The Problem - I need a productivity system that gets BETTER the more I use it, not more overwhelming.
Obsidian has become much more than my favorite note-taking app. It has become my workshop of ideas. At its foundation, I use a lot of the concepts created by Tiago Forte in his book Building a Second Brain, but I also use plenty of ideas from Niklas Luhmann, and Sönke Ahrens and his book How to Take Smart Notes. So I want to make it clear, I'm not trying to take credit for anyone else's work. Oh, and Michael Linenberger and his book Manage Your Now also play a role in how I think about my system. What is the problem I'm trying to solve? To have a system that not only makes me more productive, but less stressed. I do not simply want to remember better, I want to know better. What's the difference? Remembering is retrieval or recall. Useful, but knowing is about production and generation. I wish to put my knowledge to use. Think of it this way. Remembering is like conceptually understanding how to swing a bat to hit a ball. Knowing is being able to do it.
In a universe of knowledge work, applied knowledge is the primary skill of the knowledge worker. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, "When I know better, I do better." If you accept that, then it stands to reason that if we want to do better, we need to learn better faster. This is the heart of the problem I am trying to solve. I call it Doing Better Sooner.
My goal? To Have a system that can
- Maximize the value of the books I read, and the learning sessions I go to.
- Reuse / repurpose work as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- Improve every time I use it.
- Become more trustworthy over time.
- Improve my whole life, not just work.
Those we the things I wanted. But could I do it? I think I'm getting there.
The Curse of the Expert
It is the curse of the expert to share the solution before they share the problem they solved. I'm going to try and do it differently. I want to share how I got here, and the types of problems I use this system to solve it.
Something about human nature makes us teach solutions in the opposite direction from how we learn them.
I learn by having a problem then figuring out how to solve it. By opposite direction, I mean that my inclination is to teach my solution first, then the problem it solves. This is the curse of the expert. To focus on the details and the outcomes before we give the context and the purpose. Let's see if I can flip that.
I intend to share my experience as effectively as possible to help you.
A Junk Drawer of Ideas
I have been through just about every productivity and note-taking system ever created. And they all had one thing in common. The more I used them, the more overwhelming they became. Nothing about them told me how to say "no". What would start out as a carefully planned system rapidly degenerated into what I called the junk drawer of ideas. I would just throw stuff in there, but dread looking in it to find what I was looking for.
Take David Allen's "getting things done", or GTD for short. In his book Getting Things Done, Allen lays out a beautiful system for managing all the complexity of life. Only when I used it, my life became more complex. Instead of using the system to get more work done, I spent my time running the system.
Over and over again, I would start, feel good about myself, then the system would mushroom out of control, filled with tasks, reminders, and schedules and I would stop using it because my "trusted system" has become a blob of activities I didn't know how to sift through. So, I would stop using it and just back to fire fighting. Despite that, I did learn three useful skills from GTD.
- Have one calendar to rule them all.
- Use start dates to hide tasks you can't start until a future date.
- When possible, batch similar tasks to recognize that we have modes of working (talking on the phone is very different from doing research or running errands).
Of the three key ideas, One Calendar, Start Dates, and batch similar tasks, The Single Calendar and the State dates are the most useful and I apply them every day.
I constantly missed meetings, appointments, and double booking myself before I implemented the single calendar discipline. I had this mistaken idea that I should keep separate calendars for work, family, and other activities. Heck, it seemed like everything had a calendar. But you know what? My memory is good for some things, but remembering and integrating calendars is not one of them. In fact, it is interesting to note that the 30,000 clay tablets they found in ancient Sumeria largely contain lists. They contain inventories, recipes and the like, but barely any stories or narratives. Human brains remember stories easily, but not abstract facts.
Mr. Allen's solution? Keep One Calendar. Database designers would call this the one source of truth. The problem with multiple calendars is that we do not only use calendars to remember where we're supposed to be, a Calendar also shows our free time. What time is available to commit? If you have more than one calendar, you can't actually know your time capacity without integrating multiple sources. Think of it like your bank account. We have accounting systems, so we know what we money is available to spend - we need a similar approach to know what time we have available to invest. You might have many areas of your life, but you only have the one life with its 24 hours a day to spend. Therefore, you need one checkbook for your time. And this is your single calendar.
In practice, this idea turned out to be more profound than I imagined.
I stopped worrying about my coworkers, employees, or partners knowing that I was taking my daughter to Gammage Auditorium to see Eliza Doolittle sing, "The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plane". I put it on my calendar. And you know what? No one freaked out. Instead of worrying that my wife would see how much of my work does not look like work (it always seems to involve a lot of talking to people - being in meetings, or having coffees, or enjoying drinks at a happy hour). But now I had one single place I could look to find my real availability. At a glance, I could see the balance of my time bank. It was like magic.
Having one calendar not only improved my life, but it also made me more reliable, which made the lives of the people around me better. My wife especially loved it because she and the kids were almost always the ones getting shafted when I had a schedule conflict. Now, conflicts went away (at least 99% of them.)
Today, I say, "if it's not on my calendar, it doesn't exist." I have come to rely on my Calendar so much, once I put something on my calendar, I forget about it. Every evening and every morning, I check my calendar to see what's coming. My Calendar has become my trusted system for my time commitments. And thanks to that, I can use tools like Calendly to make it easier for people to synchronize with me. There is no hidden second (third, or fourth) calendar that needs to be consulted. Thank you, Mr. Allen, you removed an enormous amount of heart burn from my life.
What does that have to do with Obsidian and Personal Knowledge Management? Just this - I should probably stop calling it PKM and start calling PLM for Personal Life Management. Knowledge is not just about ideas, it is about knowing what I need to do and when I need to do it, and knowing my commitments to others is the most important knowledge in my system.
Have you ever had a task you knew you needed to do, but you can't start it yet? Let's say, check in for your flight, or take out the trash on Thursday? Well, what's the point of putting, "check in for my flight" on your to do list if the flight isn't for 3 weeks? Do you set a reminder to make a to do? How about you use a start date. Some task management systems (like RememberTheMilk), will allow you to assign a Start Date to a task, so you can filter it from your daily to do list view. This means I can schedule when I see a task.
Why don't I use my calendar for that? Because for me, my calendar is about commitments. And most of my tasks are about intentions. 99% of my tasks do not have a hard and fast time-bound component. I can pretend they do, but guess who is the easiest person to lie to? You guessed it, yourself. Self-manipulation, in my experience, is not only ineffective, but also counterproductive. I work better when all of my systems deal with real facts - the goal is to reduce how much I have to remember, not increase it.
So, I don't put due dates on things that don't really have due dates, and I don't schedule specific tasks on my calendar unless I really seriously need to make time to work on something. But Start Dates, allow me to capture my intended actions and then filter for what actions are most relevant to me at the present moment. I'll talk more about this when I cover how I manage tasks, but I have gotten to the point where I can't live without start dates.
There is a curious feature of the human mind that we often remember things we need to do when we are the least able to act on them. I can be riding my bike when I remember I have to email a proposal to someone. I can't do it on my bike! But I can quickly capture that task and put it into my system. Start Dates are one way to capture tasks you are not ready to act on, but that won't clutter your list. Start Dates help prevent a list from becoming overwhelming.
Examples of tasks that benefit from start dates.
- Calling to check and see if I'm needed for Jury Duty
- Setting future reminders for things like changing air filters.
- Remembering to take out the trash.
Remembering, but not having to look at information until I'm ready to act on it is an important part of my approach.
For me this mostly for running errands. Like I mentioned above, I frequently remember things when I can't act on them. Batching allows you to record something when you think of it then tag it so you can easily create a list. It's like paying bills. Batching really helps simplify trip chaining.
In the end, what does this have to do with PKM? In my experience every system has a few good ideas that stick. Until I discovered PKM, GTD was the best system I had found, but it still didn't work for me.
I needed something different. It never occurred to me that I would find the answer in a note-taking system.