Tools for thinking

If I ask you:

What tools have changed your mind,
Tools that you can no longer leave behind?
Not just those that are installed by default,
But those that added colors to your life?

What would your answer be?

I’ve always liked experimenting with new apps and workflows. Over the years, trendy tools come and go, very few lasted more than a few months at the most. But some of them, those that nail function and form, those that fit my workflows seamlessly, have stayed in my toolkit for years.

Day One was the first of them. For 12 years, I reflected and journaled in this private space. Though I started journaling earlier on notebooks, Day One enabled me to record and glean insights from my life experiences in ways that pen and paper couldn’t match.

Since then, only two more apps made into this special hall of fame. One of them was Headspace, which showed me the importance of mental health and body intelligence.

The other one was Reflect, the tool that has become my second brain.

To be honest, I struggle a little to describe what exactly makes Reflect so powerful. “Supercharged my intellectual capacity” seems pretentious, “extended my brain” feels cyberpunk. I thought about this many times over the last two years of using Reflect, but have failed to come up with an elevator pitch that is concrete but also nuanced.

In fact, this whole category of tools, sometimes called PKM (Personal Knowledge Management), sometimes called networked note-taking or Zettelkasten, all sort of sound like over-engineered solutions for privileged intellectuals who spend too much time in their heads. The vague marketing on the homepages of these tools don’t help much either.

As a product manager myself, I know well of the warning signs of a product that has not achieved product-market fit. If you can’t describe exactly what it does in 15 seconds, you might have a business problem at hand.

But experience also tells me that this rule of thumb is not always true. Sometimes, it’s not the solution that’s hard to describe, but the problem itself. I think that’s what’s going on in the “thinking tools” space. The consequences of these problems are not what will happen, but what won’t happen. This apparent absence of a problem, in my opinion, makes it cumbersome to clarify with a shared language.

So, with my cumbersome words, I want to write a series of essays on this topic, on the importance of a tool for thinking, on the idea of networked note-taking, and then specifically on the wonders of Reflect.

Hopefully, at the end, I’d arrive at a slightly more elegant way to describe this without boring you to sleep.

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