Me a few days ago:
… and as a followup:
Writing is a tool I use to think, and I don’t share a lot of it. I used to get frustrated because I’d write a few thousand words to make a point or express an idea and then “abandon” it in favor of just talking through things, but that was the attitude of a paid writer who thought of his writing as a product, not a process.
One day, though, when I was on a tech writing team, I became super frustrated with something I was documenting because some of the design decisions around it were sort of bad. So I took the time to write almost 4,000 words about how to un-bad it, didn’t really feel ready to share that with anybody, and set it aside. But I understood the thing I was writing about much better, and my docs around it really improved, and when I got to a place where I felt like sharing the ideas I came up with more widely, I was able to write a much more concise and digestible 1,000 words or so that didn’t include phrases like “this fucked-up Legend of Zelda configuration scheme.”
Since that experience, I got a lot better at just writing and not expecting to share, understanding that what I am doing is processing. Sometimes it helps to use an RFC template, false-start a blog post, or start an unaddressed email, because those contexts serve as cues or mood-setters. But I’m usually content to use whatever to do it because the output doesn’t need to last forever. It’s fine if it gets lost to the sands of time. It’s just a process, and wanting to “save” or “preserve” it makes little more sense than a baseball player trying to save a swing at the ball.
I think having a bunch of time to just fiddle with stuff put me in a mood to over-optimize, so it makes sense that I was getting obsessive and hyper-focused on note taking and writing tools, and getting super architectural about the whole thing. But having had a solid six weeks of being back in the work swing and having to actually use the notes I keep, I’ve been realizing how ephemeral they are. I’m glad I have them, but they don’t need to be architected. I’m careful to tag them up front with people and topics just to make search more useful and focused, but I don’t interlink much, haven’t really used the automated index pages I’ve cooked up, and don’t really care much about the heading structure or tidiness. Most of them will not be useful for much in maybe a quarter or so.
So I just made a folder in Apple Notes and started typing notes in there. It has tagging, it has smart folders, it has rudimentary formatting (title, heading, subheading, lists, todos) and you can make smart folders that pay attention to things like tags, location, unfinished todos, etc. I can do stuff I’ve been doing in Obsidian — inline todos I have a smart folder to surface for consolidation, smart folders for particular tags — but with no plugins that could age out, no need to really “automate” anything, no paying extra for sync, and no real room for mission creep. I know Notes will be around for the next OS release because Apple added some features to the beta, so it’s as future proof as this kind of content needs to be.
I sort of like it. There is not a lot to think about. Even less, in some ways, than flat, plain text, because Notes is just sitting there on every Apple device I own, and in a pinch is available via a web browser.
I also went through Things and asked myself what was up there. I’ve been using it more over the past several months, and there are already dead things, abandoned things, cryptic things. So I got out a legal pad, captured all the living things, and wrote all my active projects down at the bottom of the page. Then I started crossing things off as I did them.
When I looked at all the projects this afternoon — eight of them are “active” right now — I knew what each needed next. If I feel like I’m getting to a state of overflow, I think I’ll just make a list in Reminders for a project that needs more from me. But I live in a pretty well supported environment — there are plenty of trackers, there’s program management, there’s a steady cadence of meetings — I think I can manage.
I did find myself looking through my calendar and sort of Tetrising tasks on my list into my available space, jotting down the target block of time and a time estimate. I am sure apps allow you to do all that, and I know there are apps that also semi-automate the process of doing the Tetrising for you. I don’t know if I need something to do that for me.
I keep coming back to my old HR business partner, Don, who told me — when I was freaking out about an interim leadership role I didn’t think I belonged in — “you know what’s important, and you don’t do what’s not important, and that’s why we think you’ll be good at this.”
I know what needs to be done, know the state of the things I’m pushing forward, and I know when that stuff needs to be done. When things get super choppy I’ll break down and do a big dump so I can negotiate priorities with more precision, but, sort of like throw-away writing, that’s a process. I don’t want to leave it to a tool or suck all the friction out, any more than I want ChatGPT to do my throwaway process writing for me.
Someone did comment to me that they didn’t like the sound of copying things over from day to day. I get the resistance. It’s not necessary effort. The CO I knew who lived out of her legal pad explained to me that the copying was important to her, because it helped her think about what was important, think ahead about tomorrow, and ball up the list from today and toss it in the recycling bin before turning off the lights and going home.
You know, a legal pad is an imperfect system. If you move around a lot, you have to remember to bring it with you. It doesn’t sync to the cloud. It requires you to copy things, scratch things out, etc. On the other hand, it is worse at hoarding obligations than an electronic tool, it makes you think a little harder about what you commit to it, and it is nicer to draw a line through a finished thing than click it out of existence (in my opinion). I like having it sit there on my desk, just to the right of my mouse pad. I can look at it whenever I’m not sure what to do with a minute, and there’s always something. I experimented with pinning my Things “today” list on my screen to do the same thing, but that didn’t take.
Anyhow, I really don’t want anyone else to use legal pads to keep track of what they have to do today, and expect at some point I will be very curious about some other thing and will want to try it out.