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).

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:

Everything interesting begins in the “unimportant and not urgent” quadrant. Eliminating it is the dumbest thing you can do and the worst advice Covey gave.

— Venkatesh Rao (@vgr) August 10, 2021

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:

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.

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.

Read the full original post. I’m also on twitter.

Engineering team lead @ Smartly.io. I publish weekly about many things on my blog: nickang.com