Managing the Process

Personal Productivity • June 26 2014

This is a post I wrote (originally to a personal mailing list) to organize my thinking about a hypothetical personal productivity tool. I’m still thinking about this.

Hi! I’m Tom. If you’re reading this, you probably know me from the internet. I’m a designer-ish person who’s worked freelance, in startups, in agencies. I’ve worked with two-person companies to help them figure out what to build, and I’ve shipped products for companies with tens of millions of customers to meaningfully move the needle on their business. The common thread across all of those endeavours is that managing the project — and particularly the work I’m doing — has been a less than optimal experience.

I’ve used a lot of apps that try to get out in front of these needs. If you’ve heard of it, I’ve probably used it. They’ve all been well-crafted pieces of software, but they’ve also all made very similar assumptions about how I’m working: that I know the deadlines, that I know exactly what tasks need to be performed, what information is important — that I know exactly what I’m trying to make, rather than hammering at the rockface to uncover the shape of something.

Creative projects are anything but orderly. There’s research, phone calls, notes, interesting links, sudden flashes of inspiration, happy accidents and serendipitous connections. There’s no way to capture “I had this really great idea for onboarding; here’s six links, a screenshot, and a half-baked marker sketch” in a ticket. (I mean, there is, but not in a readily useful way.)

I’m not trying to make another PM or todo app. If that’s all you need, I suggest you try any of the fantastic apps that are already out there. I’m trying to build a tool to address knowledge management, creativity management.

I have a handful of guiding principles for this project:

  • Every single piece of interesting information that goes into building a project should be included, without being opinionated about what it is — a todo, contact details, a first draft — all content is an equal citizen.
  • Let the system do the things systems are good at: recognizing patterns, adding classifications, remembering things for you — and let humans do the things they’re good at: sifting meaning from chaos.
  • Information should be able to be transformed and remixed as I see fit: there’s no reason that my phone call from last week can’t also generate a bunch of todos. Rewriting all of that stuff is a waste of time. I just need to understand it, or view it, in a different way.
  • Nothing should ever be discarded. I might not ever need to look at something I created a year ago, but that doesn’t mean it has no value. Something I wrote last week, then deleted, might be relevant right now. I should be able to diff my own creative process.
  • I want to capture creative thinking inputs, not outputs. I don’t want a glossy magazine spread, I want a code editor for my brain.
  • Creativity isn’t single-player. I should be able to invite collaborators into my ideas.
  • And most significantly: I want to start using this tool without thinking about what kind of ‘thing’ I’m trying to get to. I don’t need templates. I don’t want guides. I want a tool that mostly just gets out of the way.

I’m building this in public because I want your feedback and help to make this maximally useful for your opinionated work style. If you’re struggling to find a way to reconcile the messy process of all of the creative work you do, then this is for you.