Re: Advice regarding note-taking in Emacs

What follows is an excerpt from a private exchange that I am sharing with the permission of my correspondent. I am not disclosing their identity. The topic is about how to start using Emacs to take notes. Part of what I cover involves tooling, while I also comment on matters of method.

After my last failed attempt to switching to emacs, I’ve decided to once again venture towards switching, with my primary motivation at the time being a cohesive framework for note-taking and implementing a second brain.

I was wondering, what your recommendations for the same would be. All I know about emacs-specific note-taking framework is org-mode, in addition to your denote package.

There are many other packages as well. It does not really matter. Without a clear workflow, no tool will magically fix your problems. Put differently, the first brain dictates the utility of the second one; the latter is no substitute for it.

I will not tell you about Denote. Just pick standard Org by creating a single file called In that file, create new notes as top-level headings. Each note can have subheadings. Org handles those nicely as it can “fold” (show or hide) the contents of a heading and its subheadings.

To navigate this, set the file-specific option of showing only the headings by default when first opening the file. Add this to the top of your file:

#+startup: content

You can navigate the file using search methods, but do not worry about that at this initial stage. Your goal is to get in the flow of writing notes, which should eventually be of a high quality.

For this early stage, focus on producing content. Try to elucidate your thoughts and provide sufficient contextual information. Remember that writing notes is not the same as bookmarking. It has to be more involved, so that you have to put in some effort to understand/explain the subject matter.

Write with intent and spend the quality time this activity requires. The “I need to do it quickly” mindset contradicts the concept of a second brain, indeed of mindfulness altogether. If you are in a hurry, then you are not focused on retaining knowledge anyway. Whatever you write is, at best, a sloppy entry on a matter that needs to be re-learnt. If you never have time, then work on that first and then revisit the project of taking notes.

Again, it is the first brain that sets you up for success. The inverse narrative is a marketing gimmick. Get in the habit of writing regularly. Express your thoughts in a way that another person can also understand. This is important for your future self who, once withdrawn from the specific factors that informed the given note, is also a stranger to the topic. After a while, we forget what we were thinking or trying to achieve, so the notes we store must be done in such a way as to be helpful to us long-term.

Once you are doing well with this simple Org setup, you are ready to consider more packages that will complement or otherwise enhance your workflow (or just stick with what you have, which is fine). I will not tell you what those packages are because you will know what your needs are once you go through this process. You will figure out what works for you and what does not. You will thus have a better sense of what is missing.

Also, do you have any specific philosophy in mind when taking notes? I frankly find your method of disposing knowledge on your website and videos, quite methodological, of which I would like to implement in my own note-taking and knowledge sharing.

I recently came across this “Zettelkasten Method” of note-taking. Do you have any thoughts about it?

I have heard about Zettelkasten but have not studied it. I do not follow it, although I recognise there is an overlap with some concepts covered by my Denote package (but Denote’s cornerstone is the file-naming scheme, which is a computer-centric arrangement to optimise search even when using rudimentary tools—having separate ideas/format in individual files is how I have always known personal computing). What makes me sceptical about the hype surrounding the Zettelkasten method is that its proponents quote the rich corpus of its author’s work as proof that this method will suffice for you. But what if Luhmann was a genius and a workaholic? How much weight do those character traits carry? Will Zettelkasten grant me those too? Of course not!

Maybe Zettelkasten is good for you, but I encourage you to keep things simple at this early stage, as I outlined above. Using that method means that you require some extra tooling, which will put you down the path of figuring out which packages you should add, how to configure them, and so on. This is a major distraction for you at this point. Your goal is to write notes, not procrastinate using productivity as a pretext. Do start writing and then you can revisit this topic once you are prepared to improve on what you already have.

Even if you do not need some extra tools and you go with the original method of Luhmann (using paper slips), you still need to think like Luhnmann. Do you? I think not. You can train to do so, though this too is a lateral task to the one you are asking me about.

My approach to this and other matters of workflow is to listen to what people have to say but to ultimately proceed through experimentation. Start small so that your experiments will not be too costly should they fail. Expand or adjust your workflow as the need arises and the solution becomes obvious. Whatever method emerges from this organic process will be aligned with how your brain works, what sort of person you are, how you intuit about things, and so on.

P.S. In regards to switching to emacs, I’m in a similar boat currently as you were about 5 years ago i.e. my current text editor of choice is vim. I was wondering if had any tips to learn and not lose motivation in switching to emacs for a person such as myself. Would you recommend I learn the stock emacs keybindings for text-editing? (I tried those before it felt very unnatural compared to (what I personally feel) superior vim keybindings.

I used to think Vim keys are the superior paradigm. But I kept an open mind and decided to give Emacs keys a fair chance. After a while, everything felt natural and I am happy with what I have. I write a lot of prose, so the modal paradigm does not do much for me anyway. While I was using Vim, I felt it made me faster, though I realised it was a placebo effect. How fast I edit text is not the deciding factor in what I do. But I digress.

To be successful with Emacs, you want to take it slow. Add a package or snippet of code when you have a clear need for it and at least have a basic understanding of what it is doing. What guarantees the infamous “Emacs bankruptcy” is the bad habit of copy-pasting code without an overarching objective.

Take it slow and read the official documentation. It is the best source on the matter. Then you can complement that study with other sources, such as blog posts or video tutorials. As you piece together your own configuration, you gain insight into your choices and requirements, such that you have a better sense of the system you are piecing together.

Notice here the parallel with what I wrote above about discovering the particularities of your case organically. It is easy for me to tell you to just use this or that. It also is presumptuous, as one size does not fit all. Start with the basics and proceed through trial and error: it is just a computing environment and it is okay to play around as you explore it. You will eventually discover what others in the community consider best practices or modern standards, though knowing the “why” they are considered such will do you good as it will empower you to judge matters from a position of knowledge.

Good luck!