Schemas

Aside from StandardNotes - which has now become my go-to text editor and scratchpad - I use a couple of other tools to offload ideas from my brain to a more reliable medium.

The most long-standing of these is Todoist. It's been at least 4 years since I started using this tool, with no significant breaks. Throughout that time, my only real struggle has been when trying to apply a new organisational schema, such as using projects and subprojects in an effective way. Recent updates to the application could theoretically have helped with this, but instead just left me stuck between two not-quite-ideal, overly complex arrangements. After a week or so of struggling with the adjustments I made trying to accommodate new functionality into my workflow, I not only reverted to my previous technique, but took a further simplifying step by culling my subprojects entirely.

A more recent addition to my list of personal tools is Notion. Initially, Notion replaced Airtable as a database tool, but quickly also absorbed some of the content I was writing in Simplenote. Trying to create more structure using a mixture of lists, tables and kanban boards in Notion soon turned into an unsatisfactory experience; personal and work projects rarely have the same level of depth required, and I often ended up with unused headings or blank pages - ie structure simply for the sake of structure. I've since rescued my Notion usage by:

  • combining it with Pocket as a bookmark/reading-material aggregator - Notion is used for preserving reference material I am likely to come back to multiple times, while Pocket is used for one-off reading material such as blogs or time-sensitive news articles;
  • focusing on the use of simple list-pages at the top level of a project or other structure, with tasks exclusively placed on kanban boards when they (mostly) fit with SMART criteria;
  • using existing project pages as a simplified scratchpad for notes which do not yet have a home, or need to be merged/split - once these notes gain some value and context, they can be re-shuffled into an updated project.

With each of the tools I've adopted, the main limitation on how effective I found them initially was due to my own tendency to over-complicate. In each case I have struggled to keep my focus on the content being generated, instead becoming obsessed with finding the correct structure.

To break out of this cycle, I have adopted the idea of the "last responsible moment" to decide on a structure for data, and defaulting to the simplest possible format or collection of metadata. Both Simplenote and now StandardNotes have helped with this by enforcing the use of free-form tags as the only real form of organisation.

The lesson I've taken from this back-and-forth journey across multiple productivity tools is that no single schema can adequately fit to my work tasks, CPD activities and other speculative personal projects. I've wasted enough time on organization at the expense of "doing", so now things only get written down when they are at risk of slipping through the cracks - and ideas only have a structure applied to them where it can help with delivering results.


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