Your systems are going to change

Something you can guarantee

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I’ve written before about how I am against the one-app-for everything mindset as the implicit standard knowledge workers are supposed to subscribe to.

You don’t need everything in one app because it’s unlikely one tool will ever be the best at all activities knowledge workers do. We don’t tell office workers they should do everything in Microsoft Word… there’s an Office suite for a reason. However, if you’re someone whose needs are met in one app, great, you should stick with it, because you’ve found what works for you. That is the single most important function a personal system has.

My personal system has a lot of apps right now. In my recent digital system overview, I showed that I used 16 apps which has horrified some people. But I don’t use 16 different note-taking apps or 16 different calendar managers. This is my life in a digital system. I’ve chosen a digital system because that’s what makes sense to me right now. Some people make lists on paper, I do that in Twos.. Some people bullet journal.. I use Day One.. We do what works for us.

But there will be changes to what is working right now, and that’s true for two reasons.

  1. We change

  2. Apps change

Let’s dive into this a bit more.

1. We change

Lifestyle changes, job changes and financial changes are three examples of what might drive change in your systems, how you interact with them and indeed what they look like.

For example, I started my digital PKM journey when I was a student. I used the free Notion plan and stretched to the $5 a month Roam scholar plan. This terrified me because that was so much money at the time, but I was amazed by Ali Abdaal’s video and had to try Roam for myself. I did lots of things in Notion and Roam but still had paper everywhere to deal with other life admin, including a very specific paper planner I ordered from America..

The Video that encouraged me to try Roam. I was mid-dissertation reading and thought it sounded perfect.

Now however, I have the financial freedom to test pretty much any app. Of course there are limits, but for the apps I’ve looked at in any depth, the price point is typically between $5-$30 a month. This is a level I can afford provided the app proves its worth (often in free trials) and there aren’t better, cheaper alternatives.

21-year-old Beth would be baffled by this, but my financial situation improved as I grew up and that has given my systems new possibilities, and my priorities have changed now too. My priorities at university included paying my bills, eating reasonably well and having money to buy train tickets home, whereas now writing about digital systems has become my livelihood, so my priorities have shifted.

I think there are too many variables in life to expect that a static system could support you in the same way forever. I’m not saying that’s what people are thinking right now, I’m saying you should embrace the change.

2. Apps Change

It’s not just changes in our own situations that we should consider. Digital systems are made up of apps, which will either be constantly developed, or get left behind.

Here are the key updates from 2023 that I use nearly daily from some of the top used apps in my system: Notion, Capacities and Routine*.

  1. Notion formulas 2.0

  2. Notion buttons

  3. AI implementation in Capacities

  4. Capacities object dashboard

  5. Capacities x Hookmark (life-changing)

  6. Capacities mobile app

  7. Capacities command palette

  8. Routine’s universal task inbox

  9. Routine’s new mobile app

Buttons, AI in Capacities, Hookmark x Capacities

These updates/features have changed how I interact with these apps and that has positively impacted my system. I am so excited to see what comes next because none of this was possible this time last year.

It’s not just new features that app development gives us though. Many of the apps I use have been working on stabilising the product they already have, which we’ve seen a lot of with Arc and with Capacities.

However, not all apps have gone in this direction. For example, Roam users noted earlier this year how few updates there were for some time, Mem recently announced it was slashing some key features which has confused users, and Evernote hiked prices after being acquired which has alienated a lot of users from the looks of things.

The bottom line here is that apps will change, whether it’s for good reasons or bad reasons (which is subjective anyway), and therefore your system will too. It might be that your favourite feature is phased out or removed entirely, or it might be that an idea you had for how you want something to work in your system becomes a possibility with a new update.

How to manage this change

Not everyone will want a way to manage these changes, preferring just see how their life evolves along with the apps they choose.

I mostly just go with the flow because the best way to develop your systems and workflows is just to get stuck in and use them; over-engineering doesn’t always help, no matter how fun it can be. Through using your systems, there will be some processes or workflows that make you feel friction, and that’s a good time for some reflection to work out why in order to address that friction. Alternatively, you might find some inspiration from another person’s set up that you want to bring into your system. That’s when making space for tinkering is important.

So, I have two methods for keeping on top of thoughts that relate to changes in my system.

  1. A list in Twos for the things to achieve later when it’s possible, or when I’m bored and want to build something

This ranges from my absolute key goals for my knowledge (see starred item), and my system (point 2) down to things I could probably do right now (point 3) but I just don’t want to do it right now.

2. A “system thoughts” tag in Capacities, where I do my knowledge work.

This works great for me because sometimes my best system ideas happen literally mid-sentence, and I choose just to go with them because these contextualised realisations are often really powerful for me.

Sometimes I can get a bit caught up in abstract thoughts and what could be (see the list above), but when I’m actually taking notes in Capacities with the features as they are now, I realise something that makes my processes within it better.

This is one example:

Source: The Long 19th Century Course on Wondrium (my favourite learning resource)

I’ve spoken before about a current puzzle I’m facing as a history nerd, and that is how do I capture this feeling of something “rising” throughout time to lead to a big event later?

Writing this sentence about rising nationalism in the 19th Century gave me the idea of creating a ‘Good Point’ object type (which has since had a name change to an ‘Atomic idea’ (whether or not that’s the correct usage of the term…)) and I could link this atomic idea to each year from 1850–1871 because I also have a Year object.

Then if I clicked on 1871, the idea (as communicated in the starred item in the Twos list) is that I’d see everyone who was alive in that year, what big events happened, and what was happening as context for something that happened later.

That still doesn’t “feel” right though, so this is on the back burner for a bit until I realise something different could work, or I see inspiration from someone else that shows me a new path. Or, I choose to just do it anyway and accept it’ll change later. But this realisation lead to a new object type (good points, now atomic notes) and I use this a lot, and changing structure in Capacities leads to all sorts of different brainwaves which change what I advise people on.

By tagging this brainwave, I can’t forget it (or the 19 other system thoughts I have at the time of writing). I can review them at any point when I’m in the mood to build or to review.

So, your systems are going to change because your life will change, your priorities will change, and the apps that make up your systems will develop to add more features, or they will stop existing.

You can choose to just go with the flow until something changes. Or, if you’re like me, you might enjoy the process of continually developing a system and you might want methods for managing this change and to think about all this.

This is why I truly consider “thinking about systems” and making space for tinkering, to be part of PKM, or at least the PKM in PKM Beth.

I think some will disagree and say this gets in the way of doing work, but I just don’t relate to that sentiment. This is the sort of stuff I do for fun after work.

I’m excited to see the 100 more changes my systems will have in the coming months and years, and I can’t wait to share what I learn :)

If you like this article, you might like my newsletter. I publish it every two weeks and in each article I cover cool PKM things I’ve seen, some PKM puzzles I’m working on and a real use-case of my system.

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