I’ve recently begun asking myself one simple question: What problem does this solve? Now that’s a pretty confronting thing for a tech geek to ask himself, considering the fact that his life consists mostly of finding solutions to things that aren’t really a problem.
It’s all connected
One of the things that had been driving me slowly crazy was my desire to track my life. Now I’m not talking quanitified self craziness, just things like what movies I saw or when I finished a certain book and how I felt about it. I used to log those things in apps like Goodreads or Letterboxd, but it started bothering me more and more that all these apps have their own databases and there’s no way to connect all those things and the thoughts I had about them. So at some point I decided to export all of it to plain-text files and put it in my ‘second brain’ in Obsidian. Now all I had to do was write something like
Watched [[Grey's Anatomy]] S16E04 on my daily log and when I opened the page
Grey's Anatomy it would show me all the things I ever wrote about it: dates on which I watched the show, thoughts I had about it — which were in turn linked to other thoughts, et cetera. Simple right?
Log till you drop
One problem with logging stuff is that the list of things you can log is endless. Andy Matuschak recently tweeted that he likes to keep track of what he eats while linking the ingredients. So now he can simply click ‘peas’ and find all the things he ever cooked with peas. Like I said: endless. And before you know it, logging has become a goal in itself.
You know the satisfying feeling when you tick something off of your todo list? And you know how people (not me of course) sometimes add a todo to their list after finishing it just for the sake of ticking it off? Or how some cool thing you experienced didn’t really happen until you shared it on Instagram? That’s basically what life logging is: ticking things off for the sake of it. I read this book, check. I finished this podcast episode, check. I drank this limited edition IPA from some guys in a garage, check. Now look at the accomplished person I am.
So I finally asked myself The Question: What problem does this solve? For 90 percent of my logging activity the answer was a disappointing ‘none’. I never checked back to see on what date I saw a movie, I never needed my list of ‘read books’. Of course there were some inspiring books and I still love keeping those linked to ideas in my Zettelkasten, but that’s only 1 in 20. Then why do I keep information on the other 19 (some of which bored me halfway through but I finished anyway, you know, for the sake of checking them off)?
When I looked deeper into the question however, I did find an answer: control. There’s a reason we love checking boxes: it gives us a sense of control over our lives. When we’re really honest with ourselves, we know we don’t have a clue what we’re doing in this wondrous and strange thing called life. And it scares the shit out of us. The simple act of checking a box relieves a little bit of that fear. So we check one more, and one more, until we actually start believing we know what we’re doing, burying the fear deeply underneath that illusion.
Ditch the lists
But with the fear we also bury all the other beautiful and unexpected things that come with life’s uncontrolability. Why pick up a new book when you’ve still got ten other books to tick off? Why go and have a beer with a friend when you’re so close to hitting your 10 day streak of eating under 2000 calories? Oh and anyway you’re still seven episodes behind on Master Chef. And you still need to log your dinner with peas and write out Parmenidus’ ideas on deduction that you heard on some philosophy podcast. Why go out at all? What box will that check?
In the end I got rid of 90 percent of my notes and lists in Obsidian, leaving only the bits that are actually about things that excite me. And in the process I also ditched Goodreads, Letterboxd and Untappd (in which I only once logged a beer, but I can’t really keep it after writing all this right?). There are already so many boxes we have to check in life, let’s just enjoy the rest of it.
Life is not a checklist.