This chapter describes my workflows of processing information and my notebook system including notebook classification and tags definition. All my workflows based on a theory on how to read a book, and the notebook system is organized according to these workflows.
It is important to establish a theoretical system before planning our knowledge management system because it will guide us on how to define the tags, how to organize notes and which app is perfect for KM, etc. Otherwise, we would get lost in the forest because the only thing we could see is trees. For example, one time I felt that my notebooks are too disordered to organize all my documents well. So I googled on how to classify notebooks and had been convinced by an article, I organized my notebooks according to this article. Unfortunately, after a few weeks, my notebooks evolved into another chaos. This is not because of the article’s fault, it is because I only learned ‘HOW’ from this article and did not know ‘WHY’. Establishing a theoretical system will let us clear the reason why we should do this and why we should do that.
When I was in primary school, my teacher told me a method on how to read a book: Reading a book should be firstly “from thin to thick” and then “from thick to thin”, which comes from a famous Chinese mathematician named Hua Luogeng.
“From thin to thick” means that learning a book should also extend its content by complementing and annotating. For example, if we cannot understand a term or a concept, we could google it or study it from related books, and then write down our understanding. Thus, the book becomes thicker.
After a period of study, we have understood every word, every sentence and every chapter. But this does not mean that we totally apprehend the book. Because
Finally, there is a process from “thick to thin”. The things that have already been learned must be chewed, digested, organized, re-examined, integrated, refined, and critically identified. Compare with what you have learned in the past and find out what new content and new methods have been added. After this, we will find that the book seems to become thin from thick. — Hua Luogeng
“From thin to thick and then from thick to thin” becomes the bedrock of my whole knowledge management system. It is not only suitable for reading books, but also applicable for technical research and fragmented reading.
I collect information for the purpose of performing specific tasks, such as solving problems, answering questions or writing articles. All these tasks have their own topics. So ‘Topic’ is the central point of my workflows for processing information. 1 Following is an illustration of how information translates to knowledge.
Some notes do not have a topic, such as fragmented information, excerpts and ideas. After continually refining and supplementing, these notes become ‘thicker and thicker’. One day, some of these notes could consolidate and form a topic.
The topic can come from a question, a research task, or just a flash of inspiration. Simply to say, notes at first and then the topic.
On the other hand, some notes already belong to a topic because I firstly have a topic before collecting notes. For example, I need to write a PPT to demonstrate one of our products, so I first have a topic ‘our products’ and then begin to collect related materials. A proposition of thesis is another example of this situation.
Working on a topic includes supplementing related contents, consolidation of materials from different sources, and the most important, writing down our thoughts.
While completing a topic, the next step is ‘Output’. I will write an article, post a blog, answer a question on Quora or present the topic to my colleagues. This is the most difficult and also the most critical step within the whole procedure. Information becomes our knowledge after this step.
After ‘Output’, I will archive the output documents into a notebook, which should support a strong search ability for easy accessing. For some important documents, there is a final step, which is ‘Digest’. It means outlining the essential points of the document and creating a synopsis. This synopsis will help us recall the significant part of the document, and it is short, so reviewing is quick.
Above is a whole procedure about how information becomes knowledge. My Apps, notebooks and tags are all selected according to this procedure.
There are two phases of the overall workflow, one is processing information without a topic, and another one is processing information with a topic.
Process Notes without Topic
Fragment information is a typical type of notes without a topic. Instant ideas also belong to this category.
Most fragmented information is Web content. As aforementioned in ‘My KMS – Collecting Information’, these web pages have been saved to Instapaper. Workflow for processing these pages is as follows:
- Read the page in Instapaper. Highlight and comment on essential sentences.
- Export notes as markdown to DTTG (The iOS version of DTPO) Inbox or a proper subgroup in ‘Refinery’.
- Archive this page.
- One of my IFTTT Applet will create a private bookmark on Pinboard for the archived item and attach a tag named ‘AddToDTPO’. This is because I periodically run a DTPO script to import all my Pinboard bookmarks with this tag to DTPO database so that I have not only the notes but also the source materials.
2. Refine and Assign Topic
- Periodically review notes in the ‘Refinery’ group. Write down my thoughts or supplement relevant knowledge.
- If some notes can be consolidated and form a topic, I will create a subgroup in the ‘Ongoing’ group, duplicate or replicate these notes to the subgroup and start working on this topic with the purpose for outputting it.
Process Notes with a Topic
In the ‘Ongoing’ group, each subgroup is a topic. These topics derive from multiple materials such as:
- Refined notes which come from above ‘Fragmented Reading’ procedure.
- Projects. Each project has at least one topic which is the project itself because all materials are serving this project. Moreover, a project may generate multiple topics. For example, suppose I have a project concerning designing a website. During the project, I might get an inspiration on how to match colours, and ‘how to match colors’ could become a topic.
- Books. Books are the same as projects. A book review is a common topic while we are reading a book. And reading a book may generate multiple topics because I will extract and annotate a lot of contents during the reading, these excerpts and annotations may form one or more topics.
Workflow for processing a topic has four phases, and the apps I have used during this procedure are DTPO, DEVONagent Pro, WikiLinks, Workflowy and MaginNote Pro:
- Create a subgroup within the ‘Ongoing’ group in the DTPO with the name of the topic. For example, ‘The difference between MSA and SOA’.
- If there are some notes or ideas in the ‘Refinery’ group which belong to this topic, I will duplicate or replicate them into the topic group. I prefer ‘replicate’ to ‘duplicate’ because any modification in one replicant will reflect on all replicants.
- Create a node with the same name in Workflowy.
2. Conceive and Collect Supplementary Materials
- The purpose of this phase is to plan how to output the topic. During this phase, I need to decide the boundary and structure of the topic, supplement more materials. And for some technical topic, I maybe need to do some experiment to provide a solid demonstration. This phase may last several days or even months.
- DEVONagent and WikiLinks are used for searching. And besides DTPO, which is responsible for saving collected documents, two other apps are also used in this phase. Workflowy for planning and MarginNote Pro for reading and digesting related materials.
- I hope I could perform all the tasks with only DTPO, maybe someone can do it, but I have to combine multiple apps to achieve my needs. This is because firstly, the UI of DTPO’s editor is still in the last century which always makes me reluctant to write texts in it. And secondly, it cannot easily combine source materials and extract excerpts.
- I use workflowy for making a to-do list regarding the topic, planning the document structure and noting all instant ideas. I have ever struggled between many apps such as Notion, OmniOutliner and some workflowy’s imitations including Mubu and Dynalist just because Workflowy does not support embedded image. All these apps have more powerful features than workflowy, but either some apps have curious bugs, or they lack a spirit which workflowy has. I know it sounds bizarre, but only workflowy can make me write a lot. I think maybe it is because of its’ simplicity and efficiency. OmniOutliner is a powerful outline tool, but it is slow while searching and do not support tags.
- MaginNote Pro is used for reading, annotating and extracting multiple documents or books. This procedure is also called ‘Active Reading’. I have only found two apps which can fulfill the ‘Active Reading’ needs. One is MaginNote Pro and the other one is LiquidText. I have bought these two apps and finally stuck on MaginNote. Comparing with LiquidText, MarginNote has perceptible lag, but it has a Mac version, supporting EPUB and hierarchy of notes.
- After these steps, I have a document structure and all necessary materials. So it comes to the next phase: Output.
- This phase is just writing. So there are not complicated workflows, open your writing app and start typing.
- Regarding writing app, I am using Ulysses. It is a beautiful app and perfect for nonlinear writing. Nonlinear writing means when we are writing a long article, we do not need to follow a strict order such as from chapter 1 to chapter 10. We are writing according to our thoughts. After finish chapter 1, maybe we suddenly have an idea on how to write chapter 5. Then we could begin to write chapter 5. That’s why the basic unit of Ulysses is ‘Sheet,’ and it can be easily split, merge, reorder and combined for exporting.
- I have also spent a lot of time on choosing the writing app. I have tried Scrivener, a powerful writing app, and finally found that it is too powerful for me to grasp it. I have also bought MWeb (looks like an imitation of Ulysses), it has more features than Ulysses but, I have to repeat it, it lacks a spirit. Maybe this spirit is the focus on the details. For example, the iOS version of Ulysses and MWeb both have a dark mode, and they both have a keyboard shortcut. While in dark mode, Ulysses’s UI, the keyboard shortcuts and the soft keyboard are both dark. By contrast, the MWeb only has a dark UI, the keyboard and keyboard shortcuts are still bright.
4. Archive and Digest
- After outputting, I will save the final documents and all related materials to the subgroup in DTPO. Including:
- After uploading the article to my blog by Ulysses, export a pdf version of the article.
- From MarginNote, export the outline as OmniOutliner format.
- Export workflowy node.
- After exporting, move the subgroup from the ‘Ongoing’ group to the ‘Archive’ group.
- For some important documents, I will create a synopsis and save to workflowy. A synopsis can help me to easily review the highlights of the document and workflowy’s quick search makes finding a keyword very handy.
- If I need to suspend a topic since I have more important things to do or the topic is temporarily unavailable, and I will move the topic to Archive group and tag it with #Suspend.
Notebooks / DEVON Groups Definition
DEVONthink Pro Office (DTPO) is my central notebook app. It uses two dimensions for organizing notes: Group (the same as Folder) and Tag. Comparing with general note apps such as OneNote or Evernote, DTPO has the following pros which makes me finally choose it as my central storage:
- Support inner preview of lots of file formats.
- Manage documents based on ‘File’ just like Finder. By contrast, Onenote or Evernote has its own format to save notes, and files are treated as Attachments of certain notes. So if an Evernote’s notebook is corrupted, all notes and files in this notebook will lose.
- Powerful AI for searching and auto clarification.
There are following groups in my DTPO for supporting my workflows:
- Ongoing. This group saves active topics which I am currently working on. Subgroups are created according to the ’Topic’ such as ’The difference between MSA and SOA’, ‘The evolution of data structure’, etc.
- Refinery. This group saves notes without topics. Such as ideas, excerpts, etc. I will periodically review these notes and keep updating them by complementing and commenting. Subgroups are created according to the ‘Field’ such as ’@Technology’, ‘@Management’ or ‘@2History’.
- Archive. There are two subgroups in the Archive. One is ‘Wisdom’, I will move the group of a topic from the ‘Ongoing’ to this group after the topic is output. Another is ‘Information”, archive documents or notes which irrelevant with knowledge such as a customer’s phonebook.
- Reference. This group saves web pages or documents which I currently don’t need to read and keep it for further reference.
Tags / Color Labels
Tags define context, actions, place. I have two prefixes of tags.
#: General Categories or Actions. For example, #Excerpt, #Tips, #Insights, #Happiness, #Health, #Mistake#, #Dream, #Success, #Thankful etc.
@: Means Place or People. For example, @Office, @Tony.
I do not have too many tags because creating different notebooks is the primary approach for classification. Although there are not too many differences between the tag and the group in DTPO, organizing notes by groups will be more convenient when I need to transfer all my data to another app. Furthermore, too many tags cannot improve efficiency because firstly, maintaining dozens or hundreds of tags makes me frustrated and secondly, using ‘Search’ is more easy to find what we need than remember a lot of tags.
MacOS Finder and DTPO are all supporting colour tags. I use these tags to indicate the importance and status of notes such as Important, Todo, InProgress, Output, etc.