I came across this YouTube video recently that someone on Reddit shared, and it hit home for me.I’ve come a long way in the past 6-12 months, getting to know myself a little better in terms of what tools I need to make me “productive”.
My previous cycle was this…
Go on YouTube and get hyped up by watching videos on Obsidian or other note taking solutions
Slowly build an overly complex system involving note graphs, too many apps, too many plugins etc etc
Feel really good about how I’m now “set for life” with everything
2 weeks later feel overwhelmed and come to the realization I’ve drastically overcomplicated things
Go back to step 1.
I’ve settled into a decent workflow finally that works for me, but I STILL, STILL, STILL find myself on YouTube waiting to be baited by the next big thing. Anyway, I saw this link on Reddit last week and it struck me. This guy is speaking to me directly, he must know me somehow…
I’ve found myself in the past reaching for overly complex planning beyond what’s necessary and endlessly researching and talking about ideas and plans without taking action. That’s a big check mark for me.
And I’ve had this feeling for months while watching and listening to people speak about their systems. I could never articulate my thoughts until this guy basically nailed it and I had my giant realization:
Personal Knowledge Management makes you feel smart
I’m not saying this is true for all of us. But I am saying it’s true for A LOT of us, and especially me. I won’t get into the details here but I’ve been able to simplify my systems a lot recently and it’s made me less stressed and less anxious. This isn’t my first post about this so I apologize if I sound like a broken record, but this video really described me perfectly. What is it all the cool kids say these days? “I feel seen?”.
I was supervising a group of high achieving High School students (aged about 15), half from the States and half from England. They had a discussion about how to cope with exams you found difficult. The English students talked about preparing themselves mentally, about revision strategies, about psychological approaches to minimise anxiety, about good online resources, about the best ways to ask a teacher for help, about how to organise your notes etc… The Americans looked deeply puzzled then one of them asked, “when do you start studying, you know, hit the books for yourself?”
To be fair, the English students knew that they’d have to actually do the hard intellectual work themselves, but were busy looking for ways to make it easier or less unpleasant (or maybe more effective). The Americans were straight to the point - doing the learning is the only thing that will work so the sooner you start, the better.
I have exactly the same experience: learned the hard way. Reflecting about my workflow, I also learned that those sophisticated workflows I build using different tools are not helping. They are just a means to procrastinate.
That is why I consistently resisted to jump into the Obsidian craze. I also advised fellow DEVONthink user to stick to it, and, not to add another layer on top.
Think of the most influential and successful scientist in your field. Do you think that they spend a lot of time creating hyperlinks across their notes, or trying out the latest gadget or app?
I don’t think so. A working solid system is what we need. It is not running with the latest hype.
In the Obsidian forum , I equated the Zettel method with the Tiktok. These are shallow tools: made to satisfy the urge to navigate.
I have tried to check the habits of some of the most successful scientist. Most of them never mention the methods they use: rarely care about them.
The two exceptions I am aware of, mentioned in interviews is that of Chomsky’s who said that he used the same set of computer programs throughout his life. He said his grandchild configured his computer in 1970’s: and he never cared to change any of it. Every time he changes departments, the department tech has to call his grandchild to move the old scripts to the new computers.
That is it! He is one of the most successfull scholars alive. He wrote all that material with some simple set of computer scripts that we setup on 1970’s. Never cares about the latest Ms word, latest Macbook pro. He spend his time on the productive thinking.
The other popular case is the renown physicist Richard Feynman. He quintessentially used just paper and pen to think about his problems. He said he keeps a list of his favorite physics problems in a paper. As new papers and theories emerge, he tests those new theories against those problems if they can work or solve them.
That is to say: most successful thinkers use very simple methods. Complex methods are obstructions for successful thinking.
The question is always the same: What do you want to be productive for? What do you need to manage your knowledge for? Luhman did the zettelkasten and it helped him achieve a massive production of work, that was good for him but would that work for me? I don’t think so.
This is so true. You can only assess how productive you are by what changes in the real world as a result. I’ve nothing against productivity workflows as a way of feeling better, being less frustrated or stressed etc. but without defining a purpose for what we do, we might as well be trying to run faster on a hamster wheel.
It’s like the cult of efficiency, which often just means cutting costs. You pay the price for that in so many ways unless you also think hard about effectiveness - the quality of the process for achieving real results.
And the “scouting for new workflows” → “implementation effort” → “change in the real world” chain is too personal. We cannot be someone else that we are not: what works for you may not work for me. It’s good to be always curious about how other people manage their knowledge and overall productivity workflows but one needs to create his own cherry-picked collage of techniques, the smaller the better. Or perhaps you don’t really need to change nothing!
Neither approach is likely to be as effective as one which combines appropriate elements of each, but the essence of doing well in exams is to hit the books, so losing sight of that is risky, even if you are doing lots of related things well.
I’ve lost count of the number of students I have had over the years who put in huge efforts on everything (planning, discussion, organising) except actually reading and working things out for themselves.