If you are a typical Founding Fuel reader, you are intensely curious, you are constantly looking for information and ideas, and you get them from a variety of sources — newspapers, websites, newsletters, podcasts, casual conversations, and even pluck some of them from the air as you relax. You are not interested in these ideas just for their own sake. You want them for a purpose, because they can make your professional life more effective and because they help you in your personal growth.
Only, in the real world, things don’t flow so smoothly.
We all read a lot — according to one study in 2007, the equivalent of 174 newspapers — and many pieces of information, many ideas slip through the cracks. We vaguely remember them, and there is no way we can recollect them either from our memories or from the internet. That everything stays on the internet is a myth, a cruel joke, when we are searching for specific information or a perspective we might have come across a few days back.
Even the smartest people face this problem. Who among us hasn’t met a person who suddenly stops an enriching discourse to fiddle with the search engine on her phone because she forgot a crucial nugget of information? Who among us hasn’t felt the same frustration ourselves?
I have just embarked on a writing project — a book, in fact — and one of the questions that occupied my mind in the last two months was how to avoid this problem. I have a bunch of things to read — books, reports, blogs, online forums; people to listen to; automated transcripts to struggle with; random thoughts to jot down. All of these could eventually become part of the broader narrative.
So, I have been thinking about the things that have worked for me in the past to see if I can come up with a system so I don't face the issue of missing out on anything. After a bit of exploration and tinkering, I have a fairly workable system. I will share it here. I don't presume that it will work for you straight away. Our learning styles are different and what we do should reflect that. But, based on the feedback from friends with whom I have shared this over calls, I am fairly confident that it will give you enough ideas to come up with your own system.
I spent some time experimenting with a few tools — including Workflowy, Evernote, Roam Research, Logseq, Apple Notes, and Google Docs/Drive — before finally zeroing on Obsidian. I chose it for the following reasons:
You have the choice of where you store your data — you can store it on your computer, or on cloud (I do it in Apple cloud)
It allows you to add backlinks — connecting ideas
It has a good mobile app, useful for collecting ideas on the go
It is getting regularly updated with new useful features (for example, Canvas, compatibility with .pdf files)
It has a strong community of plugin developers (it is easy to underestimate the importance of community, but they play a major role in making the app easy to use)
For my big project, I need this tool to help me do two things: Collect and connect.
Obsidian allows you to collect a lot of material, without it taking up too much space. To download content from a website, you can copy and paste or use a browser extension that downloads the content as a .md file. (It takes up minimal space. Most of the stories that I keep a copy of are just around 5kb.)
However, there is a risk of us becoming hoarders, especially when we are not using it for a specific purpose (in my case, most of the material I store is relevant to my writing project).
The way to escape the hoarding trap is to turn all ideas into what Andy Matuschak calls Evergreen Notes — atomic, concept-oriented, heavily interlinked written notes. Check out this useful website for more: https://notes.andymatuschak.org/Evergreen_notes
The mobile app is useful for jotting down random ideas, and if we use the Evergreen Notes format to do it, it becomes even more powerful.
We can insert the links into the Obsidian files from the browser and most apps using the share feature.
I seldom find time to write notes during the course of the day, so I set aside some time each day to highlight the relevant parts, extract the highlights and store them in a fresh note. (There is an Extract Highlights plugin, which makes the job easy.)
Connecting ideas is important for two reasons.
One is we remember them better. For example, it's difficult to remember a list of random objects — say, an elephant, toothbrush, aeroplane, apple, and nuclear bomb. But if we connect them, for example, an elephant brushing its teeth with a toothbrush; an aeroplane shaped like a toothbrush; and a plane crashing into an apple and so on, it stays in our memory. Connecting a new idea to one that we know already helps us in a similar manner.
Second, connecting different pieces of information and perspectives helps us in getting fresh perspectives. The world is connected, and we see the connections better.
Obsidian helps us to see the connections between ideas in two main ways. One, by default. The graph view allows us to see how each note is connected to the other visually. Two, through the Canvas, where we can drop notes (just like we stick a post-it note on a wall) and make the connection between various notes.
Here's a good video tutorial that explains how Canvas works.
But, collecting and connecting are not enough. At the end of this, you will have a bunch of ideas. A bunch of ideas is like a glossary. They are useful to refer to but don’t tell any story. Human beings are storytelling animals. We make sense of the world through stories. Think of a storyline where you can fit in your ideas. A storyline typically goes this way. (Hat tip: Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle). It starts with a description of an existing situation or the status quo; then it introduces a complication or a problem with the existing situation; that raises a question, for which your ideas could be an answer. Now, you might have noticed, that’s exactly the format I followed for this edition of FF Life.