In this third post of the series “Building a Second Brain with Emacs and Obsidian” I’m going to jump on the wheel and tell you what exact applications you need. However, before I would like to tell you some truths
Simply put, the best application is that one you already have, the one preinstalled in your PC, or simply a physical notebook. It’s not about applications, it’s about
We need to sit down and think what do we want to do, what do we want to achieve, and work towards it. And it may sound silly, but we need to start acting, not reacting. We need to know that what we are working on right now is going to help us attain a goal at some point down the road, and that goal is something we want to improve our live or the lives of others.
It is true, however, that as technology advances and our relationship with the external world changes accordingly, there will be some features helping us manage the flux of information more efficiently, like web clipping for example, but these are not determinant. You know, there is this exceptional writer I like called Leonardo Padura, he lives in Cuba, and has been writing probably since the early 80’. Do you think he uses this complex setup for knowledge management with 30 applications, paying 200 dollars in subscriptions every month, to write his novels? Of course not. I mean, I don’t know him, but I am pretty sure Microsoft Word and some physical notebooks is all he uses. And I am sure you know people doing exceptional work too, without spending 100 hours in YouTube looking which app is better, and then setting up this perfect system which doesn’t work in the end.
We see people telling us something on YouTube, Social Media, or some blogs 😒 and we believe people actually know what they are talking about, but that’s usually not the case. It’s just their opinions, not scientific facts, and even scientific facts fail. The new communication technologies have introduced a huge disconnection between The Person and The Message. You can find someone telling you how to organize you notes and fee some time to dedicate to other interests you have, but if you could look at their lives you will probably find that they are less organized and have fuzzier goals than you. Even the fool of the neighborhood has something to say, but you know he’s not to trust! With a screen in between you cannot see that difference.
Take for example this video (YouTube Link) from Carl Newport where he explained this “Deep Life Stack” approach to change your life in 4 months, to become intentional about your time and objectives, etc. And Carl is, as far as I know, one of the most reliable speakers of this kind of subjects out there, but you know what?, yesterday, only two months after publishing the first video, he came with a revision and major corrections (YouTube Link) of the ideas and methodologies. He even said that he had extensively applied the “Deep Life Stack” to his own life these past few months in order to experiment and identify what wasn’t correct! Wait, wait, wait… I though from the first video he was explaining all of this “Deep Life Stack” change methodology from his own experiences, as advice taken from what he has lived… but no! He was explaining something he though was correct, and in fact it needed a lot of refinements, and it probably will need more in the future. Luckily, he is humble to accept feedback from the audience and to admit mistakes, correct them, and improve. Can you imagine then how many other advises are out there completely wrong? Can you imagine how many of them are written by Artificial Intelligence, to say the least? (Ah!, just a clarification: I am not saying Carl Newport is a fool. From the link between the previous and this paragraph that may be inferred, but I am not).
So yes, if you want to get your things done, if you want to attain some objective, stop reading this, that’s the first step. This is just a record in my blog of what I think at this moment, and a log to return in the future searching for explanations and study what I though. You can take home one or two ideas from here, but the only way to achieve what you personally want is having clear your own intentions (written down on paper, where we can see them), work consistently, plan your next steps guiding, correcting, and redirecting paths.
There is no way we propose to ourselves «Ok, here’s the deal, I will start doing 10 push-ups before breakfast every morning, because that will help me improve my body and health», and then we don’t do it. 10 push-ups take less than 30 seconds to do!, and with consistency over time the results compound, and we end up running a marathon or lifting weights at the Cross-Fit Games. No app or system is going to ever help you do that! It’s as simple as being accountable to ourselves, start small, incorporate some small routines, but always towards goals we want to attain. The goals don’t need to be perfect, we can always change path, and that’s fine, that’s in fact going to show intentionality in what we do.
Now, after the sermon, let’s get to see what apps I think we need to get more organized and intentional with what we do.
A word on privacy and data ownership
Personally I don’t like to have my stuffs out there in Google Drive, or iCloud, or whatever. Everybody knows those services use our data to profile us and make money out of it in unethical ways. But that’s another discussion, which in fact I have extensively done before.
Neither I like to be paying a subscription of 10 dollars (nor even 1) a month to access my notes, and the moment I can’t anymore I will be forced to download them in a specific format and organization they choose, in the best of the cases. Of course that there are ethical services out there which need the subscriptions to at least pay for the resources maintaining the software consumes, but I’m just not willing to paywall what is mine by definition.
GNU Emacs is an extensible text editor which can manage everything you do in a computer, as long as it’s an editing-text-related task (although it can actually be pushed a little further). You can find all kind of crazy stuffs people is doing with Emacs, but I try to keep it simple, as minimalist as I can.
The point is that one of the packages for which Emacs is probably more famous nowadays is Org Mode. Org Mode is a GNU Emacs major mode for keeping notes, authoring documents, computational notebooks, literate programming, maintaining to-do lists, planning projects, and more — in a fast and effective plain text system. There’s a lot of things you can do with this, and completely organize your life in plain text is for sure one of those things.
The HUGE drawbacks all this has is:
- It needs some time to learn how to move around in Emacs, and how to use Org Mode.
- You will need to write Elisp code to some extent, there’s no way around it.
- Emacs has limitations, for example displaying attachments to the notes.
In this post and its second part published as part of a very similar series to this one in Tiago Forte and Tasshin blogs, respectively, you can find a more in-depth analysis of the use cases of GNU Emacs, where would it be recommended to learn it or just keep your regular text editor.
I choose Emacs since long ago to be my text editor, probably 7 to 8 years ago, (man time pass by flying! 😟) and therefore I know how to work with it and move around. It is free software (as in freedom), and everything is local and in plain text. In the beginning I started using Org-roam to take notes and link them, but eventually found Prot’s Denote package, which is simple yet extremely powerful. Under the hood it is just a bunch of small function to create and link notes together, with an additional feature: its naming scheme. All notes are named consistently following a scheme, making it possible to find information even using your system file manager in a practical and effective way. This is the highest level of portability and future-proofing out there, by far, among all related apps… well, its Emacs, what can you expect! 😎
There is always a but, right? Although GNU Emacs is extremely powerful and you can literally just boot into it and never leave, I found myself writing notes and notes and notes, to never be retrieved again. Everything I captured was being lost, because I wasn’t putting them to use in my daily projects and tasks.
I know this isn’t a problem of Emacs, but mine. It was my approach which failed, it was my system which didn’t fit my need, habits, and ways of doing things. And this doesn’t means I wasn’t able to do anything with my day, it just means that despite me taking notes, I was not using them effectively to create new things, and the new things I created were marked as done to never be found again.
Why it did not work? —the reader may ask. Well I asked myself that question several times. I changed from one app to the other hoping an app would solve the issue, but as you might have already guessed, it did not. These findings, the road I have covered, is in fact what I am sharing in this series, or (b)logging should I say.
The problem I identified
I found that taking notes about everything I saw, annotating them, linking them, etc., all before they proved useful, is not the right approach. The information we gather needs to be action oriented, captured and organized in terms of its usability for our most immediate projects.
But that isn’t enough. We need to see all days what we want to do, where are we going, what we want to expend our time on. We need to define projects, make weekly, monthly, yearly reviews to redirect our priorities, to change paths, to organize and block the time we have in the day to do something that will lead us to attain our goals. We need to be intentional with how we spend our time, we must to have a purpose!
And even though all of this may sound extremely huge and complicated, and even though we may struggle identifying when and where to start, and even though I confess to you that just like Carl Newport did with his “Deep Life Stack” approach to change your life in 4 months, I am writing about something I have been practicing for a few weeks and will probably change in future, I genuinely think This is the way.
If we know what we want, why we get out of bed every morning to fight for, and we write down a series of next actions to get us there, and we take small steps one at the time, and we accept we are not perfect but willing to try our best, and we corrected the path down the road when needed, and we fucking start right now… isn’t it the way?
But heads up, I think there is something dangerous here, and it is to start in the wrong stage. If we start to do small steps towards our future, without having identified what we want, our projects and goals, probably we end up in the same situation than before. To walk firmly with small steps is essential during all the way, but it is not the way. We cannot say that the first small steps we are going to do right now is to watch some YouTube videos to pick the best app for taking notes, that’s a project, and it should have its own place in our PARA system, and it should have its own time and priority associated.
I found that the Building a Second Brain methodology was pretty aligned with the solution of all the problems I was having.
The idea of having an archive with all your projects, areas, etc., and inside each folder all the information needed to complete or to contribute to them really resonated with me. Every time I sit down now I see the projects I am working on, and when I decide to move forward one of them, I have all the information I have collected in its dedicated folder. Also, the techniques given by Tiago Forte for organization, synthesis, and expression of the information opened my mind and gave me new perspectives. Looking at information in terms of its actionability and usability was mind changing. The end, and the beginning, of information is to identify where and how can I use it to accomplish my projects.
In Emacs setting up this containerization ideas, where every project has its folder with everything related to it is not straightforward. It would be better to explore other alternatives. But here’s the problem: I code, write, read RSS, time track, habit track, manage git repositories, manage projects, and some other stuffs in Emacs. And it is exceptionally good at doing all this. For this reason I tried other software and always came back.
But one important insight I had from the articles of Tasshin was that, of course!, every app has to be used for what it is strong at.
I can see clearly now, and feel comfortable with it, that Emacs should be used for all the things I have been using it, but not to be the container where I have all the reference material related to each project, area, etc. Therefore, in the one hand I have Emacs to manage projects, track tasks, log time, review the agenda, and this sort of actions. On the other hand I have another app to containerize the projects information and reference material. Into Emacs goes the actionable, and into the other app goes the non-actionable material.
I would recommend against mainstream applications like Notion, RoamResearch or Evernote. There are alternatives private, secure, perfectly capable, fully featured, and you own your files.
- Anytype for those who like Notion.
- Logseq for those who like RoamResearch.
- Obsidian for those who like flexibility.
- Joplin for those who like Evernote.
You can pick whatever you like the most, or use the one you have right now, these are just suggestions: we should never disturb what is already working.
I think the approach of having a folder with all the material related to a project is best achieved in Joplin(and Evernote)-like applications, but it is true that Joplin interface lacks a beautiful design and some features, while Evernote is pay-walled and not that privacy friendly.
Personally I would recommend Obsidian. You can make folders for your projects, insert attachments, and create notes. But additionally you get a beautiful interface, backlinking out of the box, a really nice graph view, split windows, lots of integrations, easy linking between notes, daily notes, etc… I really think it’s almost perfect. Something I’ missing here, however, is the tree column view Joplin and Evernote have, with the notebooks in the first, the notes in the second, and the note’s content in the third.
Obsidian has, additionally, a game changing feature: the whole structure you have in your vault is replicated in your hard-drive file system. Therefore, you can browse your Second Brain perfectly fine using the file manager. Of course you will lost linking and stuffs, but the information would still be there.
So yes, I think Obsidian is a great tool to manage, organize, and store the information we gather: the non-actionable items of projects. Then Emacs is great to manage agendas, projects, tasks, etc.: the actionable items of projects.
The final decision we would have to make is related to the calendar, because Emacs has the Org Mode Agenda feature, which is extremely powerful, but sometimes having a calendar which syncs between devices is desirable… and maintaining two calendars doesn’t seems practical to me (I have never tried). Anyway, that is, one more time, a decision to our liking.
- GNU Emacs to manage projects, tasks, agendas, calendars, block time, etc.: actionable items.
- Obsidian to manage, organize, and store information: non-actionable items.
- Proton Calendar (free) in case you want a calendar-like experience and not the Org Agenda.
- Capture of information can be done with Org Mode Capture, in a physical notebook, in Signal (note to self), etc. In the week review we can check them all and organize the captured items in their corresponding place following the GTD and PARA methods.
So there you go. That’s my pick. Remember that it will probably change in the future. What is important is to replicate the system in whatever apps you are using, and to work towards results. I would suggest one more time to be as minimalist as possible, there is really no need to have 20 apps to effectively and intentionally organize information.
In the next post of the series I will try to show how I am using Emacs to manage actionable items, and the killing features it has. Until then, keep tuned.
Thanks for reading the post! Do not hesitate to write me an email, and share your point of view 😉: firstname.lastname@example.org