Increasingly Atomic Folders: A Workflow

Heh, as a former lawyer I should have known better than to give that acronym there. “JD” in a personal knowledge management context usually refers to the Johnny Decimal system. It was really designed for multi-user corporate file structures, but for my purposes it’s a flexible guideline and philosophy that lets me have folders without having too many folders, which I like.


Ah, I see. I can understand that.

Thanks for the clarity and your contributions to the community!

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Thanks for sharing your process! I’m currently trying to re-design my slipbox as a workflow for producing publications instead of just a personal wikipedia of my ideas. I’ve read and re-read this thread and watched your video w/ Nick Milo and found it super helpful.

I have a few follow-up questions about your workflow, if you don’t mind…

Ok, let me try to play this back.

  1. You have a pre-existing interest in Egypt so there’s an Egypt note in your 41 Indexes.
  2. You read a book and export your highlights and annotations to Women in Egypt by Whoever in 43.01 Books and mark it up with headers and more annotations.
  3. While processing that lit note you make a mental connection (matching) to something you read about Sumeria and create a new note Egyptian Princesses had less work but more prestige than their Sumerian counterparts in 46 Synthesis that links to the relevant lit note header(s) about Egypt and Sumeria. The title states the insight.
  4. As you learn more about Egypt and Sumeria, this synthesis note might get recruited into a growing index note Comparing Egyptian and Sumerian royalty which links to all relevant synthesis notes (and maybe lit note sections directly as well?).
  5. This interest might spark an article idea Egypt vs. Sumeria: The Role of Princesses in the Fertile Crescent in 92 Seeds into which you pull the relevant sections from your index.

Do I have that right?

Your descriptions of creating and adding to Indexes are generally bottom-up, i.e. driven by interest and emergence. Do you have any top-down ‘rules’? Like some folks require all Zk notes, e.g. contents of your 46 Synthesis, to be linked from an index somewhere and will create one if it doesn’t exist.

What gets added to your broad Egypt index?

Why do you add numerical location identifiers to the header here?

What’s the difference between 44 Insights and 46 Synthesis?

You’ve got the right of it, although the odds of me every making an actual index note for “Comparing Egyptian and Sumerian royalty” are pretty low — it would probably stay a synthesis note unless I somehow do a lot with Egyptian and Sumerian royalty.

But I suppose if it came to that, then yea I would make an index note for it. I might broaden it out to just an index note for Royalty, depending on what else is in my vault. Generally speaking my index notes currently are very single-word in terms of naming structures, it helps me identify them faster.

As far as bottom-up vs top-down, the idea of making extra work for myself just to make sure that everything is linked to an index note feels very artificial to me; I imagine there are some use cases where that makes sense, but for what I do it would be a waste of time, which I am pathologically allergic to.

I use my index notes mostly as a way to keep track of concepts I do a lot with, but I do have a template I use for them.

Somewhat amusingly, because I do have a lot of notes related to Egypt, I haven’t actually bothered to make an Index page for Egypt because I don’t generally sit down and do much noddling about Egypt per se.

Here’s a screenshot that might help demo a little better.

The numerical prepending is because I use the Johnny Decimal system to help ensure folder order. I actually recently aligned it to my physical filing cabinet, which has been surprisingly helpful.

As for insights vs. synthesis, for me, insights are usually a little more … disconnected from a source than synthesis notes. Synthesis notes are usually where I summarize multiple pieces of information on a particular atomic topic, whereas insights are things I realized independently of the text.

It will probably seem like a somewhat artificial distinction just looking at the examples:

but for me it’s the difference between “ah yes, I have noticed that I now have several small notes in my literature notes about a very narrow topic, I should combine them into one top-level paragraph that pulls the information together” (sort of a very mini narrowly focused index I guess?) and “ah! I have realized a thing that was not told to me.” I generally use the insights as fodder for articles like this: 3 Theses, 3rd Thursday: Managing Things » Eleanor Konik

But there’s a fair amount of overlap and depending on what kind of person you are and what kind of writing you’re doing, you could probably just combine them into a folder called “claims” or something.

Hope this helps!


Incidentally, I’m sharing this here because of a moderately amusing conversation I had in the discord with someone, which went roughly along the lines of that person saying they usually start broad with folders and then narrow as needed, and they were sure that someone else out there did it differently, and of course I do –

I start narrow and merge as edge-case grey area situations come up.

40 slipbox is now down to 3 folders:

41 questions
42 zettels
43 references

(I still have subfolders in references, don’t worry :wink: )


@EleanorKonik I’m thinking of implementing a similar structure to my notes, but folders can be a bit rigid sometimes.

While I can add multiple links and tags to a note, I can’t do the same with folders. A book about a topic would go under the “Books” folder (for example), not under this “Topic” folder. With tags I could just add multiple of them to the same note.

Did you find a way to overcome this limitation with folders? Or it was never a problem to you?

This is never a problem for me; I explicitly don’t have “topic” folders; even with tags trying to figure out whether, say, physics counts as “math” or “science” gets to be a nightmare, fast. Is “The Roman Empire” in the “Africa” tag or the “Europe” tag or the “Asia” tag? Oh, all of them, okay then at that point what’s the purpose of an Africa tag?

That way lies madness.

The primary advantage of the Johnny Decimal system for me is that there’s only ever one bucket a given file can go into. The idea is to design your folders so that that’s easy. I don’t ever have something that is simultaneously a note about the video game path of exile and would also fit in my folder of character bios for my novels.

Any time where I’m like “gee, I wonder what I’ve written about cows?” I don’t go searching through my “domestic animals” tag (or should it be animals? or should it be farm animals? or should it be creatures? or should it be things native to the middle east? or or or…) I just use search, and then create a list of all the applicable files, i.e. a LYT-style MOC.

The only time I ever use tags is as todos, i.e. “#atomize this” or “#crossreference with another note” or “#research this claim”


Thank you very much, great explanation! I may be sticking to folders and the Johnny Decimal system after all.

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Thanks! I actually recently discovered the JD system from your blog post article and decided to try it myself. I am working through it and my biggest issue is how to deal with clients. I’m an attorney, and usually just sort cases by year and number (for example, 2020-01). However, I recently signed several clients that send me various matters every week, and that has me looking for a different structuring option. How do you recommend structuring clients? Thanks!

I haven’t done much with clients, but does this page on the Johnny Decimal system not help?

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Thanks for sharing. I actually did read it before posting, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me, or at least, to my work. I reread it while staring at my “Finder”, and looking at the client files, and I think I found a way that I’ll share just in case someone is as stomped as me. :slight_smile:

I created a folder, 10-19 called “Clients”. Within that folder, the numbers 10 to 19 are divided by “areas” (or matters). For example, one of them is “Immigration”. The other one is “Contracts” and so on.

I tried looking at the 3 number structure that JD proposes. The one that made most sense to me was then start numbering my clients per matter. For example, I have “11” as contract clients. I wrote “1-11 Client Name.” Most of my clients are one-offs, so I then created a sub folder called “1-11-01 Citizenship application” (for example). This way, if the client comes back in the future, I put them as 1-11-02.

In fact, I started moving my active case files, and found this very helpful. For example, I have cases where I have filed applicaitons for siblings, or husband and wife. I put them as “1 case” initially with some subfolders. I’ve never been happy with that structure. I now switched those to, for example, “03-11 Jones Family”, and then I wrote “03-11-01 Spouse 1” and then “03-11-02 Spouse 2”.

I’m sure practice will make it better, but my biggest concern now will be remembering the names and structure.

I can’t edit the post, but I did make a subsequent change, to keep with the 3 number project system. I numbered clients, say, 101-11 Client Name, 102-11 Client Name and so forth. Then, the projects are 102-11-01, 102-11-02, etc.

I’ll keep tinkering. :slight_smile:

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That part comes with time, and yeah definitely iterating is the way to go — it’s easier to sense the solutions when it’s your own system.

I’m glad you figured out something and sorry I couldn’t be more help :green_heart:

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