Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

In the early 1990s, I was heavily into desktop publishing (DTP). As I was learning that craft, I couldn't afford the DTP heavy hitters of the day — PageMaker, Ventura Publisher, QuarkXpress. But I did have a copy of WordPerfect 5.1 (yes, the version that ran on DOS) on my trusty 386. And, one day while browsing in a downtown Toronto bookstore, I stumbled across a volume titled Desktop Publishing with WordPerfect 5.1.

Pairing software with dead trees, I managed to learn how to publish long, well-formatted documents using a tool that wasn't really designed for that task. It was a cumbersome process, but it was possible.

In learning to desktop publish with WordPerfect 5.1, I gleaned a valuable lesson: unless you have no other choice, it's not worth the time or effort to push your tools beyond their intended uses.

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A while back, I devoted an edition of my weekly letter to personal knowledge management (PKM, for short) and how I thought PKM had become too complex and riddled with tool fetishism. As you can expect, I did get some comments tossed my way.

Because inquiring minds want to know, some of those comments (a few mocking) asked what my PKM setup is, what group of tools I use to manage my information.

To be honest, I'm wary of calling what I do personal knowledge management. How I collect and use information is definitely not on a grand enough a scale to have that lofty tag applied to it. And my tools reflect that.

It'll come as no surprise to those who know me that my setup is fairly basic. It lacks the complexity, the whiz-bang, the shock and awe appeal of the newer, flashier, sexier PKM apps and methodologies out there. But it suits my needs, which is all that matters.

So what do I use? I take notes using using Nextcloud Notes, and create outlines using WorkFlowy. To be honest, if Nextcloud had an outliner app, it would be bye-bye WorkFlowy in an instant.

Yes, that's it. Nothing more. OK, aside from a paper notebook into which I jot ideas, write (very) rough drafts, and the like. But as soon as can, I put all of that into Nextcloud Notes.

Why to I use those tools instead of, say, Obsidian or Roam or Notion or org-mode? They're simple. They do what I need them to do. Both are light and easy to use on web, on desktop, or on my phone. That said, I don't use the WorkFlowy desktop or mobile apps.

As I said, my setup is basic but it works for me. The heavyweight PKM tools I've tried offer me few or no advantages over using plain text files and a text editor. For what I do, those larger, more complex PKM tools are just a bit too much. Embracing the so-called constraints of Nextcloud Notes and WorkFlowy helps me stay productive without resorting to a lot of complexity.

I also have regular intervals in which I review and, where necessary, prune the information in my tools. That takes me one hour every six weeks or so. Those sixty minutes do wonders for clearing out the cruft. And taking that time is as important to a good PKM setup as being able to efficiently and effectively collect the information that I might eventually delete.

I find a lot of the language used in business and personal development to more than a little disturbing. You're told that you need to dominate your niche. You need to crush your competition or whatever you're trying to do.

That kind of rhetoric treats everyone as an adversary and everything you do as an almost violent competition. It's not a healthy way to work or live. You're always looking over your shoulder, always worried or fearful of what your competitors will do. You're on tenterhooks expecting others to catch up to or overtake you.

And what happens if you don't dominate or crush everything? Have you failed? No.

You don't have to treat everyone as an enemy you need to vanquish. They could be allies or colleagues or collaborators instead. Rather than trying to be a juggernaut, be yourself.

Until around 2013 or 2014, I blogged regularly about technical communication. And I was considered influential within that niche. I knew several other technical communication bloggers, and I didn't try to dominate that niche or crush those other bloggers. Instead, I worked with them. I got to know them, persuaded them to write guest posts for me, to do podcasts promoting each other and own own work. I even encouraged technical communication bloggers who were just starting out.

That goes against the prevailing wisdom (if you want to call it wisdom). The approach I took, though, makes for a stronger ecosystem. It's better for everyone all around.

We all make 'em. C'mon, admit it. Every so often, you pick up or order something. It might be something small, something not-so-small. But chances are you really don't need it. Or, occasionally, you don't really want it.

I've done that. Case in point: just before a recent birthday (yes, one of mine), I was rewatching an episode of Better Call Saul. In that episode, titled “Quite a Ride”, there's a scene in which a German engineer pulls out a notebook and a mechanical pencil to make a sketch and do some calculations.

That pencil drew my attention immediately. Now, I'm not one to obsess over writing implements but from the moment I caught sight of of that pencil, I knew I had to have one. The problem was that I didn't know what kind of pencil it was. Using a bit of deduction, based on the details I could make out, and a little search kung fu, I soon learned that pencil was a rOtring 600.

Within minutes, I found a shop in New Zealand that sells them and placed my order. The pencil arrived a couple of days later and was even more impressive — cast from silver metal, solid yet light, with a distinctive red logo.

Even though that pencil was an impulse buy, it didn't get shoved into a drawer and I didn't have any remorse about buying it. I use the pencil regularly and am very happy with it.

So maybe some impulse buys aren't all that bad ...

That's the headline of an article I read many a year ago. A headline which illustrates some of the absurd lengths more than a few people go to when hacking their systems for productivity. While the article first saw the light of day in 2007, its thrust is as true now as it was all that time ago.

This paragraph from that article sums it all up for me:

[A]s the productivity-obsessed swap tips online and around the office about filing systems, checklists and time management, advice often moves from the practical to the arcane. And the glut of suggestions and systems can actually cause people to become less productive while trying to master a constant barrage of new methods.

Some of that might be a simple case of procrastination — it's more fun to investigate tools and techniques than to do actual work. But if your goal is to be more productive, you need to stop twiddling and twerning and actually start doing the work.

Unless you do the work, all the productivity systems and all the apps and all the trappings won't help you. They become a crutch instead of a tool to help you do what you need to to and to achieve your goals.

That's the hardest thing anyone can do.

For many, it's easier to put on a mask and pretend to be like everyone else. But doing that diminishes you in so many ways.

A good chunk of my life has been a rebellion against what I should do, what I'm expected to do, and what others think I should do. That stance has hurt my career and a few relationships, but I have few regrets.

What I do regret, though, are the times in which did put on that mask of conformity, of sameness. When I did that, I never felt comfortable in my own skin. I never knew if the me in the mask was a role I was playing or if it was the real me.

I just realized it's been almost 10 years since I became a stranger in a strange land. Well, I'm not that much of a stranger anymore, and the land isn't (and wasn't) all that strange anyway. But those 10 years have passed quickly. Much has happened, and much more will.

This might be hard to believe: I have no yearning to return to Canada to live out the rest of my days. I do miss some people. I do miss some things. But I haven't felt homesick for the old country. I haven't planned, even as an exercise, a trip back there.

I call Canada the old country and not home like some people in my position are wont to. Why? Because New Zealand is home. I think it was the moment I stepped off the plane at Auckland airport back in 2012. And I wouldn't change that.

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