I Wish Bear Hadn’t Wasted Years

I’ve never used the markdown app Bear. But because I can be so productivity and app obsessed (working on it) I ended up reading this post about it.  

(As a side note: I’ve never really been interested in it either.  It looks like a great app, but I’m not paying a subscription just to sync markdown files over iCloud!)

I’m thankful I did read this post though because I ended up reading this piece of wisdom.

Writing things down is often more important than the act of storing them. I want to preserve my journal or lists of good places to visit in certain cities, but most of the other stuff, personal and work-related, is quite ephemeral. It’s almost like the message history with your friends. You think you want to preserve it, but if you actually scroll to the beginning of your friendship all those years ago, you’ll cringe a little.

I’ve switched between note taking apps more times than I’ve liked to admit, for various reasons, but one of the things that I always struggle with is how to store my notes long term. 

I always imagine this scenario where I want to be able to review all my notes.  But I’m not sure why I’m so worried about this scenario because I never review notes that I take.  

The reason I never review my notes is that once they’re written, they are no longer valuable to me. Writing is thinking, reviewing is not.  Rehashing thoughts I’ve already thought does not challenge me to think through and internalize information in the same way that writing does.

I think this feeling is related to what Chris Aldrich was describing in his latest musings on Zettelkasten for Coursework.

When you take a math class you might learn what 2+2 is and make a note about it, but by the time the course is over, that idea should now be so basic that keeping it in your system should be a bit laughable. Spending time to excerpt it from a lecture, make it atomic, and interlink it is a lot of make-work that isn’t likely to be useful either for the learning the thing to begin with, much less remember it in the long run to potentially use it again.

I take notes of things I want to internalize and recall as easily as “2+2”.  By writing notes, these things end up being easily recallable, and once they are I see my notes as somewhat useless and feel no need to review them.

In short: it is probably a mistake, in the end, to ask software to improve our thinking. Even if you can rescue your attention from the acid bath of the internet; even if you can gather the most interesting data and observations into the app of your choosing; even if you revisit that data from time to time — this will not be enough. It might not even be worth trying. The reason, sadly, is that thinking takes place in your brain. And thinking is an active pursuit — one that often happens when you are spending long stretches of time staring into space, then writing a bit, and then staring into space a bit more. It’s here that the connections are made and the insights are formed. And it is a process that stubbornly resists automation.

tl;dr – ask yourself these questions to prioritize your to do list, then take the necessary action.

Is the consequence for not completing this task…

  • P1 immediate and severe? Do it first.
  • P2 not immediate but severe? Time block.
  • P3 immediate but not severe? Task batching.
  • P4 neither immediate nor severe? Do it if you have extra time, or don’t lmao

I had trouble using the Eisenhower Matrix or really any task priority system until I started reframing the language commonly associated with them. Particularly the term “Important”. All my tasks are important, that’s why they’re on my to do list. But I found instead of thinking “How important is this task?” I ask myself “How severe is the consequence for not completing this task?” which usually helps give me a clearer picture as to how important it really is. By extension it also helps clarify what “Urgent” means as well: “How immediate is the consequence for not completing this task?”. My revised priority scheme looks something like this:

  • P1 consequence is immediate and severe.
  • P2 consequence isn’t immediate but is severe.
  • P3 consequence is immediate but isn’t severe.
  • P4 consequence is neither immediate nor severe.

After tasks have been sorted, most guides will tell you to do your P1 tasks, schedule your P2 tasks, delegate your P3 tasks, and complete your P4 tasks only if there’s time (or just delete them).

The problem I’ve seen most people run into though is with their P3 tasks. Firstly, they have a hard time deciding what is on their list that “isn’t important” (though hopefully this can be solved using my revised matrix and prompts) and secondly, they don’t have someone they can delegate their less important tasks to. I also fall into this camp, as I don’t really have anyone I can delegate my work to, so I work with a few modifications to this scheme.

P1 tasks are priority and are completed ASAP. Personally, I’m at my sharpest in the morning and my capacity to do good, deep, work lessens as the day goes on. If it’s important, I’m doing it as soon as I can in the day.

P2 tasks are important though they will usually bear metaphorical fruit after some time. What usually falls into P2 for me are habits, routines, practice, etc. It’s not a terrible consequence if I miss a day, but over time would mean squandered potential. These tasks are block scheduled i.e. each task gets its own block of time to be completed.

P3 tasks aren’t quite as important, usually don’t require as much brain power, but still need to get done. Usually things like chores, administrative tasks, answering emails, phone calls, etc. I batch schedule these tasks i.e. block off a time in my day to take care of these all at once.

P4 tasks are completed if I have time, will power, or energy left after all the important tasks are done for the day.

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.