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Ask 43F: Handling notes in scattered places

Shiran Pasternak writes to ask:

I'm overwhelmed by various note-taking tools you've recommended in the past (so it's your fault). I use, fairly arbitrarily, either TextMate, OmniOutliner Professional (purchased for kGTD, of course), and Notational Velocity...

My main problem is how to retrieve the notes, given that they exist in these scattered applications. Should I then migrate all my notes and use just one of these (or another I may have missed)? Or, should I use a combination of the tools? If so, can you offer heuristics for when to use each note-taking application, and also, if possible, some ideas for how and when to retrieve notes?

This is a really good question -- especially given how many people are suffering from the first-world problem of having way too many cool Mac apps to choose from for this kind of work. The short answer is to slim down the number of tools you're frequently using, but to then be sure you also do something smart and repeatable with everything you've captured. The longer explanation...

Most of us eventually get pretty good at capturing the informational detritus in our lives -- we have innumerable ways to park ideas, track bugs, create to-dos, and so on. In addition to the apps Shiran mentions, there's also the limitless possibilities of index cards, white boards, web applications, et cetera, on and on. The primary hang-up, in my experience, comes from using so many of these "collection buckets" that it becomes time-consuming and confusing to find, process, and do something with all that stuff in a frictionless way. All the capture in the world is useless unless there's an equally intuitive way to then do something with it.

So, first of all, try to limit the number of tools you entrust to data capture. I'm not saying you should just try to forget about something if you don't have your favorite capture device handy, but at the same time, try not to scatter your stuff among silos that a) don't talk to each other, b) you don't frequently check, process, and empty to zero. Candidly, this is what I like about my combination of text files, kGTD, and The Hipster PDA -- I never have to think twice about where something goes.

  • If I'm at the computer and need to capture basic ideas and reference stuff, it gets Quicksilvered into a text file
  • If I'm at the computer and need to track a task, I add it to Kinkless
  • Anything else anywhere else goes into the HPDA (for processing back at home base)

Your mileage (and devices) may vary, but I encourage you to aggressively thin the herd of whizzy gadgets and apps you use down to the one or two that work best for you. And most definitely don't tear ass to every new bauble that pops up on del.icio.us that promises to revolutionize your brain and your life.

Which brings us to the all-important second point: you must empty and process all your collection buckets on a regular basis. Or you will go insane. I promise. Only you can decide what "regular" needs to be, but, chances are, if you're not sure where something is right now (i.e. which bucket you left it in), it's because you aren't processing and reviewing often enough. A text file, in my case, is often the final destination for a piece of information, so that's not a problem, but leaving tasks, ideas, and notes in untended baskets can be almost as stress-inducing as not capturing them at all. Process the crap out of everything once, empty the basket, then review the processed results as often as necessary. Having fewer of these buckets, as above, makes this emptying a less trying experience.

And, finally, remember that reference materials in particular (like notes, future plans, and other non-actionable items) are only as useful as your ability to locate them when they really matter. Like I've said before, when thinking about where something goes, try to envision the time when you'll need to find it in the future. Where will you be when you need it? What tools and access will you have? What name will you search for? Are there other materials that need to always live with this item? For the retrieval, then -- depending on how you answered all those questions -- the answer might be Spotlight, Google Desktop, incremental searching -- or even just flipping to an A-Z cabinet of file folders. It just depends. But you'll be much better suited to figuring this out once you've chosen your favorite capture, processing, and parking methods and stuck with them. Otherwise there's not really one answer. And that's probably the problem.

Capturing, by itself, will always give you a short and satisfying burst of stress reduction, but it doesn't absolve you of the need to make sure those captured items then get quickly placed into the spots where the really need to live. By minimizing your collection points, processing and reviewing regularly, and using smart planning for storing it in the right place, you can build a leak-free system that runs like a Swiss watch.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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