So, just what did that get me?
Dedicated readers will be aware that I’ve been down the rabbit hole of note taking, systems and general organization for a fair few weeks now. What prompted this was arguably several factors. My files were, without argument, chaos (as I described in my earliest post). I was also wrestling with a legion of notebooks that I rarely revisited, and ideas for writing, presentations and other and sundry works that were scattered over a myriad of likely locations. A case in point, when searching for an idea for an article I was writing that I knew that I had, and knew I had written down, an exhaustive search of more than an hour failed to locate it in any of the likely locations.
Finding myself at the close of several projects, and on the verge of starting several other ones, this seemed an opportune moment to attempt to get my virtual house in order. The critical observer might also accuse me of procrastination, avoiding the things I claimed that I did want to be getting on with. While I will allow for this theoretical possibility, I prefer to consider this preparation for a future me that is attempting to not compound the readily apparent mistakes of the past as I continue to move forward.
I have shared my journey along the way to help clarify my own thinking, as well as to identify the results and perhaps provide some useful insights to others (perhaps in using the results, or at least to help some of the pitfalls I’ve encountered as something of a cautionary tale).
Partly this has been a challenge of process. It is also, as I outlined last week, a challenge of systems. We live in a connected age, and while I have made ample use of notebooks and journals, they’ve also revealed to me their limitations. The most significant challenge by far has nothing to do with external organizing structures, however; they have to do with the habits by which they get used, and my orientation to the work that I am doing.
In other words, this has been an examination of where I am getting in my own way, and identification of ways that I might work differently to better streamline and structure what I’m trying to accomplish.
Perhaps the most significant insight out of this exercise was an exploration of why we take notes in the first place (or at least why I do). While the time scale varies, most of my notes are ephemera—they are fleeting and impermanent. They might capture the name and number of the person that I need to call, or reflect the shopping list I need to acquire. A lot of the notes have been project based; sometimes that is as simple as reflecting timelines or deliverable structures, and very often they are organizing, sifting and creating meaning from various information sources to move a project forward. Virtually all of them, however, go away. Once the call is returned or the project is completed, I very rarely look at the prompting notes again.
My presumption has been that whatever meaning and value that lingers from that work is lodged firmly in my brain, and it will come out when I need it again. The problem is that brains don’t actually work that way. They are incredibly good at analysis and grinding away on what is immediately in front of them and what they do habitually. Brains are correspondingly abysmal, however, at dealing with retention of insights at anything more than the highest level of abstraction.
A case in point, I completed several projects last year that involved an extensive amount of research and synthesis. Today, I remember the summary details and can speak intelligently to some of the specific conclusions that were reflected in the deliverables that I built. I would be hard pressed, however, to discuss or even identify the primary sources I started with, the insights that they offered, what I found valuable and what I reacted indignantly to, and how that entire process shaped the work that I did. If I was called on to do a similar project on the same topic tomorrow, I would need to go back and re-read the primary sources, build up whatever notes were relevant all over again, and figure out where to take things from there. Anything less would be reductive and simplistic.
Recognizing the impermanence of my note taking and the opportunity to think differently about why we take notes was arguably the most significant knowledge I got from reading “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens, a work I’ve explored extensively over the last few weeks. The idea of capturing notes as a means of building out and supporting what you know, what you think and what you might do with that knowledge was a powerful insight. There were some obstacles to thinking about how that might work for me and my work, but there was value in the thought exercise of what that might look like.
Most particularly for me, though, was a reorientation of how we think about using notes. The most fundamental concept that emerged from reading Ahrens’ work was to not consider note taking as a problem of capturing, but one of retrieval. The most important question to consider in taking—and in particular filing—a note is, “how can I make sure that I will see this when I need it?” Before that takes you down a rabbit hole of future planning, tickler files and deferred due dates, the simplest answer, very often, is by thinking deeply about where it fits and how it connects to the ideas that you work with, in a way that is specifically relevant for you.
Going through this exercise, I’ve needed to inventory the kind of notes that I take, how I use them and how I want to think about retrieving them in the future. That has led to a corresponding exploration of what kind of systems might work for me in managing this enterprise. As I outlined last week, this had its own roadblocks. Specifically, once you get to figuring out how you want to work, you need to find solutions and tools that let you work that way. Despite all of our theoretical progress, my experience is that the way we work is often far more shaped by the philosophies of the tool’s designers than the intentions of the people using them.
That design shapes usage shouldn’t be a surprise. It is why there is an entire field of user design, and it is in part why our smartphones are as compelling and addictive as they are: they were intentionally crafted that way. Finding good tools, then, means finding tools that were either designed by someone with a similar or sympathetic philosophy to how you are trying to work, or who consciously does the difficult work of getting out of the way and building enough flexibility that you can work the way that you would like. That is something that is surprisingly hard to do. Even something as simple as a weekly paper planner leads to fundamental choices and challenges. There are a variety of ways of how days and weeks are presented, as well as how hours are structured in the day (and which are included or excluded). How much space do you need, and what size works for you? The options are endless, and finding a solution that genuinely fits can be frustrating, time consuming and expensive.
My search has primarily been around the software that I might use, either to capture notes in real time, or to manage the collection of notes, files, references and other sources on a long-term basis. A disclaimer as I write this: my working eco-system is built around the Mac, and so my software preferences are driven by that also. I recognize that by choice or circumstance, many are on Windows (and a few wind up on Linux). What I use is not necessarily available in these environments, and occasionally there really isn’t anything comparable, but I’ve tried to identify what I would likely have gone with if I were still working in the world of Windows.
First, I should probably acknowledge that my collection of paper journals isn’t likely to get smaller. There are times when paper is useful, there are times when it is necessary and there are some times when it is simply preferable. There is a different mode of working that emerges when you put pen to paper, and I don’t expect to lose that. I also, however, recognize the limitations that paper offers. The number of times that I have drafted the same list of future plans multiple times just because I haven’t done any of it yet is not only redundant, it is embarrassingly inefficient. This has by no means prevented it from happening more times than I would care to admit.
A long time ago, I learned the value of keeping your notes in one place, and not on random and scattered bits of paper, or post-it notes, or whatever envelope, brochure or official document happens to be close at hand. I have one journal at a time, and any notes that I do make show up there in something that pretty much looks like chronological order. My intention for these notes, however, is that they should be fleeting. If something important needs to be captured, then the journal needs to be a way-point. Phone numbers I will need again should make it into my contacts file. Action items should get all the way to my to-do application. Neither of these are particularly remarkable, and I would strongly recommend working with whatever still works for you.
The other notes that I might capture fall into two different categories. There are those that are related to a moment in time: I am in a particular meeting, or working on a particular project or engaged with a particular client. These represent the lion’s share of notes that I have captured in the past, and they haven’t found a place to go. Some years ago I started using a customer relationship management system that should theoretically be useful for all of this, and yet I have found it to be more cumbersome and less relevant than I would like. There is a great deal of effort associated with capturing, and comparatively little benefit or ability to get things back out when you need them in a meaningful or useful form.
What I have landed on as an approach that does work for me is a software package called Agenda. It is a deceptively simple implementation of what should be a radically obvious idea: most notes happen in—and are associated with—periods of time. Knowing when a note was taken, by date or by event, is central to finding it again. Arguably, that is already how my paper journal is organized. Using Agenda replicates the timescale, but actually allows me to attach notes to the corresponding events in my calendar, and create action items in a note that shows up in my to-do list. It also lets me associate all of those notes with the people that I’m interacting with and the projects that I am working on, meaning that I can find information in a variety of useful ways. I’m afraid that it is Mac-only, however, and I’ve not been able to find a Windows-compatible package that is comparable. If I wanted to replicate this in Windows, I would probably be resorting to Microsoft’s OneNote, albeit with the discipline of maintaining one and only one notebook.
The second category of notes corresponds to how to capture information and knowledge. These represent everything from the ideas that I have about what I might write or create in the future to insights and observations from what I read and learn. Being honest, I have been far better at taking notes that capture my thoughts than those that meaningfully represent the ideas of others. If I read a book, whatever knowledge I gain has traditionally been limited to what gets lodged in my grey matter after the fact. I’ll remember the book and its key ideas; anything further requires going back to the source material. A case in point, from the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (a book I have read several times) I can off the top of my head tell you the names of the first, second, third and seventh habit, and I can give you a pretty good working explanation of habit three. I know the general principles of what habits four through six are supposed to do, but that’s where I tap out.
The opportunity here is capturing accessible references to what I have thought, what I have read and how those connect. Reading isn’t about capturing verbatim what I’ve read so that I can regurgitate it at will (a habit I fortunately started to leave behind in early adulthood) so much as it is reacting and building on those ideas in ways that are relevant to me and the work that I do. Sometimes those reactions are aligned and supportive, but surprisingly they are more often tangential; my brain takes me in directions it finds interesting, regardless of the express topic or intent of the work at hand. Occasionally, my reaction is critical, negative or downright indignant, a thought process that still has value when it takes you in more meaningful future directions.
This has been the big gap that I’ve been exploring how to fill in the last few weeks. As I outlined in my last post, I don’t intend to adopt the slip-box system of Luhmann on a wholesale basis, and I’ve shied away from software that faithfully represents that, for reasons of flexibility, usability and overall on-going support. What I’ve been attracted to and am now working through bending to my will is a software package called Obsidian. As far as a note taking solution, it is delightfully simple in appearance. What it offers as a strength is its ability to make connections, and to navigate and envision those connections over an entire base of knowledge. It is flexible and powerful, and the challenge is finding a way to work within it that is not overwhelming or that becomes over-wrought. The good news is that Obsidian is also available for Windows, and it has an impressive implementation on phones and tablets, meaning that you can take your notes with you as well.
The final part of the puzzle for me has been where to keep all of the files and references that accumulate along the way, and that I do occasionally still want to go back to and access. I have been progressively moving all of this to a solution called DevonThink over a period of a couple of years now. It’s an incredibly powerful document repository. It is part file system, part web browser and part meta-data structure, along with a healthy dose of artificial intelligence that tries to connect and relate the information that it maintains. I am working to get everything that exists elsewhere (in my Downloads folder, in Dropbox, in Evernote, in my old reference manager and several other locations beyond) into a single place where I have universal access.
I have gained a valuable insight along the way in trying to capture my archives, however, that is an object-lesson in using any solution. DevonThink provides a lot of flexibility. You can have multiple databases, and within that you can organize by groups (folders, if you will) and tags. I find the folders useful in organizing by broad subject, or projects that I’ve been involved with. I went entirely overboard on using tags, however, attempting to define author, source, subject, meaningful connections and various other bits of information about each source. In theory, this was as an aid to retrieval, and being able to find things when I wanted them. In reality, tags were rarely how I found anything; I dove into folders, used the search function, or explored related items that were prompted by what I was looking at. The tags—and the exponential manner in which they erupted—simply got in the way; they have been a source of friction in my getting content into DevonThink, rather than providing any benefit to getting information back out again.
DevonThink is sadly a Mac-only application, and I don’t know of its equal anywhere else. If I didn’t have DevonThink, I struggle with what I would use as an option. EverNote represented a similar process, but I’ve come to find its interface getting in the way of simply managing individual files. Dropbox provides universal access to your files on every device it is installed on, but doesn’t have anything like the meta-data structure or ability to organize outside of a basic folder hierarchy. Being honest, if I didn’t have DevonThink, I would be very sad. I would probably still be relying on several places working together: email messages would stay in my email client, files would be in a directory structure (probably still Dropbox) and other bits and pieces (receipts, invoices, warranty references and the like) would still be winding up in something that looks like EverNote.
From a chaotic universe of many different ways of organizing, structuring and storing stuff, I am on my way to having everything I value be captured in one of three distinct and defined places. More importantly and more valuably, I am ready to engage with the content inside each of those systems in very different ways. I value the structuring and capturing of information in a more permanent sense than I have done. I might not be taking smart notes as espoused by Ahrens and reflected in Luhmann’s slip-box, but I’m moving forward on a journey towards a smarter way of organizing the notes that I am taking. Most essentially, I’m making meaningful connections along the way.
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