Intermediate Packet Example: Tear-Jerkers

In Building a Second Brain, Tiago Forte discusses the concept of intermediate packets. I thought it might be useful to share an example of an intermediate packet I created recently during my participation in Relating Between the Lines.

This intermediate packet is a list of tear-jerkers. It may be useful in future conversations with friends, in future classes online, for future blog posts, when I’m looking for connections for note making, for social media posts, etc.

Please let me know what I’ve missed 😉

Different PARA implementations in Obsidian

I use Obsidian for my PKM system. When it comes to implementing PARA in Obsidian, there are three different popular approaches: folder-based, MOC-based, and a hybrid approach. I’ll provide a quick overview of these approaches and some of their pros and cons here.

Basic structure

Above I have these three different PARA approaches implemented next two each other.

On the left, you can see the PARA structure implemented entirely with folders. Each project (ie. Participate in BASB13, Write blog post on animals that eat their mates, Write book chapter on spiders) is its own folder, as is each area and resource.

In the middle, you can see the PARA structure implemented as MOCs. Each project is its own note, as is each area and resource. The project note links to each of the project notes, the area note links to each of the area notes, etc.

On the right, you can see the hybrid PARA structure. There is a folder for projects, areas, resources, and archives. But then each project is its own note, as is each area and resource. And all the files belonging to a specific project, area, resource, or archive folder reside in some “5 Notes” folder.

The upper-left side of the above screenshot illustrates what the “Projects” note looks like for the PARA structure implemented as MOCs. This is an alternative to having the “1 Projects” folder that the other two approaches have.

The bottom-left and right sides of the above screenshot illustrate what the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” project might look like implemented as an MOC.

Each of these three approaches provide the focused context intended by PARA. This context allows you to see all the files related to one specific thing at a time, while hiding all the other files. This allows you to focus on what you’re interested in without getting overwhelmed by everything else in your PKM.

In the folder approach, the context is provided by opening the folder for a specific project, area, resource, or archive folder. In the MOC and hybrid approaches, the context is provided by opening the MOC for a specific project, area, resource, or archive MOC.

Completing a project

In PARA, when you complete a project, the project gets archived and it’s associated files get moved to the next most actionable area in your PARA structure.

Let’s suppose we complete the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” project.

In the folder approach, we can see that the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” folder has been moved from “1 Projects” to “4 Archives”. It’s old contents have been moved out of the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” folder and into the “Write book chapter on spiders” folder and the “Insects” folder.

In the MOC approach, the link to the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” MOC has been moved from the “Projects” MOC to the “Archives” MOC. The “Write book chapter on spiders” project MOC includes a link to the “Notes from ‘The Spider Encyclopedia'” note, and the “Insects” area MOC includes a link to the “Notes from podcast on praying mantids”.

In the hybrid approach, we can see that the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” folder has been moved from “1 Projects” to “4 Archives”. The “Write book chapter on spiders” project MOC includes a link to the “Notes from ‘The Spider Encyclopedia'” note, and the “Insects” area MOC includes a link to the “Notes from podcast on praying mantids”.

Pros and cons

(Including this screenshot here because it will be relevant to some of the points listed below.)

Monolocation vs multilocation

As you can see with the folder approach, files can only live one place at one time. For example, if we look at the “Notes from podcast on praying mantids” file, it lives in either the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” folder (ie. before the project was completed) or in the “Insects” folder (ie. after the project was completed).

In both the MOC and hybrid approaches, files can live in multiple places simultaneously. For example, if we look at the “Notes from podcast on praying mantids” file, it can be linked from the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” MOC and the “Insects” MOC at the same time.

Some people prefer having a file live in only one place at a time. This forces them to be very intentional about how that file is going to be used.

Some people prefer the ability for a file to live in multiple places at the same time. For example, suppose you have two projects on the go. You have a file that is relevant to both of these projects. If a file can live in each of these projects at the same time, this prevents you from having to decide which project will be most immediately actionable, and will also provide a more complete context as you jump between working on these projects.

Historical context

As you can see with the folder approach, after the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” project was completed, all the notes were moved out of that folder.

In both the MOC and hybrid approaches, the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” MOC still links to its original notes after it was completed.

For some people, historical context is important. If they’re reflecting on a project, they may want to know what resources they were working with when they came up with their final project. Or suppose they’re working on a project. They recall a resource that was useful for a previous project that would also be useful now. If they can reference that previous project for that resource, they can find it pretty quickly. Otherwise, they have to put in more effort to figure out where the file is living.

Clutter

As you can see with the MOC approach, all the files live together in the same place.

In both the folder and hybrid approaches, there’s a bit more structure offered by having separate folders for projects, areas, resources, and archives.

Some people prefer to navigate their files using a folder structure.

Others may be comfortable opening certain files directly, or finding files by first navigating to another note (eg. the “Projects” MOC).

Serendipity

For people familiar with Zettelkasten, you may be familiar with the idea of using your notes for serendipity.

These are the three graph views for each of the three approaches after the “Write blog post on animals that eat their mates” project is completed. The left shows the folder approach, the middle shows the MOC approach, and the right shows the hybrid approach.

As can be seen in the graphs, the MOC and hybrid approaches offer more links between your notes. These represent opportunities for a new connection between different ideas to be discovered serendipitously. Nick Milo recently published a great video on how to use the graph view for this discovery process.

Completeness

Part of the PARA philosophy involves the project completion process. When we complete a project, we look at all the resources associated with that project and then ensure that those resources are being appropriately applied to the rest of your PARA structure. (Resources should always be available where they’re most immediately actionable.)

In the folder approach, when you complete a project, a file gets moved to one other location.

In the MOC and hybrid approaches, when you complete a project, links may be created in multiple MOCs/notes. This can cause some people anxiety: what if I forget to add a link somewhere? What if I don’t add links everywhere they’re actionable/relevant?

I would argue that trying to be complete in your creation of links will be stressful and make your PKM system less fun for you; you may even stop using it because you feel like it’s not working or flawed. This is a case where we’re trying to create links just-in-case.

I’d argue a better approach is to create links just-in-time. That is, when you wrap up a project, link those related resources wherever most immediately jumps to mind. But don’t stress about forgetting things. If you encounter a note in the future that would benefit from another link, you can add it then. You can also use the graph view to discover links that may be useful to add (see the previous section, “Serendipity”). This will prevent you from disengaging with your notes due to unnecessary anxiety. (Random side note, we also call this approach the scouts rule in the coding community.)

Conclusion

In this blog post, I provided an overview of three different approaching to implementing PARA in Obsidian. I showed how completing a project differs in each of these approaches. Finally, I discussed some of the differences that you may encounter in each approach.

I hope this was useful! Let me know which approach you’re planning on trying! (And don’t stress too much about getting it right–you can always switch approaches in the future if the one you choose doesn’t jive for you 🙂)

Dealing with too many projects

Back in June, I blogged about the impact of long-lived projects.

If you’re following a PARA structure, projects should be short-lived. Think along the lines of 1-2 weeks in duration. This ensures that you’re always focused on only the most immediate and actionable things, you develop a feeling of consistent project as you regularly complete projects, and you build a sense of trust in your system for helping you to live the life you desire to live.

It’s also a problem if you have too many projects going-on at the same time. Too many simultaneous projects is likely an indicator that you’re multi-tasking and thus context-switching.

In the popular productivity space, many articles (indeed, there is no shortage) describe how context-switching harms productivity. Switching contexts is akin to asking your computer to reboot in a new operating system–it takes time to do the rebooting, which takes away from the time you could be working on your tasks.

A side effect of context-switching and juggling too many projects is that projects that could be completed in 1-2 weeks now take longer.

So how should you address the issue of having too many projects?

Set some of them aside for now. There are many ways to do this. I will quickly discuss 4 of those ways here.

Create a Someday/Maybe list or folder. This is borrowing a structure from the Getting Things Done methodology. A Someday/Maybe list is intended to keep track of things that we may want to do in the future. By writing them down instead of storing them in our heads, we free up our minds to do other things. Projects that we’re putting off for now could be good candidates for this list until we’re ready to start them.

Create a project buffer/queue. This is a list/folder of projects that we want to start in the future. It could be a general pool, or prioritized in some way. You could use this space to hold projects until they’re ready to be started.

Move them to the archives. The Archive is already part of the PARA structure. You could also use this space to hold projects until they’re ready to be started.

Delete them. You may also choose to delete projects from your PARA system for now. This adds the risk of your forgetting about a project. But it removes the risk of zombie projects. These are projects that gather somewhere but never die (ie. get completed).

Reminder that if you have resources in a project folder, make sure you distribute them appropriately to your PARA structure before moving/deleting that project folder 🙂

Deciding where to store something in PARA

Back in Building a Second Brain Cohort 12, I created a flowchart for determining where information should be stored in a PARA structure. I thought it would be useful to apply this flowchart to a practical example.

Let’s suppose you took notes from a seminar on things that you may be aware of during meditation. Where in PARA should you store this note?

Before we jump to the flowchart, I want to observe that one topic may be engaging to one person but not another. Similarly, the nature of any engagement may differ from one person to the next. This means that where a single note gets stored in PARA will depend on the individual doing the storing.

So let’s look at a few of the different ways this note may flow through the flowchart.

Suppose you’re following a meditation program that guides how much you should aim to meditate each day over the course of 21 days.

  • Is the note relevant to anything you’re actively working on?
    • Yes, this note may be useful for your meditations as part of the program you’re following.
  • Does the work have a finish line with a deadline?
    • Yes, the program wraps up after 21 meditations over 21 days.

In this case, the note would belong in your Projects. Personally, I would create a folder/note for the project titled “2021 Complete meditation program by December 5”.

Next, suppose you’re trying to build the habit of meditating for 1 minute each day.

  • Is the note relevant to anything you’re actively working on?
    • Yes, this note may be useful for the habit you’re trying to build.
  • Does the work have a finish line with a deadline?
    • No, this habit is meant to be on-going and has no deadline.

In this case, the note would belong in your Areas. Personally, I would create a folder/note for the area titled “Meditation”.

Next, suppose meditation is something you’ve researched and tried in the past. It’s still something you’re interested in, but you’ve got too many other things going on right now to prioritize it.

  • Is the note relevant to anything you’re actively working on?
    • No, you’re not currently practicing or actively learning about meditation.
  • Is the note related to any active interests?
    • Yes, you’re still interested in meditation.

In this case, the note would belong in your Resources. Personally, I would create a folder/note for the resource titled “Meditation”.

Next, suppose meditation is something you’ve researched and tried in the past. It wasn’t something that you found useful, and have since replaced the practice with other resources.

  • Is the note relevant to anything you’re actively working on?
    • No, you’re not currently practicing or actively learning about meditation.
  • Is the note related to any active interests?
    • No, you’re no longer interested in meditation.

In this case, the note would belong in your Archives. Personally, I would create a folder/note in the archives titled “Meditation”.

I hope this helps to illustrate how, depending on your personal context, you can determine how to store your notes in a PARA structure.

GTD ✅ – Intro and TOC

This series is adapted from a series I wrote for my co-workers as an introduction to the Getting Things Done approach to productivity. I owe many thanks to:

  • Dana for proofreading and helping me with improving the structure of this series,
  • Omar and Patrick for encouraging me to share this series more broadly,
  • Nick Milo (and Linking Your Thinking) for the inspiration of breaking this series into atomic pieces with navigation and a table of contents,
  • and David Allen for developing and sharing the Getting Things Done methodology with the world.

We work in a world driven by goals and OKRs. However, having a productivity system that is simply goals-driven isn’t enough to be effective.

We work in an interruption-heavy environment. Between Slack/Teams messages, meetings, and e-mails, there’s a lot of things pulling on our attention. With all these things fighting for our attention, it can be difficult to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Ineffective productivity systems create distraction and stress. If you don’t completely trust your system, you’ll subconsciously resist using it for managing things that are important. You’ll always be anxious about whether your system will be sufficient to help you manage your work. You’ll feel the need to always remember your upcoming tasks because you won’t trust that your system will serve you when the time is right.

Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.
–David Allen

Goals can be demotivating. If we focus too strongly on something that’s too far out of reach, it can be demotivating. It can feel like we’re not making progress, or that achievement is simply unrealistic.

When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.
–Creighton Abrams

I’ve put together this series to share a productivity system that I think addresses these concerns: David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). I will review each step of Allen’s system and provide tips on how to implement it. In the next section, I will explain some of the psychology behind why this system is effective.

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Table of Contents

  1. GTD ✅ – Intro and TOC
  2. GTD ✅ – Stress and Relaxation
  3. GTD ✅ – Other Psychological Factors
  4. GTD ✅ – GTD Overview
  5. GTD ✅ – Capture
  6. GTD ✅ – Clarify and Organize
  7. GTD ✅ – Reflect
  8. GTD ✅ – Engage
  9. GTD ✅ – Psychological Benefits of GTD

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GTD ✅ – Stress and Relaxation

There are two contrasting modes of operation that are commonly cited when talking about the brain.

Colloquially, these are sometimes called the reptilian and mammalian brains. Jonathan Haidt calls these the elephant and the rider in The Happiness Hypothesis. Daniel Kahneman calls these System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. In How to Have a Good Day, Caroline Webb provides two perspectives on these modes: one set she calls the automatic and deliberate systems, and the other she calls the defend and discover axes. And in Fierce Intimacy, Terry Real describes these as the adaptive child and the functional adult.

In the context of Getting Things Done (GTD), we can think of these as stressed and relaxed.

When we are operating in a stressed mode:

  • Our focus is on addressing threats.
  • We make quick choices automatically based on intuition and impulses.
  • Our emotions dictate our behaviours.

When we are operating in a relaxed mode:

  • We are open to experiencing and learning new things.
  • We make conscious, deliberate choices.
  • Our emotions inform our behaviours.

Our stressed mode is more influential than our relaxed mode. This means that when the stressed mode is activated, it takes the controls from the relaxed mode.

One may attempt to explain this using evolutionary theory. Suppose you’re calming crossing the street, when all of a sudden you realize that there’s a speeding car coming right at you. Are you more likely to survive if you stay in relaxed mode where you make a slow, conscious, deliberate choice about what to do? Or are you more likely to survive if your stressed mode suddenly takes over and makes a quick, automatic choice using your intuition and impulses to jump out of the way?

We face relatively fewer threats to our survival today than we did in the distant past. But evolution is a slow process. For most of our history, we have benefitted from using our stressed mode to respond to threats. As a result, we still default to stressed mode when we experience a threat today, even if that threat is simply having unfinished work at the end of the day.

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GTD ✅ – Other Psychological Factors

There are three more psychological factors I wanted to introduce briefly. These factors also help to explain how our minds work, why we sometimes default to unproductive patterns in our lives, and what the Getting Things Done (GTD) system tries to address. Understanding them can help us to make sense of how we work and the benefits we can get from practicing different principles from GTD.

The Zeigarnik effect suggests that we remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones. Open loops (eg. woulds, coulds, shoulds) pull on our attention. This can prevent us from focusing on the task at hand, and lead us to stress about things that are still left unaddressed.

Decision fatigue refers to the observation that decision quality deteriorates after long periods of decision making. Between home and work, many of us spend our days making non-stop decisions of various scale. Even when it comes to thinking about things that make us unhappy, we spend a lot of time ruminating about how we want things to be different.

Working memory refers to our short-term memory. It’s unreliable (eg. you may remember your grocery list when you leave the house, but that doesn’t mean you’ll remember it when you get to the store) and has a limited capacity (although some people can pull off impressive feats such as memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards, this often takes a lot of practice and methods that tap into other memory systems).

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GTD ✅ – GTD Overview

In Getting Things Done (GTD), David Allen introduces a 5 step system for stress-free productivity. The various aspects of his system address the various psychological factors I wrote about in the previous two posts.

This system includes the following steps:

  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Organize
  4. Reflect
  5. Engage

Although this system was originally designed for analog tools, there are many digital tools available to implement this system. Here’s an incomplete list:

In the following posts, we will take a deeper dive into each of these 5 steps.

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GTD ✅ – Capture

The first step of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system is Capture. This step is all about getting stuff out of your head and into your productivity system.

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.
–David Allen

The first step in setting up the Capture part of your system is establishing inboxes to capture your thoughts. Inboxes can take many forms, both analog and digital.

Some of the inboxes I use include:

  • My e-mail inbox
  • My OmniFocus inbox
  • A physical inbox at home (where I put physical letters, things I want to read, loose paper I’ve written on, etc.)

One word of caution here: try to minimize the number of inboxes you use. Having too many inboxes may become unmanageable. Capturing your thoughts should be simple–you don’t want to have to stop to decide which inbox to put something in.

If this is your first time working with the GTD system (or if you want to do this on a semi-regular basis to ensure you aren’t letting things slip-through uncaptured), Allen recommends doing a mind dump. I will talk about that now, and then afterwards I will discuss what it looks like to maintain this Capture step on an ongoing basis.

Mind Dump

A mind dump is where you spend 60-90 minutes reading through an incompletion trigger list and then adding to your inbox any thoughts you have related to each item on that incompletion trigger list. These may include things to do, or information/ideas. You don’t need to include details–just enough information so that when you process your inbox, you’ll know what you were thinking of. You also don’t need to separate them–everything can go into a single inbox. We’ll process it in a future step.

Nothing is too big or two small to capture. It’s important to capture everything on your mind.

Examples of things that you might want to add to your inbox include:

  • Ideas for marketing email content
  • Ingredients for spaghetti
  • Taking a dance class
  • Vacation to South Korea
  • The URL for a website you know will be useful in the future

Ongoing Capture

The final part of your capture habit is ensuring you’re prepared to capture outstanding tasks as you encounter them throughout your day. Don’t trust your memory to hold onto things until you’re ready to record or action on them. Write them down as soon as possible.

Some of the things I use to facilitate this include:

  • The OmniFocus app on my cell phone
  • Sticky note pads and pens that sit on my desk
  • A notepad and pen I store in my wallet

With these practices in place, you’re now set-up to Capture everything you need.

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GTD ✅ – Clarify and Organize

The next steps of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system are Clarify and Organize. This section will be a little bit longer because these two steps are closely related, and I felt it made the most sense to discuss them together.

These steps are to take the things in your inboxes and process them to be useful. This is because if you just let things sit in your inbox, you won’t trust your system to let you know about work when it’s necessary. Also, every time you look through your inbox for things to be done, you’re going to have to think about what’s left to be done and decide what actions are currently available. This doesn’t sound like it would be stress-free productivity.

Allen uses this workflow diagram to illustrate the Clarify and Organize steps.

I define a project as any desired result that can be accomplished within a year that requires more than one action step.
–David Allen

To process your inbox, process each item one at a time.

  • Start by asking the question: Is this actionable?
    • If it’s not actionable, decide whether that item will be useful information. If it will be useful on a specific date or time (eg. someone’s birthday), put it on your calendar. If the information isn’t time specific, file it away in your knowledge management system (eg. hard drive, Google Drive, Dropbox).
    • If it is actionable, the next question to ask is: Is it part of a project?
      • If it’s part of a project, add it to your project list. Your project list is just a note that has a bullet-point list of all the active projects you have on the go.
      • (If it’s not part of a project, don’t add it to your project list.)
  • Finally, the last question to ask is: What’s the next action?
    • If the next action is doable in less than 2 minutes, take the time to simply do it right now.
    • If it’s possible to delegate this next action, delegate it to someone. Add this task to your waiting for list. Your waiting for list is just a note that has a bullet-point list of all the tasks you have delegated, and who you’ve delegated it to.
      • When adding this task to your waiting for list, you may want to include a date as a reminder for when you want to follow-up with this person on the status of the task. However, this list will ideally be reviewed weekly during the Reflect step. Because these reminders will be regularly reviewed, you may not find it necessary to add a date to these reminders.
    • If this next action is time or day specific, schedule this task onto your calendar. Only do this if that task has to be done at this specific date or time. Filling your calendar with events that get missed, moved, and ignored will lead you to not trust your calendar, even for the things that really matter.
    • Otherwise, defer this task until later. Add it to a context-specific to-do list. These lists are used to gather the tasks that are available to you in any given context. Examples of these may include a list for the Office, a list for the Computer, a list for the Phone, and a list for running Errands. Because you can’t “Buy milk” when you’re at the office, it doesn’t make sense to include it on that list.

For an example, let’s suppose I pull an item from my inbox: “Developer All Hands Presentation”.

Is this actionable? Yes. I want to put together a presentation on something for the next Developer All Hands at work.

Is it part of a project? Yes–I will need to brainstorm content for my presentation, sign-up for a time slot, prep my slides, practice, etc. So I add “Present at the next Developer All Hands” to my list of active projects.

What’s the next action? Before I can sign-up, prep my slides, or practice, I need to decide on a topic, so my next action will be to brainstorm a list of potential presentation topics. This will probably take more than 2 minutes, isn’t something I want to delegate, and doesn’t need to take place at a specific date or time. So I’ll add an item to my to-do list for my Computer context to “Brainstorm a list of potential topics for my Developer All Hands presentation.”

And processing that item from my inbox is now complete.

Now we’re ready to move onto the Reflect stage of GTD.

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