What would this look like if it were easy?
Do the thing. No, seriously.
You might have noticed that I’ve been posting a lot more frequently recently. It’s not because I’ve been inspired — I’m always inspired; I’ve always got at least twenty writing ideas bubbling away. I’d noticed, though, that precious few of them were really turning into anything, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. I tried to figure it out, but the more I tried, the worse it got, and the harder is was to create anything, or at least finish anything I’d started to create. Some days, it was too overwhelming to even start. I gradually realised that I was using up the time I could be doing with thinking. It wasn’t the good type of thinking, either — that surging, tremulous, kinetic thinking of the creative flow state — it was static thinking.
Dynamic vs static thinking
I was thinking about how I was going to do something, not thinking while doing it. The rationale was that I should not start something until I had everything prepared, or I’d have to stop and disrupt my flow, or I’d write something incorrect, or phrase something poorly — in short, a lack of preparedness would cause me to fail. I worried a lot about not being able to find things; having ADHD means I live a life of half-remembered things, of mundane self-questioning (‘Why did I come in here?’ ‘Where did I leave the keys?’ ‘Where did I put that note?’), of brainfog, of the erratic dynamics of life (too loud, too quiet, too bright, too dark …), so I had executive concerns. I can’t just write this down, I would think, because I won’t remember that I did; or, if I do remember that, I won’t remember where I put it! The jackboots of such thoughts stomped over my psychic terrain, destroying any green shoots. When I surveyed the terrain, there was only the vacant sigh of desert.
I was thinking, devoting huge amounts of psychic energy, but solely on thoughts abouta piece of writing. There was nothing left. Like one’s internet connection, there’s only so much bandwidth, and I was expending all mine in non-creative places. As it turned out, these were the wrong places.
Because, though I was spending time and energy on ‘creativity’, there was nothing to show for it. That’s because I was, as Austin Kleon puts it in Show Your Work!, treating creativity as a ‘noun, not a verb’. Create — that’s where my energy should have gone; not in attempting to foster some idea of my own nature or identity as a creator or creative person. Instead, what I should have been doing was … well, doing.
But how do I do?
There are a few ways. The first has been to stop using a Personal Knowledge Management system, at least in the ‘internet’ sense. I first came across PKM in 2020 or so, when Roam Research came out. Roam was in its infancy, but it was making waves online, with many prominent ‘productivity’ bloggers, podcasters, writers and YouTubers calling it ‘revolutionary’ and ‘a game changer.’ What was Roam? A note-taking app, but the fuss was about its linked nature — it calls itself a place for ‘networked thought’ and its influence led to a proliferation of notes apps with similar features, such as bidirectional linking, transclusion, extensibility and the like. Roam claimed to be like your brain: folders, its founder argued, were outmoded, relics from a bygone dusty era of archives and paper filing; what was needed instead was a ‘Second Brain’1 — digital extensibility for your limited grey matter. You might forget, but your brain — Roam — never would. Moreover, its founder claimed, such networked ‘tools for thought’ would be ‘transformative’ for creatives and ‘knowledge workers’. All you had to do was write and link; Roam would take care of the rest.
The trouble with software, though, is that it’s opinionated, even if it presents itself as customisable. This opinionated nature means that one needs to adapt to the tool, gives one the impression that one needs to ‘learn’ the tool. The amount of YouTube videos that teach one how to use Roam ‘properly’, to ‘its full potential’ or ‘creatively’. I fell into the trap; I wanted to think better, so why wouldn’t I? Trouble is, I was spending my time learning how to use an app rather than making something with the app. That’s not to say I didn’t make anything — I did, and none of this should be taken as anti-Roam or, indeed, anti-anyone — but I’d find ‘problems’, or think I needed to ‘optimise’, or worry about ‘losing things’, and I’d grind to a halt. With such apps — and people trying to teach you how to use the apps — come methodologies: Getting Things Done, Personal Kanban, Bullet Journalling, Zettelkasten (more on this in a minute). In some cases, the methodology is built into the app itself — Conor, the founder of Roam, tweeted extensively about Niklas Luhmann, the much ballyhooed ‘creator’2 of the Zettelkasten; Roam was built around the principles of the ZK, and indeed there are videos of Conor himself using it for ‘live zetteling’ [sic]’. So, buy into Roam, buy into the Zettelkasten. But how does one make a Zettelkasten? Never fear! There are paid courses, many charging hundreds of dollars, teaching you how to use it; and, if not the Zettelkasten, how to use Roam using another framework. Such frameworks are always marketed as simple, but if they were, why would they need to exist at all?
If the above all sounds horrible, that’s because it is: that’s the state of ‘productivity’ culture online, unfortunately. It’s another way to make money. I am not saying that all of the advice is worthless; I am not saying that the apps aren’t useful; I am saying that they are only useful when one applies a verb. If they aren’t helping one make anything, they’re useless. This was a realisation I came too quite late. Tiago Forte, author of Building A Second Brain3 ran a whole series on matching one’s ‘note-taking personality’ to a note-taking app. Do you need x feature to help you think better? Then pick this one! It turns out, though, that I only need one feature in order to be productive: I need to be able to write in it, and I can do that in all of them.
In fact, I’ve moved away from digital tools a lot, and I have written far more and — probably more importantly — had much more fun doing it. I had turned my writing into work: why the hell would I do that to something fun? I got a nice notebook and a nice pen (link to both) and just started writing things down. The only header was the date and the time. Just thoughts, sketches, messy diagrams. When I need to write something for publication on my blog, I use a simple writing app called Bear.4 I use Bear because it looks nice, is reliable (seldom crashes), is simple and I know all the keyboard shortcuts. The former point is important, becasue there’s little to do in Bear but write, and that’s all that matters.
Back to the question
I’d been making things hard for myself. I realised over the past year or so just how much this was true of all aspects of my life. I realised that starting anything was the hardest and most important thing, something that doing guided runs helped me realise. I realised that the Pareto Principle — the 80/20 rule that can be roughly simplified to 20% of the effort gets 80% of the results — was pretty much on the money, and that if I wanted to feel creative and content I should not only do, but do the 20% that matters. Helpful here was a question I came across, that I think is Tim Ferriss’: What would this look like if it were easy? It’s a great question, because it reveals how little one needs to have ready in order to start something — something that one wants to do. I appreciate that a lot of what I have written might seem simplistic, but that’s been the point for me: turns out, some things really aren’t that complex.
So, I remind myself: stop thinking, and DO THE THING.
I’ve seen this term online a lot. It’s the tagline on the Obsidian website: Obsidian, a very popular PKM app, markets itself as ‘A second brain for you. Forever.’ The term has been popularised (if not originated; I don’t know) by Tiago Forte, architect of the online course ‘Building A Second Brain’ and, last year, a book of the same name. Forte is an evangelist for digital note-taking apps, which he believes can help us tame information overload, think better, and increase our creative output.
While it’s true that Luhmann used a Zettelkasten, a box full of notes on index cards, which were extensively linked, he’s far from the first to use such a method. When the Zettelkasten is referred to online, it’s usually in reference to Luhmann, but it’s really Sönke Ahrens’ take on it, from How To Take Smart Notes, that has the rabid following. Few people nowadays keep a Zettelkasten in the manner Luhmann did, through some have similar systems. Luhmann is the figurehead, though, because of his prolific output, which he credited to his slip-box, his ‘conversation partner’. Luhmann is useful, because it makes the Zettelkasten seem magic: all you need is this tool, and you’ll think like Luhmann. Also, I have it on reasonable authority from native German speakers that Luhmann might have written a lot, but his prose was horrid, reading like what it was: index cards sequenced together to make a whole.
I have read Forte’s book. There’s good advice in there; he’s app-agnostic, and likes to keep things simple. His methodologies, like Luhmann’s, have been co-opted and made marketable (including, to be fair, by himself) and more complex by others.
A funny little pertinent point about Bear: some time ago, they announced that they were working on a new version, which would have more features. They have taken a little while to deliver, but you should see the vitriol their development team gets for not releasing sooner, and not prioritising certain features. Such is the state of productivity culture: productivity, it seems, is all about performance, not making anything.