KillerWhale's system for organising knowledge and creativity (*not* PARA) (LONG)

Okay, please forgive this relatively immodest subject title, but it’s my system – and also, by that, I mean that it’s fine if you disagree with it – it works for me and organising a Personal Knowledge Management system for notes is something very personal. But maybe that can be of inspiration to someone struggling with organising notes. Any feedback of course is welcome!

I have taken Tiago Forte’s Build a Second Brain class and I have been underwhelmed considering the price tag (more on that thread https://talk.macpowerusers.com/t/does-anyone-have-experience-with-tiago-fortes-building-a-second-brain-course-ebooks/ ). Especially, I do not believe the PARA system (Projects / Areas / Resources / Archives) is as universal as advertised. In my case, I have found it’s even actively counterproductive. (PARA is detailed on https://fortelabs.co/blog/para/ )

I have discussed this with Tiago on the BASB forums and I have decided that, considering what I do (more on that later), I need my own system, adapted to my needs. It’s actually an old system of mine that fell by the wayside when Evernote has their big privacy problem, I left them, and never found a new house for my notes. Only recently have I been deciding to put some order back and rebuild a notes system (hence my taking the BASB course) improved with my reading of Sonke Ahrens’ How to take notes and intense browsing of the http://zettelkasten.de posts and forums.

In the hope that it may help people out there in similar occupations, I wanted to give a little back to the MPU community and share this system here (these is basically one long post from the BASB forums adapted). Once again, it’s mine – but hopefully you will find food for thought in there.

Some context

Work: pro fiction writer, podcaster, blogger, semi-pro musician
Use of the PKM and its difficulties: any random fact that strikes inspiration can serve as fuel – some very narrow and sometimes focussed areas of research on facts – lots of ideas all the time that need storage and retrieval

Chosen app: Bear, because of its unparalleled ability to create wiki-style links on the fly thus allowing for the replication of Zettelkästen-like system that can be reconfigured constantly as knowledge evolves (plus, the app is so beautiful and well-crafted it’s a joy to use). The value of knowledge is as much in the relationships as it is in the data. I want an app that makes it easy to build links and encourages me to do so (would use Roam if it wasn’t so alpha and ugly).

I use tagging scrupulously (with Bear, you kind of need to) both acting as folders and “facets” the way a library system works, or more recently like Gmail labels, allowing for multiple points of entry in a piece of data. But I also want quick and easy tagging without overcomplicating things. Three tags maximum (an average of two, often, only one).

Tagging system

My top-level tags are

Projects, very much defined in the GTD sense. All things that are in my OmniFocus and that have support material show up here. I also put here the Areas material in the PARA sense because I adhere more strictly to GTD (or from what I understand of it, at least). Everything is tagged Projects/Area of Responsibility/Name of Project in the exact replication of OmniFocus. I will then have the inventory of my home studio (which would be an Area in the PARA sense) alongside material for a movie soundtrack I’m going to do (which would be a Project).
At the moment, internal wikis about my fictional worlds do live there, because they are writing projects (but would be Areas in the PARA sense). I am considering making them top-level tags because I use them so much. (Universe/Given world)

Themes, which are my personal “library”, so to speak. It would loosely be mapped to Resources, I guess, but here I’m building a Zettelkästen without any bias to whether a piece of information is actionable or not (I strictly separate actions from support material, following the GTD canon: things live in OmniFocus, or in Bear, never in both). If I do research for a book – which would very much be an ongoing project – it still goes here, tagged loosely with subjects (in the Zettelkästen spirit). Contains snippets of information as well as personal random thoughts on anything (meditation, social media), in the spirit of Sonke Ahrëns – write if you want to think.

Ideas is random original ideas I get – a character idea, a cool punchline, a melody. There are not attached to any project but might fit in one some day. (Ideas is like your average Moleskine notebook.)

Incubator goes beyond ideas: it’s a little like “Someday / maybe” projects, it’s things I’d like to do maybe one day but I’m not sure I’ll get to it, such as a book idea I’m not sure I fully want to commit to yet.

Who is related to people in my life – provides another entry point, such as remembering a workshop or lecture I gave for a company, it will be tagged accordingly.

What is the type of note. Allows me to find quotes, “how-to’s”, and most importantly, “table of contents” notes (structure notes in Zettelkästen) which give me an overview of a given subject when it becomes unwieldy and I need to build an overview.

Attic works exactly like PARA Archives.

I am not building my system with a flow on actionability (as PARA recommends, going from the most actionable to the least) but with a flow of clarity. I believe artistic endeavours clarify and reveal themselves as you work on them, until they are clear (and viable) enough to be committed to. You could argue clarity in that sense is actionability, but in fiction writing, I find it nearly impossible to separate PARA’s Areas with Resources. Everything is a little bit of both.

The interest of this setup

  • Above all, tags (instead of EN notebooks) allow for a note to live in several places, which I find crucial to knowledge work as you build networks.
  • Remains simple (avoiding overtagging) – each note can be tagged at maximum with one tag from several of the categories above, never all of them (you can’t be a Project and be in the Attic)
  • Allows for cross-referencing which I find vital as a project matures: an Idea can then be attached to an Incubator project without any effort (“oh, this character could go in this book idea I have, but I have to think about it”), I just have to add the corresponding tag (Bear makes this ridiculously easy)
  • Knowledge can be “clipped” without effort to a project (“this piece of strategy is central to this story project”), just add the tag, remove it when you’ve treated the relationship between the two and replace it with a link to the “Zettelkästen”

Hope this helps! Of course, questions and comments very welcome. Do not hesitate to try and punch holes in the setup.

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This is very helpful, than you for taking care and time to share it with the community @KillerWhale.

Can you clarify a few points?

Sorry, in this context, what is your “Zettelkästen”? Is that the entire corpus of notes in Bear, or something somewhere else. So how are you structuring these links – I assume there is some sort of identifier apart from the tags, or am I misreading your guidance?

Nested tags I assume you are using nested tags in Bear – just wanted to be sure, since it would be difficult to maintain your approach without some sort of nesting I believe.

Discovery Bear is not very good at discovery in my opinion. I have a gargantuan list of nested tags. It is not simple to filter them. All we have is “Search notes” which consolidates search results from tags and notes, which is not always helpful. To search for a tag at a lower level you need to know what the top level tags is. Bear needs smart groups, or other parameterized searching. (This info could be available somewhere else, but I haven’t located it."

Daily Practice Are you taking intentional notes / capturing clips or other content, throughout the day? Is Bear a bucket that you set aside time to review and revise the captured notes?

Linking You didn’t mention Bear’s [[linking]] capability, which is very useful, although it doesn’t support backlinks, which is a shortcoming, IMO. Do you use Bear links (other than tags, of course)?

I really like Bear but feel it gets too fiddly real fast, so any guidance on better use of the app is always welcome. I’ll take much of your advice and consider how to use it for my own.

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Thanks, glad that can of use! Of course I can clarify, gladly.

Sorry, in this context, what is your “Zettelkästen”? Is that the entire corpus of notes in Bear, or something somewhere else. So how are you structuring these links – I assume there is some sort of identifier apart from the tags, or am I misreading your guidance?

I am using the Zettelkästen term a little bit loosely, since I am not writing academia – I collect inspiration and research. So I don’t have a canonical Zettelkästen per se; I am using most of its principles (structure notes, heavy linking) but I don’t strictly put “one idea per note” even though I try to do so whenever possible. But I found that disciplining myself to do that lead to procrastination. That’s one good principle I got from BASB: you PKM is always a work in progress, keep refining it as you go, with little touches, instead of trying to have everything perfect every time. So I find an inspiring quote but have nothing to add to it, I put in in Themes, with the right subject, and allow myself to move on.

I do tag the notes using broad subjects I know I need or that interest me. I do not use unique identifiers at the moment, counting on Bear’s internal linking to do the job (more on that below). That “Zettelkästen” is mostly comprised on my “Themes” tags, since it’s the main repository of knowledge and random thoughts, allowing it to be kind of separate from the rest but still allowing free linking from everywhere else in the system.

Nested tags I assume you are using nested tags in Bear – just wanted to be sure, since it would be difficult to maintain your approach without some sort of nesting I believe.

I absolutely do, yes. Sorry that wasn’t clear.

Discovery Bear is not very good at discovery in my opinion. I have a gargantuan list of nested tags. It is not simple to filter them. All we have is “Search notes” which consolidates search results from tags and notes, which is not always helpful. To search for a tag at a lower level you need to know what the top level tags is. Bear needs smart groups, or other parameterized searching. (This info could be available somewhere else, but I haven’t located it."

I come from Evernote which is the worst at discovery in my opinion. My opinion (coming from EN) is that discovery is as much a personal thing than storage is, and that we need to think what we need to get out as much as how we want to put things in. My tagging system is designed around quick storage (thanks to Bear’s autocompletion of tags) and retrieval / discovery is designed around:

  • Careful thinking of what I need out of the system: either ideas (they’re tagged) or reference (internal Zettelkästen-like linking and full-text research take care of that).
  • Project support material, which is neatly tagged as in OmniFocus, and I use heavy linking from everywhere (launch tasks from OmniFocus drilling to perspectives, links from tasks to Bear).
  • Some ongoing notes allowing me to manage diverse aspects of my life – I know what they’re called since I use them almost daily.

I should have added I mainly access Bear through an Alfred workflow on my Mac, allowing to search it from everywhere.

Daily Practice Are you taking intentional notes / capturing clips or other content, throughout the day? Is Bear a bucket that you set aside time to review and revise the captured notes?

Yes, I very much capture everything I can as long as it “scratches an itch”. At the moment I have a two-tier inbox (which is not ideal but I’m still dealing with years of backlog from when I used EN), OmniFocus’ for things I really need to do, Drafts for everything random, with tags and corresponding Workspaces for more important things I want to retrieve middle term (project ideas, mainly, which I know will be completed soon-ish).
The long-term plan is to have everything transit through Drafts for dispatch, apart from very important clear tasks which will go straight to the OmniFocus inbox.

Linking You didn’t mention Bear’s [[linking]] capability, which is very useful, although it doesn’t support backlinks, which is a shortcoming, IMO. Do you use Bear links (other than tags, of course)?

I am absolutely using that – I have glossed it over too quickly in my main post: it’s one of the main reasons I use Bear, it makes internal linking a joy to do but moreover, the fact that links change dynamically when you change the title of notes is to me a killer feature: it allows for a fluid repository, much more than a “true” Zettelkästen allows – you can flesh out notes and ideas and divide them, reorganise them and everything shifts without any intervention on your part. (Notion does that too, and I have debated using it, but the need to be very much online to use it and its complexity where dealbreakers to me). It allows for an organically-growing system as your needs evolve, and that’s a very important part of my using of Bear.

Hope this helps!

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It does! You are very generous.

Oops, a bit of a curve ball. How do OF, Drafts, fit in with Bear? Or maybe they do not. bit are parallel capture mechanisms?

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My pleasure – the podcast has given me so much, I’m happy to be able to give back a little to the community.

Oops, a bit of a curve ball. How do OF, Drafts, fit in with Bear? Or maybe they do not. bit are parallel capture mechanisms?

Bear is the knowledge repository, OF is the task manager (I separate both as per GTD – that isn’t very clear in the original post). From OF, I have Bear links in project and tasks notes that propel me into support material when I need to.
Drafts is the all-purpose inbox from where I decide to put things in Bear (most of the time) or OF, but usually I know when things go to OF right off the bat, so I use its inbox directly – allowing me to have a two-tier inbox of “interesting stuff or notes I come across” – Drafts – and “things I really have to do or think about soon” – OF. Having had defined very clearly my Areas of Responsibility and Projects helps to figure that distinction with almost no conscious effort. (That gut feeling of “huh, nice” Vs. “oh, shoot!”)

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Don’t hate me for this, but that umlaut makes my eyes cross. Just to be a stickler, Zettelkästen (with umlaut) is plural; the singular is Zettelkasten (no umlaut).

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I had no idea that that was how umlauts work.

Now we can all correctly spell our Zettelkastens! (Sorry, this is just me being evil…)

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I had no idea! Thanks for pointing that out.

ẘḩǻť țȟḕ ḫèḉķ¿

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There’s been an explosion in the diacritics factory.

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This post found me at just the right moment. Thanks for putting it together.

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How do you maintain the sort order of your master tags?

Does your attic contain sub tags in the same way that projects does?

I don’t much – I count on the alphabetical order and on search. But if I want to, I just put numbers in front of them (1. Xyz)

Does your attic contain sub tags in the same way that projects does?

Yes, everything does. Which is an arrangement that I’m still not 100% satisfied with (it still has the disadvantages of PARA). I’m thinking of improvements.

Do you do your writing in Bear? Or does that happen elsewhere? And if so, where’s the line between something that goes in Bear vs something that goes in [writing app]?

I never write in Bear^, it’s a knowledge and idea repository only. Anything that gets “production attention” and is meant to be released (articles, short stories, sagas of over a million words – I do write those… :sweat_smile:) go elsewhere. Scrivener has long been my tool of choice but I’ve been very disappointed with their dismissal towards the iOS 13 sync bug that prevented Dropbox functionality in some cases (including mine). I’m still using it for long form, and currently use Ulysses for articles and short stories. I plan to test Ulysses with increasingly complex projects with the aim to phase Scrivener out completely if that’s possible.

^ At this moment, I’m transitioning to DEVONthink, but the roles are the same.

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Trouble with Devonthink is that wiki links don’t work on iOS. Drives me bananas.

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Yes, DTTG has a lot to catch up with. I hope we see v3 soon.

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I’m working through Kourosh Dini’s new Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink 3 book right now myself. I also have a copy of Ahrens to read. I’m so sick of the experience “now I know I wrote something down about that…but where is it?” that I’m trying to massively consolidate into as few components as possible. Current list:

  • DEVONthink 3 Pro and DTTG
  • Drafts
  • OmniFocus 3 Pro
  • My trusty Bullet Journal and Fountain Pens

Support apps include:

  • iThoughtsX for mind mapping
  • TBD PDF annotating software (currently allowing Highlights, DT3, and PDF Reader to battle it out.)
  • MarginNote 3 (for specific studies, when it’s okay to be self-contained)
  • Hook for linking it all together
  • Trickster and Default Folder X for the assist with file management and navigation

I’m required to use Basecamp 2 (ugh) and Asana (ugh+) for my job, so I have to somehow fit those in too.

The workflow is still something I’m considering, but if you are looking at this post and going “how is THAT consolidation”, all I can say is that I have notes scattered across Drafts, DT3, Ulysses, NotePlan, various implementations of Zettlekastens (nvUltra, The Archive, etc.) and, sometimes, even on paper.

And somewhere Tinderbox and Curio are lurking as well, waiting to pounce on me with promises of improved “thinking” or “presentation.” (Of these two, Tinderbox is far more likely to make it back into my workflow as it was already there at one point…Curio I’ve never really used.)

Great thread, @KillerWhale, please keep it up!

EDIT: I use MailMate for email. Forgot that somehow. I’ve got it hooked up with scripts to both OF3 and DT3.

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I’d LOVE to see a list of your tags that you are willing/able to share. For two reasons: (1) I’m curious how many are clearly going to be useful only to you; and (2) I am curious to see how you’ve used top-level tags and how many sub levels you have.

Also, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but Panda is the beta version (maybe even alpha?) of Bear’s new editor. It’s extremely promising and though I haven’t used Bear in a while, I may have to go back to it when Panda is incorporated. Particularly, now that both Drafts and Bear can use [[Wiki Links]] with brackets.

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Thanks guys, happy that this work can be useful! I find that these things are always works in progress; that we must be ready to refine them, not only as our processes evolves, but as we discover more about how personal management works (transclusion and backlinks are all the rage now when five years ago they would have been considered niche). This system was mostly built originally as a way to use Evernote with only a handful of notebooks, to only have one filing system (tags) and I brought it all the way to Bear.

As to the tags I use for « what », I’m using that sparingly to facilitate retrieval. Mostly I have

  • .quote (because I like to collect quotes and they come in handy for presentations)
  • .how-to (manuals and small tutorials for tiny technical details I don’t want to have to search for twice)
  • I still have .id for ideas which are not creative, like gift ideas, while « creative ideas » are potential production material and thus end up in the Ideas main tag
  • I used to have a « press clippings » category for archival of interviews and reviews of my books published, but this such a specific archival category that I moved it to its own category (since it’s 99% for archival purposes and I’m never looking at them again once I’ve read them – I’m not that vain, but I want to have a trail of that).

Far from every note gets a « what » tag as you can see, it’s mostly for filing things that stray from the typical note.

Hope this helps!