Why do we maintain systems? Particularly in this era of always-on, inter-connected and infinitely available information, what’s the point of trying to maintain information on our own, for our own personal use and reference?
It’s an interesting question, and some people have decided to ask and answer with, “I don’t need to.” There are those that delete emails as soon as they are done with them, throw away magazines, barely consume books, abandon notes as soon as the meeting is over and the action items are dealt with, and throw out any reference material they might have been required to peruse in the process.
The perceived exponential pace of human advancement means that ideas are seen as outdated almost as quickly as they are written down. Papers are updated, presentations are revised and web sites are amended. News is consumed and abandoned, articles are corrected, retracted or outright deleted, and stories fade from view days after they emerge. People want immediate news, current reviews, up-to-date facts and figures and cutting-edge research. Insights that are more than even a year old are questioned as being seriously superseded and out of date.
In this reality, the presumption is that you can Google your way to knowledge. If there is a question that you have, information that you require or insights that you are looking for, you simply need to look online or ask some device on our counter.
In truth, information is neither as enduring nor as ephemeral as the previous comments make it appear. There are emerging fields where research advances year by year, and where research papers that are even a couple of years old are considered overwhelmingly obsolete. There are also fields (management being a notable one) where research and insights of fifty years ago are still entirely valid and relevant. What is current and what is obsolete varies considerably, depending upon the discipline and the degree to which early insights were grounded in fundamentals that endure.
As well, as I’ve commented before, there is every opportunity for our current era to be one of the most data-intensive and yet least-well-documented periods of human history, simply because everything is ephemeral and digital. Everyone and no one owns the internet. We rely on information and systems to be there, until the site disappears, the product is abandoned or the company goes out of business. Moreover, digital storage decays and is impermanent, the technology in which it lives becomes obsolete in a surprisingly short period and file formats and the applications that create them evolve, rendering older versions uneditable at best or unreadable at worst.
All of that still begs the question: why do we hang on to our own files and references, and try to organize and maintain them?
At least part of that answer, of course, relies on a latent tendency to hoard (more pronounced in some than in others, but still an inarguable part of human nature since we were hunters and gatherers, when tools, resources and particularly food were scarce). Another significant influence is that those records become ours: they are personal, and filled with meaning to us, even if the article we are referencing on the surface looks exactly the same as one in someone else’s file (or digital archive, or reference library). The act of possession gives it meaning, as does where, when and how we file it for later access.
At this point, we also need to acknowledge the information in our systems comes from multiple sources. I started this discussion as being principally about reference material, so it would be easy to presume that we are talking about how we organize and structure the work that we have collected from others. In reality, some—and sometimes a significant amount of it—is also ours, flowing directly from our pen (virtual or otherwise) into the media in which it currently exists. Often, what we are managing represents a collaboration, even if not exactly an intentional one: we are maintaining our notes, ideas and comments, inspired by, based on or in response to the work of someone else.
I would argue that the fact that it is our work—or it is material that feeds our work—is what most drives the creation of our own personal systems of management. We are organizing what we have done, what we are doing and what we hope someday to accomplish. Ideally, we are keeping this information in a way that is trusted, known and understood; where we can find the information that we want, when we want it, without undue effort. The inherent challenge of doing this was what prompted this series. Finding a solution that meets this measure of accessibility is the hoped for outcome.
Recognizing that our systems are first and foremost about our work, I am going to turn for a time to how we think about taking, managing and collecting our notes, before looping back to address how we manage and consider the external reference sources that also inhabit our systems.
Note taking is a fascinating topic. For starters, it’s not something that we get taught (at least not early in life). When we are going through school in our developmental years, note taking is something that we are simply expected to figure out. That may be because it is considered innate, or deeply personal, or there is a theory that everybody learns differently, but I recall no time during my formative years where I was expressly guided by anyone in how I should consider taking notes.
Since then, I’ve learned a variety of techniques, often built around toolsets. Mind mapping, for example, is a great way to structure and make sense of a topic, particularly one that you are learning on an exploratory basis where there is no clear overarching structure that telegraphs how you will be presented with information. You build and organize structure for yourself, fluidly, and have the opportunity to reform and reframe structure as you need to or new perspectives or dimensions get revealed.
The more techniques you have, however, and the more tools that you use to capture them, the more places that your notes wind up potentially being captured. Right now, there are a multitude of places that my notes might get captured. There are three paper journals, for starters: my normal journal that goes (almost) everywhere with me, a larger one I use for planning and design, and a weekly planner I use for envisioning my week. Very rarely, a note might get captured on a post-it note (although I have largely cured myself of this habit, and am mostly successful at getting the post-it onto a page in my physical notebook, if I don’t transcribe it outright).
Then there is the software. Notes might currently appear in any of: Evernote, Simplenote, Bear, Drafts, OmniOutliner, OmniFocus, MindManager, Tinderbox or Devonthink, to name the most likely suspects. I mostly try to have them appear in Drafts (for reasons that I will explain at a future date) but that’s not always the case, as a recent search for notes about an article series drove home for me a week or so ago. I am usually pretty good about remembering the context of a note (which means that I have a sense of what I captured it in, and often an image of what the page looks like) but that’s not infallible. If a note isn’t where I expect it to be, it is not outside of the realm of possibility to spend a good half-hour hunting it down, sometimes still without success.
Before we confront the variety of notes that we capture, we need to get clarity about what’s actually contained in the notes. While the question this post asks in its title is “why do we have systems?” an equally pertinent question with relevance for this conversation is “why do we take notes?” There are a surprising numbers of ways to answer that question.
One of the more popular note-taking systems to emerge in the last few years is the Bullet Journal method, designed by Ryder Carroll. I first came across it around 2015, and while I haven’t adopted its methods wholesale (nor does Carroll advocate that you should) various techniques he introduced have wormed their way into my note-taking repertoire. What Caroll defines as the essentials of note-taking (at least in the context of his method) are three-fold: tasks, notes and events. These he defines as “things you have to do, things you don’t want to forget and experiences you want to remember.”
This is a good start, and if this were all that we took notes about, a single system (and hopefully a single notebook) would be all that would be required. Each of these categories of note-taking, however, fall in the past or the very near future. They are records of things that have already happened, or identification of to-dos that we probably expect to do soon.
The challenge is that we don’t just take notes about the past. Far more of the notes I take are about the future, and comparatively fewer are about what has already occurred. We take notes about future plans, over a variety of time horizons (from today to this week to the coming year to things we’d like to accomplish during our time on the planet). Notes are about projects that we want to do, accomplishments that we would like to realize and ideas that we want to pursue. They may also be about topics we want to research, things we want to learn and books that we hope to read.
As someone whose work is largely comprised of words on pages, a lot of my notes are also about the writing I am doing, and ideas for writing that I may produce in the future. That may be everything from random snippets of useful (to me) information to ideas for articles to outlines of presentations, workshops or even whole books. These aren’t necessarily planned in any formal way, and get captured as they occur. A blog idea might be inspired by an interview, or a reaction to a podcast, or indignation about something I read or an inspiration that builds on a throw-away aside that got my brain going in a productive direction.
With so many sources of input, it is no small wonder that there are a variety of places that those thoughts, comments, notes and quotations might show up. The challenge is making meaning of them in a useful and productive way. What I’m doing now is not working for me. Judging from the comments and feedback to last week’s article, I’m not alone in that challenge.
Knowing why we have systems is important. Knowing why we take notes, and the kinds of notes that we take, is an essential first step in revisiting those systems. Now comes the hard work of really categorizing and making sense of not just what we capture but how we want to use that in the future, and identifying the gaps between where we are now and where we need to be. From there, we might get to a system that makes sense. Stay tuned.
Joe Wood says
“What I’m doing now is not working for me.” BINGO! That says it for me, too. Looking forward to hearing more/
Mark Mullaly says
Good to hear from you, Joe, and glad the article (and that line!) resonated. Looking forward to continuing the exploration!
This is a series that is taking a lot more energy and effort than my usual articles, as I research alternatives, think about my systems, reflect on my discipline (or lack of) in using them, and nudge towards something better.
Glad you are along for the ride.
Michael Hilbert says
I am somewhat of a hoarder of files and notes. I believe that is, as you indicated, because they are mine and I do not need to rely on anyone else for the information when I need it. I have a tendency to document significant statements or commitments made in meetings and for project work that has saved a lot of headache and rework more than once. (Funny thing, others have come to me and asked “did you take any notes from discussion or meeting “x”?) The process I have now works “ok” however it could use refinement and long term sustainability. Looking forward to the series! (I will be taking notes! 😉
Mark Mullaly says
I appreciate the comments and the context.
I am also unquestionable guilty of hoarding. I am less a rigorous taker of notes, focusing more on what I might require than a fully factual recollection of what is discussed.
What I have come to discover, however, is just how project-based my entire approach to note-taking actually is. That might have n]been at one time an advantage; today it feels like a bit of a hindrance.
This week’s column reflects on that notion in more detail.
I appreciate the insights, as always!