Taking notes on Tiago Forte's Just-in-Time Project Management

January 31, 2020, [MD]

Note taking and Roam

I was heavily invested in a note-taking infrastructure during my PhD, using Dokuwiki with a bunch of my own extensions to enable things like extracting and reorganizing content by tags and my own web clipper. However, this workflow was so brittle that I couldn't even manage to transfer it easily to a new laptop, and in the years since that intense bout of literature review (early stage PhD), I've muddled through with a variety of tools, DevonThink, Google Docs, NValt etc.

Recently, I came across Roam Research, and was very excited by how they are combining some of the best ideas of wikis, refining my early idea of reorganizing content through tags, and hierarchical outliners (which I had seen, but never really paid that much attention to - turns out this plus backlinks enables really powerful things). For me, it was an interview that Tiago Forte did with the founder of Roam, Conor White-Sullivan (my notes), which "sealed the deal". I was very impressed by his vision, and have been digging into Roam and the community around it, ever since.

Since then, I've been thinking about the best ways of using Roam, inspired by some of the use cases people have shared (see some in Awesome Roam). I've tried interstitial journaling, keeping track of projects and goals, capturing interesting resources, etc.

Tiago Forte's concept of Just-in-Time Project Management

I've been following Tiago Forte for a few months now, through his prolific blog posts, newsletters, podcast appearances and tweets. He clearly embodies a "productivity first" or "learning through writing" approach, but he has a lot of useful things to say. One of the concepts I kept circling around was "intermediate deliverables" or "intermediate packages". One of the ways Roam works (possibly mirroring how our brains work) is that you can begin "circling in" on a concept without having to really define it. If you keep tagging a certain concept whenever you hear about it, once you finally visit that page, even though you've never written anything, you can see all the different contexts that you've referred to it, and in this way already get what someone called a "pointilistic portrait" of the concept.

So I've been thinking about getting back to blogging or at least sharing more informal writing publicly (this is the first blog post in three years), and also about how I could leverage better all the writing that happens anyway (in long e-mails, notes, etc). I decided that I wanted to properly understand what Tiago meant by this concept, and came across a link to his series on Just-in-Time Project Management. This is a list of about 22 blog posts, which are only for subscribers, so I paid 10$, and began reading. Since I really want to retain and organize this information, I opened one window in Roam and one window to read, and began taking notes. As I went along, I came to really enjoy the way Roam let's you collapse and expand sections, which enables you to keep an overview of all the different sections, even though it's actually many many pages, and made it easy to see how the subsequent information fit in, allowing me to go back and modify or add to previous structures etc, mirroring how I want to understand the ideas, rather than the order in which it is presented.

Recording the process of taking notes

After having processed about five blog posts, I had the idea to just turn on a screen recorder, and let it watch me work. I thought it might be fun to go back and look at my process, and perhaps others would find it fun - at least in a sped-up version. It was also helpful to keep focused, since I didn't want to have to go back and edit later, so I really resisted the urge to switch context, check email etc. I have also looked into, and regularly use, many tools for capturing content, such as Hypothes.is for web annotation, Scrivener as a "reading buffer", etc. But this time, I really enjoyed doing all of the processing synchronously. I know some people like to dump all of the text into Roam first, and then process, but I prefer doing at least a pre-selection (using annotations), and in this case, I did most of the processing synchronously. As I read, I change wordings, use bold and italic, and try to organize the notes so that it will be easy to come back to. I add lot's of links to other concepts (both ones I have pages on already, and ones I don't). I also add my own thoughts and questions, which I usually highlight in yellow to make them stand out.

When I had finished, I did one last quick pass over the whole text, re-reading to see if I could detect new connections etc. I could have done much more work to reorganize or integrate here, but I'll leave that for the next time I revisit this text. haring the process and the outcome

I've made all of my notes public (note that this is not the same database as I use privately, so many of the links which will have content in my private db will go to empty pages here), and if you are curious, you can also see the process by which these notes were made. Below is a 1000x sped up version (one minute), with links to a 100x and a real-time version.

Take-aways from Tiago's writings

Since I've already taken so detailed notes, and interleaved them with many personal observations, I will not try to summarize them here (although perhaps that would have been useful for my learning/retention). Suffice to say that I really like some of his approaches, even though I do sometimes feel like a lot of productivity advice comes from people who are self-employed as Youtubers, bloggers etc, and they naturally have a very different way of organizing their time, and evaluating "Return-on-Attention" than others.

I started out struggling with note taking as a student, first as a bachelor student primarily occupied with learning and passing exams, as well as doing just enough reading to be able to finish a paper (typically something like five sources), but also doing an Honour's Thesis with a large amount of material. Later I did an MA degree, with mostly seminar classes, and again a large research task at the end, and finally a PhD, where you are of course not only doing readings to prepare you for a momentous task several years in the future, but also thinking about publishing papers, participating in the scholarly community, etc.

(At that time, I also spent a lot of time thinking about how academics should collaborate, better formats for academic publishing, etc.) And currently, I'm employed at the Minerva Project, where I have an interesting job combining pure software development, with product work (specs, architecture, pedagogical design), and even some pure research. I still need to keep up with the literature, yet goals and criteria for evaluation are very different.

That said, I think I would have very much appreciated reading this back when I was a PhD student (and certainly finding Roam!), but it's possible that the time I spent in a tech company learning about modern management approaches also helps me better appreciate some of his writings.

PS: This blog post was authored in Roam.

Stian HĂ„klev January 31, 2020 Lausanne, Switzerland
comments powered by Disqus