Making the most of your most important asset

Your brain is your best feature, in the knowledge economy

Nothing brings home the importance of memory and clear thinking, than temporarily losing your grip on these things - so thank you Covid, for that valuable lesson (though I did understand it the first time, and really didn't need it reinforced twice over.)

To anyone else in the throes of brain fog, for reasons ranging from hormones to stress, my heart goes out to you. It's horrible.

Whatever your work-life situation, being unable to rely on your own thoughts is terrifying. But when you're a knowledge-based-worker, totally dependent on the functioning of that blob of wet matter between your ears to earn a living, it's particularly disturbing.

None of us know what's around the corner, but events of this year (which include the loss of a parent, and observing the sadly declining memory of someone very dear) have reinforced to me the importance not only of clear and critical thinking, but being able to draw on existing knowledge at need. It's not just about storing the information, it's about being able to retrieve and access it in a timely way, whatever the circumstances.

Being a nerdy geek, my thoughts naturally turn to the best ways to use the tech we have around us to support our frail cerebral cortices in this task. How can we extend the capacities of our memories, and strengthen the connections between the things we know, as well as finding new ways to use or combine those thoughts?

Back in the early days of the millennium, productivity guru David Allen first expressed (in Getting Things Done) the idea that your brain is a great place for having ideas, but a terrible place for storing them.

Allen's work was focused mainly on storing and retrieving actionable information, tasks to do or errands to run, and his framework (of multiple perspectives broken down to the most granular layer of next action on each project) is still the basis of many productivity systems and apps today. But the mass of non-actionable stuff, or not immediately actionable or assignable information, he suggested simply filing alphabetically - and even in the later editions, he remained a big fan of physical filing systems with labeled folders.

More recently, Tiago Forte has addressed this from a more 2022-tech-environment perspective, with his book Building a Second Brain:

Which focuses directly on that amorphous blob of mostly non-actionable information we all know or come across, but want to hold on to anyway. Because it's curious, or interesting, or provocative, or... some instinct just tells you it's going to be important one day.

This is vital, for writers in particular, or anyone whose work involves creativity.

It's all knowledge...

Both frameworks have in common the idea of systematising the way you capture ideas and information in the first place, then review and organise them, to ensure you can retrieve and connect them when you need to. Because whether you're working with a task or a random fact/thought, the relevance comes from being able to surface it at the moment you need it. It doesn't matter if that's driven by the information item itself (popping up a reminder, that it's time to review whether you really need that subscription before you pay for it again), or triggered by your present curiosity (what do I already know about XXX, for this article I want to write?)

The BASB approach is very app-agnostic, and suggests varied approaches depending on the way you consume and use information, and how you connect thoughts together. It made me think about all the different ways I presently aggregate the thoughts and ideas I want to keep, for better for worse, and wonder whether I could do a better job - especially taking advantage of the increasingly powerful search potential of most modern information management tools (which mean you don't have to do as much work when you capture and file the thing in the first place.)

This is great for my sprawling Evernote database, of everything from project correspondence, SOPs for clients, random song lyrics, notes and highlights from ebooks (via the Readwise app), and much more. I make little use of tags, trusting that when I need to dig out what I've got, I will find it.

I use this for all kinds of creative projects, and for making connections between different ideas and themes and sources - when I am writing an article, or planning a presentation, or deciding what to read next. I don't separate personal from professional information, because for me as a freelancer following my passions, it's all part of the same big churning mass of ideas I am trying to hold on to and disseminate into useful forms.

But there are other kinds of knowledge management that demand more structure to be useful, because you won't be able to search for what you don't know exists - and this is definitely true for anything shared with other people. In that situation, it's better to have clear navigation that anyone (including your future self, after a brain injury or senior moment) can drill down through to discover what they need.

So I am working on a 'home handbook' in Notion, to contain everything like non-sensitive passwords, receipts and guarantees for appliances, vacation research, copies of important documents, and so on. Like a family Git repository.

I wish my parents had had this - because however sentimentally lovely my Mum's handwritten notes about the dog worming schedule are, there is no way of it prompting anyone at the right time, or being found in an index.

So, I am exploring and researching this further, and hoping to share and publish these thoughts next year. I think they would be of particular value to mobile knowledge-workers, so I am pitching to present at the Bansko Digital Nomad festival next summer:

Could you help me, if you agree, with a little upvote?

And would you let me know, what your biggest challenges are in organising and retrieving knowledge? Whether that's remembering when to worm the dog, or researching where to go and live, or a gorgeous quote in an article you want to hang on to, how does it work for you?

Thanks for reading, and please forward this newsletter on to a friend if you think they'd find it useful and interesting.

Have a lovely weekend,

Maya Middlemiss