In part one I described the kinds of things I asked myself when deciding on how to manage my personal information — bookmarks, references, notes, tasks, contacts, etc. The answer is: I don't have a single consistent system that I use for everything. I use many incompatible systems depending on where I am and what my goal is.

Capture

I'll often have a thought or see something that I want to take note of. For capturing these thoughts, the lower the friction the better. The friction depends on where I am and what I am doing at the moment.

  1. If I'm at my computer
  2. If I'm on my phone
  3. If neither
    • If I'm at my desk: write on a sheet of paper, usually on a Rhodia Notepad
    • If I'm out somewhere: paper, using Field Notes or something similar that can fit in my pocket; I've also tried journal sized notebooks and I do like them but I don't carry them around often enough to make it worth using

The goal of capture is to quickly write down these "fleeting thoughts". The goal is not to organize or polish, but only to capture it before the thought is lost.

Review

The next step after capture is to review the things I captured. I have three queues: paper, text files, and bookmarks. Sometimes I fail. If I wait too long between the capture and the review, I'll forget the context. Ideally, I'll review the new items within a day or two of capturing them.

My review queue sometimes gets long enough that I don't get through it all anymore. This means some items wait for longer and longer, until I've completely lost track of why I captured them. This is an unsolved problem. I have to periodically either abandon the queue or allocate extra time to go through it.

Planning

Each year I look at what I've done and what I'd like to do. I write these in my public annual review blog post. Through the year I pick things to work on from my ideas lists. Some of these are in text files and others I keep in public, previously on Trello but now on Notion. I'm not particularly happy with either of them but haven't come up with something better.

Years and months aren't a good granularity for me. I need something smaller. I started with Dave Seah's Emergent Task Planner, which encourages me to plan three items each day, and also allows unplanned items, notes, and time tracking. Over time I realized I don't want to keep my notes or time tracking there, and I also wanted more flexibility in terms of which tasks I do on which days. I switched to weeks. Each Monday, I make a list of things I'd like to do that week. I write it on paper (TOPS Project Planner) because:

  1. The physical act of writing things down helps me think about them more than the act of typing them.
  2. The paper is always there on my desk, visible, even when I'm not at my computer. I end up using it more this way.
  3. Each week I have to copy the items from the previous week. This forces me to be to deal with items, and the list doesn't grow endlessly.

I have a column for work-related items and a column for personal items. The paper is going to get thrown away next week so it's not the place to keep information that I want searchable long term. I throw it out because knowing I'm not going to keep it allows me to spend less time trying to get it "right" and more time trying to get it "done".

Journal

I keep a daily text file with notes and also what I did (including start/end times), and I also write quick scripts to analyze the file. For example I can see that I have played 30 hours of Hades, or that I slept badly after lots of exercise, or how many hours I spent on a project. I started journaling in 2014 but it took me some time before it became a consistent habit. It helped when I set up keys: Cmd+Shift+J to open my journal, Cmd+Shift+J again to add an entry, and Cmd+I to auto-complete the journal entry based on previous titles (code).

Knowledge

The journal is where I place things by default. I can search over all my journal files with ripgrep by typing Cmd+Shift+F. It's fast and easy but unorganized. Information I want to refer to often I'll move into their own files.

I've been keeping one file per topic. For example I have a mapgen file where I keep all my map generation notes. Some of these are reference files, with pointers to information, and some of them are thoughts, like a personal wiki. Unlike zettlekasten, I prefer using larger files. I can open an existing note with Cmd+N o, create a new note with Cmd+N n, and search over notes with Cmd+N s.

Andy Matuschak has some nice notes about "evergreen" note taking. One of the things he says is instead of adopting someone else's system (like zettlekasten) you should design it for your own workflow. Digital gardening is another term for this.

One of the files is a set of facts I want to memorize. Michael Nielsen's essay about spaced repetition persuaded me to set this up. With Anki these would be lots of small cards, but I prefer larger files, so I put all the facts into one file and then run org-drill on it with Cmd+N D. One of the things he says is that instead of adopting someone else's Anki cards you have to design your own.

Projects

While working on a project I used to keep my task list in Trello/Notion but I found it was too slow so I've mostly switched to using text files with Markdown-style todo lists, at least for projects where I'm working alone, which is most of them. I'll also keep other notes in those text files. I'm inconsistent though, as sometimes I'll keep the notes in my journal.

Sometimes I polish and export the per-project notes as a web page like https://redblobgames.com/x/2025-roguelike-dev/ but most of them are just text files on my computer. I prefer sharing but it's a lot of work and sometimes I feel like the sharing gets in the way of me learning, because I become self-conscious and try too hard to avoid mistakes.

Summary

I mostly use text files (lasts forever) and paper (lasts a week). I've not had a lot of success with one system that does everything so I use many different systems. There are a lot of cool systems out there but I ended up doing using several simple systems, tuned for my own work habits.

2 comments:

Frank Gennari wrote at January 25, 2021 10:03 PM

This seems similar to what I do to organize all of my projects, except I mostly use TODO lists for everything. One for work on a linux machine with emaics and one for working on my game engine in Windows in Visual Studio. I used to commit them to git to track them but I gave that up since I change them constantly, sometimes multiple times per day. I have my own ASCII characters/symbols to assign priorities to items and mark them done.

Then one on paper for personal items. When the paper gets filled or too worn to write on I copy whatever items are left to a new sheet. I used to carry it around with me in my pocket everywhere I went until the Covid 19 kept me working from home, and now it seems to last forever if I write in tiny enough print. It no longer gets wet in the rain either.

And I always thought I was the only person this obsessive compulsive. At lest now I know I'm not the only one out there!

Unknown wrote at October 09, 2021 7:38 AM

I feel like you would like Obsidian or LogSeq. They work with plainly accessible markdown files but allow for backlinking, queries, filters and so on. Obsidian is more polished but I prefer Logseq because of its more granular focus (at the block level rather than page level)