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Atomic notes: how to build a creativity factory

Lorenzo Bernaschina ∙ Reading time: 6 minutes

There are some misconceptions about creativity. Many people believe it is an innate ability that only artists have. Artists, in turn, often think that most of their creative potential comes from random inspiration. They wait for their muse to come and whisper ideas into their ear. If she doesn't for a certain period of time, they struggle and recur to drugs and other artifacts to make her come back again. The majority views creativity as a highly unpredictable and messy process that is unique to a few gifted people. I actually think it is one of the highest human skills we all have and, like any other skill, it can be trained and applied intentionally.

The way we consume information has fundamentally changed

Creativity is a process that involves three fundamental stages. First, we gather information from the surroundings. Second, we elaborate on these inputs to generate new insights through combinational, exploratory, and transformational techniques. Finally, we synthesize some of these ideas to make original works such as essays, videos, songs, etc.

In the past 20 years, the Internet has fundamentally changed the first stage – the way we find ideas. For centuries, knowledge has been developed and preserved through books. This put some qualitative and quantitative constraints on the content conveyed in them. Even today, a small circle of experts selects only the best works to optimize printing and distribution costs. The author exposes his ideas sequentially in a finite space. The reader follows the evolution of the reasoning as the pages on the left exceed those on the right. It's unlikely to find opinions other than the author's main thesis. Content consumption is expensive and time-consuming. To build a personal view of the world, the reader has to go through a slow and linear process.

Conversely, the Internet gives access in a split second to millions of dynamically hyperlinked documents. There are no particular filters nor review processes in place that regulate the quality and quantity of the content. We have to constantly face information overload barehanded. This makes it more difficult to follow a reasoning process from start to finish like in books. Collective intelligence is the default. It's very easy to access a diverse set of ideas on the same topic. Online learning becomes an iterative effort that gains progressive understanding from small asynchronous cycles of interaction with multiple sources. So we need new ways to continuously collect, elaborate, and distill random chunks of information coming from the web.

The creativity factory

A creativity factory is a system that makes it possible to systematically turn information into knowledge to learn and generate new insights on demand. Information passes through the following steps, from content collection to creation:

  • Reading inbox: to collect and consume content
  • Writing inbox: for note-taking and note-making
  • Personal knowledge base: to permanently store, search, recall and connect notes
  • Project area: to select a subset of notes and structure them into an outline and finally an original work

The less friction between these steps the better. Each note should stay in the writing inbox just for the time needed to make it ready for the knowledge base. Once you have a few notes, you can start combining them to create new content. This system changed my creative workflow in three ways:

  1. I decide the topics to talk about starting from the notes. If I see that some of them cluster around a specific idea, it's probably worth sharing.
  2. I have more time to focus on the quality of the outcomes. It's just a matter of organizing in a meaningful way the notes already collected, edited, and connected over time.
  3. I have more cognitive energies to think rather than to remember. I can forget most of the information as everything will be available in the knowledge base and ready to be quickly retrieved.

How to write a note

To keep my creativity factory running, I started processing and organizing information in a very different way. The fundamental unit of my system is the note. Every note I take has a title and description about one idea only. It can be broader or narrower, the important thing for me is to keep it unique. I find this approach particularly convenient for three reasons:

  1. New ideas generation is more likely. The more articulated a note, the heavier the cognitive load to make associations with others. I think combinational creativity is facilitated when concepts are kept small and simple.
  2. Ideas are falsifiable. I find it easier to test atomic notes against cognitive biases, stress them with additional questions, make comparisons and find contradictions.
  3. My overall creative process is more predictable. I now consider my notes as repeatable units. I keep track of how much it takes for me to write one on average. Then I schedule sessions where I set for myself a number of notes to make according to the time available. Sometimes it doesn't go as expected, but it's still a good indicator. Creativity is not pure wandering. Some of its processes can be systematized and note-making is one of them.

The title is the most important part of my notes:

  • It makes it easier to search and retrieve the note after some time. This is especially useful when the knowledge base becomes large.
  • It makes it easier to recall the content of the note without reading its description. This is useful to see new connections between notes faster.
  • Being able to clearly express an idea in a sentence is synonymous with understanding. When I have problems finding a good title for my note, I already know the concept is too vague or too broad.

I usually choose positive sentences that help me write constructive descriptions rather than criticize. I reserve single words for glossary notes that describe technical terms.

How to build a knowledge base

Along with the changes in my workflow and notes' structure, I have also changed some habits and mental models. I think there are two approaches to personal knowledge management depending on how information is organized:

  1. In a folder tree, knowledge is categorized and siloed in multiple topics and subtopics. Ideas don't talk to each other. This leads to a static environment where information is archived.
  2. In a personal knowledge base, information is scattered into concepts linked together. There are no boundaries. Ideas can talk to each other making it much easier to generate multiple flows of thoughts, find contradictions, and see new patterns. This leads to a dynamic environment of actionable knowledge to learn, manage, and create better content faster.

A personal knowledge base is not a collection of documents but an artificial extension of the mind that contains distilled knowledge extracted from original sources. Personally, I manage my notes with the Zettelkasten Method. Here are some approaches I recommend for moving from information collection to curation:

  • Train a capture habit: whenever I find something interesting, I take a minute to underline, copy-paste, or write it down. Every idea has value, is unique and unrepeatable. So I keep it even if it doesn't seem to be useful at the moment. This way it will show up in my knowledge base in the future and enrich my thoughts with unexpected new insights.
  • Shift from topic-based to concept-based thinking: with folder trees, every time I collect or process new information the main question is “Where do I put this information?”. In a knowledge base, the main question becomes “How this information could enrich my existing flows of thoughts?”. To make notes reusable in multiple flows, they need to express concepts instead of topics. Take an online course for example. In a folder tree, you would probably have the main folder of the course itself containing the subfolders with the lectures' materials and notes. In a knowledge base, it is much better to isolate the underlying concepts and connect them in a mind map. (Usually, some concepts are repeated across lectures with different words)
  • Rephrase concepts with your own words: I started engaging with content instead of consuming it. I rephrase the original sentences and add personal thoughts before saving them in the knowledge base. This makes it easier to find connections with other notes too. Collecting ideas without elaborating on them doesn't provide lasting value. Once I'll add some new information to the knowledge base or use part of it to make a project, ideas won't speak to me if I stored them passively.

Conclusions

Software developers reuse existing code to make their programs more robust, readable, and maintainable, as well as speed up development without having to start over each time. Any knowledge worker should do the same with personal information. Formulating and organizing ideas so that they are valid and reusable in multiple contexts produces significant benefits in terms of both personal growth and productivity.

Technology is constantly evolving, but the creative processes underlying innovation remain the same: observing and acquiring information from the surroundings, extracting fundamental concepts, tracing unexpected connections, and giving them a new voice through writing, designing, teaching, and any other creative manifestation ever so necessary in these times of extreme uncertainty.

Written with ❤️ using my Gems notes