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Adding structure later feels like a chore

Last updated August 26, 2022

Authored By:: P- Rob Haisfield, P- Brendan Langen

In the structure now vs. later tradeoff, people often defer structure until later. For more details on that, see Q- Why do people prefer to structure later or not at all.

Adding structure later is a viable alternative, as people likely have a better idea of how their current idea fits into the wider whole. But, we frequently heard that the act of adding structure later feels like a chore.

This showed up when people described processing reading notes, refining old ideas, or managing their queue of work. The idea of a queue of work showed up in many interviews, in a variety of forms. People would create indexes, pages of TODOs, resource lists, pipelines, areas to review flashcards, or tagged items to return to later.

Ideas were even processed through a queue in certain notebooks, with different stages of an idea categorized (fleeting, literature note, evergreen, etc.) or labeled in a pipeline (premise, develop, completed, etc.). Some queues were managed specifically, with a spaced repetition algorithm prompting them to return to a prior block. Others were less formally organized, and people returned to them as a regular, unscheduled part of their work.

A common failure mode for queues was to process the same list multiple times. For example, someone might look through an inbox of ideas, find the best ones, and then move those over into another list. Then, a month later, they would look through the inbox again, repeating the process. The problem is that it was difficult to distinguish which ideas they had already processed, so they would repeat the work of screening through ideas they had already screened out. We can see systems like Allen Wilson’s evolve to prevent this repeat work.

One interviewee went as far as mentioning avoiding the tasks they created to review old notes. Others mentioned reviewing notes felt like repeat effort.

While queue processing can be extremely effective to those who have internalized the practice, it was done by very few of our interviewees.

For more, see: C- Current tools do not support flexible exploration and refactoring of structures as they inevitably evolve.

tl;dr summary - Existing structural systems are often seen by people as a chore. Existing queue management systems are too tedious. The story is clear – most people don’t want to spend time refactoring notes. That feels like wasted repeated effort. - People may decide not to regularly return to past ideas, which will enable them to stay in flow of their current work. Provided the note can stand on its own, or they don’t need to add on, this quick capture “set it and forget it” can be fine. - Problems arise when we want to reuse these old ideas. Inevitably the noise in our notebooks is too loud to find the signal we’re looking for. Creating queues of work to return to later feels like a chore, and our tools don’t help us resolve this.