November 2, 2022

The Perfect Place

There exists this fantasy in my head, that if I could just find The Right Organizational System I’d have all my shit together.

I keep looking for The Perfect Place to take notes, to jot down titles of books I want to read, shows and movies I want to watch (independent of any realistic notion of ever actually getting to them), things I need to remember and want to remember; a CommonplaceBook for quotes and little snippets (much like my meme folder I suppose.)

It would be a place we here the chaos would be stored/mitigated/manageable because it’s offloaded to an external support system for my brain.

I want to be able to BrainStorm ideas for stories along side my ideas for projects and goals for the future and have it display the next few things I need to work on, do for the day, people I have to call, or things to buy at the grocery.

** I’ve looked through some stuff

And through relentless exploration (and no small amount of exposition) I’ve found a lot of people are trying to scratch the same itch.  So I’ve tried out every system, hardware and software I can get my hands on. 

3×5 cards, Daytimers/Filofax/Planners/Midori Traveler notebooks (including many home made variants.)  Seriously.  I have boxes of blank notebooks and 3×5 cards and still can rarely resist the compulsion to buy one more $0.98 composition book at walmart or stack of legal pads at Sam’s because I get overtaken by the compulsion of the symbolic potential energy represented by the blank notebook in my head.

I’ve tried the “system in a notebook” solutions like: BulletJournaling. Mark Forster’s AutoFocus system, David Allen’s GettingThingsDone, the 43 Folders system all the way down to things simple as a normal todo list, which is arguably the least bad of the notebook/card based solutions within the scope of reach of such things.

I’ve been through Evernote, MindMapping systems up the wazoo, desktop WikiWiki software (both commercial and home-grown), OneNote, Todoist, LifeUp and Habitica.

I have whiteboards, blackboards, and pads all over the house.  There’s a notebook or two in every pocket of every coat and every bag I own.

They all have problems.  They all do too little.  Few of them are really very good at anything at all. 

So I finally, with mixed emotions, came to the conclusion that I need to create the damned thing myself, rather a task.

I need to be able to get any kind of data it can take into it from almost anywhere.  Voice, typed, linked, emailed, copy-pasted, from the phone or keyboard, from home or on the road, and automatically pulled from any of several resources; automated web searches, etc.

But I also want it to collect all my email as it comes in and figure out if there’s anything I need to do with it; add newsletters to a reading list, notify me of emails from my financial advisor or from friends and family or if an amazon package has been delivered.

In this place there would be no barrier to entry to getting information IN to the system or out of it past those barriers intrinsic to the nature of the information itself.

And it’s not just going to be a repository of data.  It’s going to have to do some thinking, some linking, some cross referencing and decision making.

Once I have it I need to be able to see what I want to see when I want to see it.

At my computer that’s a huge interactive dashboard with an editor for writing and publishing that’ll show me items, linkages, project statuses and the general state of things, across any of several different project/data visualization paradigms.

But it also includes mobile interactivity, including contextual todo lists (i.e. shopping list when I’m at the store, writing ideas when I’m in the cigar lounge, same interface), information that’s recently been trending in my head, bookmarks, calendar tickler items and the like.

It’d be a place where I’d be able to easily reference the list of projects I’ve got kicking around in my head, the few next highest priority things I’ve got to get done today or this month or this year, depending on what level I want to zoom down or up into.  A thing that will even push the things I’ll need to be made aware of in front of my face.

Aside from time horizon, I’d be able to traverse back and forth across tasks to projects to goals to core principles as well, changing my level of examination across a separate dimension.

These items would be deeply integrated and associated past the level of simple pre-assigned hierarchies into the realm of discoverable patterns (whether that’s proactive or reactive is a function of process load.)  Those associations are themselves objects of a sort, to be cross-referenced and made available such that they can be understood.

And maybe the front-end interface will look like a MindMap, a WikiWeb, a Zettelkasten, a KanbanBoard, post it notes, or a giant pile of paper. The back end data organization won’t really have that much to do with the front end presentation aside from some fundamental architectural constraints.

At one level I’d be able to push and pull knowledge with reckless abandon, the world at my fingertips, almost effortlessly.

At the next level the system itself would push data TO me, as I wanted it, WHEN I wanted it and WHERE I wanted it.  If I were in the supermarket it would tell me to buy eggs.

That’s the fantasy.

Believe it or not this is a reasonable project.

I’ve got more of that mapped out than the average (or really fucking good) programmer might suspect.  It’ll work.  I’ll need to pay some front end developers to get some of the fancy UX stuff done through one of those work-for-hire websites.  But all the back end stuff I can do myself easily enough.

Twenty years I’ve been thinking about this and doing some little bit about it.  I’ve made a bunch of starts, some of them false, some of them just prototyping ideas for data architectures, apis and module systems.

With some clever decoupling and a modular design system I can do things break this down easily enough, assuming I can focus long enough to build the plan.  Bit of a dogfood problem, that.

But the somewhat ironic truth of it is that even if I got all the wizbang features I could possibly imagine in to it (and I can get closer than you might think) it won’t do what I want it to do.

Oh it will in the purely technical sense.  It’ll be able to do everything I’ve put forth here and a bunch of things I’ve either not remembered or cared to add to the above list. 

What it won’t do is remove those strange barriers that are oddly also the very compulsions driving me like a fucking salmon during spawning season to seek this technical solution.

It’ll do all the stuff, but it won’t “make it easy.”  It won’t help me see the future.  It won’t help remove anxiety from planning, decision making, and goal setting.  Okay it’ll HELP, sure. 

It will be like moving across the country and turning around to find all your baggage has joined you on the trip (which, in fairness I knew was going to happen.)

It won’t fulfill that fantasy of The Perfect Personal Knowledge Management System, because nothing will.  The problem is of course that these obstacles are all in my head.  Though whether they’re in my head or just in my head is something a little existentially heady for me to have figured out just yet.

What I realized at some point over the last year or so that the very nature of the problem of Executive Function Management is such that it literally precludes the very NOTION of a solution.

Yet the compulsion remains.