Hi @gestaltist (love the handle by the way), this is a really good question. I’m new to Obsidian, but not to Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) as I have a professional background in organisational learning and development.
A few people here have already commented on how Zettelkasten principles have helped their thinking, and I have hugely benefitted in much the same way. What I’d like to add to the discussion so far is a simple insight, and the ‘deep structure’ behind it.
In my experience, people often get confused between “what” they want to think about and “how” to think about it. Reading the posts here in the forum, many people seem to start with - and then fixate on - the what, and I would humbly suggest that you start the other way round.
On Borrowing PKM Ideas Wisely
To state what is obvious, there is no perfect off-the-shelf tool and neither is there a “right way” to do PKM or to use Obsidian. And yet you’ll find plenty of advice out there that implies ‘their way’ is superior.
Probably the best advice I’ve found so far on seeking developmental help from others (who know what they’re doing) came from a book by chess grandmaster Joshua Waitzkin called, “The Art of Learning” (2008 I think). He recounts the story of how he chose the wrong mentor when he had outgrown his current mentor early in his career. The full story is too long to tell here, so I’ll just give you the context and punch-line.
Waitzkin was struggling against some Russian competitors who used some underhand, aggressive tactics. So he chose to work with a Russian grandmaster as his new mentor, thinking he’d learn from him how to beat them at their own game.
His error was simple but easy to make: he wasn’t like these players in personality or life experience, and so he couldn’t use their tactics as effectively as they could.
The lesson? Choose a mentor/source of ideas who is like you. A mentor that is like you understands how you think, feel and behave. And you can apply his success insights and make them work for you, precisely because he’s “like you”.
This lesson is highly relevant to PKM: all PKM is not the same to all people. It’s essential IMO to borrow ideas from someone with similar objectives to yours, and it’s highly desirable that they play in a similar field and/or share a similar personality. This increases the chance that their PKM insights will work for you.
PKM vs PKM Tools
We often seek out a new bit of software because the current one isn’t working for us. I don’t know about you, but when I feel this way I often don’t know exactly why… so it takes some deep thinking and reflection to decide a way forward.
To complicate matters, the next leap in my productivity of thought is not the same thing as being more productive in my use of time. “Managing time” is too simplistic a concept for managing thought. Thinking is not linear, nor something you sit down to “make” in a production-line sort of way. Thinking is messy, chaotic, emergent and we really don’t know how we actually ‘do it’.
So how might you go about configuring a “second brain” tool to work for you?
Good PKM Tools Extend Cognition
To state the obvious, we already use methods to “extend” our thinking.
We extend our thinking beyond what we can hold in short term memory in our heads by using paper notes, mind maps, doodles, annotations, digital markup of pdfs and books… all of which are means of ‘thinking’ about the connections between new ideas and our existing knowledge (stored in memory) and the questions we’re exploring (ie what we want to learn).
The ‘Wrong’ Metaphor for PKM
It’s worth thinking for a moment about the predominant metaphor of mind: that of mental “processing” or in other words, the “brain is a computer” metaphor. Personally, I don’t find this metaphor helpful at all.
It’s a useful metaphor for academics studying how the mind works through neuro-imaging studies, and subsequently for working on theoretical models of mind or for building AI algorithms. But you can’t “use” these insights in practice because the machinery of mind is largely opaque to us as we’re using it.
So let me offer an alternative “frame” for the practice of PKM: that of navigation.
We “navigate the world” with our “mental maps”, making predictions and simulating what might happen in order to make choices. Most of our navigation is achieved on autopilot. And we only make (or find/adopt) new mental maps when the old ones aren’t good enough, or when we enter into “new waters” that we are unfamiliar with. The latter is the stuff of PKM.
In other words, we need to “navigate” the world of ideas. We don’t process new ideas in a computer-processing or production line sort of way.
PKM as Memory-Loss Mitigation and Relevance-Realisation
Returning for a moment to the cognitive science of mental processing, the workings of the brain are highly “analogical” (Google Hoffstadter and “thinking by analogy” to go deeper) in that we categorise experiences, ideas and people by their similarity. We think and reason by analogy, in other words.
The analogies that pop into our thoughts, seem to do so of their own volition. Our ideas and thoughts bubble up to the surface of conscious thought from memory, via a subconscious process of “activation”. And the likelihood of activation is dependent on the neural pathways (ie learning): well-trodden paths are more likely to be triggered as relevant.
A good practical illustration is language learning. I lived and worked in Madrid for a few years, and had to learn Spanish from scratch (I became proficient enough to conduct business). About 9 months in, I said to my language tutor Rocio that I was struggling with the fast-talking pace of meetings, and that everyone talked over each other. And by the time I’d figured out what to say, the conversation had moved on…
She told me to let go of understanding everything, and just be content with understanding what I can at the time, and to focus on keeping up with the gist of the conversation. Then, after each meeting she said I should write down the words I remembered, but did not understand.
The deeper process behind this advice is simple: we have two types of vocabulary when learning a new language, passive words and active words. We are unable to recall passive words until we hear them, at which point we understand them. But when expressing ourselves they get stuck on the tip of the tongue. By contrast, active words are instantaneously available to us whenever we need them.
Words move from passive to active vocabulary with repetition and use, pure and simple. From the brain’s point of view, all new ideas and concepts are the same.
So what does this mean for PKM? PKM can ‘extend’ our thinking in two ways: by helping recall and flagging relevance.
Without recall aids, we will not use thoughts or ideas (ie understanding that is attached to words) that have not yet earned a permanent (ie active) place in memory.
And without relevance flags, we will struggle to navigate new ‘thinking’ waters (which we’re usually navigating in thick ‘fog’), by providing a scaffolding for our learning and thinking in the form of “relevant ideas” that are likely to be productive.
The idea of relevance is connected to, and yet different from, the idea of analogy. Another neuroscientist (John Vervaeke) has coined the term “relevance realisation” for his theory that the brain is a self-organising system of relevance realisation (Google his paper on “relevance realisation” to go deeper). In other words we don’t know, or rather can’t be conscious of, how we evaluate relevance. Ideas just pop into awareness. Clarity about decisions just falls into place.
Since the machinery of analogy and relevance is largely unconscious, I would suggest that relevance is the HOOK we are looking for in our PKM process. But what kind of relevance? Relevance to our goals, problems and questions.
So navigation means ‘seeing what’s relevant’ in this sense. We can “prime” our brains to “look for relevance” by clarifying and thinking about our goals before we start to work on something.
A PKM tool is a relevance-realisation tool, at all sorts of levels.
Obsidian for PKM
Like most people here, I consume A LOT of new information in many different forms. And I lose most of the ideas that I’ve had. So for me, a PKM tool has to mitigate what you might think of as a ‘memory loss’ problem. In this sense, relevance is secondary to recall. Or to put it another way, we lose new ideas and connections before we are able to shape them and then commit them to active memory, and therefore ‘think with them’.
I was an early adopter of Evernote way back, and tied myself up in knots with all these problems of thought. I then moved onto DevonThink, which doesn’t require perfect foresight about your future self. For example, a particular problem is how you might search for something long after you’ve forgotten how you stored it, why you thought it, when you thought it and where you thought it. An even worse problem is not even thinking to look for thoughts you had in the past, because you ‘lost them’ or didn’t think them ‘relevant’.
I still use DevonThink, which is fantastic storage tool for its metadata and AI-based advanced search, with fuzzy logic (eg it ‘understands’ typos) and ‘smart’ filing (ie automatically-filling folders based on Boolean-style search queries). It gives me the best chance of finding stuff that might be useful, without knowing where I put it.
My mind is not as organised as that of Bri Watson! I’m a messy thinker, working on messy problems. Categorisation systems help, but they’re not a “thinking tool” for me in the way they probably are for most academics. I think of myself as a practitioner: I ‘use’ insights from science and academia by figuring out how to apply them to the messy real world, so the formal categories of academia don’t usually match the practical ones of my ‘problem world’.
So if intelligent storage still isn’t helping me to “think”… what’s missing? The “connections” between notes represent my current state of “understanding” and my judgments about “relevance”.
Understanding is about integrating new knowledge with existing knowledge and experience, and relevance is about discovering the right knowledge and applying it to problems and questions.
In other words, if you agree with my framing of the PKM process, the links in Obsidian can be used to navigate the processes (which are iterative, not linear) of learning and problem solving.
Andy Matuschak (former research head at Khan Academy) has written on his blog about using Anki cards and writing good questions/prompts, and I’d recommend Googling him to figure out how to use Obsidian as a way of filtering the wheat from the chaff and committing the wheat to memory via Anki cards. Andy’s blog is what led me to Obsidian in the first place.
I hope this helps in some way.