Personal information management


Several weeks ago, I began using personal wiki software Zim Wiki (free and cross-platform for Linux & Windows; I recommend nvALT on Mac OS X) to record all of my notes-to-self.  I've found it to be a nice software tool for implementing some of the effectiveness advice I've read on Less Wrong.  This post is a fairly personal overview of my usage.

I looked at a lot of personal information managers before choosing Zim.  Here are the features that caused me to choose it over the other software I looked at:

  • Probably the most important feature: Jump-to-note capability with autocomplete.  Pressing Control-J gives a text box.  Start typing in the text box and it autocompletes with the names of any of the notes in my notebook (or allows me to create a new note).  This is the proverbial 10% of the feature set that provides 90% of the benefit over scattered text files.  Opening a specific note to add another thought or idea to it is a very common operation for me and this feature makes it very quick.  Only a few tools I've found seem to have comparable functionality: WikidPad (with Control-O), and the Notational Velocity family of information managers kind of have it.  (For Notational Velocity/nvALT, I recommend coming up with some kind of namespacing scheme so note names collide with note text less frequently in your searches.  For example, I prepend reminders for future situations with "f.", journal notes with "j.", policy notes with "p.", Less Wrong post drafts with "l.", etc.  Then command-L works as a pretty good "jump to note" shortcut.)

  • Pressing Control-D, then pressing return inserts a timestamp at the position of my cursor.  This has been useful for a variety of logging-type applications.  (I replicated the same thing with nvALT on OS X with aText.)

  • Zim is a desktop application.  This has a couple advantages:

    • I configured a keyboard shortcut to open it, or bring it to the front if it was already open, using a modified version of the Linux shell script in this forum thread.  (Alfred is nice for this on OS X.)

    • All my notes are stored as plain text files on my hard drive.  I keep them under version control, which lets me do things like answer the question "what new ideas for becoming more effective have I had over the past week?"  (I didn't use the built-in version control plugin because I found its UI glitchy.)

  • There's inter-note linking capability, also with an autocompletion dialogue.  (Press Control-L to create a link.)

  • Moving through note browsing history can be done with Alt-Left and Alt-Right.

  • It starts fast.
  • Notes are saved automatically, hierarchical note organization is possible, backlinks are tracked, incremental keyword search within a note is possible, and there appear to be a variety of other features I haven't yet had a chance to abuse.

Using Zim has meant a really low level of friction for writing new stuff and retrieving/reading/adding to stuff I wrote.  I've been using it about a month and I've got ~46K words in it, which seems to be around the length of a short novel. RescueTime says I use it 4-8 hours per week.  Some stuff I'm using it for:

  • Strategizing.  There's something kind of calming about writing my thoughts out when I'm choosing between several options or trying to figure out what to do.  I suspect that as soon as the amount of information related to a decision exceeds the capacity of my working memory, I benefit from writing stuff down.

  • Logging stuff.

  • Writing therapy.

  • Recording business ideas, self-experimentation ideas, essay ideas, etc.

  • Making plans and filing away notes related to future circumstances.

  • Taking notes related to software I'm developing.

It's hard to measure how much benefit I'm getting out of all this, though it feels pretty useful.  I'm inclined to agree with Paul Graham:

...actually there is something druglike about [the notebook and pen], in the sense that their main purpose is to make me feel better. I hardly ever go back and read stuff I write down in notebooks. It's just that if I can't write things down, worrying about remembering one idea gets in the way of having the next. Pen and paper wick ideas.