It is a little astonishing how this happens. You start with a problem, work back to first principles, figure out how to proceed forward and then find yourself back in the same vicinity of where you left off. In my case, I started with a systems problem around files that turned into a much broader exploration of notes, ideas, thinking and how I work. Now that I’ve landed on most of an approach that I think can work for me, I’m trying to figure out how to manage and organize that in reality. This brings us right back to software and systems, and the realization that what I hope to do may not be quite so easy as I had anticipated.
Our notes and systems are how we make sense of the world, of ourselves and of our work. For the most part, my note-taking and information retrieval has lurched from project to project. My method of writing has focused on what I need to produce now. I have a method—or at least a notion of an approach—that works for me, despite largely being internal, abstract and fuzzy. Once I know what I am doing, I can usually get it done, and done well. Until then, precious little of value is likely to be produced. I’m coming to terms with the fact that regardless of my track record to date, this might not be the most efficient way of getting things done.
Notes are the ephemera of our lives. Theoretically short-term and transitory, they have become on-going collections of thoughts, scrawls, screeds and snippets of information. By attempting to manage my notes and maintain my records, I’ve gotten good at two dimensions: keeping track of the minutiae of my day, and hoarding the articles, papers and books that I find interesting and meaningful. Where I struggle is in bridging the gap. Notes are about more than just day-to-day musings and lists. References aren’t just there to look pretty on a shelf (really, they’re not). Finding a way to make and sustain meaningful connections between them is an essential challenge.
One of the essential questions we need to ask in getting to better systems for our notes, thoughts and references is why we have systems in the first place. We live in a constantly connected world; wouldn’t we be better off just Googling for what we need when we need it? The reality is that this is an answer that not only doesn’t satisfy our inner hoarder; it also ignores the very personal and unique forms that our systems take. This isn’t just about capturing materials we get from elsewhere and making sense of them. It is relating to how those materials—and those notes we generate ourselves—define and shape the work that we do.
Many of us strive to get organized. A similar number of us struggle with how to actually do that. For me, it has been the on-going focus of more decades than I care to count, as I try to make sense of the reference materials in my life and organize them in ways that are meaningful, useful and above all accessible. The problem with all systems is that they are subject to entropy; they will decline into disorder over time unless they receive proper care and feeding. Exploring what that looks like is an interesting challenge.
Not that we need any help on this front. We get in our own way just fine. But then we add tools to the mix, and that complicates things unnecessarily. For those who have a fetish for office supplies and time management solutions (you know who you are) it can be awfully tempting to look at shiny new software with covetous desire. My usual advice is, “If what you are doing now is working for you, then keep doing it.” Which is great, until you realize that it isn’t working. This is what happened to me.