Digging Through the Dust

Sometimes a project falls off the radar for days, weeks, or months, and when I finally get the motivation up to start working on it again the trail has gone cold. Over the years I’ve gotten better at taking notes on my projects and I’ve tried to consolidate them into one place, but things still fall through the cracks sometimes.

It’s most embarrassing when I find a previous attempt at unifying my disparate projects, like stumbling upon an ancient city hidden under the rainforest. When that happens it just serves as a stark reminder of how difficult this really is, to decide on a system and stick to it.

That happened to me today. Searching through likely places on my computer for a schematic, I stumbled upon an old journal file with entries about some of my projects and the attempts I had made at consolidating them. As it happens, there was an entry about the project that I was reviving dated from April 2015. This was supposed to be a short jaunt, an easy build before I moved on to bigger things, and yet a year later I still haven’t finished it.

Why do these projects fall to the wayside, and what can I do to make it easier to resume them? I think in large part the problem is that there isn’t enough time to go around. My schedule is contentious, with lots of different pastimes and hobbies vying for the minutes left over after sleeping, eating, and working. It’s hard to muster the brainpower and focus required to do real work after a full day and so projects wither on the vine. That’s why it’s so important for it to be easy to resume projects and pick up where I left off - there’s simply no time for reestablishing context the hard way (like I’m doing now).

For that to be easy you have to have all of the relevant information easily accessible and in a digestible form. In the past I’ve used paper notebooks, org-mode files, spreadsheets, Google Docs, and Evernote to store my project information and try to make sense of it all, but none of them has ever been comprehensive or powerful enough to replace the others. I think in part that’s because each is suited to different roles:

  • Paper is by far the easiest way to sketch out new ideas, do complex mathematics, or spitball due to the freeform nature of it.
  • Org-mode lives in Emacs where I code, and has excellent linking and tagging facilities that its competitors such as Markdown don’t.
  • Spreadsheets are excellent for tabular data such as inventories, financial analyses, and scheduling in a way that text files just aren’t.
  • Google Docs is convenient, synchronized to every device and available on the web.
  • Evernote has OCR in PDFs, can support rich images and text, and it’s synchronized to my phone and across machines easily.

Of these, I think I only really need two for most of my tasks: I need a way to organize paper, because it’s how I sketch and do math; and I need a system that lives on my computer for its searchability and easy synchronization. For the second it really comes down to Org or Evernote; and this is where it gets hard, because they both have advantages and disadvantages such that I’m constantly torn between the two. Each has strengths where the other has weaknesses, and the sum total is a trap for my mind that’s as self-inflicted as it is debilitating.

One of these days, I’m just going to start writing my own project manager and have it gather dust, halfway finished.1

  1. The one exception to the trend: this blog. I actually rewrote the entire backend in Clojure a little over a month ago and have been using the custom system ever since; I’ll write about it sometime, but not tonight. ↩︎