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One link to rule them all? Or how Zettel has freed me of OneNote angst.

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Posted by nathanb
May 12, 2017 at 07:54 PM


Long time lurker here, really have enjoyed this forum and insights from fellow info software junkies.  Most of you are WAY more advanced than me in this subject, in part because my addiction to OneNote has kept me from reaching levels of personal data management that are routine in this forum. I wanted share my experience about using Zettel links as a way of tying together separate platforms and am curious how others have tried to crack this nut.

About OneNote and why I can’t quit and it’s bleak future:

I’ve been a heavy OneNote user for years but have been constantly looking for a better way, then always come back because I’m just addicted to that wonderful infinite canvas interface (along with the universal capture of screenshots, pen input, cross platform syncing etc). Though anyone that’s used OneNote knows it isn’t very good at organizing and using metadata.  It’s got a good search, that’s it.  What it calls tags isn’t really tags but more like inline keywords that are fantastic for making rich and descriptive pages.  But it offers very little in terms of metadata-based organizing or categorizing, especially since those tags don’t really sync.  It’s got a good search, that’s about it.

Yet I keep coming back to it after years of having a OneNote window open at work because I just love it’s interface.  It’s just so slick and intuitive.  I can insert screenshots, scribble with the pen, drop in any file, insert various tables, audio recordings, scans of real notes, etc all within a single page!  It long-ago became a core of my desktop workflow, and I always work with two OneNote windows open at all times. One for current task reference (usually a project page-group) and one as a journal/stream-of-consciousness to remind me what I’m doing right now (I have ADHD and that’s the only way I’ve found to keep me mostly on-track).  It’s well-integrated with Outlook at work so I might as well take advantage of meeting notes, email and task integration.  I constantly use it’s screenshot and time/date stamp keyboard-shortcuts.  My flighty brain just loves the ability to mix and relate all sorts of info within a single page to help me work through things. 

Yet I’m constantly bumping up against it’s limitations as a universal place for my information. Mostly it’s inability to tag pages or apply any sort of universal metadata to pages.  I’ve been waiting for YEARS (since 2008) for Microsoft to add unified tagging/alerts etc.  Another con of OneNote is obviously the platform tie-in….though I’m not TOO worried about that since my huge collection of notes have basically no metadata to preserve if I had to abandon ship…

The desktop version hasn’t really improved in any meaningful way since 2007.  Over the last few years I’ve come to accept that there will never be an expansion of power-user capability like a real tag system or integrated to-do manager.  It’s obvious that MS simply intends to abandon the awesome original desktop version as soon as the ‘universal’ version reaches some semblance of feature parity, which appears to be fairly soon.  It is quite apparent that MS views the casual user as their target user, not us nerds.  They’ll continue to make it more slick and ‘universal’, but not more capable.

So what do the lost souls like myself, that can’t NOT use OneNote but also can’t live with it’s metadata limits, do?

I’ve started to implement the Zettelkasten method as ‘unbreakable’ links between my task manager, notes, calendar, supporting files etc.  I should point out that how I am using zettel links would probably feel insulting to real zettel users. If I were more disciplined about any of this then I wouldn’t be endlessly searching for software to help, nor have found myself addicted to OneNote in the first place! My ‘zettel system’ currently is nothing more than using unique identifier text strings to link 2 or more items together. Like “ZP1705121102” might be a universal link to a new project I start tracking today.  It’s based on a time/date stamp down to the minute and auto-generated with a hotkey so guaranteed to always be unique and I’ll never run out of them.  The ‘z’ tells me it’s a zettel code that I should NEVER change (unless I ‘search’ for all matches and change them all at once) and the ‘p’ just says it’s unique project identifier (as opposed to T-task, C-calendar event, N-Note etc). I’m inconsistent with that identifier letter and have found that inconsistency hasn’t hurt a thing which reinforces how robust and freeing zettel codes can be.

What has been a pleasant surprise is that I no longer have that same old angst about which information platforms I’m trying to combine or migrate to.  I am now completely free to rename/reorganize any notes/files as I go without wondering how many references or links I’m destroying in the process. 

I can change ANYTHING within all my various information repositories as long as I keep those weird Zettel strings intact within my notes and filenames. 

It’s also helped with the constant ‘grey area indecision’ of where a piece of data should be for the situations where the systems overlap.  Like my project notes definitely happen in OneNote for reasons I’ve explained and my defined tasks definitely live in my task manager.  But what about task notes that can range from one text sentence to pictures/links/paragraphs?  At what point along that spectrum does it make sense to ‘externalize’ that task note to a more appropriate vehicle?  The option of leaving a zettel (or several) in that note field as a breadcrumb has freed me up to just go with the flow without constantly trying to remind myself to be consistent about my ‘rules’ of what goes where. 

Since that external referenced item also has the same zettel tag, I can easily jump back and forth from either platform.  Maybe some of you can relate and maybe this just sounds silly to you, but I have really struggled about this for years with constantly returning to OneNote as my intra-task/project control. Yet constancly failing on trying to organize/prioritize/categorize etc those pages so that system works as a canvas AND control AND reference manager which causes me to look elsewhere and start the madness all over again. 

This simple, silly, yet rock-solid zettel link really has changed the game.  My task manager(currently Gqueues) has never been BETTER integrated with OneNote yet it’s also never been more expendable!  I could dither between Wunderlist, ToDoist, ToodleDo, etc ad nauseum without breaking my OneNote references or even disrupt my information workflow.  I can (and now frequently DO) dither around with using individual files or google docs for task reference.  I like Gqueues because it’s tightly integrated with Gmail/Gcal but I’m not really a Gdocs guy.  Nothing against it, I just don’t need yet another place to forget where I put something.  However, since Gqueues also has great gdocs integration, I do have a few tasks that involve opening up a Gdoc as a tracking log.  Since I’m using zettel links to guarantee I won’t lose that reference, I’m totally free to use any combo of reference repositories I want without the risk of losing track of my stuff. 

The zettel has changed my mindset from struggling to make one or two platforms be my total external brain to enabling me to mix and match the BEST features whatever apps are available.

This wall of text was triggered by that post today about Cintanotes pro being on the giveawayoftheday site.  That’s one of many apps I’ve considered several times as a OneNote replacement since it’s superior for organizing reference info.  A year ago, that post would have been a mixed bag for me….the thrill of jumping over to a new system combined with struggling with the trade-offs.  Now I see posts like that and it’s all upside.  I can try it for some of my data without having to rethink my entire system.  I can see what it’s good at doing and try to leverage that without having to implement ‘workarounds’ for what it’s missing.

For once I’m not constantly annoyed that I can’t find ONE platform to rule them all.  My ‘system’ is now one of freely interchangeable parts.  Search will always find those zettels.  20 years from now, those Z-codes might be the ONLY thing that hasn’t changed about my digital brain.


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