February 16, 2023

Bryan Jenks on beginner mindset, optimizing everything, why Obsidian, and lessons from neurodivergence (Ep51)

“Centralize and get everything out of your head. Those two things alone, make it incredibly easier to manage your life, especially if you have a lot of things going on.”

– Bryan Jenks

Tim O'Reilly

About Bryan Jenks
Bryan is an information specialist and data analytics expert who has over 300 certifications in a wide variety of technologies and is always seeking more knowledge. He is also a popular YouTuber with millions of views for his detailed insights on productivity and personal knowledge management.
Website: Bryan Jenks

YouTube: Bryan Jenks Tech

Twitter: @tallguyjenks

Instagram: @tallguyjenks

Github: @tallguyjenks

Medium: @tallguyjenks

Discord: @tallguyjenks

LinkedIn: Bryan Jenks

Patreon: Bryan Jenks

What you will learn

  • An introduction to Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and its importance (02:56)
  • How neurodivergence and system thinking influence problem-solving approaches (06:55)
  • The benefits of approaching everything with a beginner’s mindset (09:56)
  • Using neurodivergent tools and processes like time-blocking and centralization in daily life (15:04)
  • Strategies for better memory retention, including multiple calendars and color coding (17:24)
  • A specific system for organizing physical objects to minimize clutter and increase efficiency (20:15)
  • The negative impact of context-switching on productivity and how to minimize it (22:04)
  • The advantages of using Obsidian for organizing notes and information (26:48)
  • Effectively leveraging tags and links for easier note searching and retrieval (33:38)



Ross Dawson: Bryan, it’s wonderful to have you on the show.

Bryan Jenks: Wonderful to be here.

Ross: Bryan, I’d love to just hear the story. You’re now sharing all your insights into the structure of how you think and how you take notes, and how you build your knowledge. I want to hear just a bit of the backstory of how you came to be on this path of sharing these resources with the world.

Bryan: Yes, I was already on YouTube for about a year before I even started talking about or doing anything with Obsidian. It was mostly just playing around with Linux on an old laptop and talking about what I was learning there. But my channel and my interests really took off when I started diving into the whole sphere of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), as it’s commonly called. Specifically using Obsidian, when I first was getting into Obsidian, it was primarily the big player for Roam Research, Notion to a degree, but for the connectivity, bi-directional linking, note, and applications, it was just Rome, and now Obsidian who was really capitalizing on that, and then people who were just also doing stuff in Notion or Evernote, but I was already using some tools like this.

When I was on my Linux computer, it was always plain text in the terminal, super, like bare-bones, I was using vimwiki because I still love vim or the VI-improved command line text editor. I went from using vimwiki to trying out Joplin. That had a command line option, had a GUI, and pretty application options so it was the best of both worlds. Then I saw this Obsidian thing, and it looked nice. I could customize it because I do have coding experience. So I really started getting interested in that and diving into it. It’s just been, oh, it’s been more than two years now. Here we are.

Ross: Take a step back. Presumably, let’s say when you were a teenager, how you came to want the structured thinking, and find the value of the structure of taking notes or pulling your ideas together? What’s the origin story of you as a deep structure thinker?

Bryan: That pretty much was the origin story, when I was a teenager, and even up through my two-year college degree, I didn’t take notes or study for anything. I just listened to the lectures and took the tests and did very well, because the stuff didn’t go at my pace. I was just trying to move faster. I didn’t have any interest in any of that at the time, I didn’t even start touching computers with a more technological perspective until I was probably already 24 or 25, working for my local government.

Ross: It was now when you are moving from just having to pass tests, to get to things that you’re interested in, that you’re to build these structures?

Bryan: Yes. I started getting interested in reading real research papers on various things and looking at how academics were approaching different. How do you connect research papers into coherent information and knowledge and see the landscape of what these papers might cover? How they’re interrelated? Who’s citing who? That whole network diagram of scientific research and academia. This was also before I was ever even exposed to tools like Connected Papers or ResearchRabbit or anything, even vaguely network diagram of citation trees and sources, so I was just looking into how can I take consolidated notes on a topic, but also relate that to the papers that I have? It started as a basic thing from just research papers, but that expanded into all the sources of inputs that I then had, and then how can I figure out ways of effectively taking notes on various types of media, podcasts, videos, books, things that are a little bit more long-form or different kinds of input?

Ross: You were originally that point thinking of it as a network?

Bryan: Sort of. Yes and no. It wasn’t an explicit thought. But just neuro-divergence in general. I will lock myself into this group, predominantly system thinkers. I think in patterns, in systems, like if you say, hey, what do you think of this small little problem here, I usually can’t do much with that until I start seeing how this plugs into the wider system that is potentially affecting this thing. That can also be a detractor as well as a benefit. But bottom-up thinking, I need all these different details and see how they’re connected before I can go up a higher level and give an effective answer or analysis of something. Was I already thinking and approaching it as a system? Yes. But it wasn’t as explicit and self-aware as Ah, yes, this is my system. No, I wasn’t like that aware of what I was approaching or building up to at the time.

Ross: In terms of choosing your areas of expertise, what would you say you are an expert in or choosing to be an expert in or focusing your attention on?

Bryan: I would say, I am an expert at approaching everything with the mindset of a beginner.

Ross: That’s great.

Bryan: But if I had to like say, eh, I think I know a little bit about something, I would probably just say, technology and programming in general, there are certainly plenty of people who are far, far beyond me. But I have enough generalist knowledge and experience with different languages, paradigms, technology, history, and things to make me effective at seeing something and then having several ideas about what could be the potential problem that we’re troubleshooting here. What could potentially lead to a problem? What are the different ways to approach this solution? Technology and then just building systems. It doesn’t have to be specifically technology. But like, if I’m in my garage, and I’m trying to think of the most effective way to cut up all these cardboard boxes and put that into my trash can, I might develop a small system in the moment of, okay, sort them by size, take the biggest box and use that as a cutting table and take the smallest boxes, and then cut those up first, because we want to fill in the small pieces; I’ll develop systems like that, in that vein of thinking, for pretty much anything that I do. Everything I do is systematized and it’s pretty much instinctual.

Ross: So it’s moving to the meta-level. It’s like, how do you do what you’re doing better is the frame.

Bryan: Yes, optimize the hell out of everything.

Ross: I loved what you said about your expertise and good about things, but the beginner’s mind. Is that something that has come completely naturally to you? Or is that something you’ve worked on and helped develop? And if so, how have you helped engender that beginner’s mind frame?

Bryan: I would say it was a little bit developed, but also just something that happens naturally. Obviously, in adolescence, and during puberty, everyone’s a little self-absorbed, because that’s just the nature, that’s just human nature, especially with the hormone profiles we have at that stage of life. But I would say after growing out of that a bit, and then just how I just really open and willing to accept information and knowledge from anywhere. It just developed like that. I don’t like to assume I know more than somebody and just like you can’t teach me anything. I never really ever think that. I might know something and I try to offer things because I like to help and give information. I’d love to share and just give everything that I have and just add it to this pot of information.

You throw in something else. I’m like, ooh, yay, new stuff. I didn’t know that. Add that to my collection. But it’s about sharing. One of my favorite things I like to talk about is this specific example. I was learning and doing Brazilian jujitsu for a little while. Out of interest. I just attended a judo class at the same place on a different day I never go. It’s my first time in a judo class, let alone this class. I don’t know anything. I know less than anything. I go there. They’re warming up and it’s basically monkey see monkey do, so whatever they’re doing, I’m trying to do it. We finish warming up. I’m super exhausted, I’m breathing hard. I’m warmed up, okay, I’m leaning against this wall, just like catching my breath. This, I’m going to just assume, is an 11-year-old boy or something and he walks up and he’s not in the best of shape, he’s a little bit soft or whatever if I have to give a description to add weight to what I’m saying, not because this was a judgment, and he walks up to me, and he’s like, Hey, we don’t lean against the wall when in class, and I’m a full grown adult at this time, I’m over 18, I’m an adult, and this kid is coming up to me and telling me this, and the first thought and the action in my head is not excuse me, or who are you?

The first thought in my head is, oh, then I guess I shouldn’t be against this wall. But he taught me something in this class, we do not do this action. That is the rule here. There was no ego involved. I didn’t think that I knew more, or he needed to respect me. The first thought was, oh, information. We do not lean against walls in this class, I have now learned something and now this behavior will not be repeated. Moving on, there’s no ego involved. That’s pretty much how I approach anything, anybody can teach me something, and everyone always has something to teach, so I like to learn.

Ross: That’s fantastic. This goes to the idea of status, our society is written with status, and different cultures and nations around the world have more structure than others. If you travel, you’ll experience that. But this idea that you have to learn from your superiors, and you teach to those who are below you, and if you just do away with that entirely, saying, well, status is not a thing, it’s just, well, I’m here to learn. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, or inexperienced, or experienced, and that’s a beginner’s mind, you can learn from those people who are beginners, often more than the people that have been doing it forever, and got stuck in their ways.

Bryan: I understand how to establish patterns. They see things in different ways, so you can always be learning.

Ross: Yes, that’s a fabulous thing about that. You have beautifully shared some of your experiences with ADHD and how you’ve dealt with that, and the medication. I think that there are many people who suspect that they have ADHD or ADD, and they may not be diagnoseable, but maybe just that they feel that way that they get distracted, and they aren’t actually normal because everyone gets distracted all the time. But I’d love to just hear what you have learned from your experience that you think others could benefit from, in terms of how to deal with sometimes acute, without going through all the symptoms of ADHD, there are some things that we all experience in terms of distraction and activity and distractibility. What are some of the things which you have learned that others could find useful?

Bryan:: Yes, I talk about that kind of stuff a lot on my channel. I was on just another interview call thing and gave this exact same advice, which is that even if you do not have ADHD, or a neuro divergence, that doesn’t mean any of the tools and processes and systems that help me or people like me, function better, are not applicable. Oftentimes, it’s just, it’s a great system or solution to apply to your life. It could help whether you have a condition or not. Things like time blocking or actually making. People say make a list. But I like to, instead of just saying the bare bones example of make-a-list. Then you have a post-it note over here, an application over there, or a bullet journal somewhere in another room, I’d prefer to just give the general umbrella approach to how I do things is centralize as much as possible, not three to-do lists, you have one place where all lists are, you could have separate lists, but they’re all in one place. It’s not a post-it note and a bullet journal over there and an application. It might be separate lists within your application centralized. Then I try to externalize as much of my cognition and memory as possible, so I don’t think about projects, and I don’t hold all this stuff in my head. I never have to remember anything.

As soon as I need to remember it. I put it into the task management software, or I put it on the calendar. If it’s not there, it does not exist to me. I don’t worry about it. If it’s not in there, I don’t care. It doesn’t exist if I needed to remember this then in the moment, when I’m told about something, hey, we’re having lunch next Thursday. Then immediately, I am making a calendar block for the time for lunch next Thursday. If I need to remember to do something tonight, my phone’s out, I insert the task, done.

That’s where stuff like to-do is NLP, natural language processing, tonight 10 am, 7 pm, do this thing. That’s where it’s super-fast to do that. But that’s why I use those tools. Because, it makes it very quick and easy to facilitate that behavior, centralize and get it out of your head, just get everything out of your head. Those two things alone, make it incredibly easier to manage your life, especially if you have a lot of things going on like I do.

Then my calendar system with Morgen, doesn’t even need to be that particular application, but calendars, having multiple calendars, so that you could have color coding because at least me but many people who have neuro divergence like mine, also tend to be very visual thinkers, and visual type of people I need to see it and it helps me comprehend and understand it better. So color coding, using emojis for different things, I have several calendars some way upwards of 10 or more calendars, because I separate out the colors, the colors mean something to me. If it’s an orange time block on my calendar, it’s a task, if it’s yellow, it’s a work-related thing. I can see that at a glance and see what my day looks like. But then I can also drill into details. Then the last thing I could say is, well, sometimes you’re going to forget stuff like I do, and that’s okay, forgive yourself.

Ross: That’s fantastic. I was just supposed to be good at messages the other morning saying, oh, you’re supposed to be at this meeting. essentially, what had happened was what you were talking about working at a time. I put it in my calendar, and I said, oh, can you put it in, and add me to the calendar invite, it gives me a thumbs up. After that, I forget it completely. He’s like, alright, well, what’s going to be my calendar? He didn’t put it on his calendar until 10 AM that morning and already knew what was on my calendar. I didn’t look at it. It’s like, well, that was my calendar doesn’t exist. I think that’s, that’s a fabulous principle, that externalize as much as possible because human brains are wonderful at some things. But the less burden you put on them, the better you can do what they do.

Bryan: Oh, that was the last point. Thank you, Bryan. That task management philosophy was like an influence, if not heavily shaped by, I can’t remember the name of it. But it was some podcast or book or podcast of a guy who wrote a book about task management that was popular. But that also leads to the final thing, too, that I think is one of the most beneficial things for me, which is don’t put it down, put it away. I’m bad. I’m admittedly horrible with this when it comes to digital things, files, notes, whatever. I developed systems about that. But when it comes to physical objects, if I have to put it down, it goes only where it goes when it’s being put away. My keys, my wallet, and my phone are only in a separate, specific location. I jokingly say this in several of the videos that I know that my car keys are only in three places ever. They’re in the valet tray bowl thing on my entryway table. They’re in my pocket, or they’re in someone’s fridge. Because if I need to remember to bring something back with me from someone’s house, like, some leftover food or something, and I put it in the fridge, then I don’t want to forget it. I can’t leave without my keys and my keys on top of the Tupperware. Those are the only three places my keys will ever be, the valet tray, my pocket, or someone’s fridge.

Ross: Yes, I think that there are many, many, people who can benefit a lot from following that advice. Keep it on losing things. The digging into Oh, yes, so just back on the time blocking. That’s something which I write about in “Thriving on Overload” is like one of these master productivity principles, and part of the thing is around task switching. If you keep on switching tasks, you’re just using brain cycles needlessly, being able to block out time for particular activities, doing one thing for a period of time. Switching is an incredibly effective way of using our capabilities. but what are the principles that you use for the way which you do time blocking, in addition to what you mentioned around color coding and sorting them into categories?

Bryan: Yes, context-switching is horrid. It is the bane of my existence and the bane of my productivity. When it comes to work, which is probably a great example for me, my day job. When I enforced the context switch, I don’t get anything to it. Thankfully, I have some very wonderful and understanding leaders and former managers at the time too, that, for one if I get invited to a meeting, and no one can tell me what the goals are of the meeting, what is their agenda, why do I need to be here, I just don’t go. They learn quickly. Like, if you want me there, then I need to know why I’m there, I’m going to provide the value you need for me, and then I’m done. That’s just phase one.

After I’m in a meeting, usually what I try to do is make sure that the meetings are scheduled in A block, I’d rather have four hours of uninterrupted meetings with no breaks between than have meetings peppered throughout my whole day. First of all, I just try to reduce how many I’m in which thankfully, I’m in very few. After that, I tried to keep them all to a block of time. Then I have the rest of the day to have large swaths of uninterrupted time to do whatever I’m trying to do that day. For more of my personal stuff, when it comes to context switching and time blocking, something I didn’t think too hard about but noticed this morning when I was giving my other interview was that I will sometimes because ADHD individuals, me, other neuro divergents are very poor with understanding time, and the concept and the concept of time.

So I’ll put a time block on my calendar for edit YouTube video for five hours, it’s probably not going to take me that long. It might take me two and a half or three hours, but I don’t know. so I estimate and that’s probably a poor estimation, but I’d rather over than undershoot it. So what I tend to do is I will overbook those tasks which could be a double-edged sword for some people, you could get stressed out by so many things being there or not. It depends. Your mileage may vary. so I will sometimes overbook, so I’ll put a couple of other tasks, sometimes small ones, but directly over the same block of time as the YouTube one, might be smaller blocks, but they’re all overlapping, I can have three things going on at once. Why? Because I will finish the YouTube video editing, maybe two, or three hours, then I will grab that block, and drag it up to its actual end time. Now it’s completed.

But now below that, I will then adjust and reorder the blocks that were overlapping it and fit those in. Because it’s what I wanted to do that day, I wanted to get all these things done. But I might not have had a perfect idea of where it would fit in. It allows me a little bit of maneuverability and flexibility with what I have going on. But I know that I want to do these in the morning, so when I blocked that five hours in the morning for YouTube, I know I’m probably going to have some time left over, so I’m putting those things there as well. But it gives me a little bit of flexibility with getting some of these things done in a sort of ad hoc manner, even though it’s planned ad hoc.

Ross: That’s a great tip. I think it’s a master technique, I think most people got to get their foundations of down blocking, right before they start to use techniques like that. But that’s definitely something because when you’ve got your entire calendar full, then you do need to be able to find some ways to move around, for example, the variability of how long tasks actually take.

I will have in the show notes, and sort of an introduction, we’ll be sharing your links to YouTube in particular, and all of your other resources. so yes, that’s where we can dig in, and people want to learn the details of what you do and how you do and all the wonderful things you can share. But I just like to pull back to the big picture of Obsidian. So you spent some time looking at different tools to be able to choose Obsidian and just like to get that high-level view of that process of how you selected Obsidian as your home and how that fits into your everyday work and how you capture and structure your thoughts.

Bryan: Yes, the choice of Obsidian was very bullet-pointed and fairly straightforward. I’ve tried several other applications and certain things Jive certain things don’t. Notion well, very pretty is just too much, I could get too lost in trying to set it up and get the database stuff connected and everything’s so shiny, I would say, that it just wasn’t working for me, I get too distracted by what’s going on in it, then doing what I’m trying to do. Then there’s also the issue of the more you put into certain applications like that, then the slower they become. So then it becomes more unwieldy. That’s not even getting touching the biggest issue, which I’ll cover last. But then there was the issue of Roam, which was the golden child at the time and had big fanfare, big cult-like following for that one. I mostly just didn’t like Rome, specifically, because of the data storage format. The slow speed when it came to the browser cache, for those people who are nerdy and know what I’m talking about, just didn’t like that.

That and a very high cost, even if you were not a formal academic, it was just very exorbitantly expensive. Ultimately, this pushed and nudged me in the direction of the tools that I did end up using and trying out vimwiki, Joplin, and a couple of other things, which really got me thinking about what I need from an application. What do I really want from it? Obsidian just sitting in the sweet spot of all of these things. It’s not open source, which is probably the only like, detractor I have about it. The only con. But when it comes to this particular tool, I don’t care enough about that to stay away from it.

But it is local first. It has everything using plain text files that live in your system. It’s not JSON data living in Roam’s databases or cached in your browser, there’s no chance for it to go and get corrupted or whatever. These are plain text files that are sitting in a folder on your computer. There are syncing services available, you can apply other technologies without having to pay a dime. I was one of the first few people who set up a Git version control workflow, specifically for Obsidian users to sync our files or plain text files to GitHub, because GitHub code, version control, plain text files, that’s what code is, bam, bam, there you go. Now there are even options built in that you could pay a little bit of money for. But there’s also the publishing site. But even removing all of these, like bell and whistle add-on features. It’s a highly customizable system, you can get all kinds of customizations done to the theming, if theming it exactly how you want, you can customize existing themes, and plain text files and the plugin ecosystem is insane.

There are probably over 500 distinct plugins now. Even then, like I don’t even need more than… I have 30, which I actively use right now. But even then you can probably pare it down. There’s a plugin for everything. if there isn’t just mention it, somebody’s going to jump on it because everyone wants to contribute to the ecosystem. The community is amazing, super welcoming, super helpful, and super knowledgeable. I like to say that, I like to think that everyone has kind of like an approach like mine, everyone wants to help, and everyone wants to share the information. We all just want to be excited about how everyone’s approaching what they’re doing. Then yes, the bi-directional note linking and betting notes content, that’s just the icing on the cake. But that’s also pretty much the biggest thing it is a way of graphically connecting your knowledge, while still giving you the freedom that people from the old Unix computer days would appreciate, plain text files that are accessible for all time and a format that’s not going to just go out of style.

Ross: Yes, for probably a different set of reasons I used Obsidian, very early on compared with you in terms of developing those systems and structures, but two of the things were the customizability of the whole community and as you saved him, we get all sorts of different… there’s an extensible in terms of its capabilities, and also the underlying network structure is more able to be brought out then in some of the other tools and we’re just if you can get a network representation, then that’s, that’s for me a wonderful demonstration of what’s going on in your mind because you know that we are semantic networks underlie our thinking. If we can represent that in the way we capture information that’s really valuable. To round out, what is any summary or advice? This idea of Thriving on overload, we live in a world of far too much information. What are any summary thoughts or things you’d like to share on advice for people who want to be able to be grounded and make sense of that all?

Bryan: I would say I can give probably two pieces of very good bang for your buck kind of knowledge. That would be, to try to adapt to a paradigm of no folders. I mean, even I still use folders, folders do serve a purpose. But try to conceptualize and understand the paradigm of an organic network of notes and information, so that you don’t ever have to ask the question of where should I file this, you don’t have to do the action, and therefore, the overhead of filing something. It doesn’t have to live in two places at once. It doesn’t have to be duplicated, it’s linked to other things it’s connected to. If you ever need to find something, that’s what the search is for. There is a myriad of tools and approaches to effectively name things, find things and search for things.

You’re not going to lose it. Try to adapt to that paradigm, and it will free you up for basically a chaotic organization system if you want to have an idea of what that might look like. Check out YouTube for Amazon’s warehousing strategy, a chaotic organization at its finest, that but for your notes. Then the last thing would be leveraging tags and your links effectively. I have a whole video about it, and a lot of it still pretty much stands up to this day. It’s a little bit dated, but it basically stands up. Everyone likes to just throw tons of tags out there for everything, like I’m going to tag this with exercise and biceps, and then pull up because it’s all three of these things.

That’s a lot. That’s three tags for one note. Well, now you have just a myriad of tags. Instead of just having tags for all these little granular pieces of information, I prefer to use tags as they are an Obsidian hashtag item, as a context lists grouping, so stages of processing or a general swath of information, a grouping of things that might not be related to each other, even remotely. That way I can have insight into everything inside this contextless route. But if I need to know something, and what relates to it in a grouping, that’s why I link things together. It tells me I am linked to these things because we’re related for a particular and intentional purpose. Whereas tags are just a giant umbrella of everything underneath me is this tag. Understanding that key difference will help you leverage a lot of that chaotic organized system. At least that’s what I’ve been finding in my own system for the past two years.

Ross: Fantastic. Thanks so much, Bryan, for your insights, not just on the conversation today, but also on YouTube and all of your other places because there are a lot of fabulous resources and a lot of depth, and a lot of value, so, thank you. Wonderful to talk to you.

Bryan: I’m just glad people find them useful and enjoy them, so, you’re welcome.

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