Take Note of Your Time with Josh Duffney (2/2)

Welcome to episode 157 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 2 of an interview with Josh Duffney (a return guest) to discuss how the smart notes methodology can make us all better writers, its impact on a book Josh is writing, how Josh finds the time to take on so many projects, and how life at Microsoft has been since we last spoke.

Original Recording Date: 12-14-2021

Josh Duffney is a Senior Content Developer for Microsoft and repeat guest. Catch part 1 of the interview with Josh in Episode 156. Check out Episode 123 and Episode 124 to hear about the genesis of Josh’s career in IT.

Topics – The Challenge of the Blank Page, Impact on Josh’s Current Book, Differentiated and More Intense, Changing Social Media Habits, The Knowledge Worker, Finding the Extra Time, Data-driven Writing, Parting Thoughts

4:25 – The Challenge of the Blank Page

  • Josh has some of his smart notes in a GitHub repository (a vault containing smart notes for one of his books).
  • He had a project note and started to link in relevant notes. Josh would then build a workspace in Obsidian to open all the notes so he could read, review, and organize them. Then he would start to write using Ulysses or VS Code.
  • Smart notes make writing easier but not easy. You need more than just a few words between notes. Josh says many times what you need is the ideas to be strung together to write a clearer argument.
  • When considering the challenge of the blank page, Nick thinks back to George Lucas trying to write the script to Star Wars on a tight deadline.
    • There was a lot of impostor syndrome in the beginning, but Josh has the reverse problem right now – too many ideas to actually execute upon.
      • This is something that has happened to Nick and John with the podcast (so many ideas).
  • With Josh’s current rough draft of Reclaim, getting started can be a challenge. It helps to have an introduction and conclusion note because you need something to frame the argument before you begin writing.
    • Josh has to fight editing / correcting while he is writing. He’s trying to remove this from the rough draft, and at present there’s some friction in the rewriting process.

10:04 – Impact on Josh’s Current Book

  • The process of taking smart notes has helped Josh to understand the 175 pages he’s already written are a bit incoherent.
  • Josh references a tip from The Craft of Research in which the author says taking notes faster than you can sort them can cause anxiety.
    • Josh had been feeling anxiety for a number of months regarding the book, and he knew he had already cut out technology usage (i.e. digital minimalism). The process of smart notes has helped reduce Josh’s anxiety.
    • In the beginning Josh was researching and writing but not sorting. This process (smart notes) has given him the ability to sort in a way that reduces anxiety and keeps the structure there to allow completion of research and write when he is able.
      • Research is now a separate process from writing. Josh is planning to do research for a month and then write for a couple of weeks to catch up.
  • Josh has set many deadlines, and they have caused more harm than good for him.
    • Ryan Holiday’s advice to a prospective writer was "you can only be a writer if you can’t not be a writer."
    • For Josh the deadlines create a problem he cannot let go / an unnecessary urgency. But they did help him get started.
    • As of this recording, Josh is about a year into writing the book and is close to having a rough draft finished but feels he will need to reconstruct a lot of things to make the book more coherent.

14:04 – Differentiated and More Intense

  • Reclaim is different than Josh’s smart notes book in the sheer amount of information he’s putting into it.
    • Part 1 is about the ways technology has invaded our lives.
    • Part 2 is about taking back the linear mind (reading and establishing habits).
    • Part 3 is about how to perform deep work without taking the monastic philosophy. See also Episode 142 for more on deep work philosophies.
  • The amount of research Josh has needed to do for the book has been…intense.
  • In this book, Josh is blending some of the ideas of deep work with digital minimalism.
    • Josh has struggled with what is too much, whether he should split into two books, etc.
  • Overall it’s been a fun experience, and Josh has enjoyed sharing struggles, learnings, and triumphs.
  • Josh has put much of his work on GitHub to build in public and be transparent.
    • It holds Josh accountable, and hopefully it adds value to others in some capacity.
  • For a long time Josh had a single vault in Obsidian for everything.
    • He moved all the notes for Reclaim into its own project vault and stores other notes on writing, Azure, GoLang, etc. in a general vault.
    • Josh wanted to be able to open everything that is Reclaim and shut it once finished.
  • Nick mentioned John was the mastermind behind Nerd Journey’s Deep Work series of episodes (starts with Episode 141) and that the smart notes approach was used by John to make the outline.
    • Listen to the back story of how those episodes came to be, how John utilized quotes, and how he pulled ideas from the book by Cal Newport.

19:32 – Changing Social Media Habits

  • As mentioned in Episode 124, Josh was doing a write only experiment on social media so that he would only read and respond to posts on Fridays but could create posts any other time.
    • This is constantly in flux.
    • The experiment worked well to get him away from the tools and break the addiction.
    • It ultimately did not stick. What Josh does now is check social media for about 30 minutes each day.
    • Checking social media only one time per week made him too disconnected and isolated, but it was a great way to reset. If you’re not willing to ban yourself for a month the responding on Fridays is a good way to help reset.
  • In a pandemic situation, an online community may be a substitute for in-person community, and throwing that away can be much harder than when an in-person community is more accessible.
    • It’s fascinating how much we project our relationships onto social media.
    • A couple of years ago Josh decided to unfollow a lot of folks on Twitter and move them to a list as an experiment. That got him kicked out of an online community and had massive repercussions. Getting unfollowed certainly is unsettling.
    • People respect your disconnection from social media, but when you’re away for an extended period of time, people may feel like you’ve thrown away a relationship with them. Right now Josh is trying to find the balance.
    • It’s amazing how much of the psychology of in person interactions transfers to online interactions (on social media platforms).
    • This makes Nick think back to Episode 149 with Chris Wahl.
  • Josh says the changes from the first detox to now with his 30 minute window have been enough to keep him from getting addicted again.
    • His number of impressions / likes have gone down. When you’re away for a while the algorithm docks you.
    • Josh is trying to let SEO and word of mouth be the marketing instead of trying to use social media platforms for attention.

25:22 – The Knowledge Worker

  • Josh was doing a weekly newsletter for many months and got to about 1000 subscribers.
  • After the smart notes book Josh penned (which in reality took about 7 months of research), he thought about writing e-books exclusively (not a good idea).
    • Just writing books is painful.
    • Josh missed writing short form content.
  • Josh will be bringing back the newsletter in some form (you can find it here), but it won’t necessarily be weekly. He will use it to share some of the points to be made in Reclaim (but in online articles).

27:19 – Finding the Extra Time

  • Josh has recently been speaking at conferences.
  • Not having a smart phone allowed Josh to take back 3.5 hours of his life.
  • During the day he practices time blocking. Each hour has a dedicated spot. It’s about being super intentional about the things he wants to do.
  • A while back Josh used something called Moment to track time, but the app disappeared. Josh used Wellbeing on Android to track time on mobile devices and Rescue Time on desktop / laptop computers (not free but has a 2-week free trial).
    • You probably only need 2 weeks to get what Josh calls a demand analysis (which Josh heard referenced in Making Work Visibile by Dominica DeGrandis).
    • John invested in a TimeFlip as Don Jones mentioned in Episode 138.
      • Listen to John’s description of how he uses this device to track time spent on his work and measure what matters.
  • Josh integrates physical activity into his schedule.
    • There are 3 buckets of energy (emotional, mental, physical – all of these feed the other). Josh has found the physical activity is essential to maintain high productivity.
    • Four days per week Josh does a weightlifting routine called the 5/3/1 in the mornings. That seems to be the best time of day for Josh.
    • Nick asks about the concept of embracing boredom from deep work (see also Episode 144) as part of the workout.
    • Josh will bring his notebook with him and jot down ideas if they come to him during that time.
    • Lately he wants to get out of his head. It is uncomfortable to be there all the time, and Josh understands why people seek distraction. He tries to be present and enjoy the workout.
    • Nick thought of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey when hearing about Josh’s workouts.
  • John references Your Brain at Work by David Rock.
    • This seems to compliment deep work, digital minimalism, and taking smart notes in that the author speaks of brain chemistry and structuring your work day.

34:44 – Data-driven Writing

  • In his role at Microsoft, Josh had to get comfortable with the research and writing and get comfortable with that process. There’s also the search engine optimization (SEO) side and writing for the web (which Josh has been learning a lot about lately).
    • Josh has had to think about how to write more clearly so search engines and people can find what he is writing.
    • It’s interesting and terrifying how good algorithms are at catching human behavior.
    • Josh is learning to use data to be a data driven writer.
  • Josh has also learned about information architecture and UX.
  • It’s amazing how much you can use data to improve your writing.
  • Nick cites how many great book recommendations have come from Josh.
    • Josh mentions maybe he can publish his notes from reading different books to share with others (i.e. a SparkNotes version).
    • After Nick mentions samples available on Audible, Josh says there’s a concept of x-raying a book mentioned in How to Read a Book that is interesting. There’s no great way to simulate touching a physical book, but audio format is helpful for skimming.
    • John mentions Google Books and the ability to preview a book’s contents without reading the whole thing.
    • Kindle apparently has an x-ray feature worth checking out.

40:44 – Parting Thoughts

  • Josh wrote a course to go along with his Obsidian book.

    • It was released on a paid platform but not at the level of craftsmanship Josh wanted (being a former author for Pluralsight), but Josh decided to refund people’s money and has moved the video series to a YouTube playlist (which you can find here).
    • This was also a great way to contribute back to the community that helped Josh when he first started learning Obsidian.
  • Josh has offered to give away a couple of free copies of his book, How to Take Smart Notes in Obsidian.

    • We’ll take a random sampling from the people who retweet the announcement of the first episode with Josh in this series of interviews (Episode 156) and send them a free copy.
  • John was not previously using Obsidian for knowledge management before he read Josh’s book.

  • You can pre-order Josh’s new book Reclaim here.

  • See also Scott Lowe’s thoughts on writing making us all better communicators in Episode 152.

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