Thinking tools (Overview)

This is a public Zettelkasten overview (see FAQ) of the concepts surrounding "thinking tools", aka "second brain".

Intro: why this overview?

I first came across the interrelated concepts overviewed here after launching myhub, and realised I'd been developing similar ideas as far back as 2013, when I first piloted this Hub on Tumblr (see Why you need a Personal Content Strategy). My ideas for MyHub evolved as a result - I now see:

  • the user's public hub as the part of their Second Brain which they share with the outside world using the ActivityPub open web standard for decentralised social networks (aka Fediverse - see related Overview)
  • the underlying MyHub content management system evolving into a Thinking Management System, with content productivity and creativity tools integrated within it. 

As far as I know this hasn't yet been done: creators are currently supposed to do their thinking in Obsidian, Roam or some other "thinking tool" software, and then publish their content using Wordpress, and then share it via Twitter. Why not make your public website - and the writing on it - a seamless extension of your second brain? And why not network it with other second brains via the Fediverse?

Why not make your public website - and the writing on it - a seamless extension of your second brain?

To turn these ideas into reality, however, I need to do a deep dive into thinking tools. I'm using my current personal content strategy - ie:

  • refocusing my Priority Sources (newsletter filters, Highlights Twitter List, etc.) on sources of high-quality content about thinking tools
  • queueing the best content they publish on a daily basis
  • reading and annotating it on a daily basis
  • reviewing that content on a weekly/fortnightly basis, and updating this Overview as required
  • developing my own ideas in the form of notes, newsletters and posts.

More: Simplifying Zettelkasten by working out loud

This Overview is therefore a crucial part of this process: it provides both a summary of what I have discovered in this space so far, and (below) a search result of the content I read when developing this Overview (stuff I Like), and the content I wrote and built as a result (stuff I Think and Do). In other words:

  • I'm using my personal content strategy processes to explore directions for MyHub's evolution
  • I'm using my current Hub to test how well its features support those processes today, and how they evolve
  • the rest of this Overview is a continual work in progress, written primarily for myself. If you want to see what I've written, then jump straight to All the Stuff I Do or Think about Thinking Tools, Anytime.

Key concepts

(Last update: 31/10/2021): When I created this overview I identified 10 pre-existing tags to use as a baseline: inbox zero, spaced repetition, 2ndbrain, fedwiki (for federated wiki), mindfulness, mindhack, (information) overload, roamresearch, weekly review and zettelkasten. That pulled in 44 resources, each with at least one of those tags. Of course, each had other tags as well, so I took them all and created a tag cloud to get a first picture:

thinkingtools: initial tag cloud

(Feature idea: AI tools integrated into my backoffice to help better surface concept clusters and the links between them).

Some notes on the major concept (bundles):

  • Second Brain (2ndbrain): essentially a synonym for thinking tool, which I prefer as I like to emphasise verbs over nouns.
  • Productivity, GTD, Mindfulness: while a lot of the resources tagged mindfulness paint it as a racket, I still want my thinking tool that replaces FOMO with the serene confidence that my second brain has: captured the content I need to read, the stuff I have already read & the ideas I've already had; and will easily surface it when I need it. It must support my personal Getting Things Done (GTD) process, although I doubt it will actually try to become a GTD tool.
  • Zettelkasten, Knowledge Management, Creativity, Ideation: the Zettelkasten personal knowledge management (PKM) technique will be one of the building blocks of the MyHub thinking tool, which is why I created an entire overview on it. My zettelkasten is currently distributed across several IT tools: this Hub (for bibliographic notes - i.e., Stuff I Like), Pocket (my reading Queue), Asana (ToDo mgt) and fleeting/permanent notes (Roam Research). While it works as a whole, it's hard to connect the dots between these different siloes, stifling creativity. I'll be exploring other tools as I develop this overview.
  • Annotation, Curation: If you annotate (make notes on) what you read as you read it, you're more likely to absorb the knowledge within it and apply that knowledge to your life. If you curate it (tag it) as well, you're more likely to find it again when you need it (assuming you're using a half-decent knowledge management tool), alongside your own ideas and other notes (also tagged). Most people tag these notes in their thinking tool, which is private. By integrating thinking tools into MyHub, users will be able to keep some notes private and share others as part of their personal content strategy (next).
  • (Personal) Content strategy: content strategy is an important tag on my hub overall (188 resources and counting) as it's a major element of most of my professional consulting gigs. In this context, however, the focus is on personal content strategy: what sorts of content are important to you, where do you put that content, how do you manage it, which types do you share, and how? While there's a major overlap with personal knowledge management, you actually need to figure out your personal content strategy first.
  • Fediverse: a "collection of interoperable social networks built on Open Web standards... [including] Twitter-lookalike Mastodon and YouTube-lookalike PeerTube", according to my dedicated Overview. It's here as well because linking Hubs together via Fediverse standards would allow users to expand their second brains to include the notes publicly shared by other Hubs, Mastodon & PeerTube accounts, etc. Moreover, those accounts would also be able to follow Hubs.

Key elements

Different tools have different elements, but here are some of the most important and/or common ones.

Flexible/difficult vs. inflexible/easy (aka 80/20 rule)

This question applies to many software tools - do you design it:

  • to be used in only one way, thus making it really easy to get started, but difficult/impossible to customise to your needs?
  • or as a toolbox which each user can customise to their specific needs, but only after a lot of work?

The flexible/difficult approach is IMHO best illustrated by roamresearch: it's enormously powerful and flexible, but to take advantage of that you need to dive deep and geek out on templates and other plug-in code developed by 3rd parties. If you don't - like me - you end up with a pile of notes you can navigate pretty easily, but you're not harvesting the true power of your second brain. For me it fails the 80/20 rule.

Bidirectional links

Extremely powerful feature. In essence, it means that linking from page A to page B adds a link from B back to A, but there's a lot more to it than that. I'm currently most familiar with Bidirectional links from roamresearch, where every page is designed like a Zettelkasten overview, and there's a page for every tag.

To be continued.

Blocks vs. pages

Does the tool use pages to manage knowledge? Or is a page simply a collection of blocks, each with its own unique identity, allowing you to find and manipulate it separately from the page in which it was first created?

Again, I understand this question principally through the optic of roamresearch, which takes the latter approach. To be continued.


Automated links to recent, relevant Highlighted Resources follow. All resources here.


Stuff I (Really) like

Here are the latest 9 resources I've Highlighted about Thinking tools (Overview). There's more reading over here.

Evergreen notes, outlines and executable writing strategy | Andy Matuschak

Having fun using Andy Matuschak's wonderful site to explore his innovative ideas on note-taking, zettelkasten, writing, etc. This link opens a number of his interrelated notes, displayed horizontally using his innovative 'stacked notes' information architecture.Key ideas from this stack:the importance of 'task division' in…

The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral | Hapgood

I suspect this will be a canonical text for me moving forward with Caulfield in 2015, when my first hub was only about 2 years old, had also "been experimenting with another form of social media called federated wiki... instead of blogging and tweeting your experience you wiki’d it. And over time the wiki became a representation…

The Memex Method. When your commonplace book is a public | Cory Doctorow
Card image

One of my favourite writers (offline and online) on his personal content strategy, first taking aim at the "tawdry and mercenary" version of "“why writers should blog”... the story goes, “and build a brand ... to promote your work.” Virtually every sentence that contains the word “brand” is bullshit, and that one is no exception.&qu;…

From Beginner to Superuser: A Complete Roam Research Tutorial Course
Card image

Watched the entirety over the last week of 2020. Highly recommended series for getting to grips with Roam, covering everything from the basic of how Roam works through to detailed HowTos on project & goal management, zettelkasten, etc. Having said that, I won't be migrating my tasks out of a dedicated task mgt tool, or pasting bibliograph…

A Tale of Complexity – Structural Layers in Note Taking • Zettelkasten Method
Card image

In response to this tweet, a link from Sascha who "distinguishes [only] between content notes and ... notes on notes". But it appears a little more complex than that."A Zettelkasten is neither a neatly structured filing system ... nor a turmoil deep sea generating ideas out of the ununderstandable chaos. There are three layers in my…

Post-Alpha Feature: Simplifying Zettelkasten by working out loud
Card image

What did I learn about learning as I explored using Zettelkasten idea and knowledge management to write five newsletters about disinformation in the 2020 US elections?

Don’t just Build a Second Brain: share (part of) it
Card image

I’m exploring how could become a unique hybrid of personal publishing and productivity tools by launching a newsletter powered by Zettelkasten knowledge and idea management, all hosted on my Hub.

How To Take Smart Notes: 10 Principles to Revolutionize Your Note-Taking and Writing - Forte Labs
Card image

Books on note-taking... always too vague and boring, full of platitudes ... never an overarching system for turning notes into concrete results ... [but]How To Take Smart Notes ... is by far the most impactful and profound book I’ve ever read on the subject... most books are a few morsels of real insight wrapped in... fluff... I systematically unr…

Designing social platforms fit for the future
Card image

For the 6th episode of his Futurized podcast, Trond Undheim asked me why surveillance capitalism inevitably leads to polarised, undemocratic and dysfunctional societies, and what we must do about it...If we don’t change course, in the future we will be less will informed, more polarised, massively manipulated, living in more corrupt and less democ…

Get More Resources, More Services or Just Get in Touch

Cookies disclaimer saves very few cookies onto your device: we need some to monitor site traffic using Google Analytics, while another protects you from a cross-site request forgeries. Nevertheless, you can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings, you grant us permission to store that information on your device. More details in our Privacy Policy.

I agree