Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought you Think (2003) (speakeasy.org)
90 points by aharrison on Sept 19, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments

I don't know how to say this delicately, so I won't: I'm having trouble distinguishing this book from the disjointed ramblings of a mad man. The RANDOM capitalization of VERY IMPORTANT WORDS! combined with the "snake-oil sales pitch" style of writing doesn't do this work any favors, but it's really the content where this comes up short. Apart from the premise of mapping every thought, no viable strategy is offered achieve this.

What's the solution here? After a few years you end up with huge boxes full of notes, some of which have been appended over and over? Mind maps rarely scale when done with software, paper note-taking just makes it all the more hopeless.

And really, why be so obsessive about conserving every little thought like your stream of consciousness holds some big revelation at the end? That's not how it works. Forgetting and scrapping things is an important part of organizing the mind and the output it produces. On a meta level, this book illustrates very well what happens if that doesn't work.

If we're building a system with the goal of swapping out thoughts and memories, it really has to augment the brain in some fashion. Refining relations between concepts is something the brain is already good at, it would make more sense to help it along in areas where the brain sucks: keeping lists and details. Seriously, open an Evernote account or something and don't worry too much about organization and preservation.

I'm really sorry if this sounds mean, it's not supposed to.

I'm actually happy to see this comment because it means I don't have to make it. I appreciate the effort put into this but I don't think its going to be a helpful resource.

I clicked expecting a well thought out strategy for organizing concept maps on a large scale but instead this is some individuals idea on how best to organize their own thoughts. In fact, not once in the entire document is the term "concept map" even used which makes me think that this person has spent zero time researching established techniques on the subject.

Concept maps are great. I've used them in the past and wish I could get in the habit of maintaining them more often. If you're interested in capturing and organizing your own thoughts, I'd highly recommend you look into concept maps. This on the other hand, I'm not sure what this is and I certainly wouldn't recommend you follow it.

When I see a management blog, lifehacking, quantified self post, I usually see nothing more than a post like this hiding behind a veneer of fancier web design, nice photos and better writing technique.

[edit] PS this was not a comment on the validity of the ideas presented, just a comment on the general craziness of individual bloggers.

>>I don't know how to say this delicately, so I won't: I'm having trouble distinguishing this book from the disjointed ramblings of a mad man. The RANDOM capitalization of VERY IMPORTANT WORDS!

Madmen do tend to emphasize random words: http://zippythepinhead.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD...

(M-x yow, how I miss you.)

> the disjointed ramblings of a mad man.

"keeping a map of all your thoughts has a freezing eff ect on the mind."

"you will be IMMOBILIZED for the duration of your commitment"

Sounds like he went mad in the attempt.

I've been reading a chapter a day since this was posted and... I'm done with this. The rambling effect and raving about types of stationary and importance of stationary is just... I don't have any words to describe this.

I can't help but come to the conclusion he's nuts.

Thanks for posting this.

Maps make amazing summarization/summary capturing tools. I used to unknowingly use them during my college days. One of the main reasons why I spent 1/10th the time yet scored the same as my classmates was maps. I would practically convert each chapter into a map, and merely crawling though a map was more than sufficient for any kind of a revision.

In our industry maps make wonderful testing tools. Lets say you want to test X, write down a map of each functionality, then write down further nodes, which basically is what could possible go wrong or right with each node(Each of this becomes a separate node). For each node you expand, stress the node bring out more test nodes until you can't stress any node anymore.

The resultant map will be nearly the best test cases you can come up with.

Now do this before you start coding, and what you will get is all the scenarios you need to handle to make the code bug free.

Additional tip, avoid using map software. Best tools for this kind of work are paper/pen or whiteboard/marker.

I've been using this strategy to write C code for embedded systems. And it works like a charm.

Regarding software, I use Freeplane/FreeMind to record the majority of the thoughts and information I want to preserve, and I think it works well for me. It doesn't have the sheer freedom of pen on paper - which I still use for mapping out thoughts that I'm not quite sure about or have complex relationships - but it serves me well in 1) categorising random scribbles and steps into meaningful subcategories, and 2) crystallizing the final, synthesized thoughts I have on a matter. Plus I keep my map files in my Dropbox so they're synced to all my computers (although I haven't set up the software to view them on my phone). Scalable, easily reorganized and expanded, cross-connectable, very fast to input, synced and backed up, free - what's not to like about software?

I agree with you on the usefulness of mapping for testing. It's definitely has helped me a lot in problem-solving. I'll throw out a few nodes that I think I need to investigate, explore each one a bit, write more items to consider, and whittle down or branch out as necessary. So after a while I resolve all the branchy, bushy sub-issues and have a reasonable game plan. Sometimes I dive into code halfway, but switch back to the map to record where I am and add new issues that come up that I need to resolve.

I also record most of the coding methods I find while working on tasks, in general form. So my mindmaps are also a web of how-to notes or a gigantic cheatsheet that details how to achieve any effect that I've previously worked through: from comparatively minor ones like the syntax for Rails migrations or opening a new window in JS, to larger ones like how to set up a Rails+postgres+nginx stack on Ubuntu, recording every action taken and issue encountered along the way. Comparisons of tools and databases and frameworks, mysterious bugs that I've run across, Sublime Text shortcuts - they all go into the maps.

I'm not sure I need to record every thought that goes through my head like the author suggests, but I think there's a lot to be said for keeping a comprehensive, organized knowledgebase.

One thought that occurred to me was that if the author had written this in the past few years, it could easily have ended up as a paid "self-help/achievement" e-book that he'd be hawking for several bucks via affiliate sales and a snazzy marketing site with sample chapters and a newsletter. It's admirable to see substantial written content being offered without all the digital marketing.

What makes paper/whiteboard so advantageous ? (Honest question, I'm using hierarchical TOC at the moment) considering it's much harder to edit, and slower to get thoughts out compared to typing ? (Note that I've only started reading the link, it may be addressed further down, if so, sorry).

>>What makes paper/whiteboard so advantageous ?

This is a very important question. Drawing Maps, especially for testing purposes depends on dumping things from your brain to paper as they come to you. The problem with Map creation software is Mouse and Keyboard, take time to draw a circle(Or at best position a circle), and write things inside the circle. Brain doesn't work in get-idea->hibernate-until-recorded->proceed mode. Our brains pretty much reach an idea, and then proceed towards the other. For that you need a quickly interacting tool. Pen/Paper, Whitboard/Marker is the best tool at this time for that kind of a purpose.

Another advantage of White board is the size. Many software teams gather create a map on a big white board, take a photograph and mail the team.

Also stuff like using Pen/Paper has separate advantages. Like putting in quick note points, or a diagram etc.

I, too, prefer paper for the reasons you noted. However, I also tend to run out of paper and the map becomes a disorganized mess as I cram in new ideas. So often I end up reverting to software. I haven't found nice mapping software, so for the time being I'm using a text editor. So I don't draw circles or write pretty headlines or such; I focus on writing thoughts down (I type pretty fast) and I worry about organizing it later.

A map editor is on my todo list though. The goal is to make something where I can do exactly what I do now (type things down, little to no mousing involved, minimize time spent on the circles/organization/whatever) and shuffle the data around when it becomes more convenient. Diagrams and drawings will still be a pain though. Maybe I'll get a Cintiq or something :-)

Have you tried FreeMind? The interface is quite good -- none of this circle drawing stuff you point out.

Bears repeating that the keyboard shortcuts in freemind, particularly enter and insert, remove the need for the mouse. They are much quicker than circle and line drawing with pen and paper.

I use Wisdomap. One level about Mind42 but I can't collapse parents. I use it to make outlines. Click text mode then manually add the format after exporting. It's a pain. Does Freemind export formats in HTML?

It can export your mind map as a set of nested lists.

If you use Org-Mode in Emacs, you can also export to Freemind (C-c C-e m)

What map software have you tried and what are your problems with it? Due to my schooling, I find pen and paper better as a thinking tool than map software, but it is not searchable or persistent - two attributes that I really value.

That's very interesting. I foresee a problem with capacity. If you keep everything around eventually you won't be able to move anymore. I'm so happy that I'm beginning to forget some of the stuff from my childhood, to keep carrying that along forever seems like a huge weight. Forgetting is just like remembering: a blessing and a curse at the same time. It would be really nice if our minds could actively forget something (like a file delete on a file system), right now it seems to be mostly governed by some caching rule where the last stage of the cache is /dev/null.

By committing it all to paper (and presumably, by re-reading it) you fire up all those neurons periodically which will lead to you thwarting the garbage collection process. As a consequence eventually you'll either run out of room or possibly end up with mental issues (inability to acquire new stuff or inability to focus due the large number of associations running out from each thought you have).

There is a cost associated with this map making, still, I'm very much tempted to try it to see what the positive effects are.

Interesting perspective. I often get annoyed at myself for remember very little from my school years that's not related to my current career or hobbies (e.g. history, geography, English lit) and almost feel that I should learn it all again, but I guess if I don't actually use that knowledge I'd just be forcing myself to memorise facts for the sake of it.

Perhaps it is best that I just let it go and instead focus on learning new things that I really want to learn or that'd be useful for what I do/want to do?

Now if only I could selectively delete memories I could finally forget the time I ended a call to a client with "Love you, bye!".

>inability to acquire new stuff or inability to focus due the large number of associations running out from each thought you have

It's exactly this. In the active mind (hyperactive, perhaps), the dataset is ever increasing and the memory banks are thrashing. On the best days, the cache is very deep. You never really know how deep the cache goes, though, so what might be the in L3 one day silently becomes /dev/null. This is a problem. (It's also, as you point out, a blessing)

A permanent store is the solution, but the brute force (write everything down) doesn't immediately solve the issue. There is no metadata in writing, so searching through papers involves full-text O(ludicrous) kind of searches. Every permanent store needs an index to be useful. It looks like the author has developed an extensive, coherent(?) way to colocate and index written information.

Considering how slowly most people can write, I'd be very curious to see how good mapping software could be used with ~300wpm stenographer-paced typing (Plover). Typing as fast as I can think into a searchable, sortable, arbitrarily small/large/nested/rearrangable/duplicable/etc medium is intriguing, to say the least.

EDIT: One more thing. The 'immobilization' that some ridicule is inherent in the medium: ink on paper. A written page is immutable and cannot show a diff. This is a bit like Purely Functional Data Structures. The 'structure' is at best just a single page, rewritten fairly quickly. As the ideas grow, sheet by sheet, editing a single page requires rebuilding the now-12-page idea. This is refactoring with pen & paper.

The only way to be 'mobile' is to either not write it down in the first place or to archive and never look at again. You're right in that rehashing old ideas thwarts gc: it's like burning an image into your screen, right into the phosphorus.

I have been keeping journals for years, and have most of it all the way back to around the age of 10 (I'm 34 now.) Generally what happens is that my really old stuff is just sitting in big plastic storage boxes, and I don't ever look at it except every few years when I feel nostalgic, so that doesn't become a problem.

>I wrote a book on a notekeeping system: How to make a complete map of every thought you think.

>My notekeeping system has since dramatically changed, and is now, primarily, a simple chronology with some discipline connected to it.

From the author's site.

Thanks for pointing this. Notekeeping is a very personnal process anyway. In my opinion he gave up on recording every thoughts because the software wasn't up to par with his specific structuration technique. (I do think that almost every one will have a different way to structure his external mind so that it is useful for him/her, generalized software will be frustrating).

I do record almost all my thinking. I use a very simple software called "the guide" (very lightweight outliner) and also use a mix of chronology and concept maps (basically mapping by concepts until the leaves, where each entry/page is stamped with date).

There was interesting ideas in the book (but it does look like a sample from a notebook :-)). I'll definitely take something out of it, starting with an attempt at collating my dozen of files into a global system.

What should have been on his todo list: turn off caps lock

This is an interesting thought about the disadvantages of software text editors:

"A long time ago, I stored all of my thoughts in a computer text file. It was actually an AWESOME system. The computer has so many advantages that the paper world doesn't. [...]

For all this awesomeness in the computer, you are unconsciously pulled into a problem:


YES, YES! I CAN HEAR YOU COMPUTER-PEOPLE'S COMPLAINING. ``But you can use FONTS!'' But you can make it Bold! But you can make it Italics! yes! Yes! YES! I know it! You CAN do all those things.

But that doesn't make it FAST. In keeping notes, you don't want to constantly be dicking around with your UI. You want to be able to JUST WRITE.[...]

So, by contrasting with the computer, I have described the kinds of things you want to concentrate on in your notebook. USE DIAGRAMS EVERYWHERE. They are FAR better than coercive linear text. And USE VARIABLE WRITING STYLES. Write sloppy, write neat, and everything in between. It communicates to you. Use shorthand and abbreviation. Know Gregg's script? Use that when it suits you."

In general I feel that this whole text/book could use a lot of editing. It's intentional of course, as the author says himself he just spits out the text without going back. Still, at a length of >100 pages it is frustrating. Thank you anyway for posting, it is very inspiring!

maybe an image of what the notebook looks like will be very helpful

I remember reading this when he first posted and finding quite a few good insights, some expressed a little idiosyncratically but I think that's in the nature of people doing original thinking. It's stream of consciousness but that fits with his goal to capture and curate his thoughts. The section that begins

   Here's a Speed List: "Electronic Collaboration" 
in chapter 6 Intra-Subject Architecture (see http://speakeasy.org/~lion/nb/html/doc007.html ) contains good insights into how to leverage email, wikis, and mindmaps.

A result example would be nice.

I've seen this one before and it looks interesting; but I've got a good enough system of notes. What I'd really like to do is keep a engineer's notebook about my software and record things I tested, what I thought, and the results, but I don't quite know where to start or what sort of system would work well for me. I guess I should be A/B testing that.

A man's thoughts are his own. How he choses to store or recall them is also his own. There is no one size fits all.

I firmly believe this as well.

Which led me to think that in the mid term future, there will be two kinds of people, those that can program the notekeeping software of their dreams, and those that will have to rely on one written by someone else and make their process fit in. (+ those that don't see the benefits or think they can just rely on their unaugmented brain to store/structure their ideas.)

Maybe in a more distant future, when the notekeeping is integrated in the brain, everybody will be happy.

Every time I read this I think, "wow that seems like a lot of work." I wonder if the benefits are worth it?

"...I think you'll overlook it's obvious flaws..."

Incorrect apostrophe, Aaaaaaargh!

just pretend it's a joke about obvious flaws...

Of all the common internet grammar mistakes, I think apostrophes on possessive pronouns are the most forgivable.

Mostly because that's the mistake I make most consistently.

I haven't looked at the book yet, but there is an obvious problem here with running out of stack space....unless you have some way of avoiding thinking about your note taking while you do it.

You just have a specific space where you put your notes about notekeeping.

While you take notes you don't think about it, just like when you think you don't think about it. (Taking thoughts notes is just like thinking out loud really, just it's searchable and can be structured).

I want to know how to do this with org-mode and freemind.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact