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Writing Momentum in Notion

When the tri-force comes together, "synergy" happens. Everything is aligned - go! But when a spoke is broken, it could leave you stalling for months, even though your brick foot has been firmly on the pedal.

I've been building a habit since August to meet and write with a group of friends before work starts. Linking other people to a habit is a solid way to be consistent. What's crazy to me is that after 100 sessions (around 150 hours), I didn't have any finished work to show for it. It's very possible to form a reliable habit that is reliably useless. I was lost in a Roam Brain, my outlines were lava, I would perfect my drafts until I got bored, and I grew to hate Squarespace.

By December, I admitted to myself, my pipeline is whacked. There's a big dent in my pipe, and I've made excuses to be blind to it.

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Having a consistent writing habit isn't enough. Having a good "information-capture" system isn't enough. I needed to nuke my pipeline and start over.

The new pipeline needed to be structured in a way to avoid my biggest pitfalls (overwhelming backlogs, limitless scopes, endless editing, permission to not publish).

The one thing I have going for me: I show up to write every day

The most important thing I'm avoiding: Publishing

The solution: Publish every time you show up to write

Since late December, I don't leave my morning session without finishing and sharing an idea. I often go back to edit and expand after it's live, but the goal is to launch a minimum viable idea after a single session. A simple tweak in my pipeline brought me from 5 months of not publishing to 20 essays and 25,000 words in my first month. I'm hoping to ride this momentum out and publish 250 essays this year.

So, remember the three things behind the juice of momentum?

Habits, pipeline, and systems.

We haven't talked about systems yet.

I've always thought of myself as a systems-oriented person. I knew the ins and outs of Notion. I can build anything. But without well-formed habits and pipelines, the systems you build mean squat. However, when the habit is formed, and water can flow through your pipes, a well-designed system turns your writing into one of those high-volume super soaker guns.

I've built a purpose-specific system in Notion around my habit and pipeline. Planning, drafting, editing, and publishing usually happen in different applications, but I've built out an "OS" that nurtures farts into finished works of art (from farts to arts). I think the synergy of a consolidated ecosystem is worth more than an advanced feature in an isolated app.

My Notion System

Here's the rundown:

1. Planning

Before the week starts, I'll sit down and iron out a scope for the next week. Sometimes my excitement is obvious, but sometimes data lets me remember the things I forgot about over the course of the week.

The main goal of planning is to limit it to a single short session on the weekend. It's possible to get swallowed whole by your backlog. The web of all possible ideas is alluring. I recommend getting in and out of it as fast you can. It's a pit stop, not a pancaea. There is a natural tendency to get hypnotized by your own farts. Before you know it, you have all of these half-baked idea pinned up to a cork-board, strung together with yarn, giving you a sense that you're on the cusp of a great discovery. You're not. Run from that place as fast as you can.

The end goal of this planning session is to quickly settle on 5 unique ideas to work on during each week day.

The power of Notion is that you can create these specific views that auto-populate with data when you show up.

Completed recently

It's useful to take a glance at the recent string of work you've created. It helps you imagine what the next block on that chain might want to be.

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Trending / Bursting

I use these magic parameters called relations and roll-ups to create an "object-oriented information architecture." For context, I "capture" around 50 notes per day (yes, notes are wild beasts to be collected and organized into museums). If I ever think something I've captured could help shape a future essay, I use a relation to link it to an instance in my Post database. I have different views to show me this data during my planning session.

Posts that have notes recently added to them

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Unpublished posts sorted by highest note count

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Schedule the week

After a brief excursion into the idea zoo, I emerge with 5 beasts that I will tame one at a time. By knowing a confrontation is coming, I start to anticipate it in the days leading up it. This brainstorm happens naturally, during the course of other things. I'll quickly jot notes through "quick capture" in Notion. By adding one piece of meta-data, they'll be waiting for me when I show up to make a draft.

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This is what I have going into this week:

  • Monday - I'll post images of my writing system.
  • Tuesday - I'll write about how the Metaverse won't be a VR video game, and how it could trigger a hyper-connected remote society, changing the function of physical cities
  • Wednesday - Random number generators, the backbone behind the lottery, Bitcoin, and the future of democracy. Did you know?
  • Thursday - In Notion, separating views from databases let's you create a system for spaced repetition.
  • Friday - Some half-baked thoughts on QAnon and the (potential) hidden origin of conspiracy theories (conspiracies on conspiracies)

2. Drafting

When I show up to write, I don't want to go deep-diving through web browsers. It's helpful to have all your ammo waiting for you. Here are some of the private parameters within this essay. 30 notes were already linked into my drafting environment when I opened it.

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Linked notes

There were 11 notes from my past that I knew would be important when I would eventually sit down to work on this.

Tags & related notes

Sometimes I'll capture a note, but I don't have a specific essay in mind for it. In those cases, I'll assign it to a tag. My template is built in a way so that I can input tags, which will then bring up a series of associated notes. By entering "writing," "editing," and "publishing," into the parameter of this draft, it gave me 19 additional notes.

I found that it's not important to link notes to each other. It's most important to either link a note to a deliverable, or, link notes to a permanent cluster that will be useful in the context of creating your deliverable.

Full sentences

I have all of the notes I need, almost instantly. I give myself permission to look through these, copy text, and create an outline within the first 10 minutes. After that, the pressure is on. I will need to share this essay with my writing group at the end of the call. There is no time for chicken scratch and weeble wobble. The building is on fire, and I need to write in human-readable sentences.

3. Publishing

I set a simple rule on when to publish: Share the link to your essay with your group before the call is over. This wouldn't be possible if I had to publish through an external site like Squarespace.

The publishing pipeline is typically a manual process involving transporting and reformatting text. You fork your draft and bring it somewhere else. If you find a typo, do you edit it in both environments? Clicking publish on an external site has this weird sense of pressure and finality to it.

One-click publishing

This is how I publish in Notion.

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By changing one parameter (On-Deck to Published), it turns my draft into the final work. It slings itself over to the front-page of my site.

Related Essays

Then by adding some tags & topics to it, it links itself to other essays, and populates a list of related essays on the bottom.

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Super.so

I'm currently using Super.so to link my public Notion page to my domain michaeldean.site. It turns a public Notion page into a modern and well-functioning website, with fast loading times, analytics, font-options, the ability to embed scripts, email capture, etc.

4. Editing

Permission to edit

I don't blast my essays to the corners of Twitter as soon as I finish them. This thing was created in a frenzy. Let me sit on it for a day or two. In some cases, the thing I create in the session is the final thing. It's the minimum viable version of the idea. In other cases, there is more juice in the engine. If I find myself drawn back to the essay at lunch or at night, so be it.

Why can't you edit after you publish? Maybe you start with a micro-essay, but there's no reason to prevent it from growing larger. So far the average length of my posts have been 1,200 words, with a low of 500, and a high of 2,500.

Live-editing

Often times I'll re-read my essay at night just to see what came out of my morning session. As I'm reading I'll find typos and clearer ways to phrase things. The benefit of fusing your editing and publishing environment is that as you edit a live-document, all future readers will benefit from those tweaks. You're not hoarding until it's perfect. You're just tweaking for future readers.

Batch edit

Over the weekend I don't work on next ideas. I'll often pick my least favorite idea and spend more time with it. In some cases I'll read through the work from the week (or past weeks), and make slight adjustments as I read. If I'm disciplined, I'll schedule some of these essays to be shared on Twitter over the next week.

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