It is interesting how things come full circle.
When I started this series, it was with a lament about my systems as a whole. I had attained a point of frustration with the fact that my various collections of articles, journal papers, references, ideas and thoughts were distributed over a veritable nightmare of software packages and storage options. That discussion morphed into a larger challenge of how I take notes and make connections with said library of material. This got me right back to where I started, thinking about software.
Of course, the ardent and diligent proponents of Getting Things Done (I consider myself a dilettante adapter, not an evangelical enthusiast) would identify that I simply have a collection problem. I need to process my material into an appropriate reference system, make choices about what to keep, what to action and what to discard, and everything would be groovy (and my brain could relax, because everything is in its trusted system).
The problem is that I know all of this. In fact, it is in part GTD that got me into this mess. My remnants (far more organized than they were at one time) exist where they do today as a result of some long-forgotten collection process. Where I store things is the end result of what I found and adopted at the time, because it was the best I could figure out (and my well-meaning brain committed to doing something more structured and organized at some point in the future).
And so, along the way, receipts, invoices, software license codes and warranties accumulated in Evernote. References and interesting reading got dumped into Dropbox—in what was a moderately sensical folder structure—until I had time to read them. I actually did invest a relatively healthy amount of time and attention to the structure and storage of journal articles while writing my thesis (I refuse to acknowledge this effort as procrastination). That was all well and good until my reference-manager-which-shall-not-be-named software provider quietly disappeared and turned their servers off. Interesting articles got bookmarked in Instapaper. Ephemeral bits and pieces I didn’t have time to do anything with variously got dumped in my Downloads folder, my Documents folder or my Temp folder (and don’t get me started about Documents\Temp; I now deny its existence).
In the past few weeks, I’ve confronted some uncomfortable truths about note taking in general, and my note taking in particular. That has included both how I take notes now, and how I would ideally like to take notes in the future. Being very honest, I’m still caught somewhere in between reality and ideal, but I feel close to coming in for a landing. I hope to share my insights around that with you next week, but in the meantime I’ve been working to sort out how I manage all of this.
In doing so, we come back to software.
This has led rather directly to an interesting but difficult challenge. Being candid, it is a problem that has bedevilled the process of automation for an extraordinarily long period of time. I’ve framed my process of thinking through files, references and notes with a specific emphasis on sorting out how I want to work. That focus has been on figuring out an approach and workflow that resonates for me. While I’m happy to leverage the ideas and perspectives of other’s systems, that doesn’t mean I’m going to adopt any one practice or approach wholesale. From GTD to Bullet Journal to Luhmann’s slip-box approach and beyond, my philosophy has been to identify pick and choose tools and approaches that work and make sense for me.
In my view, that’s how you should tackle process, capability or approach. There are few instances where rote adoption makes sense. From project management to decision making to personal organizing, there are principles to learn, techniques to apply and tools to borrow. In any given situation, you adopt what works, adapt in ways that provide meaning and continue to evolve as necessary.
The challenge is that once you figure out how to function, you need to sort out the tools that will support you along the way. Theoretically, that should be easy. As many others have pointed out, we live in a golden age of automation and personal productivity software. You should be able to find what you are looking for without too much fuss. To put not too fine a point on it, you should be able to find many examples of solutions that support how you want to work. Surprisingly, that’s not necessarily the case.
As I’ve been working through this research, I have come to an astonished realization of just how long I have been on this journey. Getting organized has been something of a fetish for a ridiculously long time; in fact, it has apparently been an enduring obsession for most of my adult working life (and before you ask, yes I had a non-adult working life also; I just wasn’t nearly so organized).
This started with daytimers. In fact, it started with the original, genuine Day-Timer® (something I am amazed to see still exists). I took the course. I bought the refills. I tried to be productive. It helped only a little. A change of jobs, and a manager recommended Productivity Plus (which apparently no longer exists). Another course. Some coaching. More refills. A bigger binder. A much bigger binder after that.
Somewhere along the way, I found a brilliant piece of software called Lotus Agenda. This was back in the days before Windows, probably somewhere in the vicinity of DOS version 3.3 (for those who remember back that far). It was amazing and flexible and powerful, and no one understood how to use it. It allowed you to capture all manner of unstructured notes, and over time would allow you to make sense of them through categories and what for all intents and purposes was an early implementation of tags. Of all the software that I have used, it might come closest to being able to function in some way along the lines of Luhmann’s slip-box method. The primary problem was that it was software that was truly ahead of its time (and arguably the storage capacity of computers of the day). While I’m not the only one lamenting its passing, it was abandoned by Lotus after only one update.
This was the start of an on-going challenge of migrating from one software solution to the next. For all the investment I would make in one particular application or package, the data was stuck (or lost, or abandoned) when support ran out, the developer bailed or I found something new and shiny. This is in part the phenomenon that has led to me current reality of many files and records stored across many places and locations.
For all that software can be useful and helpful, it very often gets in the way. What works for a period eventually stops. For everything you might love now, it will eventually become unavailable. Products evolve, valued features change and what used to work easily becomes more complex or complicated. Companies go under, people retire and software gets abandoned. That is a reality, and it is unlikely to change.
That means that some level of expected obsolescence needs to be allowed for. I still have documents that I wrote in the 1990s (not all of them, but a few are still kicking around on the hard drive). The earliest would be written in WordPerfect (probably 5.1, but I started using it back around version 3 or so). The files can still be opened today, but it’s not pretty. The only saving grace is that there wasn’t really much formatting in use at the time (if you don’t consider such egregious sins as two spaces after the period or two carriage returns between paragraphs).
My challenge today is not about obsolescence, however. It’s about finding something that works—and works well—in a manner that I want to use it. There are a truly vast number of note taking, filing, archiving and information solutions on the market. It is an enormous number of offerings to be sifting and sorting through. For all that there should be multiple viable alternatives, once you get clear on the way that you want to work and the solution that you are looking for, you quickly narrow yourself down to a tiny handful of alternatives, and sometimes none at all.
For me, I’ve been hoping to find a solution that I can press into use as a “second brain” that operates something along the lines of Luhmann’s slip-box method. I can’t say my usage will be faithful, but I’ve been inspired by the value of an enduring record of related notes, and linkages to the references that they support. Given that Lotus Agenda is no longer (and possibly never was going to be) a contender, I’ve been open to what else is out there.
Sönke Ahrens provides some theoretical assistance. On his companion web site, he points to a number of software packages that are designed to implement Luhmann’s slip-box in silicon. Many are rigidly faithful. Some are quirky. Some are both. There are a few that strive to closely implement the principles of the Zettelkasten, including ZKN3, The Archive and Zettlr. Many are developed by small teams, or solo developers, which admittedly raises some concern about long-term viability.
What has specifically gotten in the way, however, is finding a solution that works in the way that I would like it to. A significant barrier to that is the feature that most defines the slip-box method: managing connections between notes and references. What’s interesting about this is that managing reference links is exactly the sort of thing that computers are designed to be good at. It is, for example, the entire basis for the functioning of the world wide web, of wikipedia and every other wiki, and any other hyper-text application. Databases centre around managing links and relationships. So exactly how hard can this be?
In this particular instance, it would appear that it would be very hard. Or at least, less easy, intuitive and obvious than I would like. Luhmann’s implementation managed this through a manual ordering of slips and sequencing of numbers. Branches of related topics were readily identified, and links to other concepts were simply managed by notations back and forth. By simple, of course, I mean that Luhmann found the relevant slips manually, and inscribed the appropriate reference links back and forth by hand to make the connection.
What I don’t want to be doing is managing the same thing in the software I use, and yet to a certain extent this is the case. I’ve been struggling to find a solution that can work in logically managing the sequence of related ideas stored together, and the linking of ideas back and forth between topics and subjects. There are many packages that theoretically do this (the trendy means of referring to this today is “back-links” and all the cool note-taking apps claim they let you) but there are an staggering number that don’t make the process pretty, and a few get very messy very quickly.
Where that has landed me is back in a world of compromise and challenge. Having arrived at the point where I sorted out an ideal of note-taking, I’m caught up in a web of possible solutions that don’t connect things in quite the manner I would consider optimal. That means either adapting usage in a way that I would prefer not to, or continuing to hunt for software that might let me do what I want a little more appropriately. The search continues. Here’s hoping I have some insights next week.