Are note-taking apps "too mutable"? When I'm work...
# present-company
Are note-taking apps "too mutable"? When I'm working on a page of notes (to develop my ideas or knowledge about a topic), I'll typically edit it for a few days, after which it tends to "congeal" into something that is too big to keep working on. My compulsion is then to refactor the page into several new pages, keeping the ideas that seem "good" and deleting or deprecating the ideas that turned out to be "bad". But refactoring my notes tends to take a fair amount of time, and I'm not sure it's worth the cost. There's a reasonable chance I will never read the notes again, because what was valuable about the note-writing was the ideas that developed in my mind as I was writing them. The exercise had value. But the notes resulting from the exercise may not have much value. Thus, I've begun to wonder whether I would appreciate a note-taking app that locks you out of your old notes. Perhaps this happens if you haven't touched a note for a few days, or maybe it happens overnight, every night. Immutable notes aren't a new idea. Humans have been writing immutable notes ever since they started carving glyphs into stone. Computers have given us the ability to endlessly edit a page of text. But maybe having mutable pages is detrimental, for many kinds of note-taking. Food for thought 🤔.
I feel similarly — the value is most immediately felt in the activity of writing, not the result. But I don't see the harm in allowing old notes to be edited. I will go back to years-old notes and make tiny tweaks, to restart old trains of thought or to remove cruft.
Add history/version control?
Joke: Most companies use Slack for keeping documentation and then they automatically loose access to older notes as you suggest. After 90 days… because they don’t want to pay for the pro plan… Punchline: Including this Slack.
I think this comes back to the fact that different people have a very different understanding of what note taking is (primarily) for. I always feel it's weird when note taking advocates from the "productivity" side of things say that a note that is not read might as well not have existed. But that sentiment - that of using your notes - is very common I feel. Also, there are simply different kinds of notes. I have "thinking notes" and I have "reference notes" and everything in-between. To Do lists come to mind as a whole other genre of notes, which again are totally different from, but often wrongly lumped together with, Checklists.
All genres call for slight differences in functionality, but all could potentially profit from being in the same place as well.
Notion and Obsidian try this, but they are not specific enough in their functionality I feel (e.g. reminders for to-do lists, recurring tasks for checklists, spaced repetition and refactoring for reference notes).
So it feels like forgetting notes would fall into this category of specific functionality for a genre of notes.
The notes are the least important part of what you’re doing when you are writing, but we’re so conditioned to value results over process. That feeling that your notes (results) are not worth the effort, is your analytical mind asserting its importance over the writing (process), which you clearly feel is the more important part. Our analytical mind tends to do that. It’s very egocentric and dominant. It’s not even funny how deep this imbalance sits with our results-oriented culture. For note-taking you want to be process-oriented, open-minded, and explorative. If you are following the Zettelkasten technique, as explained in How to Take Smart Notes, you will likely also experience how breaking longer notes down into smaller ones and linking them to each other is also more valuable than what you end up with in each note (not saying that that’s completely irrelevant, just the least important of all those things). Doing this religiously over a long time will get you to a point where you can “have a conversation” with your former self by following trails through your notes, if you achieve a certain density of connections, thereby feeding your current thinking process with new (old) ideas. It takes a while for enough small notes to accumulate and be linked to each other (and your mind to forget about enough of them) to experience that effect. You’re investing in a network of materialized ideas, and most of the value is in the network of connections not the nodes and in how your mind reconnects to your writing, not in the words that are in the files or the database. That’s counter-intuitive to the world we live in, where process is just the necessary evil to get to results, and where we want to optimize process away as much as we can. But when we talk about thinking, all the magic is in the (sometimes horrendously inefficient) process. @Jonas makes a good point that there are of course types of notes (which is clearly not a well-defined term), that can also be valuable by themselves. Perhaps you’re publishing some of your notes for others to read in a digital garden style public notebook. Then of course they should probably be written with your audience in mind, giving readers a chance to understand what you mean. That is more like classic writing, where of course the words themselves become more important. At that point however you’re no longer really note taking and more editing and publishing.
Append-only is certainly a common pattern, but I wouldn't want it enforced. IMO the most common failing of note apps is being too opinionated or restrictive. There are always exceptions in practice, and running up against them just because some programmer thought I shouldn't think a certain way is infuriating. Examples: some of my text note files are long lists of small independent ideas that don't make sense to have whole files for. Some of them I will come back to long after and add to or edit them. There are also lists where the order is important (usually some notion of priority, e.g. requirements for some future purchase), which often get edits at random locations. The minimum feature footprint to support these is to enable lots of little immutable notes in nested categories, and re-ordering them, but you're still locking me out of clarifying them when I'm looking over them later. These are plain text in git until my own app is good enough to use full time.
I like what Hamming says about the way we do things or even the actual thing we do changing (slightly or drastically) as we introduce machines and automation. The fact that notes were immutable was a limitation of the medium. Now that we can infinitely edit them we don't need them to be immutable. But we might certainly want to. I'm still trying to figure out note-taking and it's role in thinking. What I found so far is that atomic notes, either references or my own ideas (if you can call ideas your own is a whole different discussion 😂) are mutable, I might add a phrase to it, fix a typo, change the order, remove something that makes no sense anymore, or extract something to another note. And then there are the notes that I call "free form" which are the ones I sit and write a bunch for a while, often a few times the same thing, and this is an exercise I do to produce output (a presentation or an article). And for these ones I do like them to be immutable, so I create a new one each day. This proces is loosely based on the ideas behind the methodology of the Essay app ( Which I never used by I read about the methodology and Jordan Peterson also explains it a bit in a few of his presentations (him being the author). EDIT: as you said, I often don't go back to these free-form/immutable notes, but I still like to preserve the intermediate steps
All of this in Obsidian, by the way.
I was thinking the other day about general purpose apps for note taking and specific ones with a clear methodology (like that Essay one). I like that Obsidian is highly customizable, a lot can be achieved with plugins and templates. But sometimes I find myself wanting to use something more specific for a particular use case. This idea of immutable notes adds to the list. But then it becomes a pain of having to interoperate between these different apps. Since I still like to atomic notes when doing the free form immutable ones in Obsidian.
That's a great summary @Stefan. That's exactly the kind of value I'm trying to extract from my note-taking. It explains my disdain for the "big pile of notes" that I end up with after a few days of work. I've already learned what I wanted to learn by writing the notes, now what I am I supposed to do with all these text files I've ended up with? I use Roam to link them to each other, but most of the links I've created — just like the notes themselves — have never been used again. I do find that being able to link between my notes is useful, but not for the purpose of having a "web of notes" that I can explore. Mostly, I use it as a thinking aid. I will say things like "As discussed earlier, ....", where the text is a hyperlink to another page, or to an earlier part of the same page. Another useful trick I use in my note database is to create a page for each piece of jargon that I use, and [[embed]] the jargon as a link, rather than as plain text, every time I use it. That gives me the ability to do useful tricks, such as rename it without having to manually review all of the references. @Jonas definitely, there are many different kinds of "notes" one can write. That's worth clarifying. Personally, I only ever write "thinking" notes, wherein I'm trying to externalize my evolving thoughts, ideas, and knowledge about a topic. I still use physical sticky notes for my TODO lists. My desk is covered in them. 🫣
@Andrew F Perhaps an app doesn't need to enforce immutability. Perhaps the app should simply provide a set of affordances that makes immutability feel good. For example, maybe the app has features to add annotations to a locked note, and has a button or keyboard shortcut that allows one to easily take "clippings" out of old notes and arrange them into a new note. Then, while the app might "lock" notes by default, it might offer an escape hatch to unlock a note for further editing. If the app is designed well, people won't want to use the escape hatch very often.
I like the clippings idea. That's on my roadmap already. But I don't see the point of explicitly acknowledging immutability. That "lock" flag is code you have to maintain, documentation, space in your UI, space in the user's mental model. What does it let the user do better than if they just... don't edit the note? Dealing with a massive pile of braindumps is definitely a problem with that kind of workflow, but I think it's more one of categorization and retrieval. You don't need immutability for that. Tagging things by project, or tagging them "#braindump" to get them out of your face. (One can imagine a pile of write-once style notes bundled with a nicer summary, but I think that's heading back into the territory that should be usage pattern rather than code). At a stretch, high power search to get stuff out of them. Practically, I mostly use
ls -lrt
to focus and the occasional
to find stuff.
The purpose of locking is to add friction to the task of editing an old note, to help users break the habits/impulses they have developed over 30 years of using "word processors". If clipping (for example) has lower friction than editing — and still allows users to achieve their overall goal — then users might start developing new, more productive habits based on clipping. Making all tasks as easy as possible doesn't necessarily yield the best outcome for users. Consider social media — it's so easy/habitual to consume social media that people must add friction to the experience in an attempt to override their habits, e.g. by deleting social media apps from their phone, or blocking websites. (Another benefit of having old notes locked by default is that you can offer different, more useful affordances to the user. For example, instead of allowing the user to edit the text when they click on it, maybe the click gesture does clipping.)
jumping on a train of discussion with small delay, I wrote an app that actually have immutable notes, but you can edit the note by supplying correct version of a text afterwards, so you have all the versions of your note in the end, here it is
I've struggled with this idea for a while. One of the advantages of paper is that it is only additive (as in, you can't erase ink, but you can add new ink). At some point, the stuff gets old or messy. So you write a new, clean version! Make a big mistake? Start over! There's value in rewriting every character on the page and being forced to pay the cost. Is that word worth it? When I write an essay long hand, I often write, make notes on it, then recopy it, make new notes, then recopy. Each recopying gives me new ideas. And each recopying is an opportunity to completely rewrite large sections. I've done this with code as well. It's nice. In contrast, editing on a computer, for me, is often an exercise in minimizing the number of changes I have to make to the document to get it where I want it. Can I reword this sentence? How do I word a new sentence to fit exactly here while maintaining the flow of the argument? It's a very different mode of thinking. And we can easily keep thousands of digital files, even for ephemeral notes. Why throw them away? These two things lead to a counterintuitive idea: Paper is actually more mutable than digital. With paper, you can crumple it up and toss it. You are constantly recopying (but keeping only the stuff worth keeping). But with digital, we keep old files forever, and even words and sentences in a document that aren't that valuable live longer. Digital has permanence and paper is fleeting. But perhaps a more grounded analysis would be: digital makes small changes cheap, paper makes large changes cheap.
I agree starting fresh is great (I'm a big advocate for repeatedly re-outlining writing), but it's still plenty easy in digital form. Just ctrl-N or even hit enter a few times. Looking into your archives is optional. Your state of mind is not solely determined by the medium, you can acquire the correct one. (There are tricks, like working in comic sans. I tend to leave everything lowercase, myself, so my editing brain doesn't get illusions about the expected quality.)