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How I Organize My Brain

There are so many tools claiming to be the next best thing for staying organized and productive. I've formed a cocktail from my favorite tools to keep my brain (my life) organized.

Keeping life — my brain — organized is a difficult thing. It's not just because I'm busy and moving fast. It's also that there are so many tools vying for attention, claiming to be the next best thing for note-taking or task management. The last app you'll ever need.

I have constantly redesigned and refined how and where I store information. When I've tried to limit the number of apps I use, I get frustrated with their limitations. When I use too many, it's difficult to find some specific thing in the mess of everything. And when I'm inconsistent in my usage, even if the tools are right, I'm not as productive as I should be. I spend more brain compute cycles than necessary when deciding where to store something.

Though I will continue to refine my process over time, I am happy with what I have today. Happier than I've been in a long time. I suspect most of how I work today will remain consistent for into the future.

Here is an in-depth look at how I organize my brain and my life.

Two Guiding Principles

Before we dig into the specific tools, I should state that I tend to maneuver through this system with two foundational principles:

  1. Use the best tool for the job.
  2. Be consistent.

If I'm following these rules and something feels wrong, it probably is wrong. If I'm spending too much time organizing, or a collaborator (a family member) regularly complains to me about the setup, then something probably needs to be adjusted.

The system should be a comfortable and efficient way to work for everyone involved. At least after an initial learning curve.

The Tools

Because I want to use tools for their best offering, I've ended up with a slew of apps that I use to stay organized. You may think I'm out of my mind when you see this list. Sometimes I think that about myself! But each item has its place.

Here is the list of tools within my system:

Let's go through how I use each of these, and then I'll wrap by talking a little bit about creation and distribution.

Apple Notes for Quick Notes

I use Apple Notes for quick and ephemeral notes and lists. A note within Apple Notes should only live for a few days before it is obsolete and can be deleted.

Here's the funny thing: I don't like Apple Notes. At all. I think it's an awful editing experience. But it's on all my devices by default. It's fast to open, edit, and move on. In other words, it's the thing that is the most frequently right in front of me. So it has become my junk drawer for quick thoughts that will either eventually end up somewhere else or be deleted.

Every few months I skim through the list of notes and delete all obsolete ones (which tends to be 90% or more of them).

Bear for Drafting Blog Posts

Bear is one of the best authoring experiences I've found. (I've authored this blog post using it!) It's an absolute delight to work in.

In addition to a great editing experience, it gets out of the way. There aren't that many formatting options, and everything is organized by tag. It also has a lovely Zen Mode, which hides everything other than what I happen to be writing.

I use it for long-form content, which is mostly blog posts for me. If I ever decide to finish that novel or build an even bigger project, I don't know if I'd stick with Bear. It may be too simplistic at that point.

Once a blog post is ready, I move it out of Bear and into the blog site's CMS.

This process really only works well for blog posts that I write and publish solo. When I write guest posts, the editor often wants to work in a more collaborative environment, like Google Docs or Dropbox Paper.

Notion for Long-Term, Structure Content & Task/Project Management

Many people view Notion as this holy grail for which they can dump all their content. I don't.

I think it's great. It's super versatile and can support many different types of content, but it's not the greatest thing ever. For one thing, it's slow. Like really friggin' slow. Way too slow to be the go-to place for quick notes. And while its slash commands are super powerful, they get in the way when I'm trying to write and edit long-form content.

But, its versatility makes it a great candidate for two roles for me:

  1. Long-term, structured content
  2. Personal task management

I have a decent amount of content that is meant to stick around, but can have some structure around it. These are things like blog post ideas, baking notes, and travel guides.

With its several types of templates and views, it's also a great candidate for task management. I can have two separate systems side-by-side for listing new blog post ideas and also tracking the status of those posts.

I had been using Trello for task management, which was great. But Notion can stand in for Trello good enough that I saw an opportunity to reduce the number of tools I was using.

Google Docs for Collaboration, Spreadsheets, Presentations (Sometimes)

Google Docs and its suite of other editing tools are among the best for collaboration. If someone else is going to edit the thing I'm working on, it's usually going to go into Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, etc.

And when I need anything more than a simple table and arithmetic (which Notion offers), I use a Google Sheet.

When it comes to talks and personal presentations, I've started using Deckset (here's my talks repo). But when it has to be collaborative or something quick and fleeting, I tend to use Google Slides.

Dropbox for Document Storage

File storage is one of the biggest pain points in this whole mess. Dropbox has always felt expensive to me. In the past I've opted to just throwing documents in S3. But that's not as accessible to my family (who aren't nerds like me). So I wanted to streamline our entire family's approach.

Today we use Dropbox, even though it's a little pricey. Everyone can have their own personal space, and there's a shared Living Room for documents that we can all access. And their Smart Sync feature doesn't clutter my hard drive, which is great. I finally feel like it's worth the money.

Notability for Meeting Notes

I don't like to type during meetings unless I'm collaborating on something. It looks (and feels) distracting. Plus, I usually want to be able to reference those notes in the future, but I don't want them cluttering up my other tools that have a specific purpose. And I like having one solution for all meeting notes — something that works regardless of the setting in which I am meeting (at home, in the office, at a bar, etc.).

For awhile I was using a physical notebook for any remote or in-person meetings. Within the last year I switched to using an iPad and Apple Pencil, along with the Notability app. It still feels like I'm writing in a notebook (sort of), but my notes are easily organized and stored in the same application. And perhaps the coolest feature is Notability's ability to read my handwriting and turn it into text, should I want to transpose that information to some other place.

The trick to making the iPad feel like a notebook is to not hook anything else up on it. No email, no messages, no Slack. Nothing. The family uses the iPad for note-taking and drawing, and movie-watching while traveling. And that's it.

Google Photos for Photos

I love Google Photos! It's smart, shareable, and universal. It works great with both iOS and Android users. And I can even share with non-Google users.

I haven't organized photos in a long time, but I've always loved how Google handles photo storage. I've been working with their tools since the days of Picasa.

1Password for Passwords

All of our family's passwords are in 1Password. I love the app. They have a family plan that makes it easy to share some passwords among family members without cluttering up the whole vault. We were using LastPass, but I found it too clunky.

A Physical Notebook for Creative Writing

I still like the physical notebook. But I really only get it out when I want to write something creatively, which is usually a lyric/poem or just some random thoughts. It's a great way for me to unplug and make my brain work in a different way. Although I don't use it nearly enough.

My notebook of choice is this one, and I'm usually writing with these pens.

I have another practice where I keep a log of wins each day that I write at the end of the day. These are in tiny little notebooks I find at the grocery store. I do that so I am limited to one side of one page each day.


That's it. That's where I am today. Did you learn anything that you're going to try? Have you discovered something you think I could learn from? I'd love to hear from you!

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