This is the time of year when everyone is publishing their yearly reviews for 2022 and their goal-setting posts for 2023. In case my own plans might give you some inspiration, I wanted to do the same — and to share the tech stack (a trendy phrase that simply means “the apps I’m using”) I’ll test in the coming quarter.
My Personal Planning Philosophy
My work as a strategic advisor shapes my personal planning process. Instead of focusing on goals for the year, I work through a cycle that takes about 3 months to complete:
- Notice tensions arising in my life.
- Envision a future state where those tensions have been relieved. How will it look? What will be different?
- Author guiding principles that will get me close to that desired future state.
- Propose experiments (little interventions that take from 1 to 3 months to complete) designed to close the gap between where I am and where I want to be
- Evaluate the impact of those experiments on the gap.
- Review progress and loop back through this process as needed.
So: you won’t find me making new year’s resolutions or setting bold “stretch goals.” Instead, you’ll find an approach driven by curiosity and a willingness to try new things and see what happens.
Tensions Surfacing in My Life
As I pay attention to what’s going on around me, here are the tensions I notice:
- In the autumn of my life, I have less time ahead of me than behind me. I need to reduce time wasted and work efficiently.
- My media diet contains too much “snack food” and “fast food.” I want to take in more content that feeds my mind, heart, and soul.
- There is a disconnect between what I claim (“I’m a writer”) and what I do (I don’t spend enough time writing).
- I’m aware of several dietary and exercise habits that aren’t contributing to health and longevity.
- I want a greater sense of community and to make meaningful contributions to that community.
- After year of experimenting with various PKM apps, my notes feel scattered and fragmented.
A Future with Those Tensions Relieved
In a future where these tensions were relieved, I would be:
- living a more observed life: cherishing little moments, noticing the beauty streaming past me, preserving and connecting with quiet, everyday joy.
- returning to my habit of reading a surprising number of good books in the course of a year: recalling more of what I read, sure, but also being inspired to create and share more work of my own.
- reclaiming my identity as a writer: writing another novel, publishing more, and finding a community of established writers dedicated to sharpening and refining each other’s work.
- achieving better balance in my life and habits: returning to meditation, eating mindfully again, making a modest daily exercise routine a non-negotiable, feeling that each meal contributes to (instead of works against) my health. I would be more present, more centered, more focused.
- helping and connecting with others, professionally and personally. I would be living a social life with more scope and depth, finding a volunteer activity that does local work that matters, and enjoying a richer connection with friends and family
- using purpose-made apps that do one thing very well (rather than using one app to do many things pretty well), including one app exclusively for making and exploring notes.
To help me make decisions that get me closer to those future states, I come up with some guiding principles, expressed in terms of choosing one thing “even over” another.
Note that, for these guiding principles to be useful, one has to pit two equally good things against each other.
For example: a value statement like “Spending time with people I love even over getting a colonoscopy” isn’t very useful, because it pits one good and pleasant thing against one uncomfortable and unpleasant thing. There’s no effort in such a choice.
By contrast, “Time with my family even over opportunities to advance my career” pits two potentially good things against each other … and will help me make better decisions faster and with greater clarity, even in the heat of the moment.
With my desired future states in mind, I’m adopting these guidelines for Q1 2023:
- Maintaining a deeper presence in the moment even over multitasking
- Reading books even over reading trendy, engaging online posts
- Spending time writing even over spending time playing video games or watching television
- Making choices that increase longevity even over choices that increase gratification
- Social connections in the real world even over social connections online
- Using good purpose-built apps even over learning to build custom solutions in a highly customizable app
- Sticking with one powerful notes app even over giving new, exciting options a try.
Experiments to Close the Gap
I’ve designed a number of experiments to help me close these gaps.
Some are too personal to cover here; others would try the patience of an audience primarily interested in note-making and PKM (more, perhaps, than this lengthy post already has). Since most of you are interested in technology, tools for thought, and personal knowledge management, the rest of this post will focus on experiments I’m conducting with regard to the tools Im using in my daily work flow.
My 2023 App Stack
To minimize the amount of app-hopping I’m tempted to do because of fashion or FOMO, I’ve also sought greater clarity on the guidelines governing my tool selections. For me, these are:
- Privacy and portability even over whiz-bang new features
- Apps I can pay for and sustain even over powerful “free” apps
- Solid core functions even over extensibility and customization
- Community-driven learning offerings even over more efficient paid courses.
With the fall of Athens Research this year, I’ve added another:
- Open-source and small-team solutions even over exciting solutions built with venture capital.
While an injection of VC money allows for fast growth and provides insulation against the harsh realities of the present … it does so by creating debts that must be paid, with interest, in the future. I believe this arrangement eventually forces a “growth even over stability” mentality … and allows solutions that aren’t truly viable to appear to be.
So, in short: I don’t want any VC-backed solutions in my stack.
These are my personal guidelines; yours (and, therefore, the options that are best for you) will likely vary.
Journaling: Day One
DayOne is neither new nor sexy. It’s pretty much been around in its current incarnation since 20212 (though critical features, including sync with end-to-end encryption, have been added along the way). But as someone who has also kept journals in paper notebooks, Apple Notes, Bear, Ulysses, GoodNotes, Roam, Obsidian, and Logseq, I can testify that no other app makes keeping a feature-rich journal easier.
My entries are automagically tagged with location, plotted on a map, and appended with weather data. I can drop in images or audio recordings. I can pull in all my Instagram posts. I can tag entries to enhance rediscovery. I can even print beautiful soft-cover or hard-bound books of selected entries. (There’s something magical about seeing my ephemeral Instagram photos in the format of a coffee table book.)
DayOne is not open source, but is stable and pretty much feature complete. It’s owned by WordPress, a team unlikely go to anywhere anytime soon. And while my encrypted entries are not in a format that is directly human readable, excellent export options allow me to output selected entries to Markdown or PDF files (and even those books, if I prefer). I’m happy to pay for a Pro account, which adds a few features and contributes toward maintenance and what little development seems needed.
Because of my affection for Obsidian, I strongly considered continuing to journal there. In the end, though DayOne’s core features and beautiful presentation won me over. Another advantage DayOne offers: while traveling, I can pull out my phone or check my Apple Watch and, with a single tap, create a location-aware entry with details I can fill in later. There’s no faster way to log my travels.
I’m able to compare journal entries made in many formats and many tools over the years, and journal entries created in DayOne remain some of my most vivid, accessible, and appealing personal content. Currently, I keep four journals there:
- a sweet little record of the events of my day
- a lavishly-illustrated dream journal
- a “5-minute morning” journal
- a weekly check-in journal.
Over the Q1 2023, I’ll continue journaling in DayOne and plan to pull in the last five years of journal entries languishing in various apps.
Long Form Writing: Ulysses
After writing an entire novel in Obsidian in 2022, I found myself longing for the flexibility and power of a solution I used — and abandoned — years ago: Ulysses.
Unlike document-centric word processors, Ulysses allows writers to create “sheets” of text that can be tagged, annotated, dragged, dropped, remixed, and then exported in a number of different formats. Authors can define target word counts and monitor progress toward those goals. And when the time comes to publish, Ulysses (better than pretty much any other app) can, with very little effort on my part, output files in formats my publishers accept.
In years past, I wrote several books in Ulysses, so I was already familiar with its power and flexibility. I was wooed away by the false belief that I needed a writing environment that fully embraced linking and back-linking … but in practice, while links and backlinks are great for note-making environments, I don’t need them (or their attendant distractions) when drafting books, posts, and stories.
Ulysses is another stable, mature, purpose-built app created by a dedicated team who update it frequently. My subscription supports the creators directly, and I feel good about contributing to the ongoing development of an app as elegant as this one.
Ulysses has everything I need for writing, polishing, and publishing long form writing. I wrote this lengthy post in ulysses, polishing each little section, one at a time, and felt real joy while doing so. I can’t wait to start my Q1 project in Ulysses.
Visualizing and Mind Mapping: Mindnode
Outlines are great, and Excalidraw is an amazing achievement. But my most successful attempts at organizing my thoughts have been in Mindnode, which makes creating beautiful, meaningful mind maps easy. The results can be output in a number of formats, including Markdown outlines and PDFs that can be integrated with other apps.
I find that Mindnode looks familiar, produces visually pleasing results with the least possible tweaking, provides plenty of flexibility, and manages to be both powerful and flexible (a good trick, that).
Like DayOne and Ulysses, Mindnode’s been around for a while, and the nine-person team maintaining have a lot of passion for keeping Mindnode the “best of class” mind mapping software for the Mac and iOS. I’m feel good about my small investment in their work.
Project Management – Things
In the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, Things was my secret weapon for productivity. At work, long before others were using task and project management software, I was using Things to create, track, and complete work … and doing so with a degree of success that drew the attention of (and converted) several others.
At work, I was forced to migrate way from Things when we needed a more collaborative task management solution. But when I left work, I found myself in need of a personal solution again. Wooed by a false belief (“I’ll be more efficient if I do everything in one app!”), I triedhard to shoehorn my project management needs into various note taking apps, including Roam, Obsidian, and Logseq.
But over time, I noticed that getting even very simple information on the work being managed in my tools for thought required an inordinate amount of fiddling … and perhaps due to all that fiddling, I ended up less productive than before.
And so, for Q1 2023, I’m back to Things, where capturing, organizing, and plowing through tasks feels more like play than work. The workflow is familiar, I don’t have to write any damn queries just to see what I’m up to, and my phone, iPad, laptop, and desktop machines stay perfectly and effortlessly in sync.
Things has been around for decades, is stable and mature, and — amazingly — remains a “buy once, use forever” software title (instead of requiring a subscription). The small team developing it, Cultured Code, continues to refine it and roll out new features. It looks beautiful, and I enjoy using it.
Content Capture and Tracking – Readwise Reader.
After a brief flirtation with Matter, I’m back to using the beta of Readwise Reader to capture, annotate, highlight, and archive interesting online content.
Honestly? Reader didn’t “click” with me when I tried out an early release version of the app. Last year, I read a *lot* of online content, and those early versions of Reader actually made content feel *harder* for me to follow.
But work on the user interface has paid off, and now Reader is a lean, mean information triage machine, capable of sucking in every RSS feed, newsletter, and bookmark … sorting them in any number of ways (including by how long it will take me to read them) … and transferring highlights and notes to my note-making app.
Unexpectedly, my favorite feature is the new AI “ghostwriter,” who can read, summarize, and prepare study guides for long-form articles. This helps me identify long form reads of the greatest value … and preps me to pay attention to what matters most as I’m reading.
I’m a bit uncertain about this choice because the app is in beta, and a lot about its future, including pricing, remains unknown.
An app to watch in this category, though, is Omnivore. I’d strongly prefer to support an open-source project! At the end of Q1 2023, I’ll likely switch to Omnivore for three months … and then decide which one of these two apps to use going forward.
Social Media – Mastodon, Glass, and Instagram
A social media platform possesses no more or less value than can be derived from the contributions of those who sign up for it.
In the case of Twitter, where I’ve been active since almost the beginning under one handle or another, the platform has been hijacked by a billionaire guru. Like many others, I’ve decided that I don’t want my own (very meager, very modest) content contributing value to what is becoming a platform for extreme right-wing politics and extreme wing-nut philosophies … and so for the foreseeable future, Mastodon will continue to be my home for short-form posts.
After two years of trying, on and off, to connect with followers on Twitter, I reached a follower count of about 1,000 people (some of whom are, undoubtedly, nothing but bots). In just over two months of just sharing ideas, insights, and questions on Mastodon, I’ve connected with 400 followers, all of whom seem to be real humans engaged in lively and meaningful conversations.
For social photo sharing, I like and pay for Glass … but it continues to be a lonely place, for at least two reasons. First: very few of my friends and acquaintances are there. (Even after I gave five people gifts of a year on the service, they never even signed up!) And that’s a shame, because Glass is far and away the best digital platform for sharing photos I’ve ever seen. Have a look!
Despite my extreme distaste for Instagram (and its parent company, Meta, and its founder), I will continue to share photos there (especially since these are automatically ferried over to Facebook, where friends and family members can see them without my having to wade into that particular cesspool). But I’m spending less than a minute a day looking at Instagram, as my feed features fewer and fewer posts from folks I know and love and more and more noisy, annoying “attention bait” posts served up by Meta’s algorithms. There’s no joy in the browsing experience, so I just don’t linger there.
Pixelfed, the free, open-source, federated photo sharing solution, is interesting to me, but a) I have no contacts there as yet, and b) the beta iOS app remains incredibly unstable, crashing almost every time I try to post a photo or leave a comment. Pixelfed just isn’t stable enough to be a contender in this space.
Note Making and Tools for Thought
No one is more surprised than I am to say the tool for thought I’ll be driving exclusively in Q1 2023 is the uniquely but awkwardly-named Logseq (pronounced “LOG-seek”).
All Roads Lead away from Roam
Roam Research introduced me to tools for thought, and I made many online friends while working in Roam. Its mercurial founder and the cults of personality in the user base turned me off pretty quickly, and my $500 investment in its believer plan remains the worst tech purchase I’ve ever made.
Tana is Tempting … but Needs More Time
Some will be surprised I’m not adopting Tana, especially given the popularity of the little Tana tour I posted in December 2022.
Let me be clear: Tana is nothing short of magical. I’ve been using it since October 2022, and I’ve loved what I’ve been able to achieve while playing with a pre-release version of the tool — so much so, that I chose, for a short time, to set all my values aside and, as an experiment, just revel in Tana’s grace and power.
But after some thinking, I’ve come back to Earth a bit. Tana isn’t mine — and neither are the notes I’ve been pouring into it. They are stored on someone else’s servers in a format I can’t read, and their privacy is protected by promise and policy, not technology. Export options for my data are extremely limited at this point in time, and it’s very difficult to get anything I put into Tana back out in a format that I can share with others.
My greatest concern for Tana, though, is the fact that it’s supported by VC funding. At some point, the backers will want to see a return on their investment — and the proverbial pipers, if displeased with payment, could do anything from sell assets to pull the plug. In the end, out of an abundance of caution, I’ve decided my notes are too precious to embrace this level of risk at this time.
Tana remains a solution to watch, and I’ll keep tinkering with it — but as a tinker-toy, not as my primary tool for thought.
Logseq even over Obsidian
These realizations left me with just two serious options for my “one and only” note-making solution: Obsidian (where I’ve been investing significant time and effort for a year!) and Logseq (a solution I toyed with in the past, but felt, at the time, was too early in its development to consider seriously).
How things have changed! In my testing over the past couple of months, Logseq has proven stable and reliable, and the shiny new sync feature, now in beta, has overcome my primary hurdle to adopting Logseq as my primary note-making environment.
Logseq has reminded me how much I love working in an outliner: capturing ideas quickly, organizing them on the fly, mapping out concepts, exploring relationships. But more importantly, Logseq is an environment where blocks are first-class citizens — units of thought unconstrained by any need to be associated with any particular page.
Some will be quick to point out that Obsidian, with the right plug-ins, can be made to function as an outliner and that Obsidian, too, is block-based. Both observations are true. That said: two key differences tipped the scales in favor of Logseq:
- Logseq, as a native outliner, operates in predictable and consistent ways that do not require plug-ins to manage, reducing the digital overhead required to manage my notes. Tags applied to parent bullet points are inherited by their children, extending and preserving the logical structure I’ve imposed on my notes and greatly enhancing discoverability.
- It is one thing for a solution to be “block aware” … and quite another for blocks to be first-class citizens. Obsidian’s document-centric model necessarily exalts the page as the dominant metaphor for information entered there. Over time, I feel this pushed me to try to treat pages as nodes, atomizing my notes in ways that left them feeling fragmented and disconnected instead of flexible and interconnected.
All of this to say: for me, and strictly for me, Logseq is delivering on the idea of information flowing freely, without the need for thinking about underlying files or organizing pages, in a way Obsidian simply couldn’t. (I will also allow for the fact that Obsidian may well be able to do this … and that my own shortcomings, lack of imagination, or bad habits kept this flow state from happening for me when using Obsidian.)
It’s also true — albeit a deeply personal thing — that I like the visual presentation of notes, backlinks, and search results better in Logseq than Obsidian. This is a difficult thing to quantify! But with very little tweaking, I’ve been able to create a comfortable, productive space that’s proven attractive enough to keep me coming back day after day after day.
And, finally, the native video-viewing / note-making experience, complete with embedded video and hot-keyed timestamps, is smoother and sparks more joy than any other solution.
I have loved Obsidian. At the same time, I’m excited to see where using Logseq exclusively for the next three months will take me. (I’m also eager to find out more about performance impact when I begin moving larger and larger amounts of legacy notes into Logseq!)
I feel really good about this experiment, because both apps use Markdown files under the hood. I feel reasonably certain that, with just a little care, the material I create in Logseq will very easily transfer to Obsidian (and vice versa) if I need it to.
I’ll Update at the End of March 2023
And so … that’s it: my tech stack for the first quarter of 2023. At the end of that quarter, I’ll review the extent to which these and other changes have relieved (or created!) tensions in my life … and how successfully I’ve been at closing gaps between where I am and my desired future states.
Whew! That’s a long post. If you’re still reading: thank you for the gift of your time and attention. I never take it for granted, and I’m grateful you allow me to share ideas and insights with you. If you have time to let me know what resonated with you, I’d love to hear from you.
Here’s hoping your own planning process (steal mine, if you like!) and your own experiments (whatever tools you choose) take you to successful places in the coming year.