these scenarios, I use my top of mind note to park things that I know I will want to explore later. It’s putting into action this modern truism that Tiago Forte tweeted recently:

This is the first section of the top of mind note, and I put them under the subheading Inbox. So the inbox section looks like this in my PKM:

screenshot of my top of mind note inbox

Just to be clear, when I sit down to process the items in my inbox, I will read, think, create new atomic notes, and link them to existing ones. That’s how the inbox in the top of mind note helps me grow my PKM.

ii. Ongoing

Another scenario for using the top of mind note is when I’ve started working on something and I notice that I’m enjoying myself.

Writing this article is a good example: once I started, I found myself getting energised to finish a draft as soon as I can. So, as soon as I finished my first sit-down to write this article (in which I completed a rough outline and 20 percent of a first draft), I added this to the Ongoing section of my top of mind note:

## Ongoing
- [ ] Publish [[Types of Notes in a PKM explained with a Gardening Analogy]]
	- ■■□□□□□□□□ 20%

It’s another to-do item, this time under the Ongoing section. But you probably also noticed the progress bar.

At one point I decided to try adding something visual to indicate that this item is in progress and how far along I estimate it to be; so I added a progress bar that I generated using a free online tool. I’m beginning to see myself more and more as a visual thinker and I’m happy to report that so far I’ve liked this addition. It terrifically distinguishes in-progress items from the inbox items in my top of mind note, nudging my mind to prefer finishing items that I have already started.

Here is how it looks in my PKM:

screenshot of my top of mind note ongoing section

Now, time for a short aside. While I’ve said that all other types of notes should exist only to grow atomic notes, this section of my top of mind note reveals that that is not entirely true. The ongoing items in my PKM have so far included writing original posts like this one.

For now, I’d like to stay high-level and just say that as with a real garden, sometimes it bears fruits. Original essays and blog posts are like the fruits harvested from the garden. But not all gardeners care about the harvest; some tend to theirs just for self actualisation.

To close off this aside, I will divulge that in my PKM I also use a strawberry hashtag:

  • #🍓: Fruit | original work harvested from the garden

There’s a lot more that I can share, but I’m intentionally leaving out the rest of the little idiosyncratic details that should not matter to you.

The benefit of a PKM is that you can trust that you will return to tweak it if something feels off or is no longer relevant since you’re building your life’s knowledge on it. So my recommendation is to add something whenever you feel like it may be overall a value-add to you, and see if it sticks (e.g. adding an Errands section).

Note: there should only be a single top of mind note. The top is the top.

In the next post, let’s talk about the remaining types of notes, including a note that mimics the natural rhythm of a day, outlines, an index, and maps of content.

This is part I of a series. Read part II.