The Quest for Information Nirvana, Part II: Making the Distinction between Work and Productivity

The Quest for Information Nirvana, Part II: Making the Distinction between Work and Productivity

Yesterday, I expressed my desire for a streamlined documentation and tracking system, because (1) I have too many tools to check and (2) I don’t feel they are supporting my work as well as I think they could. I still feel a lot of friction when I’m clicking on all these tools, which reduces my stamina in doing the actual work.

This morning, it occurred to me that the problem isn’t that they’re bad tools; they are all “best of class” in one way or another. Where they fail is in supporting my way of doing work. So what is my way, exactly? Time for a bit of investigation!

Breaking Down the Current Process

Let me start by iterating the kinds of work I produce:

  • articles reviewing stuff I find interesting with supporting photography
  • articles about the human condition, told from my perspective
  • articles about what I do and how I do it with supporting photography
  • articles about system concepts with supporting photography
  • articles detailing my insights about processes, workflow, and creativity
  • written documentation for systems I have made, or am learning how to use
  • working code in the language of the month
  • interactive software applications
  • information architecture diagrams and supporting documentation
  • written strategic design assessments
  • computer graphics for use in websites, articles, or software
  • web page implementation in html/css or template language
  • printable PDF forms for time tracking
  • podcasts, screencasts

My production stack, which are the tools used to create my work, is a collection of word processors, text editors, illustration programs, publishing tools, programming environments, and A/V editors. Each application is used to create finished artifacts: graphics, sound files, formatted documents, or working software.

My productivity stack, by comparison, is what helps me manage my knowledge, goals, tasks, timetables, and channels of communication toward the production of those finished artifacts. In some sense, I regard productivity as a necessary evil, which I tolerate because I overload my plate with dozens of personal interests and external commitments; the productivity stack helps me compartmentalizing and track related work, and reminds me what I should be doing to maintain progress and deliver on-time. It helps me choose what to do next by keeping track of every possible task, and it fills the gaps in my memory when it falters. This reduces overall anxiety, and having access to everything keeps me from taking on too much work at one time.

I’ve annotated yesterday’s list of productivity tools with their function:

  • Trello – Visual task storage and prioritization.
  • Excel Timesheet – Time tracking by job, encrypted password storage.
  • Local project storage – Projects are organized by jobcode. Business information organized by operational function.
  • Dropbox – Synchronizes local project storage between computers; also client file folder sharing.
  • Basecamp – Project journaling, client comm and info.
  • Google Apps for Domains – Calendar, email, co-creation of documents during video conferences.
  • nvAlt – Quick Markdown-formatted note-taking on the Mac.
  • Bitbucket and Github – Off-site source code revision management for personal (and client projects that require it). Replaces SVN.

The majority of these tools are for management of resources (time, tasks, knowledge by project) and management of external responsibilities (meetings, communication, teamwork).

For managing resources, my general strategy is to store all relevant project material and notes in the same place, accessible both by myself and whomever I’m collaborating with. So while I might be using Basecamp, Google Apps, or Trello for three different clients, I try to keep my communication/documentation completely within that system as much as possible. Additionally, every client gets their own local storage area, for example a folder in my “Projects” Dropbox folder, “0123 Client – Project”. The jobcode is used for invoicing, and for tagging other folders I might have to create in my temporary video production folder (outside of Dropbox because the files tend to be enormous). One exception is the use of distributed revision control systems such as Git or Mercurial, which should NOT be synched through file mirroring utilities like Dropbox; all these projects sit in a dedicated folder alongside my main Dropbox folder called HG (for Mercurial, which I used to use). For rapid access to online resources, I have a private browser home page that jumps to each active project. For local files, I have the same easy-to-access folders as high up the folder hierarchy as possible, which are the Dropbox and HG folders. On my main Windows workstation, it’s D:Dropbox and D:HG. On my Mac, it’s DesktopDropbox and DesktopHG. The top-level projects in my DropBox folder are @Projects, @Projects-Dave, with the rest non-project data. I actually need to clean this up a bit, now that I think about it, because it’s a bit messy.

For managing external responsibilities, I borrow a page from GTD and use Google Calendar for only scheduling appointments, and I try to keep them two two days a week because every meeting is incredibly damaging to my productivity for the day. For task management, I use Trello to maintain a list of every task I can think of doing, prioritized from right to left. I use Basecamp to maintain continuity on most projects, creating boards with important shared data and using messages to track threads of development. There are two threads: (1) continuity with the client, describing what’s going on and what should be happening and (2) a thread for my development work thinking, timestamped, so I can log my discoveries and decisions in a form that can be reviewed later. This keeps all the client-related materials, including deliveries, in one place. Important external links can also be consolidated in the project description, so I can find them all later. It works fairly well, the only issue really being Basecamp’s own shortcomings, particularly with posting code fragments.

In an ideal world, I would not have a productivity stack. I would instead just have a calendar for telling me when I’m going to hang out in people’s studios to have “show and tell” with our latest work, keeping the creative momentum going. These tools are really distractions from doing the creative work, and it’s that creative work that produces opportunity. MAKE AND SHOW is my mantra, not MANAGE AND REMEMBER. The hallmark of a great productivity stack is, in my world, a very small one. The one I have outlined above is probably as small as I can get it without writing my own software, which I’d actually like to do someday.

The Missing Stack

I have an excellent application stack for production, and an OK one for productivity in terms of managing resources and responsibilities. There is a minimum amount of discipline required to make the file storage work, and the task management/client communication system works well enough. As I have mentioned in the past, however, my biggest issue is starting projects. Taking that first step. Getting moving. In that regard, none of the systems I have in place right now are particularly easy to start because they still require memory recall. I still have to remember which files I have to open by retracing my steps. Is it in Basecamp? Oh, today’s task requires image files that are in the project store in dropbox, and I need to look at the email communication from last night that I now have to copy back to Basecamp into my development message thread, which will become my “running journal”. Oh, and what did that email say? It references a Skype conversation from last week, which I have written up as a log somewhere in a text file…in Basecamp? Google Docs? Text file? And even once I get to that point, there’s the hard part of actually DOING the work.

So I’ve got some refinement I could probably do with the productivity stack and how I use it, but what I’m really missing is the creative support stack or the design thinking stack. This is the set of applications and processes that support the hard work of doing the work. This is distinct from productivity as it is about supporting the creative act, which means dealing with the uncertainty of doing something for the first time without knowing much about how I’m supposed to do it. So there’s learning, reflection, experimentation, and hypothesizing. There’s lists of resources. There’s documented results of success and failure. There’s patterns of thought to document. There’s the challenge of getting everything together so you can look at the problem as a whole, and the logistics involved in making that happen. This is the HARD PART of the work, and I don’t have a reliable tool stack for dealing with it.

Let me consider the kinds of work I’m creating right now, which could benefit from some creative support:

  • Writing a long-form piece of text – Either Scrivener, WordPress, Sublime Text, Google Docs, Stickies, nvAlt, or InDesign. When I’m writing something long, I am putting together a lot of different thoughts and trying to sequence them into some order. Sometimes, I don’t even know what I’m trying to write about, and have to rewrite several times until some theme becomes clear. None of the tools, with the exception of Scrivener, are designed to support this kind of collection and sorting of data. I love Scrivener, but it disappoints me with its shaky cross-platform typography. Every once in a while I give Evernote a try, but it suffers from a single-view focused layout philosophy; when I am trying to integrate a lot of thoughts together, I need two or three windows open, sometimes of the same view.

  • Writing Code – I tend to get involved with projects that combine with visual design with interactive development. Not only am I thinking about the way the software is being used, but I am also thinking about how to practically implement it using code. And since I’m often using a new environment or tackling a new kind of problem, I’m constantly learning new languages and knowledge bases. The systems I describe for “long form text” above can be used to document some of it, but they all fall short when it comes to copy/pasting fragments of source code. Perhaps the most promising solution I’ve found is Crowd Favorite’s Capsule WordPress theme, which converts the venerable CMS into a programmer’s journal. I also tend to keep some documentation in my Git repositories, but not consistently.

  • Long Term Research and Development – A lot of my personal projects have stalled because I’ve been unable to maintain regular progress on them. I think it may be because I don’t have the discipline or the system to keep everything in one place. The closest I have to a system is probably this blog, and perhaps I should just start improving its underlying capabilities to make it as easy as possible.

I think I’m looking for better document management combined with a life stream, capable of integrating all kinds of text, scraps of thoughts, and reference material into one place. That sounds a lot like Evernote, actually. The next step is leveraging Evernote (or something like it) into a creative thinking tool that combines the features of Scrivener, Git, spreadsheet, writing tools, and an asset manager like Adobe Bridge (but less sucky). I guess I’m craving some kind of enhanced journal, really, that can be used to create a publishable narrative with supporting tables of useful concepts. Such a tool could also be used to document and organize DISCOVERY as one trudges through the creative process.

Some of the qualities I”d like this stack to have:

  • The ability to mark and save touchpoint concepts and insights, with relevant context, in a narrative or chronological form. I want to be able to see how the ideas evolve. I want to be able to accurately and rapidly remember how I was feeling when I solved a problem, even years in the future.
  • Maintain a dialogue with myself, critical yet forward-looking, as a way to maintain momentum. This is a more verbose version of the item above. It provides context for my decision-making, recording the experiences that lead to insight, with respect to my near and medium-term goals.
  • Maintain a succinct record of the decision-making process. The critical path is revealed as theories are tested and evaluated. New concepts are named, categorized, and fit into the theory. Existing systems are repurposed. As each “working” piece is created and eased into position, this narrative becomes the basis for future process.
  • The ability to refine, refactor, rename, normalize documented concepts, with revision control. There’s a difference between the first iteration of an idea and the 30th, and tracking the development of key concepts leads to improved systems down the road.
  • The ability to page through everything, to jump around, to make new indices for new projects based on repurposing of the old.
  • Integration of this tool with the creative production tool environments. Or at least the ability to spawn the relevant documents at the press of a button.

Right now, I am doing all this manually, and it doesn’t feel particularly smooth in operation.


  1. Shannon Garcia 6 years ago

    Man, this is my holy grail. I don’t know if I’m much closer than you, but for me it’s boiling down similarly to Basecamp, GCal, and Evernote. I keep GTD-style tasks in Evernote but I can’t write long-form there, so that’s a gaping hole.

    I’m thinking of tying up some of my weird loose ends with Zapier… that seems like it could eliminate some of your manual transfers for Trello/Basecamp/Dropbox/calendar stuff. (or IFTTT, I have no brand loyalty around these things yet)

    I do wish Evernote was a little more lifestream-y.

  2. Stuart 6 years ago

    I have been doing more and more with IFTTT, Tags and automation. DayOne is a fantastic tool, teamed up with IFTTT and some of your imagination… possibilities are endless. Here is a link to an example:

  3. Dee 6 years ago

    A combination of Evernote and Curio might be a useful combination. Evernote can provide most of the timeline feature, and can handle paper notes very well too. Curio is a great whiteboard type space, but even more versatile. I’ve not used it personally for project planning, but it’s got the feature for it. You can easily pull in all sorts of files, as well as Evernote notes, and arrange them as you see fit, plus attach tasks and deadlines to them. It’s very deep, but it also seems to give them most freedom to do some big picture organising and free thinking. Only caveat, it’s not a writing platform. But it may serve as a central dashboard to pull everything together.

  4. Author
    Dave Seah 6 years ago

    Busily looking-up the tools I’ve never heard of: Zapier, IFTTT, DayOne, Curio…

    • IFTTT: Reminds me of Yahoo Pipes, except more straightforward and working with web services. Neat.
    • Zapier: Similar to IFTTT, except more specific in its recipes? I could see several uses for this and maybe IFTTT for funds-limited non-profits.
    • Day One: Looks like an interesting take on personal journaling. It reminds me of a personal almanac, almost.
    • Curio: Seems neat. Not quite sure what it does…sort of a super digital notebook with a variety of thinking/journaling/visual organization tools?

    Looking at all these, I’m thinking that maybe what I’m looking for is primarily a creative support tool built around journaling first, so it’s the primary emphasis. However, annotations can link to different tools so they can be brought up quickly. I can sort of see what it looks like in my head: a really nice word processor stream, with annotations to the top and bottom and (where appropriate) inline. It should look like a beautiful illustrated book with high-quality infographic inserts.

  5. Dee 6 years ago

    For Curio, super notebook sounds about right. The review at Macademise seems quite comprehensive in regards to options, but this is really a program that does so much it’s hard to point a finger at it.

    It’s definitely more visual than text based, so if that’s going to be a basic requirement, Evernote sounds like a better deal. You can link notes together in Evernote, and it’ll handle multiple pictures plus text in the same note. AFAIK DayOne for example can only do one picture per note, and I am not sure it’s got the linking ability.

    Scrivener can be used as a decent enough journaling tool as well, but it’s definitely not very visual. It does have better options for text annotations though.

  6. Eurobubba 6 years ago

    I think you could probably accomplish a lot of this in DevonThink. Or, if you want to try the wiki route (never my cup of tea), a lot of people I respect swear by VoodooPad.

  7. Author
    Dave Seah 6 years ago

    Dee: I wonder if what I am looking for is visual, but simplified. It’s like I want to see a pure thread of exploration, visually presented and navigable.

    Eurobubba: Thanks for mentioning DevonThink and VoodooPad…I’m not familiar with either. Will check them out!

  8. Eurobubba 6 years ago

    I’m really interested in seeing where you end up with this. I’m grappling with a similar issue in my own workflow, which I’ve phrased as “Where do projects live?” — i.e., what app is the home for the Project object in my workflow? What I want is a dedicated application that I use only for what David Allen calls Project Support Files. I need both an at-a-glance list of all active projects, and an interface with an detailed overview for each individual project. There should be one ProjectSupportApp file per project, although I suppose some sort of Project object within the SupportApp interface rather than the underlying filesystem could work as a second-best alternative. The file or object would contain a set of text and other data fields for the project within the file itself, plus links to any number of external resources. Although I recommended DevonThink yesterday, it doesn’t actually work for me for that purpose because I also use it to organize research data and other Reference Files (in GTD terms). And it’s probably actually better for that purpose, which is distinct enough from Project Support that I want the clarity of having it in a separate environment.

    Right now, in practice, my list of active projects lives in OmniFocus, and to the extent that there’s a “project central” for a given project, it’s just a filesystem folder, with a link to the folder in the OmniFocus notes field. That folder may contain outline and text files, resource files or aliases/shortcuts/symlinks to them, a smart folder that searches for files tagged with the given project name, and/or, for projects where a formal “project management” approach with Gantt charts etc. makes sense, an OmniPlan file. (Yes, I’m a Mac-head and an Omni software fan.)

    All of that more or less gets the job done, but it doesn’t satisfy my desire for a distinct and clearly defined Project object. I also use OmniFocus for various routines, checklists, higher-level goal planning and tracking that may involve multiple projects as well as “habits”/”practices” etc., so it’s hard to set up a view with a list of just current “projects” per se. And of course the filesystem can hold anything, so even though I have a dedicated Projects folder, it doesn’t create the clearly defined Projects environment that my mind wants. Also, keeping the OmniFocus projects synced with the filesystem folders when projects are created, renamed, placed on hold, dropped, or occasionally even — believe it or not — completed adds extra overhead and friction.

    I’m thinking of getting Circus Ponies Notebook, which has enough functional overlap with DevonThink or Evernote that it’s redundant in terms of simple functionality since I already use those apps. But the very functional overlap might mean I could use Notebook strictly for projects without being tempted to clutter it with non-project resources. (For that matter, at some point I’m going to want to either choose DevonThink or Evernote and merge those silos or clarify what I specifically want to use each one for. Unfortunately, if that’s the right word, they both offer too many useful features for organizing non-project information that I’d want to dedicate either one to just projects.)