Gathering Thoughts

When I do creative work, I need to keep track of a lot of things: I need to track what I’ve been told, I need to remember questions I want to ask and ask before I are forced to make assumptions, I need to know where I’m at, what the end looks like, and what being stuck or moving looks like.

Last month I began and failed to post about a prior school project’s documentation before starting an independent study. Work continued to escalate,as I am working in a design role, and I am new to most of it. So I’m not seeing a pattern of struggling to get momentum on things, and worse, it’s hard to pick back up or determine what I did later on. No, a cool video demonstrating the working project doesn’t help enough…

Both graduate school and my new work roles have pushed me to re-evaluate the tools that I use to manage my time and the information I’m trying to wrangle.

The set of skills I’m struggling to develop further involves: documentation, planning, and I’d guess I’d call it project awareness or maybe proprioception.

It’s exciting but also challenging me to try to think about a block and answer questions and come up with bug-fixes under pressure. In the years of prior work, I have been doing digital design where I’m trying to find bugs before there’s a lot of pressure on the designer(s) and cost to deploy the bug-fixes. In many ways it’s the opposite set of pressures and I’m still trying to adapt to it.

Part of what feels acutely overwhelming are the number of interactions I have to keep track of, and the importance of defining simple, intelligible boundaries between blocks so jobs are clear-cut and new features don’t require modifying a zillion blocks. I am reminded of the concept taught in PES: to have low coupling and high cohesion.

Now with a summer independent study deep underway in a state of disorganization, I have been struggling to get momentum due to a few nuisansome issues with tooling and, honestly, perfectionism. Work has also demanded a lot of time, and frankly there is disorganization there as well.

This blog post is to sort of consider the various tools for taking notes and consider what seems to work, how things have been used, and maybe how to pull things all together.

Goal: A system

The goal of all this is to try and work out a consistent system to use to gather thoughts, process notes, distill things down.

Notes Consolidation

It’s an even on my Outlook calendar at work. The idea is that every week I pull together the prior week’s work, and try to prepare for the next week ahead. The goal is to think about to set my next work morning up for a quick settle in by: (1) gathering up a summary of where I was so I don’t have to review too many notes, (2) reminding me of things that I was debugging, (3) give me confidence that what I’m workig on is the right thing.

As time has gone on I have not maintained this practice and it is time to revive it. I can’t keep everything in my head.

So what would notes consolidation look like? Where am I keeping my notes? What tools have I used in the past, which do I like, and which will I use in the future as I do “notes consolidation?”

Let’s begin with the must-haves of such a “system”:

  • Must be usable for either school or work.
  • Must allow me to use copious amounts of paper if needed, but not necessarily of the nice notebook
  • Must eventually be searchable in some way
  • Should incorporate automatic accountability (recording when something was complete)
  • Must not take ages and ages to accumulate and compile, etc.
  • Must be associated with my devices so I’m bothered with a banner and a buzz to tell me to get to x, y, or z. It works for appointments, so use them for breaking things up.
  • Must be sharable in some way

Tools that I have used:

  • Overleaf
  • Github
  • Dropbox
  • Outlook/Gmail
    • email
    • calendar
    • both offer task stuff… but they are exclusive to each other still
  • Google Docs
  • Confluence
  • suckless dmenu adapted to be a todo list (on github)
    • I really like this option because I can add a time when a task was added, and mark the time it was completed in the completed file, thereby measuring how long tasks took.
  • Paper: Poketo Concept Planner
  • Some notebook for class/hobby/project thoughts. Graph or dot ruled usually

Tools for sharing I could use:

  • This website?
  • OneNote (ew microsoft)

College Note-Taking

College lectures are dense, unless the professor is bungling hard. So the lectures are jam-packed with essential information. Taking notes in a college class is an art unto itself that I mastered, but it’s also not too hard considering how organized most of these presentations are.

Consider the hundreds of times that a certain required course, some long-bemoanded pre-req that has been taught regularly. Think about how standardized elements of the course must be. How many times it’s been organized again and again. So to take notes during such a lecture means that the material isn’t likely to be full of digressions.

Gradaute school is an interesting environment where a lot more organization work is put on the student. Either as a part of their work as TA’s or in working on their projects. The more advanced the study, the less guidance there is. There will not be a simple set of YouTube tutorial videos covering breaking topics. Self-directed learning at a high-school level is not so bad on account of the sheer abundance of information there is for that level of education. There’s plenty for undergrad, but as topics get more advanced, the paywalls appear and more and more is bound up in papers rather than snappy videos.

So more than ever, self-directed note taking and gathering has taken on an importance not only to get information about a subject from interactions with professors, etc. but also work out schedule, expectations, and other project-management items. In undergrad the goalposts were fixed but in grad school there is room for discussion. It is more important than ever to both advocate for oneself but also to be organized.

Too Many Notes

At work, every word from my boss is not from on high. I often focus on some detail and he goes on, and I lose track. It breaks the rhythm worse if I don’t ask for a pause, and it would be bad to constantly halt conversation to slowly soak in implications or catch that interesting edge case or questionable thing quickly.