Systems vs. Apps

There are three different current threads all closely related:

1 - Field Guide for Picking Apps and Sticking With Them
2 - Too Many Apps Reduce Productivity
3 - Time to Rip Off the Evernote Bandaid

Instead of pasting the same response in each one and having the discussion spread out, I thought I would respond to them here in one place, as I think the answer for each is the same: you don’t need new apps, or less apps, or different apps (necessarily) - you need a better system.

Yes, I know, we tend to switch systems as frequently as we do apps, but I’ve found what feels like a great ‘master’ system. Specifically, it is Tiago Forte’s ‘Building a Second Brain’ system. More info:


Excellent sketchnote/visual guide/overview:

I found the PARA approach to organizing very instructive and helpful. And it is designed to work in any app, as detailed here:

The PARA method

Tiago uses evernote, the last I heard, but I have found an excellent implementation/template for the system using - my current app of choice:

How To Build a Second Brain in Notion

So - hope that helps. I also hope that making a separate thread doesn’t upset any one - just trying to simplify, that’s all :slight_smile:


Neat concept and useful resources. Thanks!

Can I ask: what are the kinds of use cases you employ with this in the run of a week? Like, how does it get used—outside of capturing info in it?

I have a pretty satisfying system for keeping everything organized, but I wonder if there’s sometimes utility I’m missing in drawing on that organization.

In the sketchnote link (above) Parts IV and V deal with progressive summarisation and retrieving/using the information previously captured.

I’m still mainly in the capture phase. I’ve imported all my old Evernote notes and Trello boards, haven’t done the Google docs and all my writing files (Markdown for blog posts, misc. text files for lots of other projects) because I’m still getting the PARA system set up. So I don’t have a track record with it yet, it just resonated with me. Also, keep in mind that I’m retired so this is for all my personal stuff, nothing related to an office or w*rk. :slight_smile:

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I wouldn’t worry about missing anything. I’ll find a tool when I start to feel some friction in a workflow or I need to find a solution to an event that pops up. Otherwise, don’t try to find a solution for a problem you don’t have.


I agree with your focus on systems-design, rather than building around tools. I recently posted this in the “Evernote Bandaid” thread:

I think the key to good systems is deciding what we want from the information we are collecting. We already know there is something about the information we want to have access to “forever.” To improve future accessibility and the ability to extract the important insights from that information, the focus should not be on the act of keeping it but on the why we want to keep it. Systems built to maximize our ability to do the things that come out of answers to that why question, enable us to synthesize and make better use of this information we are keeping.

NB: If this comes off as a little too abstract, let me know and I’ll work to clarify it. I was trying to be practical (not philosophical), but I didn’t want to bog readers down with specific examples that matter to me but that might not be relevant to their needs.

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Yes! I’m so glad to see someone else here using PARA. I have been a die-hard follower for the past 2.5 years now since I first took the Building a Second Brain. I think Tiago would be a wonderful guest for MPU sometime too!

Anyways, I do think that the system is way more important than the apps as far as I am concerned.

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I just read this PARA article, which I think is excellent. The system I employ for myself lines up pretty well in line with this methodology.

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This looks really useful. I wish I didn’t see this right before bed, because now my brain won’t stop thinking about it.

Would love to take that class, it might be too expensive to justify at the moment.

Do you have any concerns with building something like this in a proprietary app like Notion?

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Good question. Most people don’t have issues using Evernote, also proprietary. But some really do prefer text-only solutions. Here is a long discussion from someone who uses the Zettelkasten system moving from the text-based ‘The Archive’ software on MacOS to

It looks like you can export your workspace which will come out in CSV for tables and Markdown or HTML for everything else. Not sure how much of the folder/heirarchy would be lost…

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I think this sometimes works. Problem is, sometimes you don’t know you have a “problem”. Most of the complex problems I study/work with aren’t visible, requiring framing to discover them. This is especially true if the problem is one preventing thriving (as opposed to problems of immediate survival, which are usually obvious). I think productivity systems are a perfect example of this.

Dramatic, off-topic example: climate change. Burning dinosaur bones was a great “system” for decades until we noticed how devastating it is.

Less tangential: everything buckets. People thought the drop-it-in-Evernote approach was great until they realized they weren’t actually doing anything with the stuff they had in Evernote (e.g., Evernote as “write-only”, as discussed on the “Optimizing your GTD System” episode of the Getting Things Done podcast.).

So, my goal is to be as intentional about system-building as early as possible, so that the benefits compound over time (rather than have diminishing returns with additional investment).

A few mechanisms that demonstrate this idea:

  • my DEVONthink autotagging tools have helped me build up a useful record of readings on different subjects that are easily drawn on and shared with others without having to think about those tags when capturing a new resource.
  • I have set up a few smart views to show me the files I was looking at a month ago and a year ago (etc.) so that I have a sort-of dragnet pulled behind me reminding me of the things that have fallen out of vogue.

Nonetheless, I’d love to find more creative ways of engaging these tools for growth over time! Hence my curiosity about how other people take advantage of their systems as they grow.