My love affair with unstructured notes and documents

A second brain

I am a simpleton with regard to productivity software. I just use notes and documents. I have tried many smart todo lists apps, CRMs, and fancy note-taking apps, but I always stay with plain note taking. Over the years, everything moved to the cloud and I love the ability to jot something down on my phone and look it up later on my laptop. I jumped on the Evernote bandwagon early on. I still got thousands of notes in Evernote even though I have moved on to Simplenote and Notes on MacOS.

I got reminded of this when I was doing some research in past meetings and people I met on a particular project I was working on a while ago. I typically use spreadsheets for CRM type of activities and I got the names and companies I was looking for very quickly. A search on their names or company names revealed the notes I made during or after the meeting. In a couple of hours, I had a great overview of what I needed.

It is in these times, I am grateful for my habit of making notes of everything. I literally can tell you which meetings I had and what was decided on let us say Thursday, June 14th, 2012. I can even tell you what I did that day. I keep a rolling to-do list with a log for a long time. I wrap over the todo list every year or so to keep the document manageable in length.

I call it my second brain. My second brain does not live in one particular place. It is scattered around Simplenote, Notes on MacOS, Evernote and Google Docs. A quick search reveals literally the thing I am looking for. Larger documents go into Dropbox and are easy to find back too. Nowadays I don’t even bother with complex folder structures. I do not like endless clicking through folders too much work, but I do make sure every document has a sane filename containing all the keywords I need to recognize it for what it is.

Many companies have tried to organize the way we work, create and distribute information across an organization. When you work in a team, it is often useful to structure information to facilitate the proper flow of information and decision making. But it also comes at a cost. If I got a dollar every time someone complained to me about some information organization system, I would be rich by now. I always tread carefully when deciding to try something like that in a company. It becomes worse when the tool becomes an excuse and that is accepted. I have seen that too – especially in larger companies.

Unstructured information systems allow me to mold them to my way of working. It is never in my way. The only thing you need to let go is structure.

When I talk about this, people often push back and give a slew of good reasons why structured information is more useful. The one thing I always ask them is if they organize their email in folders or do they just archive or delete. Often a light bulb goes off at that moment.

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