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Manage knowledge growth as a researcher

Knowledge management system

For years I did not realize the importance of building a second brain as a life-long learner. The time had passed without me having a consistent research note-taking system to preserve all the knowledge that I was learning, all the information that I encountered, and all the thoughts that I was inspired with. It was very much a pity to just let these precious intellectual assets slipped away without me even realizing it.

Our brain is powerful but when we put pen onto paper and start writing, magical things happen. We still do not understand yet what exactly happened in that process, but we all agree that writing helps us think in a more organized and creative way. Now I am trying my best to build my own knowledge management system as a researcher, and I strongly urge research students to pick up this habit as soon as possible. After all, it is in the process that we learn, not in the result.

The book, the Zettelkasten

In the beginning stage of seeking to build a knowledge management system, I was suggested to read the book by S. Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. It introduced a tremendous method by Nicholas Luhmann called Zettelkasten or slip box system. The book was very easy to follow and the Zettelkasten method just blew my mind. I told myself that I had to follow this system and create my own note-taking system.

#1 Joplin

The first software that I tried was Joplin. I used it for months in early 2020, mainly because it is open-source software, which is fairly functioning and rather simple to pick up. However, due to its novelty as a technical solution, I encountered bugs and frequent new versions that require updates.

#2 Evernote

Afterward, I turned to a more stable application Evernote, and have used it for almost one year now. Evernote is very easy to use and the free version offers a nice package of functions to start the note-taking process. I decided to stick with it for a while unless the user experience proves otherwise later on.

Once I had a more or less established workflow and system to take and organize research notes, I published a YouTube video sharing how I organized my research notes using Evernote and Zotero. The video was unexpectedly welcomed by the audience who encountered it. Apparently, people started to hear about the Zettelkasten method more and many were reading about how to apply it to build their own note-taking system. My video became a small gig in the YouTube community.

However, as time goes by, I grew to be less satisfied with Evernote for several reasons.

  • The template function is only supported if you pay to become a premium member.
  • The interlink is not that easy to insert when typing a note.
  • The literature note is not synched with Zotero, and I need to manually type the reference instead of inserting from the citation database.
  • It takes longer than before to load the app.

#3 Notion

With all the above quest of functions, I moved to try Notion. The Notion is Matryoshka, which allows you to embed blocks unlimitedly. There are many YouTube tutorials on Notion but Red Gregory has created quite nicely a collection of thorough and unique tutorials to guide you into all different possibilities of using Notion.

I tried it for two months and all my research note-taking effort just kind of entered a pause status. I think one reason, or one excuse I had, was that Notion took a while to load both on Desktop and mobile devices. That waiting time just discouraged me in a way, just like the Evernote did. Also overall, I feel Notion is indeed powerful but a little bit too powerful and even distracting for me. Too many choices, in a way, make me incapable of moving onward. I felt the heaviness of the tool, which influenced my note-taking effort. It may sound like an excuse, but it is very real to me. I think there is no one absolutely best tool for implementing the Zettelkasten method, but definitely, there is a more comfortable tool for you to carry on the tasks. And it will take some time to try a little bit of every tool and understand which one can suit your style better than others.

#4 Obsidian

I, again, moved on to try Obsidian. In fact, several persons commented on my YouTube video about the Zettelkasten and suggested Obsidian. I just liked their comments and did not test out this tool as I initially planned. Months passed by and this weekend I finally sat down and decided to check it up. After all, I have tried Joplin, Evernote, and Notion, every time when I tried to migrate from one system to another system, I realized that I have to finalize the technical environment for managing my notes as soon as possible. Because as notes grow, the migration becomes more and more a headache.

I am a visual learner. So I first go to YouTube and check what kind of tutorials are available to prepare me as a beginner in Obsidian. Among many videos, I found the six short videos by Nick Milo very much helpful. His videos made me realize that Obsidian is not that difficult as it appears. It is very powerful a tool yet the learning to master the basics is only 70 minutes long. I highly recommend you to give these six videos a watch.

It did not take me much time to use Obsidian for my next project’s note-taking tasks. And this time I think I have found a tool that finally suits my preferences and style.

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