Decoupling the original vision

    Efficient creative work at the edge of the adjacent possible is basically:

    1. Envisioning your dream home fully built
    2. Finding the most elemental materials to build it
    3. Building a completely different and better home than you ever could have imagined

    Inefficient creative work is the failure to release the original vision—the false notion that you can know in advance what lies beyond the been-done-before.

    It was the glass-half-emptiest of times

    The Guardian:

    In an ironic vicious circle,… the despair that people feel – about developments including the rise of Trump – is the same kind of thing that fuels the rise of Trump. (The campaign to leave the European Union seemed similarly focused on sweeping away the status quo and hoping for the best.) The sense that the world is an increasingly terrible place, whether or not it really is, is itself a phenomenon with real effects that we can’t afford to ignore.

    Earlier in the article:

    The trouble is that, when it comes to getting an accurate grip on things, the modern media and the human brain are both strikingly poorly designed.

    Perhaps making the world better has to start with the realization that it’s far, far better than we perceive. No easy feat when our social information systems and senses prioritize negativity above all else.

    A penny for your apps

    David Sparks made a sobering observation on the closing down of the note taking app Vesper:

    If the dream team couldn’t make it work, who can?

    In my mind, the challenge faced by productivity app developers can be traced to the Jekyll and Hyde personas of a capitalist citizen:

    1. Joe Seller wants a monopoly market
    2. Joe Buyer wants a commodity market

    In most markets, profits spike initially then dissipate as #1 moves to #2. With modern software, this transition happens at the speed of thought. It doesn’t matter how prolific an app team might be. Never before have so many people known how to code. Never before have software products been so accessible to so many.

    The decentralization of software development and distribution makes establishing monopolies or seller-controlled markets virtually impossible. Software is an extreme opposite to a product category like pharmaceuticals. An app developer can’t pull off an EpiPen. As soon as a great app appears, clones abound.

    I could go into the App Store right now and find 20 great note taking apps whose pros and cons cancel out. Any one of them would be great for me, but I can’t use them all.

    Pricing apps as non-digital goods is hopeless in the long run. If you’ve read the Internet at all, you’ve seen what I call “the latte rationalization,” which goes something like this:

    If you spend $5 a day on coffee, why can’t you spend $5 one time on an app that benefits you every day?

    This is a great example of an argument that holds up from a rational perspective but fails spectacularly from a behavioral perspective.

    Most people who buy apps do so in response to the pleasurable feeling of experiencing something new. It’s a sensation—a very fleeting one. This is extremely different from the recurring pleasure people get from regularly consuming caffeine and sugar—substances that please a much more primitive part of the brain than cerebral software-based productivity can ever hope to in the current version of the human mind.

    As I’ve written here before, software is simply a form of encoded human information. People are willing to purchase information, but they will only spend so much, and they will only purchase the same information so many times. There is no pleasure center in the brain for redundancy.

    A service model might be the answer, but only if buyers believe the service is unique and essential. That is, it must provide new and useful information on an ongoing basis. For most successful business models, this means the real product is not the app, but the thoughts that pass through the app.

    We may step back one day and realize that the software economy was humankind’s first (inadvertent) success at valuing knowledge. For now, we’re learning the hard way that few thoughts are original.

    Procrastination is for the over-serious

    “Just start” is the generic advice you usually hear from someone trying to help a procrastinator. Another: “break it into smaller pieces.” Seems logical, but not very interesting.

    In my personal experience, the best advice is: “make it fun.”

    No matter your age, your mind still wants to have a good time. The best products are by-products of someone having good time—enjoying the process. So change the setting, spend some money, or just goof-off until something begins to materialize. Why not?

    DEVONthink To Go 2

    As a quick follow-up to my “state of my content address,” DEVONthink To Go 2 is now in the App Store. And it’s wonderful. The best all-media content manager for the Mac now has the iOS companion app it deserves.

    DTTG isn’t just a bandaid for my Evernote problems. It’s vastly superior for my uses. There are multiple options for syncing data, everything is encrypted in transit and storage, and the sync granularity is unrivaled. I can finally feel comfortable syncing sensitive documents like tax forms, and I can maintain massive archives of non-synced data on my Mac and local network without having them blow up the size of the databases on my iPhone. A place for everything.

    Ulysses batch export

    I agree with Federico Viticci that Ulysses is a great plain text writing app, and version 2.6 makes it even better. I bought both the Mac and iOS versions earlier this year, and began using it for both professional and personal writing. It provides a consistent, tight writing experience on both the Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

    But the more I wrote in Ulysses, the more this closing thought from Jason Snell’s early 2015 review of Ulysses began echoing in my head:

    Futureproofing is a big worry for me. And that’s why it might be dumb for me to do all my writing in Ulysses — sure, it’s possible for me to get my writing out if I stop using Ulysses. But is it practical?

    So eventually I stopped doing much personal writing in Ulysses because most of my personal writing is highly fragmented—bits and pieces of thoughts that sometimes sit idle for years before coalescing with other things. On one hand, this makes the Ulysses “sheet” concept perfect for the way I write, but it gets harder to fight the constant worry of always having access to those thoughts. That’s why I love open plain text storage of notes—I never have to worry about solving a tricky batch export from a proprietary system.

    Since the time I started using Ulysses, I assumed there was no batch export of sheets because there’s nothing in the UI to indicate that, and Jason’s comments lead me to believe sheets could only be exported one at a time (perhaps that was true in 2015).

    Fortunately you can batch export any group of Ulysses sheets to plain text by simply dragging them to an external folder. You have to add the external folder to Ulysses first. (You can’t just drag into the Finder because you’ll get unreadable .ulysses files.)

    Simple, effective, and future-proof enough for me.

    2016 is a great year for writing apps. Scrivener is also better than ever with its awesome new iOS app. There’s no reason not to try them all. Whatever it takes to keep writing—do that.

    On the perfect note taking app

    “Where did I put that file?” is always a better problem than “why didn’t I just write it down in something?” Global search gets better every day. First create, then worry about finding it later.

    Exporting math to English

    Erik McClure:

    I am sick and tired of people complaining that nobody likes math when they refuse to admit that mathematical notation sucks, and is a major roadblock for many students.

    I agree, and I think it’s a problem that plagues “students” in all phases of life—from elementary school to the very intelligent actuaries that I help pass their actuarial exams post-college.

    The learning challenge presented by overly formal mathematical notation is fundamentally a data visualization problem. The “data” encoded in mathematical notation are the generalizations represented by the letters, numbers, and symbols.

    This creates two major barriers:

    1. Cognitively, it is difficult to parse complicated notation while simultaneously simulating the outcomes described by the notation. In other words, it’s not plain English, and the human mind is not the numerical simulator we’d like to believe it is. It feels like reading computer code to learn a generality.

    2. Teaching generalizations is more like giving a fish than teaching how to fish. It encourages memorization, not individual discovery.

    The approach I’ve adopted after years of processing overly formal notation is to rewrite it for my students in plain English—or in practical examples whenever possible. Much like a well-designed graph, a formulaic concept is well represented when its audience knows what it means after rereading it as little as possible.

    Embrace struggle and repetition

    Daniel Coyle’s TEDx Talk, “Growing a Talent Hotbed” is well worth 18 minutes of your attention:

    A few related bookmarks this stirred up for me:

    “Malcolm Gladwell got us wrong: Our research was key to the 10,000-hour rule, but here’s what got oversimplified”:

    Unfortunately, this rule — which is the only thing that many people today know about the effects of practice — is wrong in several ways. (It is also correct in one important way, which we will get to shortly.) First, there is nothing special or magical about ten thousand hours.

    “People Favor Naturals Over Strivers — Even Though They Say Otherwise”:

    Our society is deeply conflicted about the source of excellence. On one hand, we are fascinated with child prodigies, portraying them as wonders of nature. On the other hand, we love a good “overcoming adversity” story, as it inspires us all to greatness.

    Jason Fried recently on Twitter:

    It’s never been easier to start something. It’s never been harder to keep it going.

    Most people obsess over point estimates of what it means to be average, and they fantasize about being above average. Outsized success requires—but does not guarantee—outsized perseverance. But practice is the one variable that’s most within our control.

    How to make terrorism worse

    Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly:

    We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all—there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.

    Just in case you were wondering if post-tragedy Twitter dog piles were having any positive social effects.

    Bigger picture, I would say that shame is the single biggest threat to national security and civil liberties that we face today.

    On the current state of my content

    In the last year I’ve had a huge renewed interest in both journaling and thought capture. I’ve also been moving out of Evernote for all-purpose information storage.

    My current system can be broadly split into two conceptual components:

    1. Plain text notes and writing
    2. Everything else with reference or research value

    The apps and tools I primarily use are:

    • The Mac file system
    • Alfred and Spotlight for Mac search
    • Dropbox
    • Drafts, nvALT, and 1Writer for thought capture and plain text writing
    • DEVONthink for non-plain-text media organization and search
    • Apple Notes for certain reference information mainly accessed from my phone

    The rest of this post is how I got here.

    The elephant that ate too much

    For ages (in internet time), Evernote was my searchable junk drawer—a place for the digital debris of my life with a low but importantly non-zero information density. Evernote makes it so easy to put everything in. It even OCRs images, making their text searchable without any additional effort on my part. It’s so great at what it does. And I’m leaving it.1

    As I’ve aged with Evernote, I’ve become more aware of its self-spamming effect. Just like email spam requires infinitesimal effort on the part of the spammer to affect infinite inboxes, Evernote puts no gating at all on self-storage. It’s a 24-hour digital hoarding rave, and there’s no bouncer at the door.

    I’ve got gigs and gigs of HTML, PDF, images, and other debris inside my Evernote database. Ten years from now, it’s likely to be terabytes and terabytes.

    I know that a lot of people wouldn’t see this as a problem. I mean, disk space is cheap, and search is great. All true.

    What digs at me is that I don’t end up creating enough with my accumulated junk. Sure, it’s useful to be able to locate the serial number of an obscure dishwasher part on page 61 of a PDF manual I stored five years ago, but that’s purely a reference kind of value. It’s not creative.

    Creativity doesn’t lend itself to automation

    Before the concept of “information capture” was such an internet-ism, people captured information mainly through journaling and manually filing paper—newspapers, magazines, books, etc.

    And history shows that people managed to do some really amazing things with these archaic systems. I mean, anyone who wrote a book, produced a movie, delivered a historic speech, or published anything before the year 2000, probably used a lot of paper and not much else.

    Some people still do use paper, including my friend Ryan Irelan, who uses an index card system for filing and organizing his ideas (YouTube)

    Non-digital systems probably seem like all disadvantage today because of the effort they require of the filer. But one person’s wasted time is another person’s opportunity to impose creative order. When you have to physically touch your information to review and search it, you interact with it differently. You impose friction and constraint—necessary conditions for all forms of creativity.

    The more manual and active your system, the more you become embedded in the system itself rather than a passive observer of it.

    I don’t think that I will ever adopt a pure paper index card system like Ryan uses. But I really love the essence of it, and I think it should serve as a check on any digital system I use.

    As I’ve been moving out of Evernote, I’ve been paying much more attention to the types of notes and information that I’ve collected and stored. It’s a bit like peeling back geological layers and seeing the things I was especially interested in at various points in the past. I’ve deleted a lot of things that I never should’ve stored in the first place, and I’ve also come across really interesting things that I had forgotten I stored—things that have triggered ideas and things that have revealed important patterns.

    Key lesson learned: stored information should be reviewed regularly. Otherwise, it stays in a frozen state.

    Designing a better capture system

    For thought capture, I’ve mostly moved back to an all-plain-text approach—a truth I guess I had to rediscover after being lured briefly back into the seductive proprietary rich text universe that exists in the App Store.

    99 percent of all rich-text-like needs in a plain text environment were solved by John Gruber’s last update to Markdown over ten years ago, and countless Mac and iOS text editors make it even easier.

    Today, I capture most thoughts and notes in Drafts simply because my iPhone is with me most often. On my Mac, nvALT is still the king of all note-taking apps. Drafts and nvALT fundamentally have the same benefit in common: they impose zero friction on capturing thoughts, and they force me to translate thoughts into unformatted ASCII. The beauty of plain text will forever be its simplicity and mobility. It is usable and retrievable anywhere when stored in a place like Dropbox.

    Plain text also puts a common denominator on all notes I create myself. Plain text is easy to combine, delete, rephrase, and search. Text files are extremely versatile. At one extreme, just the filename itself could represent a short note without any content in the body of the file. At the other extreme, a single plain text file can serve as a filing cabinet for years of journaling without creating any material file size problems.

    In fact, the concept of individual text files is really quite arbitrary. A collection of text files is more of a liquid medium in itself—a uniform cloud of elements that can range from low to high entropy depending on the whims of their puppeteer.

    For bulk text editing and advanced filtering, I’ve found nothing better than Sublime Text, especially for very large multi-file writing projects involving Markdown and LaTeX.

    Designing a better system for everything else

    All information can’t (and shouldn’t) be stored in plain text. Virtually all of my non-plain-text information is some form of reference information—files that are less likely to be edited and have more read-only value. This is an enormous category containing PDFs, photos, web clippings, and more. PDFs are easily the largest group within the non-plain-text category, and I’ve found that the best way to retrieve PDFs is to thoughtfully and verbosely name them so they can be searched by file name. The longer the file name (complete with yyyy-mm-dd date), the more easily it can be found later with even basic searches using OS X Spotlight or the iOS Dropbox app.

    In fact, in my experience, long file names are vastly superior to tags or folders. I have folders with hundreds of PDFs that I can easily navigate with file filters using Alfred file filters or Path Finder. File names also don’t rely on a meta data layer like tags.

    For deeper content searches, I use DEVONthink. Even before I made a firm commitment to leave Evernote, I had largely replaced Evernote as a PDF repository with DEVONthink. There are so many reasons to love DEVONthink, which in my opinion is truly the best all around content management system for the Mac beyond the OS X file system itself.

    Like Evernote, you can put virtually any media type into DEVONthink. Unlike Evernote, you aren’t limited to keeping everything inside a proprietary database, and you aren’t forced to store all of your data on Evernote’s servers. DEVONthink lets you index folders in the Mac file system outside of DEVONthink, and I use this a lot to do keyword content searches across multiple folders of PDFs—often mixtures of PDFs stored in research folders and PDFs I’ve created myself for my work. In an instant, I can see sorted results and the incidence of keywords and phrases—and I can open the PDFs in Preview and work with them with any tool on the Mac.

    In its simplest form, DEVONthink is a very powerful search tool—and more accurate at searching inside PDFs than Evernote in experiments I’ve conducted. But DEVONthink Pro Office (DTPO) offers so much more, including the most accurate OCR engine I’ve ever used. DTPO comes with built-in ABBYY Fine Reader technology for OCR. Not only is it extremely accurate, I can queue up hundreds of files at once. In fact, one of the first things I did after letting DTPO import my Evernote notebooks (something else DTPO does flawlessly), was to have DTPO OCR all PDF scans and images containing text, which DTPO turns into searchable PDF.

    With Evernote, I have to rely on their cloud-based OCR and the text indexing Evernote does within the app. If I export an image or PDF scan from Evernote, the OCR layer does not go with it. With DTPO, the OCR layer is saved into the file allowing me to use the searchable PDF anywhere else I want, not just DTPO.

    DTPO is also very inbox-centric. Every DTPO database has an inbox, and DTPO even has a global inbox from which files can be moved anywhere. The inbox approach makes a lot of sense to me because it causes me to take at least one additional look at everything going in before filing it away.

    When the new DEVONthink for iOS comes out later this year, DEVONthink will really be the undisputed winner in the all-purpose information storage category.

    8/5/2016 Update: DEVONthink To Go 2 is now in the App Store.

    The more I use DTPO, the more I really use it. I can even integrate the plain text notes I described earlier into DEVONthink by simply indexing the folder where I store my plain text notes, and it even recognizes OS X file colors / tags. It is the ideal companion to the already powerful file system that ships with every Mac.

    Apple Notes is pretty good too

    As of iOS 9, Apple Notes became much more robust. While I don’t see myself ever using it to the extent that David Sparks does, I have started using Notes for a special category of information that I need fast access to from my phone. Things like insurance cards, notes about my kids’ medicine doses, and other personal information are really useful to have stored locally on my phone—only a quick iOS Spotlight search away. The notes I create in Apple Notes tend to be more like mini-documents. It’s not a place I dump thoughts or disorganized text. It’s a mostly read-only place for light rich-text reference notes with small attachments.

    As of iOS 10, Apple Notes has become even stronger with the ability to share notes. Even though Evernote allows paying customers to share notebooks with non-paying customers, the non-paying person still has to use and maintain Evernote for it to matter. In my experience, most of my friends and family members don’t keep Evernote up to date and don’t use it regularly. Apple Notes is on every Apple device by default, making it more reliable for note sharing.

    In summary

    My information systems will always be in a state of flux, but I feel like I’ve become much more aware of key patterns in how I save and use information. I also want to prioritize creativity in the design of my information systems and minimize “data hoarding” just because an app makes it easy. I want to be more of a filter on both incoming information and information I’ve already stored—emulating a paper filing system using digital tools. In doing this, I hope to discover even more patterns, connections, and aesthetics.

    1. There are a lot of reasons I’m leaving Evernote. And for the record, it’s not just about the price increase, although that certainly makes it easier to leave a system I was only fractionally in love with. I do not believe the higher price of Evernote alone should be reason to leave Evernote. In fact, I agree with Brett Kelly that the price increase is actually quite small for someone who uses and relies heavily on Evernote.

    The role of aesthetics in information systems

    Pursuing a “perfect” information system is mostly a waste of time. There’s no such thing. Like any aspect of knowledge work, the goal for redesigning a note-taking or reference system should be betterment and awareness.

    My information storage needs have naturally evolved with my interests and life. They will change again. Storage systems are also a private illusion—a meta layer of organization that only my eyes will see and appreciate. I think understanding the illusory aspect of organization is critical because it helps maintain a sense of humility and avoids prioritizing a system itself over the value that a system creates in the world.

    The aesthetics of an information system matter only to the extent that they inspire an urge to create new connections and bring new combinations into the world. This is not to say that the beauty of a system does not matter. It matters very much. But no more than the information that a system can ultimately release into the world.

    No matter how far you zoom into or out of the universe, you will see networks of information. From subatomic particles to cells within our bodies to human civilizations to the arrangements of galaxies, every thing we can perceive in our universe is a component of some network layer. The value of any component can only be measured by how it affects other components in its network. A network’s value only arises when it enables higher order networks. Everything ultimately affects everything else, but the effects of organization are more beautiful to behold because they have intent.

    In the most universal sense, our unique role as conscious components of the universe is to organize, impose meaning on, and transmit information. This is deep in our innate programming, and it’s probably why we prefer order to chaos and why we seek and perceive meaning even where a hypothetical higher order being would confirm chaos.

    So yes. The aesthetics and hedonistic experience of information matters very much. To take delight in taking notes is to create more notes. To enjoy reviewing notes is to review notes more often. And to derive pleasure from fusing notes into greater statements of meaning is to also do that more often.

    App review resolution

    Two (very close to) universal truths:

    1. We all know the best way to support app developers is by rating and reviewing their apps in the App Store.
    2. We all hate being bothered by in-app prompts to rate apps.

    Like so many other unsolicited annoyances, I put off app reviews for a “later” that rarely ever arrives unless out of some unpredictable, random mood-strike—usually while I’m poking around in the App Store, not actually using the app.

    And that’s the key: I’m more likely to rate an app when I’m not trying to get something done with the app.

    I’m planning to try an experiment. I’m setting a weekly reminder to review an app—any app that I use all the time but haven’t yet reviewed. It doesn’t have to be a dissertation—just a (mostly) five-star rating and a couple of lines.

    It seems like a small service cost to pay for great app development and frees me to continue canceling out of any rating prompts I get while using apps.

    It would be cool if there was an “app review day,” too: a day for just saying thanks to your favorite app developers.

    Macro laws

    The double edged sword wielded by the post-survivor knowledge worker: macro laws.

    … there is very little, and perhaps no difference, between a genuine nugget of self-knowledge and what’s known as a “limiting belief.” A constraint that one minute helps you focus, in the next minute blinds you to an opportunity. A constraint that in one situation saves you from risk, in another situation limits your possibilities. This is why the skill of constantly formulating, discarding, testing, and refining macro-laws may be the most “meta” productivity skill of all.

    A great article that essentially says work will always remain essential in the human experience, but once work is no longer being done to survive, the rest is a mind game.

    In fact, I think the most sane view of modern “work” is that it’s simply a means for channeling thought, both for producers and consumers. Work occupies a worker’s mind, and the product of most knowledge work serves fundamentally to affect consumers’ states of mind: services, experiences, etc.

    Work keeps us busy—a necessary condition for a sane western mind. No amount of technological progress or economic growth can change this. If anything, the need to stay busy increases with technological progress because the value of our time approaches infinity.

    These imaginary problems are extraordinarily difficult to solve.

    What does it mean to be a man?

    Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, writing for HBR on “Rethinking What Masculinity Means at the Office”:

    Women have spent the past century expanding the definition of “feminine” in almost every country on the planet. For the past half-century, the LGBT community has been engaging each other and the world in a conversation about what it means to live outside gender stereotypes. Remarkably, despite these decades-long conversations, for a cis-gender man, the definition of what it means to be a “man” is still quite narrow.

    I think we will see much written on this in the next few decades. I think the evolution of male identity is one of the most fascinating sociological shifts taking place right now in the First World.

    Also, somewhat related: The anxiety of Father’s Day cards.