Idea Gardening – from Perl to Obsidian

One of my favorite writing activities is idea gardening. I’ll think about something that might make a good blog post and make some notes. But more often than not, I’m not ready (read: I’m too lazy) to finish it. So it gets set aside, incomplete. But that leads me to another idea. I move that idea forward a little bit. But then I get distracted by Twitter.

“Idea gardening” is, of course, a charitable term. It might be less charitably called diffuse attention-deficit bullshit non-writing. I get to pretend like I’m writing, but really I’m moving distractedly from one topic to another without actually completing anything.

But years of desultory experience have taught me a few things. One is that I genuinely enjoy idea gardening, whether or not I finish anything. So, like playing the ukulele badly, I’m willing to call it a hobby and feel good about it. The other other lesson is that good tools can make a big difference. Good tools can help me cycle more quickly through my garden of ideas, pruning and weeding and watering, and occasionally harvesting. I love that moment when a topic becomes substantial enough, mature enough, that it almost seems to grow to completion on its own.

Tools and Tool Hounds

So, if tools matter, what tools should you use? I like watching what the cool kids, the tool hounds who review new tools, are playing with these days. But switching tools can be a dangerous time sink. It’s easy to convince yourself that these are the shoes that will (finally!) let you play like Michael Jordan. It’s easy to spend more time installing and polishing tools than using them. And it’s easy to mistake the honeymoon glow of mere novelty for a genuine productivity boost. After all, what Michael Jordan really does is pull on his shoes and play ball. It’s the rest of us who obsess about the shoes.

But still! Tools really can make all the difference. When it comes to idea gardening, these are the tasks that I’m asking the tool to help me with.

  • Catch ideas. Quickly create new documents
  • Survey ideas. Move quickly between documents.
  • Connect ideas. Find patterns in documents.
  • Polish ideas. Refactor and edit documents.

I could try to do all this in Microsoft Word. But what would be the fun in that?

My history of gardening tools

I’ve been at this for a long time, so some of these go back into the last century. This list is just from my personal history. Any comprehensive list would go on for pages.

  • Perl. When the web was young, I wrote tiny web-enabled perl scripts that would let me edit any text file by clicking on a link. Effectively, this was just a crude proto-wiki. Which may be why I instantly fell in love with wikis when they came along.
  • Trellix. This was a creation of Dan Bricklin, the same guy who wrote VisiCalc. It was a revelation to me that someone else valued this workflow and was willing to make a product out of it.
  • Wiki. Built to support collaboration among multiple authors, wikis also support the idea gardening of one person. I even installed a personal version of MediaWiki (the software behind the Wikipedia), but it proved too heavy for my needs.
  • Scrivener. This is a professional’s writer’s tool I learned about from journalist and tool hound James Fallows. It was fun to play with, but also more machinery than I need.
  • Simplenote. This was closer to my ideal of speed and simplicity. But maybe a little too simple. Moving between files and ideas was still a little clunky.
  • Evernote. I eventually took the big dive into Evernote. I’ve used it for a long time and I still like it a lot, but it’s on a path to excess functionality and bloat. Beyond that, I can’t think of any feature (that I care about) that Obsidian doesn’t do better and faster.
  • Notability. This is a beautiful iPad app, but it’s geared to the pen and tablet note-taking experience. It’s not so great for searching and assembling text.
  • Obsidian. For now, for me, this is the clear winner. Free, fast, text-based, extendable, it checks all the boxes.

I feel like I’ve been searching for the perfect idea-gardening tool for ages, and Obsidian is it. I’m sure it’s not the last word in idea gardening, but it’s passed a threshold that, for me, means it has fully arrived. I’m having so much fun with it. Will it actually cause me to write more? We’ll see.

2 thoughts on “Idea Gardening – from Perl to Obsidian”

  1. Nice Summary, Ned.

    I have had my share of excitement and disappointment in a number of tools out there including the ones you have mentioned. I am a big fan of Roam Research and Obsidian but more recently I have been using mem.ai mem.ai, https://mem.ai/. It seem to fit the need and especially in performance. Check it out.

  2. Thanks for the tip, Sundar! No matter what tool I’m using, I’m always game to learn about something new. I was aware of the Roam vs. Obsidian battles, but mem.ai is news to me.

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