BBE W1: HMCM and Notetaking Systems

HMCM and Notetaking Systems


(Build a Better Exobrain Week 1, Commentary 1)

Back in the old days, when the internet was bad for notetaking, some obsessive notetaker named Lion Kimbro wrote a Document.

A long, long time after that, the document came up on some LessWrong thread I was reading.*

This week, I decided to flip through it.


HMCMETYT is an abbreviation of How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think.

The title definitely wouldn’t have gotten past a publishing editor. For sanity’s sake, I’m going to shorten the abbreviation to HMCM henceforth.

I’m going to give an overall review of it here. If you don’t care about that, skip ahead to Categorizing Notetaking Systems.

Reviewy Review

Its title makes a big claim, and that claim doesn’t quite match with what I got out of reading it. That being said, I still think I got a lot out of it.

His abstractions were often fun to engage with, and I’m currently using a modified version of his tagging system (tags will probably be my next post). Try as I might, though, I never quite felt like I “grokked” the benefits of his mindmapping practice.

HMCM is very stream-of-consciousness at times, and describes a system of physical notetaking with laborious indexing. The abstractions aged pretty well, the physical instructions did not.

I would say that overall, I found HMCM to be an interesting book.** However, I think I was an exceptionally good audience for it, and I’m not sure that I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t notetaking-obsessed.

Glad That’s Over

Turns out I don’t like writing reviews! With the “review” out of the way, I will henceforth be jumping around and expanding on topics in a very non-linear fashion, according to my own whims and interests.

Lets talk about...

Categorizing Notetaking Systems

I am astonished that there isn’t a field of study of notebooks. I have searched on the net, and while I have found a page here and there on some type of notebook method, it is almost ALWAYS one of the following two things:

The Diary: A bunch of entrees, chronologically based, maybe with a TOC, in which a person keeps a record of their thoughts. AKA “The Journal”.

The Category Bins: A bunch of notes, stuffed into category bins, maybe 2 or 3 levels deep.

That’s IT. In all the world, people have only been putting their notes in the above two ways.

-- Lion Kimbro, Introduction***

To the world’s credit, I think the situation for notetakers has improved a lot since 2003 (when this was written).

There’s a lot of good notetaking software out there nowadays, and not all of it is best described as a Diary or a Category Bin.

Stephen Davies is a computer scientist who wrote extensively about the underlying format of Personal Knowledge Bases. A lot of modern notetaking still fits neatly into the taxonomy of data structures they described in 2005.

If I had to broadly categorize the notetakers I’ve seen, here are the standard categories I’d describe...

File System: Classic. A (mostly) acyclic tree whose nodes are folders, and leaves are distinct files. Acyclicity might be broken with shortcuts. (ex: computer file system, GoogleDocs)

The Outliner: A tree of nestled pages or bullet-points, whose nodes are the same type as the leaves. Usually acyclic. The best examples can be almost 100% hands-on-keyboard. Good structure for code folding. (ex: Workflowy, most forums)

The Timeline: What it says on the tin. Another classic. Chronologically-organized. Typically a journal, or current-events-related. A variant is a multi-threaded timeline, such as a Gantt Chart. (ex: RSS feed)

The Calendar: Some might not call this notetaking software, but I’ve come to think of it like one. Chronological, like the timeline. Unlike the standard timeline, the priority is based largely on proximity to future due-dates. Fantastic for just-in-time reminders. (ex: GoogleCalendar)

Tag You’re It: Everything has a pile of #hashtags or stickers. You pull up lists based on a common tag, possibly ordered by some other index. Often hybridized with other types. (ex: Category Bins, Evernote)

MindMap: Nodes and edges, where a lot of the value of information is in the connections drawn between concepts. The underlying structure is called a Spider Diagram. Usually heirarchical but may be permissive of cyclic references, sometimes in a limited way ( lines pointing back up the chain). (ex: XMind)

The Wiki: Hyperlinks hyperlinks hyperlinks. Navigated as an extremely-cyclic web of hyperlinks, usually with some custom index files. Unlike tag, the line between an article instance and an indexing instance isn’t as clear or hierarchical. Probably supports backlinks. Not always public. (ex: Wikipedia, Tiddlywiki)

Flashcards: Two-sided association between one piece of data, and another. A dictionary data type, or a two-sided dictionary. Usually index-card sized, and most often used for memorization. (ex: Anki)

Annotator: A system for taking notes coupled to uploaded reading material, usually an ebook, PDF, or similar. The best of them capture something of the “writing/​highlighting in the margins of books” experience. (ex: Kindle, some of Zotero)

Recommender System: An add-on for any of the above. These rank things according to some metric of quality, like ratings, relevance, or frequency of forwarding (ex: RSS feed curators)

Standardization Axis

Standardization of input is a key axis of divergence among notetakers. The level of standardization is an early software decision that has a lot of influence what the software is good at, and how it is used. Think of this as the extent to which formatting is standardized, and to which random imports are allowed or integrated.

Standardized Format: All data is kept in a similar file format to one another. On the plus side, it’s easier for people to program smart interactions between standardized notes. On the minus side, you might not be able to import older notes from another system. (ex: Workflowy)

And the Kitchen Sink: Can import and render many different data types, but usually with very limited interactions allowed between them, because they’re harder to program in. In my experience, exporting data from a Kitchen Sink is usually a nightmare. (ex: Evernote)

Standard Compromises

Some commit very hard in one direction or the other, for the most part (ex: Workflowy tends very SF, Evernote tends very AtKS).

There are also a few common compromises.

A lot of generalist notetaking software reaches a compromise by having a standard format with added functionality, and some non-standard formats that can be stored, but lack most of the added functionality. We can call this Standard +.

Another type of compromise I’ve seen is having non-standardized data types, but standardized metadata. (ex: computer file systems exemplify this). I would call this Meta-Standardized. In order to warrant the name, I would also require that the standardized metadata be surfaced to the user in some way.

Length of Input

Another axis of divergence for standardized notetakers is the length of input that it encourages, or even forces.

Some applications can get pretty ham-handed at forcing their preferred length upon your communiques, and will cut you off if it comes down to it.

If it’s not forced, look to the size of the default textbox to see what length it is encouraging. Is there a whole blank page, waiting to be filled? An emulated index card? A single line?

On the shorter end: 3 words, the sentence, the index card, 200 characters

On the longer end: the essay, the blank page, the giant template, the large div, the endless scroll

Short encourages compression. Long, on the other hand, tends to encourage elaboration and expansion.

I’ve generally noticed that short is good for getting thoughts down, but long is often better for organizing and referencing. YMMV, though.****

Hide and Show

Code Folding can make very large but well-structured documents manageable to skim and read, by temporarily hiding the sections of a tree that you don’t currently want to interact with.

Transclusion (coined by Ted Nelson) lets you reference and call a smaller note within a larger note. Tiddlywiki supports it, and it is easily one of my favorite features.



Standardization? (Formats?)

Length of Input?


* Two nerds were probably geeking out about markdown notetaking software, or something. One of those nerds may have been me.

** The author also wrote 2 sections in Mindhacker. Smaller and polished. They are under the headers “Write in your Books” and “Write Magnificent Notes.” I did not get much out of these sections, although other parts of the book seem potentially interesting.

*** A couple of people he deems notable exceptions: the thoughts of Ted Nelson, the man who coined the term “hypertext.” David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system.

**** I’ve heard some people swear that organized index cards were the best system for them, overall. I know I couldn’t get anything lasting from that. I suspect the variance in people’s needs here tends to be pretty wide.


What major types of notetaking software did I miss entirely?

What types of notetaking software do you use? What do you get out of them?

If you use more than one, how are the benefits different? What situations does one handle better than the other?

Do you have any import/​export horror stories?

Today’s Challenge

Write up your own notetaking desiderata

See the linked partner post for a walk-through.