Collecting, connecting, and inspiring with Napkin

This is the first article in a series I call “Tools for Thought designed for humans”.

We live in a Tools for Thought heaven. There are so many choices available that appeal to a diverse range of users. However, many of these tools require difficult configuration or installing plugins. This can be overwhelming to us as users and even discouraging, as we need to spend a lot of time getting everything setup for day-to-day use of our PKM tool of choice.

That is why I want to focus on several innovative Tools for Thought that just get you going quickly and solve your personal knowledge management issues with little fuss.

The first app in this series is the innovative and unique web application called Napkin . It’s name “Napkin” almost gives away its premise as a Tool for Thought designed for humans.

Capturing Ideas

Have you ever been to a restaurant and had a brilliant idea and thought: I have to write this down before I forget it? Then you take a napkin from the table and start writing down your idea. Many a great idea has started just this way, a few people sitting around a table in a coffee shop doodling away on a napkin. This is the idea behind Napkin.

Napkin makes it easy to collect ideas and find them again at the right moment.

Collected ideas are connected automatically and can be browsed in a “swarm of thought” — a dynamic interface that shows you relevant notes without searching. Imagine you look at one idea that resonated with you while browsing the web, and relevant ideas you collected previously are shown next to it. You develop new perspectives and associations instantly. In the end, creativity is just connecting things.

In the following screenshot, I am capturing an insight with the Napkin web clipper. I could also capture it with the Napkin Collect app when on my iPhone or iPad or enter it manually by copying and pasting in the web app itself.

Web clipping to Napkin

In the following screenshot, I am capturing an idea into the Napkin web app. The user is presented with a small input form called a note card that looks like a napkin or even a sticky note. It is intentionally kept simple and elegant. You can capture your thought, add some tags, and link it to a web source.

Let us continue to explore the note card. Here I capture a poem I like from Hemingway, the card expands for further input.

Entering an idea into Napkin

Napkin proves that quantity is not always equal to quality. You’ll notice from this previous screenshot that the note card encourages me to keep the captured idea as short as possible with a dotted line mid-way into the note to remind me the text is getting longer. While the note can be long, Napkin is optimized for ideas, which are often shorter in nature.

You’ll also notice that in the lower part of the screenshot, there are some bubbles with words in them: patience, courage, Quote, fiction. This is one of the beauties of Napkin. It analyzes the contents of your ideas, taking into consideration the other notes you have in your Napkin library, and suggests possible tags. You can accept or ignore the suggested tags. This tagging helps Napkin to discover the connectivity between your ideas.

Connecting Ideas

In the web app I can open my Inbox Review, here I find the collected insights and ideas in a first in, first out order. The ideas are tagged automatically by Napkin, and the original source is just one click away. Napkin looks at underlying concepts and topics of a new idea and tags them according to previously tagged notes. It is a learning system: The longer you use it, the better it knows how you think about tags and makes better and better suggestions.

The beauty of this is that each idea you send to Napkin automatically attracts related notes you already have in your collection. That makes Napkin a great system for growing a connected “swarm of thought.” It lends itself to an inspirational contemplative routine. Reviewing collected ideas daily and seeing connected notes helps change perspectives, develop new ideas and stimulate a feeling of coherence. All your ideas are no longer siloed in folders and pages but floating freely, structured only by their content and corresponding tags.

The video below shows that with each tag I add manually, new related ideas are instantly resurfaced. If I do not agree with the tags Napkin suggests, I can decline them with a single click and help Napkin to learn and improve the suggestions next time.

Inbox review with Napkin

This is a really powerful feature. While many Tools for Thought require you to make direct connections between ideas, Napkin analyzes the contents of your ideas and uses the text and tags contained within to create connections between ideas. So as you pull up an idea (note card) by clicking it, you will see related ideas, often ideas that you may not have thought to connect but are related.

For example, I opened a poem, and Napkin showed me other poems in my collection, including the one from Hemingway that I just recently added.

Napkin showing related ideas

Another example from my library is some ideas I captured on transclusion. Transclusion is a nerd concept related to Tools for Thought. Over the last few months, as I had thoughts on transclusion, I quickly dropped them into Napkin, and over time connections were formed between these thoughts.

Another example of note cards and related ideas

Napkin displays the thought you have focused in on the center and then delightfully spaced around that central thought other related note cards.

In this last screenshot, pay attention to the upper part of the picture where you see some grey boxes clumping together. Napkin is showing other thoughts from my library that are possibly related to one another and have a relationship to the topic I am focused on now.

Inspiration

The relationship between your thoughts is where you enter the magic of Napkin. As you click on ideas, they open and show related ideas.

The logic is as simple as it is effective. If I look at an idea with the tags “x”, and “y”, Napkin shows ideas with either the tag “x” or “y” or both. But these ideas might also include the tag “z”. This leads me to another related area: ideas around: ”z”. Thereby browsing your notes feels like steering a stream of thought.

The more ideas you collect, the more connections are formed and displayed. As other related ideas are displayed, you click on them, and other related ideas are displayed.

Let me tell you, you become addicted to clicking on note cards and exploring relationships between note cards. It isn’t unusual to find yourself spending a lot of time clicking deeper and deeper into your thoughts and being inspired.

This visual approach to browsing and researching your thoughts is unique to Napkin. I have not seen such a user interface in any other Tool for Thought. It's a truly unique way to explore and rediscover your thoughts.

The team behind Napkin has a background and experience in learning psychology and data visualization. They told me their biggest inspiration and guidance is nature: how the human mind works, how we recognize patterns, and how we get into flow states. Inspired by these observations, they started with this simple physical simulation. Every idea gets two forces: charge and gravity. Related ideas attract each other, while unrelated ones push each other away. Those are all the ingredients you need for an emerging, swarm-like structure in your ideas.

Other Features

Other Tools for Thought often try to cram in every possible feature a user might need. Napkin takes a different approach and holds to its vision. Napkin is not bloated with features, and the designers keep it focused on its task of collecting ideas, seeing connections, and helping us to be inspired.

At the same time, there are a few additional features worth noting.

  • Stacks: You can build linear outlines and assemble a scaffolding for your next writing project via drag & drop. You can export your outline via the clipboard and take it to your favorite writing tool.
Stacks allow the user to group related note cards
  • Moments: Click any tag and see all thoughts with this tag in a linear sequence (like in the inbox review). While skipping through them, you can see related notes in the surrounding, sparking inspiring insight.
  • Grooming: Curated sub-collections that work like the inbox review, but with either “notes you haven’t seen in a while” (great for archiving irrelevant notes; shift + a) or “notes without connections” (great to improve the density of connections in your swarm by manually adding tags or hitting the little magic wand, to see which connections Napkin comes up with).
  • Filter: You can filter for tags in the search overlay.
  • Search: You can use a fuzzy full-text search and find your thoughts based on their text and tags.
  • Twitter: you can tweet a note card directly from Napkin.
  • Capturing thoughts: Napkin has a web clipper and an iPhone application for capturing thoughts into your Napkin library on mobile.
  • Inbox review: browse through recently entered note cards. The review helps you to recall to mind ideas you have captured and nudges you to continue to find connections.

And one of the things I can hardly wait for, the Napkin team is working on a Readwise sync to pull in your highlights from Readwise.

Responsive Team

The people behind a product are a “feature” of a product. You need good teams who have a passion for what they are building and a desire to help their users.

The Napkin team is just such a team. They are excited about what they are building and have a unique vision. Even so, they see their customers as partners in the development of Napkin; thus, they are open to feedback and suggestions.

I like that they don’t always agree with my suggestions, but we can discuss them, and they kindly explain their viewpoint. You feel heard! And they are receptive to ideas, as I have already seen my feedback incorporated into Napkin.

What Napkin is not

Napkin is not trying to be everything to everyone. It is not a tool you will use for all your note-taking.

Napkin is about capturing and connecting ideas.

I take most of my long-form notes in Obsidian, but as I come across valuable ideas, I put them into Napkin. Later, when I am on a project related to writing or teaching, I pull up Napkin and start searching for ideas related to my project.

If writing is your thing and a mere contemplation of collected highlightsis insufficient, Napkin compliments your collection of Tools for Thought; it doesn’t replace them. The web clipper makes it easy to collect your best ideas from existing note collections in tools that can be opened in the browser (e.g., Evernote, Craft, Roam, Google Docs, …)

Clipping from Evernote into Napkin

Who is a Napkin user?

Anyone who wants to increase the impact of good ideas they come across on their decisions, their mindset, and their lives. If you’re tired of having and finding good ideas only to not remember them at the right moment, for example, while writing an essay or making a big decision, try Napkin.

Additionally, anyone interested in personal knowledge management (PKM) will find Napkin to be a valuable complement to their Tools for Thought. Having said that, I think Napkin is ideal for writers.

I have been a writer for about 25 years, and I can honestly say that I wish I had Napkin through all these years. I always struggled with where to keep those little ideas I came across that could be used in future writing projects. Perhaps interest facts that would help in developing a story, a metaphor that will help teach a specific point, funny expressions to liven up my writing, and so on.

Napkin solves the challenge writers have of being inspired. It gives you a place to capture such thoughts without any hassle or complications. Later, when in the mode of writing, Napkin becomes a writing partner helping you to rediscover those captured thoughts, often after you have long forgotten them.

My Recommendation

If you are a writer or a PKM user looking for new ways to explore your thoughts creatively, I suggest giving Napkin a try. It is a unique app, and I found that I had to use it for a month to build up my note card library. As the library expanded, Napkin’s value began to shine.

Use this link to get a free 30-day trial: 30-day free trial of Napkin

Napkin is a perfect first tool to review in this series, “Tools for Thought designed for humans,” as it requires no configuration and just a few minutes to learn. I hope to see more Tools for Thought like Napkin that quickly get you into the flow of capturing and leveraging your thoughts.

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