Several people have asked me how I organize my projects. There are various systems out there like David Allen's Getting Things Done, Taiichi Ohno's Kanban boards (e.g. Trello), Ryder Carroll's Bullet journal, Niklas Luhmann's zettlekasten (e.g. Roam Research), Dave Seah's Emergent Task Planner, and many more.

There's a danger in spending too much time organizing my projects instead of working on my projects. Questions I asked myself:

What is the benefit vs the cost of adopting a new organizational system?

Most of the time, it's easier to see the benefits and harder to see the costs of a new system. What doesn't work about my current system is fresh on my mind. The parts of my current system that work well have gotten out of the way so they're not on my mind. There's a saying: “the grass is always greener on the other side”.

I try to keep this in mind, and judge any new system as less beneficial than I imagine it to be.

Are these immediate benefits or future benefits?

Immediate benefits are great. I experience them right away so that encourages me to use the organizational system. Future benefits are much harder. Although I can tell myself that I'll benefit, I don't feel it immediately, so it's less likely to work. In addition, I might have switched to another organizational system before I benefit from this one!

I try to discount the future benefits, as they may or may not happen.

Are these one-time costs or ongoing costs?

One-time costs are easier to see. I have to pay them right now, both in learning the new system, and in switching my existing notes to use it. Ongoing costs are sometimes harder to see. And future costs, like the risk of some service going away, are even harder to see.

Does everything have to be in one system?

I used to spend a lot of time trying to make everything consistent. This has rarely paid off for me. Part of the problem is that if everything has to be consistent, there is a high cost to changing my mind. I want a low cost to changing my mind. I want to change my mind as I learn new ways of thinking about things. But if I keep updating my ways of thinking, then the information I have also needs to change. If everything has to be consistent, then every time I change anything, I need to change all the things. That's expensive.

I now try to spend less time being consistent.

Will my information still be accessible 40 years from now?

I used to worry about proprietary file formats. It would be hard to switch to a different piece of software because you couldn't switch your data. So you'd be stuck using that software forever. But these days it's worse. You can't use the software forever because the startup running the cloud service shuts it down. ;-)

I now keep most of my information in plain text files. This means it's harder to integrate images, movies, and other types of notes, but it means my notes will be around for a long time.

Does someone else's system work for me or do I need my own system?

I don't know. I tend to make my own, and then rationalize it by saying my work habits (hundreds of small projects with a mix of writing and programming) are different enough from what most people do that it's better to make my own. But I really don't know.

What are my gut instincts telling me to do, and is that the right thing to do?

I used to spend a lot of time organizing my email into folders. When Paul Buchheit created Gmail, he said we spend too much time organizing our email. With our analog systems like paper filing, we need the organization because we need a way to search things easily. We also need the organization to browse things easily. But we have computers now. The computer can search for us.

Even though my entire goal is to organize information, I now try to spend less time organizing. I think it's not worth as much as it seems. I use a lot of ripgrep and mdfind to get instant searches over my projects and my notes.

Ok, so what am I using?

That's for the next post!

1 comment:

Scott Turner wrote at January 19, 2021 6:36 AM

I look forward to seeing your system. I have to admit that my system is very rudimentary, although I'm helped by the fact that I'm generally only working one big project at a time.