With this issue of PKM Weekly, I’m officially past the first year of the newsletter1. I figure today is a great opportunity to review the broad changes I’ve seen in the PKM/Note space since I started the newsletter.
The “Leader” We Lost
When I started this newsletter I made a list of 6 pieces of software I should keep an eye out for to gather news on. They were RemNote, logseq, Craft, Obsidian…and the biggest software on the block Roam Research.
My only reason for choosing Obsidian over Roam was that Roam turned into a closed beta before I could get in. I’m not one to wait so I tried a few things and then have mostly stuck with Obsidian.
I remember when (dang I’m old) Roam was the hotness that everyone was talking about. You couldn’t refresh Youtube or your RSS reader without seeing someone talking about Roam. Now when I look for news on Roam, it’s often disenchanted with the software. From the ill-fated Roam Cult to Connor being a petulant child in the face of criticism to the slow development it seems like Roam has fallen.
Roam is out of the picture as far as I can tell. It felt like a big promise, and then it failed the note community. It didn’t solve all our issues with notes. Most people just took notes and then never went back to them, and if they did they realized they took garbage notes because it’s easy to fall into the trap of just taking notes and thinking that’s productive.
If you use Roam and love it and it helps you accomplish work…keep on doing what you’re doing. I will never fault someone for using a tool that works for them.
So Many New Options
Just a few months back everything that came my way was showing off Tana. I easily found videos, blog posts, forum topics, and many other mentions of the software but now I have to fight to find resources on it and still come up with nothing. Not just articles I didn’t find useful, but nothing is written about it.
This has been a similar pattern for many new tools. Every week I have at least 2 or 3 new tools reach out to me to tell me why I should do a video on them because they’re the best new thing around2. Clearly, showing their tool off will benefit me in all the excited people about their tool that will become subscribers to my YouTube channel. All these people will clearly send me money and cars…so I should be reviewing their brand-new software.
They release it, so many people show it off on videos, or write about it, then it’s gone in a few weeks and despite having it on my list of names/tools to search for I find nothing about it. They never show up in my inbox again. Maybe some of them will survive, and maybe some will continue to chase the latest hot item like AI to show how innovative they are.
For the last few years, PKM/Zettelkasten/Notes have been a hot area and funding has been found to get these tools built. People have been extra interested in them as cross-linking has been a new idea for many people. As this idea becomes more mainstream the apps will filter down to some winners and a number of small players and a number of dead husks of companies that just didn’t get the traction they needed.
I’d anticipate we still have a year or so of new apps showing up all the time, but we’ll see that start to drop off as people realize even with the newest bestest greatest app that chased the latest buzzword in technology, they still don’t take notes because they’re undisciplined. If they take notes, they still don’t do much with them because they were always dreaming about a tool that did the work for them. They’re not going to do the work needed to publish stuff, computer, computer, do it for me.
A new tool doesn’t fix the problem when the problem is you.
Where Are Things Going?
Lately, the tools in my inbox are all showing off AI and how they are using it to be “better” than the existing competition. As far as I can tell, this is ticking off a box to show that the company is current and cool. While I see some areas where AI can benefit people, AI should be freeing up people to create art and write not just take their creative jobs so they can do more lame work. I expect more note tools to show off whatever the next hot thing is, and I hope you’ll ignore most of it.
There has been an explosion of creators focused on taking notes. Many of these creators also have courses to sell (myself included) and coaching and….so many other things to help you take better notes. Very few of these creators are actually doing anything but taking notes on notes and selling you on how to use their system to take notes so you too can…take notes. At some point, you have very little value to add if you’re just talking about taking notes on notes. At some point, everyone has been duped into your courses and coaching that’s going to get duped and then the creators move on to other things to push because it’s now the big category that needs creation and courses.
Overall, I expect many creators to stop doing content about taking notes because it’s not hot and not growing as fast and not earning them money. On one hand, YouTube and writing are very time-consuming and that means you need to have money to pay for your time, so I understand this as they have bills to pay. There will likely be a few that continue to talk about how they take notes because they actually use the systems to produce something besides notes on notes.
At one point GTD was the huge thing that everyone was learning about. It was exciting to find a system that promised to handle all our tasks. It felt like magic when I first tried doing GTD. Then my life really hit me and I didn’t review and my task manager became an overwhelming mess. I realized the problem was less about which system I used and more about me. If I don’t set time aside to stay organized, everything comes crashing down and I abandon my task manager.
I think PKM is in the early stages and is seen as a saviour, just like GTD was/is. But if you don’t use/work/stick with the system then it won’t work. If you just put notes in all the time and never review them, you’ll have a lot of garbage and hidden notes. You’ll look at your software and realize you don’t use it and abandon it.
People are bad at recognizing when they are the problem. As people start to realize that note tools didn’t solve their own organizational issues they’ll stop looking for more note content/tools. Most will blame the tool because it wasn’t “magic” enough, as if some fairy dust or unicorn tears would have fixed everything. Very few will realize that they are the problem and make some changes then pick a tool and get back to doing their work instead of just looking for new note tools all the time.
Advice for Note Takers
You may guess what my biggest piece of advice is if you want to take effective notes…schedule time to do it. Scott Scheper talks often about how the constraints of effort and space are a benefit when it comes to notes. On this point we can agree, the time it takes means you think more clearly because it requires effort, and hand cramps, to write too much. This is one of the reasons I love Bullet Journals. When a big list of things to do feels too hard to move, you just voted it wasn’t important enough.
Far too many people take copious notes and view that as “productivity”. They use word counts and other metrics as a proxy for good notes that have good thinking in them. They look at a big pretty graph and figure they’re doing something right when their graph is little more than note-taking porn tricking you into thinking that there is something valuable in your notes.
Stop that crap! Take fewer notes. Think about them more. Schedule time to dig through your notes and summarize your areas of focus in light of the new information you’ve taken in.
Nothing about notes is a race to have the most notes or the prettiest graph3, those are merely you faking yourself into thinking that your notes have value.
Tell me what you learned this week that improved you as a person. What did you learn that helped you be better at your job? What did you learn, that connected with other things you learned and published for others to read, or talked about with others?
Notes for notes sake is a waste of bits and your time. Stop wasting your time thinking you’re being productive.
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- It’s actually more than a year since the first one as when I’m on holiday I don’t get a guest editor I just don’t ship an issue. ↩
- Funny, when I tell them it costs money if they want a review they all say they have no money so they just want free coverage for a tool I’m not sure I believe in. Also, I’ve never viewed my YouTube channel/site as a place to review tools. It’s about what I’m interested in. ↩
- Sigh, I don’t care about your graph and outside of very niche uses, you shouldn’t care either.3 ↩