5 min read

Turbocharge Your Life With a Digital Garden and Zettelkasten

From journals to digital gardens
Turbocharge Your Life With a Digital Garden and Zettelkasten
Photo by Erol Ahmed / Unsplash

I love journaling. I love journaling personal thoughts and using A5 bound notebooks to track work tasks, ad hoc designs, and whatever important thing I need to remember. I tried a Franklin Covey planner, random planners, and blank (or lined) notebooks. Sometimes I’ve even used looseleaf binders! I prefer cheap bound notebooks, a pen, and a morning coffee to go over my day-to-day tasks and organize my thoughts!

Little did I know that being this productive would paint me into a dead end. I never organized my journals or summarized them. The idea of indexing all this information never dawned on me until a few years ago when I learned of the Bullet Journaling method.

I had years of daily entries, sketches, notes, and other interesting tidbits of my life hidden away on a bookshelf. I could never retrieve data, information, or my knowledge to repurpose or mind map new ideas.

I’ve always wondered just how much great stuff I could reuse after a few years of reflection. How much of my “hidden” data and information could yield me new knowledge? How much was lost because I can’t find any of it?

This perceived loss of data and information stressed me out until I discovered the concept of the Digital Garden.

Data to Information to Knowledge

Every person and organization throws off a ton of data daily. For us individuals, it was things like what we ate, what we did, and who we did it with. For organizations, it’s things like what we sold, what collateral we created, and who we hired.

Every day transactional things happen and these points are called data. They can be recorded as an event happening on a given day and time for a given outcome like revenue generated.

Data is the very beginning of everything.

What comes next is the emergence of information. We organize the data, sum it up, and put it into nice charts. We glean things like whether or not our sales are going up or down. For our personal journal, we can track things like how good our sleep was or how many National Parks we’ve visited.

We transform that data into information that you or others can use. The data is great, but the information is better. The next transformation is the most valuable, it’s taking bits of information, combining it with other information, and transforming it into knowledge.

Knowledge is the full actualization of data and information with your experience from learning other information. It’s the expertise of a welder who knows how to flawlessly create a weld on an angle. It’s a saleswoman who knows to send an NDA at the beginning of a sales call so as to not slow down negotiations. It’s you picking up on red flags during a date and not agreeing to a second or third date.

We use data, information, and knowledge every day to navigate, live, and prosper in our world. So why should we be so casual about it? Why shouldn’t we gather, organize, and use all this data we create around us?

The curious case of the Zettlekasten

I stumbled upon David’s great Medium article about the Zettlekasten and being freakishly productive. This was after I was learning about how to use my writing tool’s new wikilink feature.

Note: I used iAWriter to write all my articles, notes, and documents.

What struck me about David’s article was a few things. First, the term Zettelkasten, which is German for “note box” (or box of notes, depending on context), and two the simplicity of the system.

Every idea, every bit of data, and every bit of information is systematically indexed and cataloged for retrieval and later use.

If you had a wild idea for a new Medium post (like this one) about journaling, you’d go to your Zettelkasten and look it up. Once you find them you pull them together, look at the notes, and see if you can organize that data into information and later into knowledge.

It’s so simple but slow. So damn slow.

The Digital Garden

I discovered the term Digital Garden in my search on Wikilinks. A digital garden is something between a blog, a webpage, and a notebook. It’s a collection of articles, notes, and links that organize all that data into information and allow fast retrieval.

If you’ve been on the Internet for more than a week you’ll have discovered Wikipedia, the world’s biggest digital encyclopedia. You could spend hours there researching and looking for information because all the data has been organized, indexed, and summarized.

It’s called a Digital Garden because of all the great ideas and knowledge you can grow there. Why? Because it’s not locked away in a dusty A5 notebook or in a pile of papers on your coworker's desk. You can see it all.

Setting up your Digital Garden

If using a Zettelkasten interests you then all you need are four things: paper, a pen, a place to store your papers, and a way to index/summarize them.

If you’re like me and live in a digital world, then you’d need to use a software tool or way to link information. Researcher Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Ph.D. wrote a fantastic article on some digital tools that are out there to help you set one up.

I checked these out, including Obsidian and TiddlyWiki, but found them all too “heavy” for me. I’m the type of writer and note-taker where anything that encumbers me in the process of writing my thoughts down gets jettisoned fast. In the end, I always come back to iAWriter because it’s simple and doesn’t get in the way of my stream of consciousness.

I’ve always used iAWriter’s tagging feature to help me find stuff but with the recent release, they added Wikilinks and YAML Metadata.

With these two new features, I can connect disparate hunks of notes in my iCloud storage and pull forgotten data and information together into new knowledge.

Turbocharge your life

If you’ve been a reader of mine on Medium you’ll have read about the existential dread I’ve been feeling for the past few years. How my father passed away unexpectedly and how I found myself over 50 all of a sudden.

My life, up till this point, has been amazing and I can’t express enough gratitude for living my awesome life. That said, there’s so much I still want to do in my personal and work life. There’s so much I still want to share. There are so many more trees to plant in whose shade my children and grandchildren (hopefully) will sit.

The trick is to get productive and turbocharge my life with better organization of my data and my information so that I can share the knowledge I’ve learned.

After all, what else is there but the legacy we leave behind for others? Why let everything you’ve ever learned, the joy and the pain of your life, the design sketches, the solutions, or whatever you’ve created go to waste? Never to be found and never to sing the story of your life?

Write. Draw. Solve. Organize. Synergize. Share.