Tinderbox Forum

A Consultant’s Notebook. (please comment!)

A new customer (who is reluctant to post here) is seeking help with a problem like this:

I have a consulting business, and would like to use Tinderbox as a notebook, or perhaps a collection of notebooks, on each client. But I’m having a terrible time knowing where to start, or how to master this very complex and technical program.

It seems to me that this is actually a very interesting Tinderbox task, and one that a number of forum regulars have encountered themselves. How would you go about getting started?

(Responding here to my own question)

I’ve been working with Swing Left, a US political group that is focused on the upcoming Congressional elections – and particularly on helping people who happen to live in “safe,” uncompetitive districts find useful work help in a number of very competitive races.

A few days ago, I was asked to take up a new role with responsibilities in five Congressional districts — all in Minnesota.

So, working in outline view, I quickly sketched some containers.

I’ve got containers for each district. I’ve got a To Do container to hold tasks that need doing — especially tasks not tied to a particular district. I’ve got a container for organizational matters that don’t pertain to Minnesota, such as the organization’s graphic standards. I’ve got a container for correspondence I want to keep handy.

And I’ve got a container of prototypes. For example, the Person prototype adds some key attributes that may be handy.

Here’s our candidate for Minnesota’s second congressional district. I’ve noted her campaign URL, and can click it to check her website. I’ve got her Twitter handle, too. I don’t have her phone number, and it’s good to be reminded of that as well because I’ve got here business card sitting in my car, where it does me no good when I’m at my desk.

Now, all this is very, very simple. It took a few minutes to put together. But I’ve got some real value here:

  • a framework that reminds me of the stuff for which I’m responsible
  • reminders for things that I ought to know, and don’t
  • a simple tickler system I can use to contact people on the ground in each district from time to time, in order to find out what they need and to communicate their needs (and accomplishments) to the national staff
  • a repository for notes about procedures and resources
  • all of which is searchable

Now, I can imagine lots more I could do here, perhaps some agents to catalog key people, and some way to sort tasks by order of urgency and importance. But that smacks of premature formalization; I only have two ToDos today. Next week I may have a dozen; next month I might have a hundred. When that happens, we’ll sort things automatically!

I am a consultant to Federal IT executives and have built numerous notebooks in Tinderbox. The first order of business is not to dive into creating a custom structure for each engagement, but to let structure grow with the client engagement. However, I do have a standard beginning point.

Most of the work involves one or more of four taskings: strategy formulation; meetings; work products / writing; and program office advice. These lend themselves naturally to containers for notes in those groupings. So, when I start a notebook I usually set up containers at the root of the document:

1. Strategy
2. Meetings
3. Writing
4. PMO


5. Other Documents
6. Misc Notes


7. Prototypes
8. Templates

So, those containers on my building blocks. They will get tweaked as the engagement matures. I create prototypes (actually a master prototype and sub-prototypes that inherit from the master) to track notes based on their containers’ function.

That’s the entire start up. I build out the containers in my notebook as I progress – adding notes, creating links between notes in different containers – e.g., linking meeting notes to the documents in Writing that were discussed – and the notes about documents to the notes about strategies they deliver on.

If I need to export, I import some of my own personal templates or templates from Tinderbox’s built-in template library. If I need to cross-check a set of notes across containers I use Attribute Browser, or I create agents. If I have documents in DEVONthink (my usually document repository) or OneDrive, then I link them into the notebook by using Tinderbox’s “watch” features to watch filesystem folders or DEVONthink groups.

I sometimes use my Tinderbox notebook for task planning and tracking, which Tinderbox is good at, but since Tinderbox cannot sync with calendars (the heartbeat of any consultant’s day), I use other software for planning and scheduling.


Those days I test a new kind of journal with several containers in Map view. One of my main container gathers all my notes and sorts them by month. Inside each container, I use one adornment by day and I give a specific color to my notes with the help of prototypes. Then, I fill in each note with system and personal attributes. In this way, experiencing a process I can only feel with paper and cardboard box, I review my notes using only the Attribute browser.


Do you set up those adornments manually? Does that not become painfully slow?

Not at all : I just copy, paste the adornment and set the date. It’s not a lot of work and it does not slow my experience of Map View even when I increase the size of the map by zooming.

It can be remarkably daunting as a new comer to Tinderbox to try and figure out a full solution to your needs. Attempting to do so can just be frustrating and drive you to another piece of software. Also, there are dozens of ways to achieve similar results in Tinderbox. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to imagine the best way from the start. You’ll need to experiment.

Thus, my advice for this new customer is don’t even try to figure it out now, just start using Tinderbox. Here’s what I would recommend:

  1. Create one document per client
  2. Just start putting notes into each document as needed
  3. Take advantage of the built in prototypes, especially Event, Task and Person

As your note count grows, experiment with other ways to organize. Tinderbox has numerous ways to automate your organization, but it also makes manually organizing really easy. Create containers as needed. Use adornments (in Map View) or separators (in Outline View). Manually drop your notes where they go.

As time goes on try your hand at a simple agent (for example, turn tasks that are over due red). Build your Tinderbox expertise slowly. This shouldn’t inhibit your note taking at all.

Pretty soon you’ll be responding to queries like this offering advice to newcomers.


I’m also a fan of the unstructured notebook. I would start by simply taking notes.

Perhaps weekly status meetings get a green border while technical notes are blue. Critical thought? Red. Each of those can become a prototype that you select once you’ve finished jotting down your thoughts.

Is there a correlation between notes? Link them. Do you have lots of inter-related notes on your AS400 data warehouse? Create a special link type and then it’s easy to follow the paths of notes related to that topic.

I use visual clustering a lot. I move notes around like index cards, shuffling them as part of my thought process. This is critical to sorting information for me.

Take a look at the old TinderLaw blog posts. I found them quite helpful in learning how to use Tinderbox as a thinking tool. https://tinderlaw.wordpress.com/2009/08/


This thread has raised an issue I have been struggling with for some time. Maybe it would be best in another thread, I am not sure.

Could anyone share some ideas and maybe some examples about how you track correspondences in Tinderbox? Do you copy the entire body of an email/phone call, if so how them do you deal with responses/follow ups?

Thanks to anyone who has thoughts or a process that works well with respect to tracking (and following up on) correspondences.


Paul, could you please expand on this statement? I am interested in learning more about the idea of prototypes and sub-prototypes in this kind of workflow.

Thank you for any additional thoughts on this.


@DMV prototype inheritance (the fancy term for what I described) is simple in concept and can grow more complex in practice if you choose.

Simple example. I have a prototype “Contact” whose Key Attributes are

Contact KA

  • FullName
  • Email
  • Organization

I then create a second prototype “Conference Attendee” whose own Key Attributes are

ConferenceAttendee KA

  • Conference_Name
  • AttendeeID
  • FeePaid

and I assign “Contact” as the prototype for ConferenceAttendee. So, not only does ConferenceAttendee have it’s own “local” Key Attributes, it also inherits the Key Attributes of Contact.

I can take this further and have a prototype “Session” and assign ConferenceAttendee to be Session’s prototype. So, the inheritance of prototype Key Attributes (and consequential Key Attribute values within prototypes and other attributes such as Shape, Color, etc.) continues down the chain. There could also be a different chain of prototypes that also has Contact at the head of the chain.

The idea here is not to get overly complex relationships going. Prototype inheritance, is something one grows into. As you work with a document it might become obvious that prototype inheritance saves time and allows you to structure your notes more efficiently. Or not – this is a semi-advanced technique that is not one-size-fits-all.


Serendipitously, I just got this article on attribute inheritance back online: Attribute Inheritance in Tinderbox


This is excellent! Thank you both. I did not realize the inheritance worked. I can use this in my notebooks. Much appreciated.


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I’m trying to inherit from prototype to sub-prototype to note and the prototype attributes do not show up in the note. I set the sub-prototype to be a prototype of the prototype. Does anyone know what I am missing?


Sam is a Developer, and a Developer is an Employee.

When we ask “what are the key attributes for Sam?” we look first to see if Sam’s key attributes have been set specifically. If so, we’re done.

If not, we ask whether the key attributes of Developer are set specifically. In this case, they are: the value for Developer is “skills”, which overrides the value for Employee. If there were no value set for Developer, we’d inherit the value from Employee.

If Employee had no value for KeyAttributes either, we’d inherit the default value.

What you probably want to do is, remove the value of $KeyAttributes from Developer. You can do that in QuickStamp (or several other ways!)

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Thank you for your prompt and helpful reply.

First, I tried following what I thought was your advice by deleting the Skill attribute off of the DeveloperProto sub-prototype. That had no effect. Eventually, I went to the add attribute screen on DeveloperProto and clicked the RESET button, that worked. I then saw all of the expected parent attributes from EmployeeProto populate on DeveloperProto and the Notes implementing DeveloperProto. I then re-added the Skills attribute to DeveloperProto and all seems to be well in the world. I believe it’s my ignorance of how KeyAttributes function that was the culprit.

Thanks again!