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Zenful Knowledge Gardening

I know what you might think: a zenful knowledge garden is yet another shiny, fancy way of saying “I write things I find interesting”. Some people call this practice “personal knowledge management”1, others refer to is as “personal information management”2. To manage ideas, thoughts, and information, some rely on the “second brain approach”3 or zettelkasten4, others practice “systems of small dots”5.

At the end of the day, it’s all about three things:

Zenful Knowledge Gardening

I call my knowledge management practice a zenful knowledge gardening for several reasons.

First, I have been playing with the systems mentioned above for long enough to discover a thing about myself: when I tend to replicate a practice in a “pure” way, I tend not to practice what the thing was indented to help with. That is, I don’t manage knowledge, I set up plugins for Obsidian. If you know, you know.

And because of that I wanted to have something that would help me focus on absence of external noise, on knowledge rather than playing by the rules of environment. Hence, zenful.

Secondly, I don’t like the management part in “knowledge management” because it smells like misplaced priorities to me. That is, personally, I don’t manage my memory, don’t achieve goals, don’t do benchmarks. My idea is to slowly but surely establish this inner dialog between my memory, experience, and knowledge. It’s a slow, methodical process. Hence, gardening.

Tools of trade

For the longest time, I have been using laptop and my phone as this digital duo. But I felt that something had always been missing. Something that could reduce smoothness in exchange for mindful presence6. Something that would make me actually return to what had been written.

Moreover, I felt this urge to drastically reduce the number of apps that I use to sustain my day-to-day. A couple of years back I was using something like 10 apps daily. Which sounds like overcompensation for me.

So my zenful knowledge gardening stack had to be minimal, essential (as in screw-level essentialism), and it had to play well with my most time-consuming activity: writing code.

Eventually, I settled with:

Capturing modes

There are two main scenarios that trigger the gardening chain reaction.

Scenario #1: Work-mode. If I am in front of my computer, I have my terminal opened by default. In 90% of cases there’s a Helix tab somewhere as well. This means I can always create a note: no need to context-swith to a different window, or (god forbid) open another app.

Scenario #2: Non-work-mode. If I am not in front of a computer — doing chores, or out and about, — I radically de-digitize my experiences. The most “digital” part of it is listening to a podcast while I am doing dishes, for example. If I need to capture something, I use my notebook and a pen, or I record a voice memo in case I am driving.

No matter the scenario, a note is always created with a unique id: yyyyMMddHHmm (full year, month, day, hours, minutes, for example “202403131555”). That is, every note — digital or hand-written — has its id based on the moment it was taken.

It allows for easy referencing in future — no matter the medium. For example, my blog metadata includes the zettelkasten field so that I could always know where the post comes from, and what its original source.

Migration

Most of what some call “fleeting” and “resource” notes7 I write by hand in my notebook. This means (ideally) at the end of every week I take my time to migrate them to the digital garden. Yes, type them all. Yes, by hand.

Such processing allows for intentional reflecting, filtering, and deep diving into what seemed interesting and important.

That is why I call this gardening — periodically you have to collect the seeds, and to plant them.

The real gardening

”It’s all good, but we know that plants need watering, don’t they?” — one could ask. That’s true. That’s why (ideally) at the end of every day I tend to work on a fleeting note to make it evergreen. That is, I find a note that is marked as “fleeting”, and try to make them into short essays, or what I call “slips”. But I tend to perceive them as evergreen8, rather than permanent notes9. In plain human, I treat every note — even those I publish on my blog — as entries that can always grow and develop with time. That’s why, for example, I have this updated section inside every blog entry.

Conclusion

Capturing thoughts, ideas, positions, arguments — is an important part of my routine. It helps me seeing the world from many points of view and learn to interact with these positions. Throughout the years I have tried dozens of note-taking apps, knowledge management approaches, and whatnot. And I discovered that the most simple and (in some way) manual approach enables knowledge retention as well as make my knowledge curation more mindful. Not only that: constantly engaging with my past self through rereading my notes, rewriting them, gives an unmatched pespective on the fluidity of time, and the nature of humanity. Which, in turn, enables more thoughtful relationships both with myself and others.

Footnotes

  1. Personal knowledge management

  2. Personal information management

  3. Building a Seconf Brain

  4. Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method

  5. Linking Your Thinking

  6. Decentralizing Interfaces

  7. How To Take Smart Notes

  8. Evergreen notes

  9. From Fleeting Notes to Project Notes