Paul McGrath


Rethinking My Thinking

Image of man looking over sea.

Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash.

Seeking creative space, I spent two months exploring productivity and tools for thought. Here's what I discovered.

I recently learned that Netflix tested a “speed-watching” feature and it seems the most apt metaphor for our era. Too much content stressing you out? Try watching it faster. Far more likely is that it’ll go on some sort of list. A watch it, read, it, do it later sort of list. These lists have become a digital extension of Tsundoku: the Japanese art of buying books and not reading them. Now we hoard ideas, articles, and links and never do anything with them.

This feeling can be stressful, as our creative need to engage with the world collides with relentless change, particularly for those in the digital sphere. In 2019, Nobel prize-winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman said that “Technology evolves exponentially, whereas our mechanisms for coping are linear”, and that struck a chord. Never has this been more evident than now, mid-pandemic, as we exchange the subtle, reassuring friction of normal living for the “always-on”, performance mode of online existence.

This isn’t new, though. In 2012, Cal Newport wrote about knowledge workers lacking a culture of improving their systems of work. Rather than improve our process, we tend to focus on managing email, and lots of it. Technology, it seems, has opened up incredible opportunities while contributing to a “great frazzling” of our collective minds. Yet there is something different about the current situation we find ourselves in. In particular, the digital impact of the pandemic. One of my favourite writers, Venkatesh Rao, recently hinted at the significance of this shift:

Software eating the world is going through an inflection point I thought wouldn’t arrive till 2030. The pandemic has accelerated the schedule by 10 years. [source]

Even for those who wouldn’t consider themselves very tech-inclined, it’s easy to see the truth in this. Couples are getting married via Zoom. Parents can FaceTime babies in neonatal units. A woman accidentally turned herself into a potato during a digital happy hour. Software is the world now. And it would be nice if we made it work for us, for once.

Second Brains

During Ireland’s lockdown, I found myself with more time to explore this thought. By chance I came across Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain, which advertised a “world-class idea management system in 35 days.” It sounded fascinating, albeit outside my price range. I read around the area instead, starting with some of his early work. His first course seemed useful, called Get Stuff Done, and I signed up. It was a digital-reimagining of David Allen’s famous Getting Things Done: a book I had read when younger. At the time I had found it difficult to integrate as it was so rooted in physical artefacts like folders and paper. A tough sell, when my life was becoming ever more digital.

Screenshot from Tiago Forte's Building a Second Brain

(Source: Tiago Forte's Building a Second Brain)

The course was excellent, and finally cemented the GTD workflow for me with digital tools, but Tiago hinted at a more important takeaway. He suggested that automating our daily efforts saves us mental energy, and frees us to focus on the creative, interesting parts of life. Right there was a glimmer of something more valuable: that high-leverage digital tools could help me spend more time having fun with ideas. I was obsessed.

I decided to follow Tiago’s structure of PARA (Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives) and practice of CODE (Collect, Organise, Distill, Express) to structure my notes, and committed to it for a couple of weeks. Every so often, an idea would form, which I would capture, and over time it would either “bubble-up” by my returning to it, or would fade out as it wasn’t significant or relevant. The effort was low, but the return was high. I concerned myself less with management and more on what I found interesting. The result, after a month or so, had no fanfare, or celebration. In fact, it was almost anticlimactic, as there was no reactivity, stress, or concern. Left instead was a stillness that you could feel bored with, if you were of that persuasion. Instead, I found myself thinking, creating, and exploring far more in this new free space.

Encouraged by this success, I dug deeper. I learned about the Zettelkasten Method, by reading How to Take Smart Notes, both likely geneses for Building a Second Brain. I doubled-down on earlier attempts at noise-reduction by reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. My phone went on permanent “Do Not Disturb” and I found healthy space in a fixed and sustainable schedule. I became a lab rat for these ideas, because they actually worked.

Coupling these three strategies together: automating the daily, repeatable parts of living, reducing external noise, and building an ad-hoc knowledge graph, created a situation I so longed for — the possibility of taking on well-defined personal projects with specific outcomes, knowing that if I had new ideas along the way, I wouldn’t lose them. In fact, they may even have improved by the time I engaged with them.

To test this further, I started two courses by Dr. Barbara Oakley called Learning How to Learn and Mindshift. I found significant parallels between Dr Oakley’s description of how the mind creates knowledge “chunks” and creating notes in my “Second Brain”, as both develop knowledge graphs that aid creativity. I took notes throughout, often finding that they sparked associations between notes in very different areas — a phenomenon Dr Oakley calls Transfer. Linking these concepts was trivial now, as they were just nodes in a digital graph.

I had found a solution to Cal Newport’s concerns, and it didn’t involve sending email.

Screenshot from Dr. Barbara Oakley's Mindshift

(Source: Dr. Barbara Oakley's Mindshift)

Breaking It Down

If you’re a knowledge worker starting this journey, you too may feel overwhelmed at the amount that life and work expects of you. If you have no system at all, writing down all the tasks required of you on a single sheet of paper is a great start. This brain dump is essential, as we have limited working memory (roughly 4 “slots”) and whatever isn’t written down continues to occupy that space. At some point, you may find that this system won’t scale to the breadth or depth of tasks required of you. I found my solution in Getting Things Done with Things3, but there are other methodologies outlined in this article that may suit you better.

Screenshot from David Allen's Getting Things Done.

(Source: David Allen's Getting Things Done)

Managing your tasks is an excellent first step, but you may still experience information overload. Most knowledge workers (at least in software engineering) have an enormous quantity of material to read, reference, and recall at short notice. Few have a system to manage this. Tiago Forte’s PARA shines here, as a flexible and useful system for managing hierarchies of reference material. Digital tools are the only prerequisite, and many are available, depending on your needs. Notion, Evernote, and Bear are great for general users. Academics may prefer Mendeley or Zotero.

At this stage you may feel more in control. Great! You could stop here, but there is a final step, and it’s the most important. I mentioned that Tiago Forte uses the acronym CODE to describe the process of Collecting, Organising, Distilling, and Expressing what you read and reference. By now, you should be accomplishing the first two letters of that acronym. The remaining two, distilling and expressing, are important aspects of the Generation Effect: a phenomenon where active engagement with material leads to greater recall. If you want to understand what you read, you need to do something with it. That action is note-taking.

Taking notes can be as simple as ensuring you read with a pen and notebook to hand. I find this doesn’t scale very well though, and also doesn’t mirror how my mind works. I want networked thought, graphs of ideas, thoughts linking to other thoughts, and so do many others. Tools like Roam, Obsidian, and Foam resolve this as they represent literal graphs of thinking, allowing your ideas to cluster, link, and collide as unique insights. Choose a tool, and write about what you read in your own words. You can explore, create, and extrapolate in any way you wish. You may take a different approach to the next person, and that’s encouraged, as these tools should augment your thoughts. And that’s what they are: tools to aid your thoughts. Augmentations to help your brain make sense of the world.

Screeshot from Roam Research.

(Source: Roam Research)

What you end up developing, ultimately, is an idea machine, and a process to get the most from it. This starts from a place of “deep unknowing”, to a system which shows you the most unique and interesting intersections of your thoughts as geneses for new writing. The “daunting blank page” should never be blank again.

Tools For Thought

While exploring this rabbit hole, I learned that Personal Knowledge Managment (PKM) is a discrete area of study, rather than a new area of focus. Tiago Forte’s “Second Brain” had acted as an accessible entry point: a marketable tool for knowledge workers; but there is ample room for innovation beyond this approach. Andy Matuschak’s Evergreen notes outline a new theory for this area, and digital gardening has become a very tactile metaphor for exploring ideas in public. There is an emerging “new wave” also, focused less on the act of note-taking, and more on augmented thinking as the emergent frontier.

Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen have summarised the latent potential of the space in their incredible essay How can we develop transformative tools for thought? Pointedly, they call out the disjuncture between the visions outlined in “Golden Age of Computing”, and today’s underwhelming reality. Channeling Alan Kay and Douglas Englebart, they describe how our “pop culture” goal-driven industry has put little effort into pursuing the original vision, and in its current form, will continue to fail in this effort.

There is hope, though. Citing the creation of language, writing, and the printing press, they argue that open-ended exploration is a key aspect of innovation, and that we need a low-friction praxis to enable further discovery. Bret Victor’s Dynamicland currently leads by example, channeling similar energy to historical labs like PARC, SRI and others inspired by DARPA. Andy and Michael also contribute to this space by exploring ways of systematising new tools for thought, particularly in education. Their recent work, Quantum computing for the very curious, leans on the concept of an “mnemonic essay” to achieve greater recall over traditional methods, using a spaced-repetition memory system. Memory, they argue, represents very high potential for new tools.

Screenshot from Quantum Country

(Source: Quantum Country)

They believe that they can take it further, too. Particularly by leveraging a medium with great emotive potential. Their hope is that blending the wonder of video with detailed spaced repetition is key, by contrast to current interruptive models, employed by MOOCs. They aim to interpolate spaced repetition with a compelling narrative, compounding understanding through this blended approach. I for one, am excited. Their efforts seems to be catching on, as others have begun developing similar systems, such as Gary Bernhardt’s Execute Program. This focuses on systematising the recall efforts behind high-leverage software concepts and languages, and is one to watch.

The effectiveness of the tools I’ve outlined are staggering when you consider their simplicity, and the cost of not using them. Imagine if remembering something was optional? Personally, my hope for this space are tools that increase the potential for metacognition: thinking about thinking. Particularly, learning which strategy to apply, when, and why. For me, at least, metacognition represents the most significant transfer value between areas. Reasoning about your area is important, but thinking about the reasoning about your area is invaluable. Perhaps that starts with better tools for recall.

Community First

My thoughts throughout this piece have focused on what we can do as individuals, using tools and techniques, but ultimately our successes are made possible by others. This, then, is the challenge of the origin myth of computing. Ivan Sutherland, Douglas Englebart, and Alan Kay may have been miles ahead of us, decades ago, but it’s still a focus on great individuals over great groups. Revering giants is not what we need right now.

Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen agree, and believe that future communities will research these areas, together. Dynamicland is one realisation of that belief, focused on “lifting all people” through a community space. A self-described “public library for 21st-century literacy”.

Screenshot from Dynamicland.

(Source: Dynamicland)

It’s a wonderful concept, and there is precedence to support it. The internet wasn’t a consumer product, for example. It emerged from a research-backed culture, wrapped around a core set of values and principles. This would mark a significant departure from what our industry focuses on today, as Andy and Michael point out:

Getting the insight-through-making loop to operate at full throttle will mean reinventing parts of both research culture and conventional product development culture; it will mean new norms and a new type of person involved in key decision making. [source]

Dynamicland highlights that “there is no product we can ship to achieve this goal”, and they’re right. Emphasising open-ended exploration over goal-driven processes is vital. If we want a new transformative medium, like writing, or the printing press, we need to spend more time on play. This shift in perspective is just as transformative as focusing on new tools.


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