the scapegoat dev

Knowledge's shape and function

It is easy to underestimate how much work it is to keep a "usable" Obsidian vault. While the effort varies, a "properly" maintained vault (as in, I am comfortable with its level of messiness, and I know I will find the things I need to find without unreasonable friction) takes me about 10 hours of work per week.

The fact that I refer to it as an Obsidian vault is misleading. It is not about the tool—I find my use of Obsidian to have no friction anymore. I use it without any plugins and just write and write and write simple cross-linked markdown files.

What takes effort is taking your intellectual output and shaping it into something that has lasting value.

It's something I find missing from most PKM tooling/productivity workflow discussions.

Establishing context

There is, of course, something about being comfortable with your tools. But what is really hard and time-consuming is understanding how things will get used in the future.

Capturing is one part, but perfect capture will not lead to useful knowledge. You need to synthesize all the links, citations, highlights, thoughts, diaries, atomic notes, drafts, and ramblings you wrote and stuffed into your vault and put them in context.

Uncovering context is an activity where experience plays a big role. It means understanding the landscape of your thoughts and the landscape of your output—you need to know how you think and how you produce. This is not something you can just look up or copy: no one thinks like you, and the best you can gather from all the methodologies and productivity advice is the inspiration for your own contextualization techniques.

Anybody trying to convince you there is a proper way is dead wrong (this doesn't mean there isn't value in understanding what they are doing and even adopting it).

The shape and function of knowledge

How you think helps you figure out how to reformulate things: it creates knowledge that has shape. When knowledge has the right shape, it will assemble with other knowledge with the right shape.

You can't just take someone's thoughts and make them with your own, you need to put these in the right shape so that they will be able to dock and connect to the other pieces of knowledge you have been collecting.

But your gathered knowledge also needs to have function: it needs to be useful for use to create, be it a blog post, a book, a talk. Function is, of course, closely related to shape, but it is determined by what you will create and how you work in order to create it.

How I write and store things I want to use for study is different from how I store things I need to write work documents is different from how I store things I need to create new thoughts is different from how I store knowledge I want to use for writing blog posts is different from how I store knowledge I want to use for writing books.

One big shape factor is how to "cluster" notes. This is where most of the debate around PKM tools happens (tags vs folders vs structures notes vs literatures notes vs PARA vs whatever). I think the topic needs to be approached independently of tooling: accretion of thoughts is deeply related to your mode of thinking and production. None of the 8000 ways of organizing things digitally matter if you don't know the shape of your thinking and how knowledge and smaller thoughts relate to bigger nexuses.

Once you know the shape and function of your clusters, it is just a matter of encoding them with the tools at hand.

How I create shape and function

I'm currently in a very generative phase—I have been writing a lot of notes into my analog sketchbook, I have collected hundreds of links and highlights in Reader, I have written countless threads on mastodon, short articles on write.as.

However, none of that knowledge has found its way into my vault in a way that will make it useful in the future. What I need to do to make it useful is:

  • create Zettelkasten entries for atomic thoughts that I know can be crosslinked
  • structure notes to establish clusters of thoughts. This is maybe the hardest work. It takes a while and a lot of writing to start discerning these clusters
  • develop a new methodology for dealing with the large number of highlights and quotes I am gathering from Readwise (it is a new tool).

One of my interests lately is the fediverse, mastodon, activitypub, social media. After 5-6 weeks of research, thinking, writing, I am finally starting to understand what the skeleton of my Obsidian vault is going to be to leverage my work.

For me, it is both a purely "mechanical" workflow. I file scraps into:

  • wiki entries (pure knowledge)
  • quotes (cleaned up quote documents I can quickly search and drop into an article)
  • zettelkasten notes (clearly formulated, punchy thoughts)

I also try to make my rambling (diary, mastodon threads, freewriting, notes about articles) reasonably discoverable (usually by cutting out blog-shaped parts of them and calling them "drafts" and referencing them in the relevant ZK and wiki entries).

But it is also establishing what I call "structure notes," which you can think of as "book-sized" clusters. They are concepts that group many ideas, and I can probably write a medium-sized book about them.

For the fediverse thinking I have been doing, these initial structure notes are starting to gain shape. They are shorthand for entire arguments I have been having with myself. The title of these clusters encodes much more context for me than can be shared with others. Think of them as package names in a codebase, for example. I linked the entries in my public vault, but be aware that these are heavy works in progress, and as of today (2022/12/29) are the result of a first pass over a fraction of the notes I've taken. No cross-linking has happened yet either.

Conclusion

This is a quick write-up (rough writing, man...) because I am just starting to go through all the content I have generated in the past few weeks, and I forgot about the time required to do a good job. It is also nice to see how there are phases to all this. I can stop gardening my vault for a couple of months and return to it with no problem.

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