On BASB and journaling with computers

May 31, 2024

[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; … they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
—Socrates in Plato’s Pheadrus, translated by Benjamin Jowett (source).

I love capturing and writing things down.1 I’m someone who’d pause while reading to record a passage from a book and who’d write down a log of what I did for the day. And I tend to jot down a lot of random notes and thoughts throughout the day, mostly on my computer, but sometimes with pen and paper, depending on the context. Paper notes aside, saving all those webpage clippings, screenshots, and notes becomes more manageable with some form of organisation.

Saving and compiling personally interesting information isn’t exactly a new idea. Commonplace books have existed since antiquity. The nice thing about BASB is that it gives a useful starting point that’s well thought out for digital note-taking (although the method works for paper notes too).

What’s BASB?

I’ve been using ideas from Tiego Forte’s Building a Second Brain to organise my notes for a while now. BASB brands itself as a method to organise one’s digital life. There’s quite a bit to the method, but the two parts I’ve found useful are:

  1. PARA, a system to organise one’s digital content (notes, todo lists, files).
  2. Strategies and techniques to maintain and utilise this personal knowledge base.

I won’t go into the latest techniques that Diego mentions but instead some of my thoughts on them having used BASB for a while now.

Organising notes with PARA

PARA is an acronym for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archive. These are the four top-level folders in which other folders will live in. I think of PARA as a form of multi-level cache. The most active and frequently accessed notes are at the top, in Projects, and the least frequently accessed in Archive. Everything else goes in between, either into Areas or Resources. There’s more nuance to the PARA method and its four categories, but I won’t cover them here. Instead, to give a sense of what might go into each folder, below is an example of how I’ve structured my folders.

1. Projects
	- 2024 Q2 Log	
	- 2024 Cryptopals
2. Areas
	- Health
	- Finances
	- Reads
	- Tea
3. Resources
	- Coffee
	- Emacs
	- Quotes
	- Rust
4. Archive
	- 2024 Cleanup BASB
	- 2023 Italian
	- 2023 Recurse Fall 2

How I've implemented PARA. Each bullet point is a folder and so in Areas > Tea for example, there'll be a collection notes related to tea.

Examples of notes in each folder

So PARA gives a roughly topical and temporal structure to my disparate mass of notes. Over time I’ve created notes for:

  • Daily logs of what I did (Projects > 2024 Q2 Logs),
  • Current hobbies (Areas > Photography),
  • Risotto recipes and notes from each attempt (Resources > Cooking),
  • A list of Japanese tea shops (Areas > Tea),
  • Marginalia and passages from books that I found amusing (Areas > Reads),
  • Pillow book musings (Areas > Journal),
  • Administrative stuff (Archive > US Move),
  • Past interests (Archive > Fountain Pens).

And how I’ve used them

  • Review what I did during the week (and alleviate that frequent sense of not having achieved much). This in turn motivates me to keep logging down what I do on a day to day basis. The daily work logs have also been useful when creating brag docs as perf review season approaches.
  • Consult past research and knowledge on a topic. For example, if I’m developing a new Fujifilm recipe (a set of settings to produce jpeg photos in camera), I’d look at what I’ve tried before and how I liked them. Or if I’m interviewing, I’ve a list of questions that I’ve previously asked interviewers and would repurpose them.
  • Share travel lists with friends.
  • Find relevant quotes for when I’m writing things or when I’m just thinking of revisiting them.
  • Drafting and revising blog posts like this one.

To be clear, not all the notes get used or even read a second time, some of them I never read again after writing them. But just knowing that they’re there and might come in handy in the future has been personally very motivating in continuing to take as much notes as I’d like.

Thoughts on maintaining a personal knowledge base

Having a structure to house all notes

Before learning about BASB, my “system” to organise notes was to have a catch-all folder, Inbox, where all my notes would begin in. Once I’m done with a note, I’ll file it into the right folder. The motivation for this was to focus on taking notes and leave the categorising for later. This worked for a while, but I realised that I’d always have a residual set of notes that I just didn’t feel like they were done yet or know where exactly to file them into. With PARA, I still have an Inbox folder, but I’ve also been able to always find a place to store a note. Usually in the project that seeded it or otherwise in a related Area or Resource folder.

Saving what resonates

Another thing that sometimes made notes difficult to categorise was that I didn’t always know if they were going to be useful and in what way. I just knew that I found the information or quote somehow interesting enough that I wanted to save it.

One of the things I like about BASB is that it allows me to leave notes unfinished. It can be revisited and finished later. This isn’t unique to BASB, but I’ve found this simple idea quite liberating. (I sometimes have perfectionist tendencies that get the better of me.) A system that encourages unfinished notes and reframes them as seeds of an idea to be germinated has allowed me to focus on taking notes and not thinking too much about why they might be useful or where to store them. Over time, I’ve enjoyed looking back a the notes I’ve taken and more often than not they’ll end up being useful for future projects since what resonates tend to be things I that I come back to over time. As I browse them I sometimes edit or format them as well.

Opening up a random note and “gardening” have been super fun and interesting to get a glimpse into past priorities and rekindle ideas for new projects.

This doesn’t mean saving everything. Although storage is cheap, I’ve found it useful to remind myself that each thing saved has a maintenance cost. It doesn’t mean saving only the most precious stuff. Continuing with the plant metaphor, planted seeds will need to be tended to, and while it’s ok to sometimes let later unwanted plants or even weeds grow, they should be in the minority. We don’t want a perfect garden, but it shouldn’t be an indiscriminate wasteland either.

A note on the size of projects

Related to not having to tend to notes that don’t resonate, having smaller project sizes—projects that spans weeks or months instead of years—makes it easier to organise that set of notes. And smaller projects also help with giving a better sense of completion and progress. Personally, I haven’t been diligent enough in breaking down large projects into smaller ones and this is something I’ve been working on recently as I review my setup.

Tooling considerations

One of the things that I like about BASB is that it’s a system that’s quite agnostic in its choice of tools. BASB can be implemented with paper notes, .txt files, or Notes.app. Personally, I’ve been using Ulysses because I like what it offers. Regardless of medium, I’ve found the features below to be useful for my setup.

  • A global search. Although the PARA structure makes it simpler to figure out where a note might be, searching across all notes allows for easily finding related content or relevant quotes.
  • Convenient clipping of content. For example, Ulysses’s paste from HTML has been great at letting me copy online content such as articles or recipes while preserving their original formatting in markdown (if I want to). iOS’ recent text from photo feature has also been a valuable in quickly saving passages from paper books.
  • Code syntax highlighting. This lets me store notes and learnings from my technical projects and allows me to store (almost) everything in a single place.
  • A polished mobile app. Being able to add and edit on the go, and edit well, has been crucial for those one-off thoughts or unexpectedly long dentist waits. (I started drafting this while doing my cooldown in the gym.) Unfortunately, this requirement has also ruled out org-mode for me.2
  • Ease of creating backups and exporting notes. It also helps to have a format that’s close to markdown or a text file to make it easy to migrate to another app or program in the future.
  • Privacy and end-to-end encryption. My notes are personal to me, unless I choose to share them. Knowing that they are private allows me to write freely and not worry about my notes being misused in the future.

An iterative process

Over the years, I’ve adhered to my initial setup and structure, but of late, I’ve also diverged from them as I started documenting more of my everyday life. I have a coffee log that lives in an album in Photos.app. It’s in a photo album since every time I drink a pourover in a coffeeshop, I tend to take a photo of the cup. Over time I’ve started annotating the photos with details such as the bean origin and tasting notes. The low logging cost makes it a great solution. Otherwise I suspect I’ll just not log them down at all. It helps that the content for this doesn’t need to be cross referenced. On a whole, it’s useful to have everything in one place but there are tradeoffs in doing so.

I know that there’s a lot of other methods of digital organisation. Roam and Obsidian are some of the related, popular tools that I’ve heard about. So far I’m pretty happy with my current setup, but I’d love to hear from you if you’ve any thoughts, comments, or recommendations.

  1. I haven’t read enough of the classics to confidently disagree with Socrates, but I do appreciate not having to store everything in my head. And I guess I’m presently content with the potential tradeoffs involved.
  2. I know there are some mobile apps for using org-mode on mobile, but I’ve not looked too much into them. Also having spent a lot of my college days going down the emacs rabbit hole, I was cautious of opening up another one with org.

Stacey Tay

Hi! I’m Stacey. Welcome to my blog. I’m a software engineer with an interest in programming languages and web performance. I also like making 🍵, reading fiction, and discovering random word origins.