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Illustrated Notes for “Building a Second Brain” (maggieappleton.com)
181 points by gauchojs 32 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 35 comments



Firstly, thanks to the author for taking such time and care with the illustrations.

However, by way of contrast to many of the other comments on here, I found this particular explanation quite unhelpful, both in terms of the presentation communicating the idea as well as the parts of the idea that I was able to glean.

It’s probably an individual thing, but I don’t want to combine things into projects, and I certainly Don’t want to go down the route of having a folder structure.

Having recently converted my somewhat-organised notes into a Zettelkasten workflow, I have been amazed by the freeing nature of the medium. The core of my method is simple markdown files that can be easily written without the aid of any software. I have had fun building a significant amount of automation around the notes - building a traversable and plottable graph, implementing backlinking, templating and that sort of thing, but it is purely assistive and not necessary.

Some sibling comments make the point that BASB seems to be more of a complete theory, where as a Zettelkasten is a method alone. Here, I humbly beg to differ. It is the simple and mechanical nature of the Zettelkasten that frees the mind from the burden of too much information.

This is obviously an individual preference, but I think I’ve found the method that suits me.


I'm also interested in what software you're using for this. I've looked into tools that support Zettelkasten and they all seem to have made inexplicable changes to the system. The most significant to me is the change from using a hierarchical, meaningful numbering scheme to using timestamps that lack all form of context/hierarchy. Context in the sense that unless you're the Rain Man, there's no way to fit timestamps into a conceptual framework to refer to in your mind. You're always 100% reliant on your tools to find what you need.


The software I use is, at its most basic, a text editor. In my case, Sublime text.

Everything else is a Python package with a CLI, dockerised for portability, and written entirely by me to support my workflow.

I am absolutely sympathetic to the "I want a tool not a hobby" idea of using prebuilt software, and indeed I have tried many of them (including every one I have seen linked on HN), however I have found that building my own automation has really helped me to think carefully about how I use my Zettelkasten and what it implies for my own thought process.

This reply probably falls into the category of "unhelpfully helpful advice", but that's what has worked for me personally.


Can you mention how you organize files themselves? Things like subdirectories, naming, solving name clashes, and how do you decide when to split content into two or more files.

I've always struggled with mapping any note organization mapping into strict directory structure with ascii file names being the only meta-data. I'm currently using Trilium Notes which solves most of these by using SQLite instead of filesystem.


No subdirectories for notes, everything is flat. I have three directories: zettel for the Zettel, Daten for the data, and Kasten for software/scripts.

Zettel are named as follows: z{%Y%m%d%H%M%S}_{slugified title}.md

Tags are formatted as +{hyphenated tag name}.

Scripts parse all the Zettel, construct a bipartite graph of tags and Zettel, and populate tables in the index with lists of Zettel under each tag, a visualisation of the graph, various other meta statistics etc.

The point (for me) of my Zettelkasten is that through links and tags, the structure of the notes is emergent rather than dictated a priori.


What tools do you use for your workflow? Is there a write up that you have done on it (or you have followed)?


I don't have a writeup, but I posted the following in a sibling comment [0].

> The software I use is, at its most basic, a text editor. In my case, Sublime text.

> Everything else is a Python package with a CLI, dockerised for portability, and written entirely by me to support my workflow.

> I am absolutely sympathetic to the "I want a tool not a hobby" idea of using prebuilt software, and indeed I have tried many of them (including every one I have seen linked on HN), however I have found that building my own automation has really helped me to think carefully about how I use my Zettelkasten and what it implies for my own thought process.

> This reply probably falls into the category of "unhelpfully helpful advice", but that's what has worked for me personally.

0: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23522098


What kind of work / notes are you taking, are they more academic in nature or operational?


Everything in my intellectual life that I find interesting. I am an Applied Mathematician by education running an AI unit in industry, so there is a bit on that, but personally my intellectual life has always been defined by breadth, and my Zettelkasten is as broad, weird, and eclectic as I am.

And that, to my mind, is rather the point :-).


I was curious about that as well. For notes or thoughts that don't fall into a specific project, I wouldn't know where to put them.


Using Roam Research?


The graphic design is stunning.

I did find it to be a massive distraction after the second or third page however.

There is a time and a place for an artistic touch and in this case, I found it distracting.

I find hand-written text difficult to read past 24pt and when done in gray, even more so.

Ultimately however, I think the greatest disagreement I have comes from the content itself - it reminds me of all the little tactics project managers I've had tried to use. All the 'team building' and 'team lunches' and 'daily stand ups'.

Life is about strategy, the long haul, not tactics. This approach is non-stop tactics and it never pauses to ask why go through all this? What are you trying to accomplish and is lack of organization bordering on OCD really the thing holding you back? Maybe it is, and if so, great.

This obsession with arbitrary processes to me, is simply manager-types trying to justify their existence and slick sales-men, trying to sell yet another 'productivity booster' that has no empirical evidence behind it, just slick advertising, such as these beautiful illustrations.


> Life is about strategy, the long haul, not tactics.

Life is about both. Strategy and tactics. Words and action. For some people, if they make a bunch of grand strategic plans but don't follow through, then they repeatedly disappoint those around them. They find themselves lonely and stressed as they lose jobs and relationships with people who are sick and tired of them "making excuses".

> is lack of organization bordering on OCD really the thing holding you back? Maybe it is, and if so, great. > arbitrary processes

They look arbitrary to you because the author doesn't explain the "Why" behind her system -- likely because it is very personal.


> They look arbitrary to you because the author doesn't explain the "Why" behind her system -- likely because it is very personal.

Well, when something becomes a course, it is no longer about the author, it is about the people the author offers the course to.

I don't want to discourage people from trying new things and developing their own systems, courses, whatever. I do feel the need to point out that we live in an age of immense amounts of information and one needs to be very careful not to engage in information pollution. If there is a system similar to yours, there is no need to create your own that you think is slightly better. We really don't need another flavor of candy, at some point we need less 'stuff' and less people engaging in trying to sell us something, not more.

I think we've been at that point for a few decades.


I recently built a note-taking system [0] to capture ideas quickly. The notes are parsed as a DSL that understands different organizational techniques. It also picks up on symbols for tracking things over time, such as transactions and events.

What is great about the DSL is that once learned you can express a lot of information without disrupting flow. To me that is one of the biggest barriers for taking notes via phone or computer. Once a good note-taking habit is developed it's wonderful to have that reservoir of information and ideas to pull from.

0. https://www.tatatap.com/how-to


A tangential point. I didn’t go through this article in detail, but I loved the illustrations so much that I ended up looking at a few other articles by her (Maggie Appleton). As someone who fails at Pictionary with very crude drawings, there’s something about those illustrations that’s simple, eye catching and admirable. I’m feeling envious.


i have a longstanding thesis that developers-who-can-draw always crush it in online content, haha. but with Maggie, beyond just artistic ability she also works really hard to come up with visual metaphor by understanding the developer on an anthropological level.


These illustrations are great!

Regarding software, one thing I’ve long wanted and/or dreamed of making is an app that can be pointed at any directory of markdown files and images that would then use some kind of AI to analyze the data, look for patterns, present statistics, automatically tag things, etc. I want to be able to dump things in without much organization, but then to be able to view it in an organized way. One small example is the way that the Bear app finds to-do items in any of the notes and presents them in a separate list. That, but with all kinds of data.


Check out https://obsidian.md/, I believe it has a good foundation to get to the features you're asking for.


I've basically built a version of this with trello, the butler addon, and some custom code to use custom fields to rank cards.

have a been toying around with productizing this.

let me know if you're interested


I've always found it a bit odd (and a bit frustrating) that many programs around knowledge-building/note-taking are Mac-only. Anybody know why that is? Devonthink sounds like such an interesting tool that I'd love to try, but it's Mac only. This article's author relies on two tools which, at first glance, are also Mac-only.

That said, am I the only one finding it really hard to parse pages of illustrations? It feels like I'm stuck having to analyse every single illustration to figure out what the author is talking about and that a bit of supporting expository text is missing.


I’ve noticed this as well (for example, with Ulysses, Bear and OmniFocus). I am building a note taking application at https://NoteBrook.app that I intend to be a simple, clean, fast app that runs on every major platform, works online and offline with apps, and syncs to all your devices. Would love to hear your thoughts. Plan on launching in the next few weeks as I complete the edit/favorite/delete, some cleanup, and publish all the apps. Early access code is ALPHA2020 if you want to sign up and try the syncing, but you can use it without signing up too, your notes will just be local.


I'd attribute it mainly to the APIs available. Right out of the box you can easily loads PDFs, images, and make "Document" oriented applications. You can also do rich text editing and even embed web content to do more advanced layout of content. e.g. If I was doing some sort of "knowledgebase" app these sorts of things would be indispensable.

But also there's the market to consider. Macs users seem to like to sink their money into nice looking native apps which organize things.


Just a guess: Apple has been selling the big picture (via gentle philosophy, top-down design planning, and ads featuring what must be meta-planning data or it's way too simple) since the very beginning. This gave Apple an early lead in the idea space. Their white-space philosophy directly enabled the blank slate or greenfield thinking we associate with this kind of software.

I would add that Steve Jobs' own psychology seemed reduction-biased, for better or worse. His thought process was aimed at achieving impact through early/first principles, but the principles were those of concept, design, sensory experience, or interpersonal dynamics rather than information or engineering.

As a result, we get Think Different, and the first step in Thinking Different is thinking; I would add that due to the reduction it's more like thinking starkly. This is quite different from processing or manipulating, which were and still are very PC concepts, compared to Apple.

Anyway. A guess. And yeah, the unfortunate part of info-illustrations is that pages of them which reward different perceptual ordering/directions in each illustration are just harder to parse.


To quote John Gruber — "Mac is the platform that attracts people who care."

Honestly, Apple did a great jobs. They did care about their product(well, until recent buggy OS fiasco) and that attract people who value the same thing. Doesn't mean Windows people don't care, of course, but Windows always give the utilitarian vibes, the OS for everyone (especially in the old day)


Font rendering is worse in Windows, if you write you usually care about that, or start to care at some point.


If there are several Mac apps that you want to run, maybe getting a Mac wouldn't be a terrible idea.


I would strongly recommend you look into Obsidian (obsidian.md). You're definitely right about the GTD demographic being apple-centric, but this is a cross platform mind mapping application I've grown to love.


I'd never heard of BASB until this post, but it seems so much more useful than the usual type of content about "zettelkasten" and such. Those seem so focused on the mechanical actions you take and not enough on the steps towards getting value from your notes.

Is there a book form of BASB, or is it a course only?


I found that book but haven't read it. From the description though, it appears that it forms the base material for the course.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07FLQHLTK


The book deal was signed Apr 14 with Atria Books which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster. I couldn't find any info on an expected publication date.

https://fortelabs.co/blog/book-deal-for-building-a-second-br...


I have not taken this course. I do feel I have a second brain. I have constructed my own system of keeping my thoughts organized and making progress in better understanding in a cohesive manner.

By taking longer to finish grad school and ending up with mountains of debt.

And this second brain would be lost to the wind as soon as I take up a 9-to-5 Monday-through-Friday tech/STEM job where I have to do mainly what my boss tells me to do.

Go figure.


This is very well done. I've taken BASB and this does a fantastic job covering all the main points.


That’s an awesome illustration. I always wonder how much value people get from BASB


Aligns perfectly with my org-mode workflow flow




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