For some of us there is no way around it, we simply don’t feel comfortable with any app out there for personal knowledge management. There is always some small detail that make us uncomfortable, and therefore we search for an alternative that solves it, we search for the perfect app someone else has succeed using. In the process we spend days, even weeks and months in the sole act of tweaking this new app and configuring it, just to find at the end, when we actually start using it for “production”, that it also has something which doesn’t feel right.

This process repeats over and over again, even returning to apps we already explored and left behind because of some issue, but hoping this time it will fit and provide us with a sense of delight and fulfillment by its mere use. Of course, it doesn’t.

This is the first post of a series called “Building a Second Brain with Emacs and Obsidian, which I will be releasing in the coming weeks. Although in it I plan to explain why the choice of these two software, their advantages, their integration, and a guided tour around the ideas which make them work together (those behind the book Building a Second Brain), the real purpose of the whole series is to show that:

  • There is not such thing as the perfect app, each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, and in correspondence we shall use them.
  • The only reason we are going from one app to the other is because we have so much free time to play with them, arising from not having defined projects to work towards.

A story you probably identify with

I always recognized, from the very beginning, that sticking to what you have at hand and actually getting the work done was the most productive system ever designed for actually producing something. Sure, you could have saved three hours of work if you had this perfect app with AI integrated, but at the end what really matters the most is to get thing done, efficiency is useless if there is not effectiveness first.

So I pick what I had at hand, Emacs and Logseq for building my PKM system. I staid considerable time there, and even wrote about it, but at some point I started feeling something was not working as supposed. This wasn’t the first time such a feeling landed on me, but what bothered me the most was that I had consciously decided this time to stick to the system I had, and never look back. However, I wasn’t able to keep my commitment, and started, once more, exploring for new alternatives and ways to capture and organize my knowledge.

This happened in the fists days of October, where I have several entries in the daily notes regarding this subject, and describing why I thought the system wasn’t working. Basically, all the notes I had taken and the information I had captured wasn’t revealing to me at the right time to produce something. They were kind of lost, because every time I sat to write something I started with a white canvas, and this wasn’t supposed to be happening. The straw that broke the camel’s back was to find myself writing a post for the blog, which I had already written.

The problem was that I had all the information in a single place, connected by links yes, but without meaning nor purpose, without that layer of creation I had mentioned in “My experience with a Zettelkasten”.

The specific problems with GNU Emacs

GNU Emacs, with Org Mode for the case that interests us, are exceptional tools, and I don’t think there is any application out there competing with it for the title of One App to Rule Them All position. It is possible for a wide spectrum of people to just boot into their computer, open Emacs, and do everything with ti, from note taking, spreadsheets, documents, and email to coding, chatting, etc. The possibilities and extensibility of this piece of software are endless.

However, there is a catch. You need to employ time in configuration files and writing code in Elisp to some extent, which is time consuming. This time is subtracted from your 24 daily hours, and could have been used in other actually creative projects. Other issues with it are, for example:

  • It lacks a visual interface like the one offered by Obsidian or Logseq, where you can just by clicking explore the whole graph.
  • You can’t clearly see the connection between notes.
  • The figures and rich text is limited to some extent, in insertion and display. For figures, for example, you need to create link to the figure with C-c C-l, search for it in the file system, and at the end hit C-c C-x C-v to display it (with limited format). In other software just drag and drop will insert the picture, copy it to the folder you are working in, and beautifully display it.

The specific problems with Logseq (or Obsidian)

Basically, that they are not Emacs.

They lack the customization, the integration, and all the capabilities of Org Mode. If I were to drop Emacs tomorrow completely, I would need to find an app for RSS reading, another for coding, another for project management, another for capturing information, another for writing, another for habit and time tracking, and would lose Magit. These are the use-cases on the top of my head right now, and which I cover perfectly with Emacs, without the need of anything else whatsoever.

I am sure it’s not impossible to find some other software, even dedicated one, that covers any of these needs as effective and efficiently as Emacs does, and it has the plus to be Free Software (as in freedom, not as in money).

How to solve these issues?

It never crossed my mind that you could have a workflow integrating different apps, each of them excelling at what they are good at. In fact, my wife did tell me precisely to do that when I started having these problems with the retrieval of information, but at that time my mind wasn’t capable to understand how.

Then I remembered the Building a Second Brain methodology by Tiago Forte. So I took a look at it, and it seemed to be capable to solve the problems I was experiencing. Organizing the information according to the PARA Method, and applying the basic principles of the book should give intentionality to my notes and throw right at my face the projects I am working on every time I open any app, prompting me to advance them and not to search for alternative ways of doing the same work with new apps.

But I still wasn’t able to understand how to use an app to manage information: capture, storage, retrieve, create, and task management. Then I found this post and realized that, indeed, I don’t have to limit myself to a single app, but I can use as many as I need to fit my need, even redundant ones (although this I suppose wouldn’t be ideal). And the key point is then to find the glue to put them all together.

The glue that puts all the apps together has two ingredients, (i) the PARA Method, and (ii) a weekly review.

The next post in the series will talk about the different methodologies from which we can learn to setup our environment of apps, and finally stop searching for the best one to do it all.

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