We are all familiar with the phrase, “Connect the dots.” And yet it seems to me that in real life, we spend far more energy collecting dots instead—we’re just too used to it.
I’ve done my share of collecting, too. As I write these words, I’ve got 137 tabs open on my phone browser, and another 81 on my tablet. I’ve got over 8,000 notes accumulated in ten years of using Evernote. And God knows how many articles saved in Pocket and my Medium reading list. I’ve paid my dues.
And for years, I devoted my energies to figuring out how best to organise all of this info, and worked at a variety of methods just to try to make sense of it all. None of it served, and it just felt more and more overwhelming. I knew that I had a ton of info at my disposal but I also didn’t really have it. Heck I barely even knew what was in there.
It’s only within the past year that a few ideas from different sources have started to come together to help me see the way forward.
The fundamental idea? Connect your own notes.
To see why it matters, we need to back up and consider what’s happened to the value of information. (Or go here to get right to it.)
Information isn’t worth what it used to be
Information used to be valuable. Not very long ago—within my own lifetime—good information was typically scarce, expensive and hard to come by, that simply having it was worth a lot, even if you yourself didn’t do anything with it. Whole industries existed just on access to info.
But that was then.
Just over 30 years ago, the Internet as we know it began, and fundamentally transformed our relationship to information. Three ways this has happened are information becoming more:
Abundant: there is more information available than there has ever been in human history—just the English version of Wikipedia, which grows daily by nearly 600 new articles, contains more information on more obscure subjects than the best encyclopedia could ever hope to hold. And that’s not counting the information produced every second in our time of 24/7 TV news.
Affordable: Encyclopedia were not something everyone had because they were crazy expensive. But Internet access is relatively cheap and you don’t even need a desktop computer. Wikipedia is free. And let’s not get started on Google and social media.
Accessible: Not only do we today have more info at our fingertips than even kings had access to just a couple hundred years ago, but we can find it far faster—in minutes. Without even leaving our beds.
The result? Well, just like with anything else whose supply jumps high, its perceived value takes a hit. Just gathering information isn’t worth that much anymore.
That doesn’t mean information isn’t anymore valuable, though—it still is. But the location of its value has changed. Where before there was value in the information itself, it’s now especially in the connections. If you think of every bit of information as a dot, then the value is in the lines that join them together.
Now that information in itself doesn’t have the value it used to, what it means is more valuable than it’s ever been.
To paraphrase EM Forster, if we said something like, “The king died and the queen died,” we’d only be stating facts—information. But saying, “The king died and the queen died of grief,” introduces meaning—a connection. A story.
In an age of more information than humans have ever had access to, the value of the story—of being able to figure out what the information or data means—has never been greater.
And yet, the desire to accumulate information remains ingrained in us.
We’re still hungover on information
It’s not entirely our fault: it’s so easy to collect information. So we do. And because there’s zero marginal cost to hoarding info, we don’t feel any need to restrain ourselves. And most of the information tools we have really also are focused on collecting (and organising).
And so where we should be building factories, we’re building libraries.
Christian Tietze has a name for our behaviour:
Let’s call this “The Collector’s Fallacy”. Why fallacy? Because “to know about something” isn’t the same as “knowing something.”Just knowing about a thing is less than superficial since knowing about is merely to be certain of its existence, nothing more. Ultimately, this fake-knowledge is hindering us on our road to true excellence. Until we merge the contents, the information, ideas, and thoughts of other people into our own knowledge, we haven’t really learned a thing. We don’t change ourselves if we don’t learn, so merely filing things away doesn’t lead us anywhere.Christian Tietze
A useful metaphor is to consider the metaphor from Tiago Forte, that information is food for the mind (or, as the axiom goes, food for thought). But the thing about food is that food is useful when it’s digested—the name we give to how your body processes what you eat. Similarly, the value of information is in how much of it gets processed in our minds. It’s not a lot of use if it just passes through you and comes out the other side (I’ll leave to your imagination what kind of information falls in that category), or worse, if it’s harmful or poisonous.
The ideal end goal for food, whether for body or mind, is to be released back out into the world as energy. But between ingestion and release, absorption needs to happen: the food needs to become taken up into who we are. And it’s this process of breaking food down into forms that can be absorbed that we call digestion.
So how do we process information? We do it by (to switch the metaphor) connecting the dots we’ve collected.
Not by collecting more, and not by organising the dots we collect better, but by connecting them.
The power of connected dots
Consider the kids’ puzzle books that are the origin of this metaphor.—you probably had some growing up. You begin with dots on a page that don’t look like anything, and then you begin to draw lines, joining one dot to the next. Gradually, the outline of an image becomes evident, until you end up with something beautiful or, if you have enough dots, even complex.
You get the picture. Similarly, a bunch of dots is just that: dots. And like that page before you start making the lines, there’s not much value in it. Potential value, sure, but to unlock it, you’ll need to start drawing some lines.
It’s the lines that turn a puzzle into a picture.
Or, to switch the metaphor yet again, gathering information (or dots) is like gathering raw ingredients. You gotta cook them if you want to serve them. But of course you can’t cook what you don’t have, so collecting definitely remains useful, but it needs to remain a means to an end, not an end in itself. And focusing on organising them (as I tried to do in the past) doesn’t count. You wouldn’t keep rearranging the ingredients in your kitchen without ever actually doing anything with them.
But let’s return to our primary metaphor of dots and lines. Imagine ten dots (each representing a bit of information or data). You might have no connections between them—which means they’re low value—or you might have them tightly connected, with multiple connections between some dots, and the value is suddenly exponentially higher.
In reality, of course, not all dots are equally valuable. But you get the point (or should I say, the picture): connecting a small number of dots is far more valuable than merely collecting a large number.
How then do we break out of the collector’s fallacy (a part of me wishes Tietze had called it Collector’s Folly!) and actually start connecting our dots—or cooking our ingredients?
That’s the final bit.
Breaking Free From Collector’s Fallacy
I said at the start that the fundamental idea is to connect your own notes. But how?
Think of it on 3 levels.
Separate collection from connection conceptually.
The fundamental first step is recognising collection as a fundamentally different activity from connection. Collection is just that: capturing info as you go, in your favourite notes app, on scraps of paper, whatever. Connection, however, involves two things: creating a note and connecting it to something else you already know. It’s unfortunate that we refer to both activities as note-taking, because they’re very different things. And so I’ve found that thinking of them by different names helps. To use Zettelkasten terms, I think of collecting as creating temporary notes, and connecting as creating permanent notes.
Separate collection from connection temporally.
Nothing helps uphold a conceptual separation of activities like literally separating them in time. For now, here’s what that looks like for me: collection is ongoing, anytime, moment to moment, but connection—that’s sitting down to work and making my own notes.
Tiago Forte takes this idea of temporal separation further: he suggests creating delays between discovery something as you browse online and actually reading it, and then being ruthless about deleting what no longer feels interesting by the time you get to the reading part—his idea being that we sometimes find things attractive in the moment only because we’re procrastinating or hungry or whatever—but much less so later when we aren’t in that same state.
Count your lines, not your dots.
If you had to set one metric to use as a leading indicator for yourself as a knowledge worker, the best I know might be the number of evergreen notes written per day.Andy Matuschak
Evergreen notes are what Matuschak calls notes are written and organized to evolve, contribute, and accumulate over time, across projects. The idea is simple. Don’t measure your knowledge by how much information you gather, but by how much information you make meaning of. Count your lines, not your dots.
For me that means being very deliberate about three things, which were crystallised for me from an essay by David Clear (link at the end):
- Micro-create: Make my own notes. This is the most important. I’m not longer content with just making highlights: the dots I’m joining are my own.
- Join the dots. Make an effort to connect every note to a previous note. This doesn’t mean I won’t add a note if there’s no connection. I will—but I’ll check for a connection first.
- Draw multiple lines. Like I said earlier, connections aren’t necessarily single. There’s no reason not to connect the same two ideas multiple times, as new thoughts come to mind. Also consider making notes that make the connection between already notes more explicit.
This might feel like a lot of work—but that’s where it’s important to remember it’s not about the number of notes, but the number of connections. The first thing I had to learn when trying to practise this was that I don’t have to collect every idea.
You don’t need every dot.
Workflow is more important than tools
I started with the metaphor of information as food. The end game for food, of course, is that it gets eaten—preferably with company. And the end game of knowledge is wisdom: a life well lived—again, preferably with company. Humanity has never had so much knowledge, but whether we have increased in wisdom is debatable.
You’ll notice I haven’t gone into a lot of detail about specific tools, and whatnot. That’s because I genuinely believe tools are less important than workflow.
If you don’t define your workflow, your tools will define it for you, and you’re more stuck to a specific tool. If you’re clear about your workflow, then you can make any tool work well enough, and won’t waste time searching for the perfect tool (which is really just time spent organising utensils instead of actually cooking).
That said, I use a combination of Evernote (as my main collection box) and Roam Research as my connection tool. I collect from everything from scraps of paper to automated highlights, using Readwise but it all goes into Evernote. And then when I’m ready to make connections, I jump into Roam. But Luhmann, to whom the Zettelkasten method is credited, built his before the Internet using paper. Like I said, the workflow is the most important thing:
And the most important question is: what will you do with your dots?
Acknowledgements and further reading
- My thanks to Lev Naginsky, Juan David Campolargo and Adam Tank for reading early drafts of this essay. Image: courtesy Wikimedia Commons) . Original image by Whitney Waller, red lines added / CC BY-SA
- I first came across the phrase “digital gardens” courtesy Anne-Laure Le Cunff of Ness Labs
- Sonke Ahrens’ book on taking smart notes, was where I first learned about Zettelkasten: How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers
- Tiago Forte’s course, Building A Second Brain. Get an overview of the method, or more information about the course.
- David B Clear’s essay on Zettelkasten on was what made it all come together for me.