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Report on a little experiment: Daily random entries from my personal log

I want to share the results of a little experiment I did over the last few months using my My Big-Arse Text File. I've been using this semi-structured text file to track my consulting activities for the past two years, and it contains a mixture of things like:

Having all this information is very useful when I search for something specific, but I wondered whether it'd be helpful to get a random entry emailed to me daily. So I wrote short BASH script that sends me a random entry every night, kind of a mental "blast from the past" in my inbox. The results? After a few months of these, I have to say the results have been mixed, mostly negative.

What I liked about it: I'd occasionally get something cool I'd forgotten about, like the idea of embedding due date in names of time-sensitive projects (e.g., ending them with "DUE XX-YY"), or an equation from my self-help formuarly (e.g., Brian Tracy's success attitude formula: SA = D + D * PA + P [desire, direction, proper action, persistence]).

However, it's clear that selecting random entries isn't principled enough. What would be more useful is something that fits into a structure that's congruent with my goals/systems. Three important ones come to mind:

  • book notes (so I can review the big idea, go deeper, and apply it to my life),
  • lessons (so I can actually learn from them by changing behavior), and
  • client/prospect contacts (so I can reconnect and be thinking of how I can help them).

(For the latter I strongly suspect I should be using a specialized tool - any recommendations?)

Final conclusion: Good idea, didn't work out, but gave me ideas for the next step.

I still pine for an integrated program that easily supports reminding like this, with structured fields (e.g., "this is a book review", "this was a client contact", etc.) yet has the flexibility to capture unstructured text, combined with the ability to link anything together, regardless of type (see Where's the IDE (Integrated Development Environment) for personal information?). I've looked at a number of them [2], but amazingly my text file plus simple macros remains a sweet spot for simplicity, portability, and power.

As always, your suggestions and comments are always welcome.


Reader Comments (12)

Good stuff Matt. I take extensive notes on many things, especially projects, however I need to become more disciplined on "lessons learned."

I use google desktop quite a bit to search my hard drive for keywords when I need to retrieve info. Now, MS Outlook 2007 has that feature built in, however I haven't tried it yet.

Your idea to send yourself an "info tickler" is a great idea, but I agree...it needs to be important and impact productivity rather than being random. Back to 80/20!

March 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHugh Hession

Thanks, Hugh. I enjoyed reading about your note-taking system.

March 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Like always great post Matt.

An other great book I like on networking is 'Let's Connect' by Jan Vermeiren.

You can find info on http://www.networking-coach.com/en_home.html. You can find a fre light version of his book, and some other free tips and tricks.


March 19, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjohan

Thanks for the support, johan, and for the reference to Jan Vermeiren's book.

March 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

In 5 or 10 years I am sure we will look back on today's information management tools and groan, the same way some do when they think back to the first communication tools. Adding meta-data to information seems to be a big step forward, I am using a wiki with tags to do this. Then using the tags to inform the "info ticklers" - ToRead, ToReview, January etc.... It seems a good start.

March 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJamin Ellis

I'm sure you're right about the state of the art, Jamin.

I like the wiki idea - quick links, text input, simple mark-up. We used one in my last job's research lab - very useful. What's been holding me back on them for a personal system is the relatively slow capture, no link/tag auto-completion, slow searching/lookup.

March 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I know that you don't use a paper-based tickler file (43 folders), but I do, and I love it. One of the things that I use it for is so that I can periodically see inspirational thoughts, cartoons, ideas, etc. I'lll just drop in at a random day, or maybe a few months ahead, and then I'm surprised when I see it. I've had some stuff in there for years now that I will see once a month, or once every few months. It's a great way to keep that stuff fresh, and I only do this for the things that I feel will really mean somehting to me later.

As always, thanks for an insightful post!

March 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

Thanks very much for the great reminder, Ricky - the tickler's great for those kinds of things, as well as regular checklists, which might include things like "review prospects," etc.

Thanks for reading.

March 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt, I think [ Stikkit | http://www.stikkit.com ] might provide the kind of structured flexibility you are looking for. There is a bit of a learning curve, but I think it might be worth it for you in the long run. Tagging is fundamental as with any Web 2.0 application, so selecting out a few important tags, getting the RSS from them and then using a bash script to parse that out and send you a random bit might be a more targeted solution to your external memory.

March 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJamie Phelps

Thanks for the suggestion, Jamie. I've had stikkit on my radar for a while, so this is a good motivator.

March 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I must recommend Emacs Org Mode. Since Version 22, I think, it comes bundled with Emacs. It gives my big-everything-text-file all the features your standard gui-productivity-app has to offer. Calendar, various categories for action items, an outline structure (optional), myriads types of links (in-file, internet, mail, ect), tags, tables, export to html, pdf ect, checklists, and many more. It has all that, plus it is everything in just one textfile (or many if you want). This mode is very leight-weight, comes with good documentation and a very responsive mailing-list. You can check out it's website, soem tutorials and a gtd primer at the following locations:




I urge you to give it a try, because it is paradise for an emacs using productivity, er, type of geek. I once traited org, but I came back to it because of it's sheer power, light-weightness and flexibility.

March 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher

Thanks for the pointer Christopher - good to know about.

March 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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