This post is part of the series in which I share aspects of my personal information ecosystem. Read all the posts.
Most of my work centers around ideas. Whether it’s an article I’m writing or research for a design project, I’m always learning new stuff. I collect and nurture ideas in an information garden. (Other folks use the term digital garden, but I’m not keen on this usage, since my garden isn’t exclusively digital.)
My garden has two central components:
- Places to store and process information. Includes links to web pages I’ve read (or need to read), PDFs from academic papers, books, audio/video files, etc.
- Places to write. Includes notes to self, meeting minutes, outlines, blog posts, etc.
Figma is great for collaboration. And one of the challenges when collaborating with others — especially when working with highly generative teams larger than two people — is that lots of stuff accrues quickly, making it difficult to find things later. Figma has gotten better about this, but I still have a hard time locating older files.
I posed this observation yesterday on Twitter and got several useful replies. Christian Bergstrom suggested using naming conventions for files and folders. In my experience, naming conventions do help, but they present challenges of their own.
I sometimes read about folks struggling with choosing a note-taking app. They’ve probably heard about apps like Notion, Roam, Obsidian, Craft, etc. and want to know how they compare to Evernote, Apple Notes, OneNote, or whatever they’re currently using.
Adopting a new knowledge management system feels like a momentous decision. You won’t really know if the app is right for you until you’ve used it for a while — i.e., until it’s become a “trusted system” you can turn to knowing how to do and find things.
Getting to that state takes time. Migrating from other apps isn’t easy, and you won’t build a new repository overnight. So, you can waste a lot of time by picking the wrong app.
I’ve tried several such apps during my career. Some supported straightforward import/export processes. Those were easy to try, but I still couldn’t evaluate them properly until I’d integrated them into my workflows.
This requires not just learning a new app, but developing new mental models about many day-to-day tasks. The process can be disruptive and inefficient. It requires commitment and patience — not the normal mindset for a “trial.”
So, two things to keep in mind when evaluating a knowledge management app:
- Give it enough time to see whether it’ll work for you. But…
- Beware of sunk costs.
You want to give the app a fair shake, but don’t want to end up stuck with a suboptimal system through inertia.
Master craftspeople don’t just work to make stuff; they also work on the work itself. A master carpenter will set up his shop for efficiency, develop deep relationships with his tools, and establish practices, habits, and mindsets that allow him to work in a state of flow.
Knowledge workers, too, must work on their work. As with craftspeople, this entails building empirical knowledge, developing generative mental models, and stewarding a toolset/environment that supports productive work.
Early in 2021, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. In this post, I’ll explain my evolving use of iPads.
I’ve long advocated for using iPads for work. iPads aren’t toys or “consumption” devices — at least any more than early GUI-based computers were. But recently, I’ve started questioning the iPad’s role in my workflows.
iPads do some things better than “real” computers. My work involves a lot of drawing, and the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil combo is the best digital drawing system I’ve used. The Pencil is also great for reviewing and marking up documents.
For a long time, when given a choice between using a cloud-based SAAS app vs. running one on my computer, I opted for the latter. (E.g., although I use Gmail for my email, I read it with Apple’s Mail app.)
There are two reasons for this. 1) I like to “own” my data — i.e., have local copies to backup, etc., and 2) I like to “own” my apps — i.e., buy a license for a specific app version I can use in perpetuity. I guess I’m old-fashioned in this.
Earlier this year, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. In this post, I’ll explain how I take notes.
First, a caveat: my personal information ecosystem is always evolving. If you’re reading this over a year since I published it, and you don’t see any timestamped updates, this information is likely outdated. That said, I’ll share where things stand now.
Earlier this year, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. This is the first of the series.
Rather than start with a tool or method, I’ll address a question asked by Andrea Tanzi:
Why start here? Tools come and go, but time is a constant. It underlies everything else. ‘Thinking time,’ as Andrea put it, is an especially limited resource. There are so many demands on our attention!
By ‘thinking time’ I mean focused time — i.e., moments when I can advance my work, learn, and write without distraction. The aspiration: to move things along by entering a state of flow. (A good book on this is Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)
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.
Posts in the series
Cover image: Detail from one of Benjamin Franklin’s virtue charts. Credit: Franklin’s Way.
Last updated: 2021-05-11