My Personal Information Ecosystem

I love learning about how other people get things done. (It’s one of the motivations for my podcast.) In that spirit, I’ve decided to share how I work. It may come across as self-indulgent, but perhaps it can also give you ideas.

In February, I mentioned on Twitter that I was working on a post about my ‘production function.’ (Tyler Cowen’s wonderful phrase.) I asked what you’d like to know about my setup, and several folks replied with angles I hadn’t considered.

As I outlined what I wanted to cover, I realized there’s too much for a single entry. So, I’m breaking it down into several shorter posts, which I’m also planning to post as tweetstorms.

This is the first of these posts, which will serve as an index. As I write more, I’ll add them here, calling out emerging patterns. (And integrating your feedback, so please let me know what you’d like to learn about.)

Here’s what I plan to cover:

  • Tools and techniques for personal information management
  • Software and hardware for better thinking
  • Frameworks and approaches for better time management
  • Whatever you’d like me to explore (let me know!)

My personal information ecosystem is constantly evolving, so I expect this to be a ‘living’ post. I’ll edit it to reflect how things change. For now, stay tuned.

Cover image: Detail from one of Benjamin Franklin’s virtue charts. Credit: Franklin’s Way.

Ways of Thinking

Drawing might best be thought of as manual thinking. It is as much tactile as cerebral, as dependent on the hand as on the brain. The act of sketching appears to be a means of unlocking the mind’s hidden stores of tacit knowledge, a mysterious process crucial to any act of artistic creation and difficult if not impossible to accomplish through conscious deliberation alone.

— Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage

Something special happens when I put pen to paper. I almost wrote “magical,” but that would oversell it. Still, the experience of “unlocking the mind’s hidden stores of tacit knowledge” is special. Special yet cheap and easy. Science fiction posits machines that reveal the contents of the mind or capture the elusive imagery of dreams. But no elaborate technology is required. Pen + paper + time = profit.

Because most of my work happens in the digital realm, I’ve tried sketching with computers for many years. (I’ve documented my evolving setup here, here, and here.) The latest iteration of this setup — the Concepts app on the iPad Pro with second-generation Apple Pencil — is terrific in its own right. But it’s not pen and paper. I can’t get the same flow when sketching on a screen as with a simple notebook. The screen-based setup is excellent at polishing ideas for sharing, but paper is better for the type of “manual thinking” described in the quote above.

I’ve also become adept at thinking with words — that is, through writing. It’s a different modality altogether, which I find easier to do with an outlining or mapping tool. (My favorite, which does both, is Tinderbox.) This type of thinking is best for making sense of a conceptual domain with known ideas, such as research results. As with digital sketching, it comes downstream from sketching on paper.

Bottom line: there are different ways of thinking. The mind is a crucial component in the process but not the only element in play. You can’t swap out your nervous system, but you can change other aspects of your thinking setup. Knowing which tools and environments to think with (and in) – and when to switch between them – can unlock tremendous cognitive powers.

Possibilities for Greatness

I’m starting a new project. It’s exciting and a little scary. I’ve written before about the rush of energy I get from starting something new:

The beginning of every new undertaking has a particular type of energy. An open-ended sense of possibility. This energy allows us to step into an uncertain future. There’s a challenge ahead and we don’t know exactly how things will turn out — but we have wits, some knowledge, some structure, and tools.

The energy-of-beginning is important to getting things rolling, but we can’t linger in it. We need to get to work; to become productive. For me this means establishing near-term goals, work practices to achieve them, and habits that allow the work to become part of my daily routine. The quicker this happens, the easier it is to replace the energy-of-beginning with the energy-of-generating.

These paragraphs capture a key aspect of the beginning phase of projects, namely, the exciting release of energy. But they miss something just as important: how scary the beginning can be.

Where does the fear come from? I can name several aspects of the anxiety I feel right now. However, as I think about it, the fear comes down to a single word: insecurity.

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Medium is Bringing Back Custom Domains

Ev Williams, writing in Medium:

Speaking of portability, it’s always been possible to get an export of all your posts and other data in Medium. And by default, all Medium publications and profiles have RSS feeds (e.g., blog.medium.com/feed) – full text, except for metered/paywall stories.

We are now bringing back another option for portability – and brandability – namely, custom domains. Not that they ever went away entirely. Medium hosts tens of thousands of publications under their own domains. However, we paused setting up new ones a couple of years ago. Among other reasons, we needed to fix some cross-domain bugs and revamp our system for registering SSL certificates. We have now prioritized that work so that we can scalably offer custom domains again.

So soon you’ll be able to take advantage of Medium’s new publishing tools and tap into the Medium network – assuring deliver of your content to your followers – while showing up under your own brand/domain and confident in the knowledge that if you ever want to move off Medium, that’s fully in your control.

The web removes many of the barriers that keep us from becoming publishers. If you have something to share with the world, it’s easier than ever to publish your writing. It’s also easier than ever to own your own platform. If you take publishing seriously (as you should,) you should aim to have some degree of control over where your content shows up. This doesn’t mean that you need to hand-craft web pages from scratch or manage your own web server. But at a minimum, you should aim to publish in a domain name you control.

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Re-thinking Digital Note-taking

Note-taking is central to my work. Every day I sketch ideas, capture meeting minutes, annotate bookmarks, draft new posts, etc. I’ve done this for a long time using both digital and analog notebooks. However, over the last couple of years, I’ve started feeling constrained by some of my tools. In particular, I’ve realized that I can create the most value when I can quickly spot patterns to generate insights, but the way I’ve been taking notes doesn’t lend itself to sparking new connections.

My primary note-taking tool over the last eight years has been OneNote. I started using OneNote because I wanted to hand-write my notes digitally, and Windows tablets were the only viable way to do so before the Apple Pencil came along. When the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil appeared, I left Windows tablets behind (one less OS to maintain!) but kept using OneNote. While the iPad app doesn’t have as many features as the Windows version, it’s close enough for my purposes.

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The Architecture of Information

Yesterday I launched a new website, The Architecture of Information. I describe it as a collection of “intriguing information structures from the web and beyond.” In other words, the site showcases examples of information architectures spotted in the wild.

While the site is new, much of its content isn’t. I’ve posted examples of good/bad/intriguing information architecture on my personal blog over the past three years, using the tag TAOI (the architecture of information.) I’ve copied those posts to the new website, where they can have a life of their own.

Why am I doing this? There are lots of sites that feature examples of user interface design, but few (none?) that focus on information architecture. People are drawn to snazzy screenshots and clever animations. Good navigation systems and clear conceptual models aren’t as obvious or immediately appealing.

Yet good IA is essential. As I’ve said so many times before, the structural layer of websites/apps/digital things changes more slowly than look-and-feel. Information structures have a critical influence on the effectiveness of digital products over time. So, we need to pay more heed to what’s happening beneath the surface of these things.

I hope The Architecture of Information helps shed some light. If you have ideas for interesting information structures you’d like me to feature, please get in touch. And also check out the new site — I’d love your feedback.

A Year of Podcasting: What’s Next

I’ve been publishing my podcast, The Informed Life, since January of 2019. To celebrate the show’s anniversary, I’ve been writing about my set up: how I started, my recording gear, how I edit episodes, and how I publish the show so you can listen to it. In this final post of the series, I’ll reflect on what has worked well, what hasn’t, and what I expect next for the show.

Let’s start by discussing what has worked well. A few early decisions have paid off. The first is show length. Keeping episodes to around 30 minutes has made for a more focused show; I’ve received positive feedback from listeners on the high ratio of content to chit chat they hear. This focus is in part due to an editorial decision to keep episodes relatively short.

Another decision that’s paid off is having a loose arc for interviews. Episodes have a beginning, middle, and end. This arc isn’t accidental; I discuss it with guests before we record. We aren’t strict about it, but know our aim.

One final good decision I’ll call out is the every-other-week publishing schedule. Producing a podcast takes a lot of work. The two-week span is enough for me to put in the require time without disrupting the other responsibilities in my life. A longer gap between episodes (a month, say) would risk having listeners lose interest. Every other week seems to be the sweet spot.

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A Year of Podcasting: Publishing

I’ve been publishing my podcast, The Informed Life, for over a year. During that time, I’ve had lots of folks ask me about how I do it. To celebrate the milestone (and to avoid repeating myself,) I’ve been writing about my set up: how I started, my recording gear, and how I edit episodes. This post is about how I publish the podcast.

Publishing is a key component of podcasting. You can record and edit an excellent show, but only a few people will listen if it’s not available for folks to find and download. These two things – finding and downloading — are related but not the same. They’re both crucial.

Let’s start with downloading. Mostly, podcasts are like blogs: content that’s published periodically on a web server where people can access it over the internet. The main difference, of course, is that blogs are primarily text-based, whereas podcasts are primarily audio-based. But still, the underlying technologies are very similar.

So-called podcatchers — the apps that we use to listen to podcasts — are RSS readers under the hood, much like blog readers such as NetNewsWire or the much-missed Google Reader. Besides rendering text, podcatchers provide specialized interfaces to listen to audio files. These audio files are referenced in the podcast’s (text-based) feeds, which are almost identical to the text feeds that power blogs.

I’m giving you this preamble to demystify the publishing process. A podcast is just a blog with audio.

That said, there are publishing platforms that provide specialized features for podcasts. For example, some aim to unify (and therefore simplify) the whole process by bundling recording, editing, and publishing features into one package. I didn’t consider such tools because I didn’t want to be locked into any one vertical platform.

My early research turned up one publishing tool that seemed to be preferred by many established podcasters: LibSyn. It’s been around for a long time, as evidenced by its rich feature set. This gave me confidence in the tool. (I’m always wary of relying on untested companies.) Alas, its longevity was also evident in its user interface, which I found clunky and complicated. My understanding of podcasting as “blogging with audio” was put to the test when I opened an account on LibSyn. Setting up the show and publishing a single episode required learning a new set of terms and filling in lots of information. It was more work than I expected or needed.

Hunting for a new publishing platform, I discovered that the one I use to host this site — WordPress.com — could also be used to host podcasts. I opened a new account on WordPress specifically for the show and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was. (Especially for someone like myself, who was already familiar with blogging in general and WordPress in particular.) Publishing a new podcast episode boils down to writing a blog post and including a single audio file in it. Simple.

Of course, there are tradeoffs. A more powerful tool like LibSyn gives you more features and the ability to control things more granularly. More importantly, WordPress also lags in one key area: statistics. The system provides a dashboard that shows how many people have visited, how many pages they’ve viewed, etc. It’s the same dashboard you get if you’re hosting a blog (note I said “pages viewed”), and it’s wholly inadequate for a podcast. I don’t yet have a good way of knowing what episodes are more popular than others.

Still, it’s convenient to use the same platform for my blog and my podcast. Which is to say, WordPress integrates well with my workflows. It’s simple, inexpensive, and reliable. I’m also confident that WordPress (the company) will be around for a while. It’s unlikely I’ll tinker with this aspect of my setup for a while.

So that’s the “web hosting” part of my publishing setup. But as I mentioned above, putting the show on the internet isn’t all that’s needed: folks also need to find the show so they can subscribe. That’s where podcasting directories come in.

There are several of these, but the most popular is Apple’s podcast directory. Apple embraced podcasting early, including it as a feature in iTunes in 2005. They’ve since maintained a structured index of shows that’s used by other podcasting systems as well.

It’s worth noting that this directory doesn’t host podcasting files; that’s why you need a publishing platform such as WordPress. Instead, the directory allows people to find your show, and to rate and review it. (If you enjoy The Informed Life, it helps if you rate and/or review it in Apple’s podcast directory.)

Google provides a similar service through Google Play, but as far as I know, it isn’t as influential as Apple’s. That said, I added the show to Google’s directory late last year to make it easier to find for Android phone users.

There are several other platforms with directories. I often get requests from folks to include the show on platforms like Spotify and Stitcher. I’ve been wary of these and other such systems. I sense that many are trying to build walled gardens around their podcast initiatives. Some break the decentralized model by re-publishing shows in their hosting infrastructure and inserting advertising into shows. The obvious tradeoff? Not being on these distribution platforms is costing me some listeners. That makes me sad. But some of these practices — especially injecting ads into shows — make me even sadder. As a result, you’re unlikely to find my show in these systems anytime soon.

So there you have it, my podcast publishing setup. Of all the components and systems that make The Informed Life possible, these are the ones I’m most satisfied with. The one exception, as I mentioned above, is statistics. I’d love to have better information about how individual episodes are doing. (Apple provides a tool that’s supposed to give me such information. I didn’t mention it above because it’s not very useful.)

So, better statistics is one aspect I’d like to change about my podcasting setup. In the final post in this series, I’ll tell you about some other things I’m considering for the future of The Informed Life. Hope you can join me then!