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optimizing notion for thinking
it doesn’t stop at just “building a second brain” — you have to take your second brain out to dinner, too.
jerry maguire (1996) — he GETS it
two years ago i released a notion template called the mind garden, which is an exact replica of my own knowledge management dashboard of the same name. this was a fun year for me, personally, back when notion’s functionalities were still agonizingly limited and the community actually worked hand in hand inventing workarounds and pioneering hacks to push notion’s ability to high heaven. people cheered at feature loopholes somebody’s discovered and it didn’t take long until the words get out, either through demonstrations on social media or templates circulation. my mind garden template was, to a limit, also an (unconscious) attempt at that.
fast-forward to present, loopholes got turned into actual features, and along with other huge improvements to the way notion databases work it became apparent to me that a lot of things in my mind garden dashboard didn’t survive the time war. it’s like every time i go there to retrieve some information i got whiplashed into 2021. and even though the dashboard is still functional, it didn’t leverage the power notion currently holds. more importantly, it was starting not to reflect the way my brain works.
that’s when i knew a revamp is due.
but it’s only until this summer that i’d started working on revamping it. i guess the caveat is that since the dashboard is intended to serve as a mirror image of my brain, most of the groundwork had to happen internally as opposed to externally, i.e. making actual changes in my workspace. this means i’ve spent a lot of time reflecting, staring out into nothing, having various internal arguments with my brain, and basically thinking about thinking during my free time. i needed to make sense of what felt outdated and why was it not working anymore so i could make proper adjustment in response to that.
it all mostly boils down to:
my inputs (my media consumption; where does my source of learnings currently come from? what lights up my brain these days and when does it often happen? what really urges me to click on that notion web clipper icon?)
my outputs (in what ways do i intend to repurpose my inputs into? how can i make all of that information helpful for myself, and eventually for others?)
the in-betweens (what process, mindset, or habit will pave the road and help me achieve that?)
once i reached mental agreement with my brain on the above things, we shook hands and then i got to work.
on showcasing vs. processing
to me, one of the traps that most notion template builders easily fall into is the urge to create visual dashboards — often so visual they’re almost dysfunctional.
don’t get me wrong, i personally will decorate my dashboards like there’s no tomorrow, but only to an extent that i remember i’m gonna be the one using it on a daily basis (and eventually, other people as well, if i’m releasing it into a template). so not only it has to be visual enough, but above everything, it also has to serve its purposes.
what it means is that the visual aspects cannot be in the way of the workflow, because that also means breaking the thinking process, thus breaking the previous agreement with my brain. it means deliberately choosing which feature and/or block to roll out that will further prompt the thinking and facilitate processing information, instead of the other way around. believe me or not, there have been multiple occasions where i held back on doing something because it’s just ‘too many clicks’ or ‘suddenly i don’t feel like doing it anymore’.
the idea of optimizing notion for thinking is that you try to create a space where you’re more likely going to do the thing you’re supposed to do than not.
some (highly personal) examples of this:"
the gallery view is great for showcasing, but i find that it doesn’t really create a sense of urgency for me to take action and add anything to it. during the revamp process i decided to turn some of them into table views with only a few properties that will inform me what my next action should be (summarize, tag, etc.)
back when database tabs didn’t exist i used to depend on numbered toggles like it’s got me on a chokehold, but now that things have escalated in the notionland i love that i’m able to add numbers to my tabs and treat them like some kind of process to follow.
contextual buttons really do help take care of filling out key properties and relations with minimal clicking so i could focus on capturing ideas and making clear notes — basically helping my future self out.
keeping this concept in mind, i ended up with two types of dashboard at the end of the revamp: (1) the mind garden, exclusively for showcasing purpose and is optimized for quick retrieval of information, and (2) brain hour, which is more like taking your brain on a date, and is highly optimized for thinking, capturing ideas, taking notes, and processing (hence the name).
if you’ve purchased the template before, you’d know that the brain hour dashboard has always been there as a concept — that once a week, i will spend an hour (sometimes two) in there just making notes and keeping it open as i go through clipped articles and ongoing books. post-revamp, the practice stays the same, but now that notion’s shipped all these new features, i’m finally able to turn it into something more thorough, deliberate, and helpful.
i would set up a camp there if i could.
(there is also a secret third dashboard that i’m working on called (3) the retrospective. the idea is that if reviewing + planning happens at a weekly to yearly level, i believe that goes for learning, too. remind me to make a separate blog post for this once it’s done!)
factoring in automation (or out)
in 2020, i read a blog post that has since rewired my perspective about teaching and learning forever. it’s targeted towards fiction writers, but i believe the same principle applies. september c. fawkes: we will always grow faster and become better writers if we can learn on a conscious level. for one, we might pick up some things on a subconscious level, but others we’ll totally miss. often the challenge of learning and teaching writing is figuring out how to explain what happens on a subconscious level on a conscious level.
i’m a big advocate for automation, especially if we’re talking business ops and work efficiency, but learning is the only department in my life where i try to minimize the use of automation and bots. this is because i profoundly believe in the art of practice — that it’s by engaging in the process of reviewing and summarizing on a conscious level that our learning gradually solidifies, whereas introducing automation feels like taking that awareness out of the process.
i think the irony for me is that we’ve spent years implementing processes to work around the lack of automation in notion, and now it feels like a fully-furnished house. i’ve personally gotten really used to the business of dragging and dropping database items that i needed to pause for a moment to consider how will these new shiny features fit into the system. there’s always area to optimize, of course, but there’s also a part of me that wants to stick to what already works.
i don’t know what the future holds, or if someone will come up with something that will turn my world around, but i feel perfectly fine allowing myself go all-caveman when i’m inside this dashboard. for now.
obviously, this might not work for everyone since we all consume different things and none of us are being influenced by exactly the same thing. what’s perfectly convenient for me might not be ideal for you, and what i liberally call learning might feel like labor to everyone else. this is where i encourage you to take liberty and experiment on what works. reflect and iterate. the brain wants what the brain wants, and it’s up to you to figure out what and how.
at least that’s how i came up with mine!
if you find this piece helpful, or if something resonates, i’d love for you to reach out and tell me about it.
mind garden 2.0: electric boogaloo
you can grab the mind garden template for $15 on gumroad. if you’re reading this, it means that i haven’t made any changes to the template; but the price will go up when the new version goes live in october. if you purchased the template before then, you’ll get free access to the updates + bonus coaching sessions with me at a discounted rate.
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