In July, I attended the AALL conference in Denver, ready to take in new ideas, meet new people, and learn lots of librarianship tips and tricks from colleagues and vendors; but, in the back of my mind, I worried about how much information I would actually end up remembering from it. As I perused the program in the days leading up to the trip, I serendipitously came across the term “KM” or knowledge management – methods and tools which facilitate an organization’s institutional knowledge, pipelines, and productivity. Given my difficulties with memory, organization, and information overwhelm triggered by my ADHD, I was intrigued. Was there a way I could apply knowledge management systems to my life to help empower me (or even my students!) to better manage research, writing, and creative projects? Just for kicks, I tried a Web search for “personal knowledge management” and, sure enough, this was a thing – a big thing at that. As I packed for the trip, I listened to YouTubers explain their PKM tools and techniques, some even using them in ways that alleviate their ADHD challenges. Having felt so stuck lately with my research and creative outputs, I thought maybe, just maybe, this was exactly the type of resource I needed to adopt.
I knew my analog life wasn’t working for me. Neat, aesthetic stacks of folders, books, notepads, and articles, – an often-problematic spatial organization method and common ADHD phenotype that Stanford Professor Andrew Huberman calls “The Pile System” – failed me time after time and, no matter how I much I read, I wasn’t remembering anything actually gleaned from them or applying them to new situations. Similarly, digital files and folders so often accumulated in piles of like-type information: “Articles,” “Documents,” “LRWA,” etc. In either physical or digital form, I would so often grow frustrated at the piles’ inefficiency that I would regularly opt for a clean slate – that is, drop everything into a box, computer folder, or even an external hard drive with the title “Sort Later,” so that everything was still there but out of my way. This, I later-learned from an ADHD Law Librarians Discussion Den at the AALL conference, is known as a “DOOM Box,” (an acronym for “Didn’t Organize Only Moved”) another common ADHD phenotype and what an Urban Dictionary definition aptly describes as “a great way to describe the box you fill up in a fast unorganized cleanup, but then never get around to sorting or emptying.” After hearing this explained, memories flashed before me. I had started doing this no later than the end of first grade, when I cleaned out my school desk into a bag, and kept the bag for the next year as I insisted to my mother that there may be something in there that I would later need and that I would eventually organize it. This isn’t how I wanted to continue on, in my personal or professional lives.
But so many of these YouTubers use apps, programs, and other electronic technologies – something I’ve tried so hard to distance myself from. Living in San Francisco, a technology powerhouse, I so often pass by folks dissociatively glued to screens, tuned into earbuds, and dangerously oblivious to anything around them. I worried that I’d similarly have to constantly plug-in to accommodate these new tools and methods. Fortunately, YouTubers referred to author Tiago Forte, a knowledge management self-help entrepreneur and author of Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential, who proposes a four-step method to better and more intentionally manage our world of information, using apps and digital tools to instead create a “second brain.” This leaves our first brain free to think and create, suggesting to me that there’s still a balance with technology, analog print, and the world around me to appreciate – I wouldn’t have to commit my life to my digital tech, just leverage it. Coincidentally, his book, based on his expensive workshop, was hot-off-the-press so I scurried to get a paper copy to read on the flight to Denver.
“Capture, Distill, Organize, and Express,” the book professed as the four steps. I was enamored – a method so simple! The book elaborated on having patience and flexibility with developing our system and with productivity apps, things I’ve always tossed when they weren’t exactly perfect – it saw right through me! Importantly, it encouraged methods that help keep tools at our fingertips to jot down or recall ideas and notes, saving my memory from trying to remember those great ideas or questions that I so often lose – a game changer! Now that I had a method, I tackled the technology, testing apps like Evernote, Notion, Taskade, Confluence, and finally selecting Obsidian for its flexibility, strong community help, local storage/security, and educator discount. Paired with YouTube videos on developing an Obsidian workflow, I now use it to capture my everyday thoughts, connect to and extract quotations and notes from articles through Zotero and Adobe, and draw inspiring new connections between thoughts through its graphical webs. Admittedly, it took some coding familiarity and lots of patience over using something user-ready like Notion. So, I had to start small and will undoubtedly learn more as I go along. Additionally, I’ve used Obsidian’s mobile version to open a quick note at my fingertips, which has helped immensely on my bus commute, in meetings, or even in conversation – if someone brings up a great thought or idea I want to explore later, I can excuse myself, jot the note quick, and return to the conversation seamlessly.
Importantly, these tools and methods encourage you to revisit your notes, spending time at the end of the week looking back on thoughts, materials, and ideas, and organizing them appropriately. During an evening wind-down on the weekend, I’ll lightly review what notes or ideas I had and organize them with emojis, tags, links, and other starter metadata, so that I can find them again later. This crucial review also encourages my memory and retention, while sparking creativity and fulfillment in keeping my new knowledge safe until I’m ready to use it. Ultimately, this is a key step to keeping this system from becoming my next DOOM box and, on more reflection, is not unlike the note taking method I learned from my law school’s academic success coordinator, which helped me level-up my 1L studies. There, I would use the time after class to rehash my notes – before I forgot their context – and spend the evening revisiting, organizing, and setting up notes for the next class, a far lighter lift than trying to do it in larger chunks (a.k.a. just before finals). As I’ve incorporated knowledge management tips into my 1L legal research classes this semester, I encourage the importance of building strong annotation, note-taking, and organization habits like this now because, in practice, they’ll still need them, just without the structure of a course and without the finish line of a brain dump onto a final exam.
So, after reading books, articles, and help guides, watching countless videos, adopting a tablet and tossing most of my unused print materials, and testing out apps (and my patience), where did this leave me? Successfully in a new state of (work) flow – I’ll call it – with a new boom box amplifying and elevating my work, research, and productivity, and without a DOOM box in-sight.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.