Very cool! We have another reader question today!
A reader asks,
“I like to write all sorts of stuff: interesting quotes, notes about some software, reflections on some topic, personal journaling, etc. The main issue I am facing is that, one day I’ll write on my notetaking software, another day I’ll write on my “personal reflections” notebook, or on a sheet of paper, or in my pocket notebook, and so on.
In the end, it’s a big mess.
All my efforts to organize what goes where are in vain. The main difficulty is that it’s not the topic or the format of what I’m writing that determines what I use. It’s more about the context of where I am and what writing material I have with me, that determines whether I choose the software or a piece of paper.
Should I just give up and accept this chaos? Should I accept that what I write might not have been easy to find? Sometimes I really think I care too much about whether my writings should be “findable.” Maybe writing for me is not a way to store ideas, it’s a way to get them out of my brain in order for new ones to emerge.
Wow, writing it alone cleared up things a bit, thanks for being my “rubber duck,” as the developers say!
However, I still don’t have a solution. Maybe you have a magic solution ready for me?”
The magic is in the fact that writing is a transit system, which transports little electrical sparks in your synapses into things that affect shared reality.
This is truly magical, and amazing, and a continuing source of awe to me: that we are alive, that we can create things, that we can use our thoughts to help ourselves grow, and to better the lives of others. A tremendous gift and power!
You can change your life for the better, and the lives of other people for the better, by writing down the thoughts in your head, and using that writing to make things real in the world.
If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
Savor that for a moment, because now we’re going to descend from magic.
We’re looking around… we’re seeing a LOT of notes. In LOTS of places. Apps. Pocket notebooks. Sheets of paper. Is that… a reminder in ballpoint ink, scribbled in the palm of your hand…? (Oops, that’s my hand. Sorry.)
You asked, “Should I just give up and accept this chaos?”
Havron’s Second Law of Personal Information Management: Never accept chaos without a fight.
For your notes made on paper: Get a box or a basket for physical notebooks and papers. This is your INBOX for your notes. When you get home, or are done writing, throw your physical notes into the basket. Before the day is done, set aside ten or fifteen minutes to enter any actionable raw notes into your systems and clear out your inbox – if you can’t do it by the end of the day, make time to do it within 24 hours, while you can still recall the context. (More about systems, below.)
For your actionable notes made in your notetaking software: make a folder or a tag, “INBOX.” Again, make time daily, or near daily, to enter any actionable notes into your systems. Actionable means: notes you write to yourself about time and tasks you’re responsible for. (More about non-actionable notes, below.)
How many inboxes? As few as you can get away with. With hybrid paper and digital, you’re going to need a place to keep paper notes to enter into your systems, and you’re going to need a digital place to do the same. After that, the fewer the better.
It does not matter how you capture your thoughts into writing, or how many modes you use to do this. Paper, apps, whatever.
The key question: what is it, that you want to produce from your notes? What are your deliverables that you hope for, from your writing? What do you want your thinking and writing to make real for you and others, or to help you make?
A functional calendar? A workout plan that you will actually use? A blog post? A garden? A novel? A budget you can actually live with? An app? A solar-powered passenger jet? Personal insights you can act on, to help you live out your values?
We make a lot of stuff from notes.
We’re all going to have different ideas about what we want our writing to produce. But the process is roughly the same.
Your notes are raw materials for making things real in the world.
You want to process (some of) your raw notes into forms that you can act on yourself, or share with others.
You want to revise (some of) your notes into cognitive products, written intellectual deliverables: instructions, outlines, lists, calendar entries, haiku, reminders, drafts, code snippets, timelines, insights, observations, constitutions, books, compositions, scripts.
Your notes can reliably be turned into written things that are complete enough to act on – IF you have a system.
You mention that writing for you is perhaps a way to get ideas out of your brain, in order for new ones to emerge.
For sure! And lots of what we write, we never do anything with again; the writing was enough – and that’s fine.
Be picky about what goes into your systems.
I have several paper notebooks I just scribble down ideas in. Each day I look them over for actionable notes, and scoop those out. Otherwise, when they are full, I scan them over, and only a few more notes get entered into my systems.
It’s like the old joke about the kid shoveling out the manure pile, because he’s sure there’s a pony in there, somewhere. For most thoughts, maybe writing them down is enough to free the pony: that great idea stamping and snorting behind all the ideas you had to write down first, in order to reach it.
Maybe most of your notes, you don’t need to find again. But some of them? Very valuable. Life-changing, in some cases.
What matters that you have reliable systems for processing them; that is, systems for creating cognitive products from your raw notes that you and / or others can use, later.
Your notes are inputs. They are raw materials, the record of your brain’s thoughts. You want to have a reliable system to capture these (e.g. not losing them), so you can review them later.
Okay, so now what?
Now it’s time to process that raw material: review, revise.
This is where you take your raw writing and do whatever you need to do, to make it actionable – first, you must decide what it means for you, and next, you rewrite it in forms that you or others can take action from.
The processing phase is about reviewing and revising notes you want to work further with.
This is where you take your raw notes, the stuff you scribbled down, and turn it into actionable cognitive packets like:
Package. Ship. Deliver.
What written products can you make from your notes, that make things real in the world?
What pieces of writing can you make, that will actually help you make important life changes for yourself?
What written things might you share with other people, written things that other people can engage with, and use?
Blog posts. Software. Geneologies. Fitness plans. Letters. Plans. Poems. Graphs. Blueprints. Novels. Screenplays. Memoirs. Articles. Recipes.
Knowledge work is about adding value to information.
That’s the value you create through having systems to capture and process your ideas.
Now let’s put on our safety goggles and hard hats, because we’re going to look at how to make things from raw notes.
Let’s start an idea processing company and call it “Rubber Ducks, LLC.”
You mention rubberducking in your question, and this is a great way to think about how notes fit into a system.
Rubberducking is articulating a problem by speaking about it or writing about it, to help you define and understand it better. Think of explaining something, putting something into words, to a friendly childhood bathtub toy: the faithful and endlessly tolerant rubber duck*.
Oh, look, here’s the Analog Office rubber duck!
Oh, wow, here’s the whole listening team! (The Analog Office Cats sometimes also perform this function, but they are not nearly as reliable.)
Rubberducking is any process that allows you to put your thoughts into words in a warm, friendly, totally non-judgmental environment that allows your young, fragile, fluffy little duckling ideas to emerge in safety.
Playfulness opens up our creativity, so the rubber duck is a great image for this.
This is the function your raw notes perform: they are your thinking, externalized.
This is also the function the letter you wrote to me performed: in writing out your question, it looks like you already found an answer. Maybe some, or even most, of your writing doesn’t need to be findable later. Maybe just writing something down is enough processing for you to be able to take action on your thoughts.
But you might also have notes you want to continue to develop.
Rubber Ducks, LLC takes your raw notes and makes them into intellectual products, cognitive deliverables, that you can act on.
Rubber Ducks, LLC has three divisions: the Personal Orientation Division, the Personal Organization Division, and the Creative Offerings Division.
Because life is messy, there is some overlap; but most personal notes will fall into these broad categories.
This is where you use your notes to make personal clarity for yourself about how you will live out your values, and your boundaries. (Your personal reflections notebook that you mentioned probably helps you generate notes to orient yourself.)
Orienting yourself is when you use insights and take actions to align yourself with your deepest priorities.
The process: Using your raw notes to orient yourself emotionally and logistically. You’re writing to think personal things through, to figure things out. You’re writing to process emotional stuff, and also to figure out logistics.
Examples: Let’s take an emotional insight. Let’s say, for example, that you spent yesterday feeling out of sorts and were impatient with your partner. As you write in your journal, you realize that yesterday’s calendar date coincided with the birthday of a beloved relative who died last year. And because one of your values is to treat your partner with kindness and respect, you resolve to apologize today, and let them know what was going on.
A logistics example: Let’s say you have two appointments today, and as you’re writing in your journal, you remember that the library is on the way, between them. You realize that you could save time and fuel (which relates to some of your values) if you throw a library book you’re finished with, into your bag; which you’ll drop off while you travel from the first appointment to the second.
The packaging: journal, diary, commonplace book, personal reflection notebook, a personal framework, which is an orientation system I teach people about, make your own here.
The product: insights that help you align your actions with your true values, and your sense of mission in the world.
This is where you use your notes to make personal clarity for yourself about what actions you need to take, when, to make things real in the world.
Organizing yourself is about figuring out how you will get things done. This is your classic personal productivity system: calendar, task lists; the systems you use to manage your goals, projects, meetings, tasks, plans.
The process: Using your raw notes to create sets of instructions for Future You, to take the right actions, at the right times, to move closer to completing the projects that achieve your goals.
Examples: Call Amelia (pro tip: list her phone number next to the instruction, so you can do it without getting distracted by “just checking” some baseball stats). Schedule the dental appointment. Finish the draft. Pack the lunch. Cancel the subscription.
A classic productivity system is how you help Future You get things done, by setting up reminders and instructions for yourself where you will see them, at the right time for you to act on them.
The packaging: Your entries into your calendar, your task lists, your project plans.
The product: An effective calendar and task management system that helps you get things done with less stress.
This is where you use your notes to make things for others.
Offerings are the written works you create for others to use and enjoy and engage with.
The process: Your notes can also go toward creating outlines, drafts, snippets, equations, guides, diagrams, character studies, lists, etc. that help you create things to be shared with others, to be used by others.
These notes get processed into something you can share with other people.
The packaging: Creative idea processing systems like a writer’s notebook, a zettelkasten, a second brain, an idea farm, that turn notes into writing that can be shared. (Given the metaphor I’ve used here, I have an idea factory, and I have decided that it looks and works something like Howl’s Moving Castle. So we can still have factories + magic.)
The products: cognitive products you make that you share with others, that you hope others will find useful or engaging, like blog posts, stories, code snippets, memos, apps, articles, poems, letters, reviews, books, etc., etc., etc. …so much we can share in this world with one another, right?
But not unless we:
Write our ideas down. (Input.)
Review and revise them regularly. (Cognitive processing.)
Shape into forms we, and others, can act on. (Output, cognitive products.)
And, I hope that this particular shared cognitive product – this blog post, from my Rubber Ducks, LLC, Creative Offering Division – has been useful for you.
Thanks for writing in!
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Wondering how to manage your paper-based or hybrid paper-digital systems? Ask me a question.
* Hey, U.S. Gen X-ers! It is SING-A-LONG time! … “Rubber Duckie, you’re the one!” …whoa, I’m not out of tune, Rubber Duckie, you’re out of tune! Pass the soap.
Sesame Street: Ernie and his Rubber Duckie (2009). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh85R-S-dh8 (Accessed: 31 March 2023).
Havron, A. “What Do You Want to Make Real in the World?” (2023) annahavron.com, 29 March. Available at: https://www.annahavron.com/blog/what-do-you-want-to-make-real-in-the-world (Accessed 1 April 2023)
Havron, A. “Why Create a Personal Framework?” (2020) annahavron.com, 30 September . Available at: https://www.annahavron.com/blog/why-create-a-personal-framework (Accessed: 31 March 2023).
Havron, A. “Make Your Own Personal Framework” (2021) annahavron.com, 14 May. Available at: https://www.annahavron.com/blog/make-your-own-personal-framework (Accessed: 1 April 2023)