How do you manage "pornographic" productivity in obsidian?

I’ve been thinking about “pornographic” productivity for a long time. Basically, productivity becomes pornographic when the idea that we do it, will carry more weight than actually achieving what the goal or value aims for.

I’ve seen it several times in youtube videos about notion and other tools, where everyone had a beautiful, meticulously crafted, multi-colored task page, with color tags and dates for each task. So it takes 10 minutes a day to only fill it up.

A productive tool is supposed to help me do less things than I would normally do, with the same outcome.

In obsidian, it is also super easy to fall into that fake productivity trap. First of all, I really do love obsidian, and the whole LYT paradigm. I have about 1500 notes in vault, so I spent a really long time only formatting those notes, organizing them, playing with plugins and themes, …

I think it’s just some form of procrastination, where instead of learning or trying to understand something difficult, I just spent more time formatting, splitting and linking those notes. Because I felt like I was doing something useful, and it was easier to do. Furthermore, is it even a bad thing?

I wonder how to spot that you are just procrastinating while using obsidian, instead of really thinking and learning with obsidian.

So many great inventions and breakthroughs in the past were made without obsidian, without internet. And even today, a lot of smart people don’t use any knowledge management tools, and yet they are able to produce brilliant thoughts and ideas with just paper… and their brain. That makes me think that you can organize knowledge, but knowledge has to exist first. It has to come from you. And no plugin will help with that.

what do you think?


I think you’ve observed something that is absolutely true (but I’m not sure I’d use the descriptor ‘pornographic’). It is heavily prevalent in the Notion community.

I do one-on-one coaching with clients around PKM and productivity and my approach is always to maximize the simplicity and reliability of someone’s tools and workflows. The goal of our system is to keep us focused on our work. We need to be free from the distraction and disruption of our system. Those things can be negative (‘the system isn’t working properly’) or positive (over-optimizing for ‘fun’).

There’s nothing inherently “bad” wrong with creating an aesthetically-pleasing workspace, optimizing your workflows, or periodically fine-tuning the way you work.

But you’re correct in seeing that these tools lend themselves to indulgence and distraction. It’s a question of having the right intention towards your work.

Are you formatting/splitting/linking because you’ve identified a useful optimization that will improve your workflow? If not, what’s really going on?


I know it’s a weird term, but that’s just a terminology under which you can find this problem on the internet. :grinning:

I am curently studying for one big networking certification, and some chapters are really heavy. What I did was that I throwed it in obsidian, formatted it, chunked it down to smaller parts, made it pretty, … and it took me some time, which was actually half dead time because I didn’t actually do anything. I just gave a new form for information that was already available for me. And when you have 29 chapters (50 slides each), thats around 29 hours just autopilot-formatting, copying and linking. But for me, it felt like I was “learning” and being productive. But now, I have feeling that there was maybe a little procrastination hidden in it.

if I just sat down and learned it right at the beginning, it would by harder and not so enjoyable, but I would have more knowledge in my head (but less in obsidian)

It’s not useless because I do it for the future when I will look for that info in obsidian. And I love the idea that I can reassembly my notes in a different context whenever I want, but it needs some balance which I’m currently trying to find.


I remember this exact same problem and exact same term being used around 2005 in discussions of GTD, very possibly by Merlin Mann as well as others when he was big.

So you are definitely not wrong. I will admit to spending more time than is healthy on forums like this and writing notes about note writing. It was very helpful in the beginning though and I have a very large set of notes (about 70) on note writing principles I gathered from reading and from my own current and prior experiences. But it does have a point of diminishing returns.

There is a dopamine hit to participation in online communities that drives us to continually seek the attention and thus the dopamine reward that results. It’s difficult sometimes to break away from that and focus on actual knowledge development.

Today I forced myself to minimize the time spent online and instead focus on organizing and refactoring a set of notes that has been bugging me for a while. Then I took notes on a few chapters from a book I’ve been neglecting. I consider that a good day, since that time could have been wasted clicking refresh looking for new threads on various forums, discussing note taking instead of doing it.

I am curently studying for one big networking certification

One of my sources slowly being processed is a security certification, and I have a prior cert in flashcards I’m slowly “reverse engineering” into proper notes, so I feel your pain! :slight_smile:

I follow the zettelkasten practice myself and find that I have a slightly different approach to atomizing notes for certification stuff than I do for “normal” material (i.e. everything else). They go through the same basic process but the method I use to decompose them is slightly different. For “normal” stuff (such as a book, or video) I can focus on finding the “idea architecture” and end up with my own outline that likely doesn’t follow the format in the book/video but captures the ideas that wind throughout it. For a certification it is similar but ultimately there is a certain element of memorization required so the forces are different. If I were reading my cert guide as a “normal” book I would cherry pick only the ideas that are interesting/relevant, but for passing an exam everything is relevant which produces a friction in the normal decomposition/atomization/synthesis process. It still happens but it feels more forced and rigid because I have to keep the workflows/processes/steps defined in the cert guide instead of replacing it with my own equally-valid-but-using-different-terms chunk of knowledge on that topic.

So yeah, I get it, its frustrating. Just recognize that this is a different mode of work than “normal” knowledge digestion should be. And ultimately you should still “digest” this knowledge and peel it away from the constraints of its enclosing idea architecture and incorporate it into your own, in your own terms. Of course there are limits, because how do you write the OSI model in your own terms? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(just remember the OSI model is an oversimplification, it is better to think in terms of service providers and service users :wink:)


Thanks for that, I think I shouldn’t feel guilty to allocate more time for it, because this certifications are time-consuming and frustrating by their very nature.

one of my classmates writes down everything important on a piece of paper, remembers it, and puts it together in his head. And he knows everything. So he made me wonder what the hell am I doing with my time :grinning:

There’s a tons of knowledge floating in my vault, but that won’t help me pass the exam. Obsidian allows you to do so many things. Sometimes we should stop constantly adding more knowledge, playing with it and organizing it in 100 ways, and instead really learn what’s inside these notes. And that’s hard because it just feels better :grimacing:. I feel smart when I add something to the vault, but having everything in obsidian doesn’t mean it’s useful. What you have in your head is equally important.


Can I ask you how you are doing that?

I am trying to do a similar thing but doing it inside adobe reader and just extracting it via zetfile + mdnote to Obsidian. But the part in the Adobe is very time consuming, I am doing it in hope of it getting easier over time, but honestly I can’t see much progress because there is too much friction with the current tools I am using. Maybe there is better way for adding an outline to a pdf file that I just can not find. I think it’s is very useful thing, specially since a lot of books don’t have a good one in the first place.

@Flegeth One way I tackle the problem is by trying to constantly refine my notes towards heuristics and strategies. For example, instead of a note titled Metrics I have a note All metrics have inherent weaknesses when sampling complex phenomena which states:

All metrics have inherent limitations and weaknesses because they measure a specific attribute at a point in time.

This is an example of [[Abstractions leak (201229)]].

Therefore, we should [[Use multiple metrics to gain a clearer picture of the status of a measured phenomenon (2102150921)]].

The note in the last line reads:

Because all metrics have inherent weaknesses we should define and apply multiple metrics that compensate for each others’ weaknesses in order to obtain a more clear understanding of the measured phenomenon.

This is an example of applying compensating controls to mitigate the risk of poor decision making based on incomplete information.

Since metrics are simply a quantified model of behavior this is also an example of multi-model thinking increasing accuracy: [[Models are abstractions (2012291401)]], [[Multi-model thinking increases decision making power (2012261259)]].

Other randomly-selected notes have titles such as:

  • HMACs only provide proof of integrity
  • Prefer asymmetric key encryption when flexibility at scale is paramount
  • Prefer symmetric key encryption when speed is paramount
  • Bandwidth and throughput measure different things
  • Collision domains are subsets of broadcast domains

In a hub note on Signals I have this partially-complete outline section:

  • Signal transmission
    • [[Information is transmitted via signals (201224)]]
    • [[Information is transmitted electronically using carrier signals (201224)]]
    • [[Signals propagate through a medium which impacts the signal (201224)]]
    • [[Modulation and multiplexing are different (210101)]]
    • [[Bandwidth and throughput measure different things (210103)]]

Not all notes can be titled like this but I find this to be a richly powerful method for identifying core concepts and cementing them in various contexts. It may help you.


@Archie My approach is not about using a particular technology to break down the source. I can work with Obsidian or paper. Currently I’m trying out a note taking app on iPad with the stylus and it works well. The specific app is not the issue.

The point is to focus on identifying and extracting the main ideas and supporting points that are made throughout the book/paper/video/whatever. The author may make a point in the beginning and then reinforce that point in the middle and end. While I often start with a simple outline based on the chapter/section/whatever structure in the source, over time I start identifying chunks and grouping them together. So as above, when the idea is reinforced later I may make the point in the chapter note for that later chapter, but then as I process these rough notes I will move bullets/quotes/images around to group them together into ideas rather than into chapters. The end result is an idea-focused outline.

The method is to watch for the author’s claims, evidence, and conclusions. These form the major arguments that wind through the source. By targeting those I can focus on the core ideas presented. (there are sometimes interesting ancillary ideas as well of course) In paper books I use Cal Newport’s “Morse Code method” placing a dot in the margin by a main point and a dash in the margin by a supporting point. In PDFs I would probably use colored highlights: one for main points, one for supporting points, and one for terms. (this is also advised by the Cognitive Productivity method by the Hook creator)

Don’t think I’m perfect at this either. :slight_smile: I make plenty of mistakes and grapple with some sources quite a bit, and some of my notes are horrible messes. But when I pull it off it has great results.

Below is an example outline capturing my view of the idea architecture from a series of closely related website articles I processed as a single “source” recently.

Here’s the site, I lumped most/all of the linked articles together as a single “source” for this: Essential Guide to Coding Qualitative Data — Delve


  • [[def. Qualitative Research (L.2103151843)]]
  • [[def. Qualitative Research Coding (L.2103151843)]]
  • [[def. Theoretical Saturation (L.2103152100)]]


  • [[How to use qualitative coding in research analysis (L.2103151844)]]
  • [[List of common qualitative coding methods (L.2103151934)]]

Executable strategies

  • [[Executable strategy for qualitative coding from source material (L.2103151934)]]
    • [[List of common qualitative coding methods (L.2103151934)]]
  • [[Use grounded theory to inductively identify themes from existing data (L.2103151842)]]
    • [[Use axial coding to examine each qualitative category during source analysis (L.2103152055)]]
      • Axial coding is the second phase in grounding theory
  • [[How to create a qualitative codebook (tag taxonomy) (L.2103152100)]]
  • [[To increase research trustworthiness, consider impartial review of methodology and results (2103152105)]]

Inductive vs. deductive techniques

  • [[Use inductive qualitative coding to allow themes to emerge naturally from the source material (L.2103151858)]]
  • [[Use deductive qualitative coding to structure the analysis of source material (L.2103151858)]]
    • Begins with a predefined theory or framework to structure the analysis, then evolves as needed

(below this point is some rambling notes followed by several quoted paragraphs)

When processing the articles I started by taking very rough notes in my single source note file in Obsidian, almost stream of consciousness, typically with a heading for each article. As I identified repeated themes and patterns I began moving material around within the note to create chunks. I then gave the chunks a meaningful title and converted them into notes with those titles (using the Note Refactor plugin, its amazing at supporting this workflow). Then I moved the titles around into the outline above.


After seeing some of the beautiful pages and things people have created, I often fall into what I’ve been calling productivity paralysis where I don’t feel I’m at a final version of a system, so I add nothing to it while I ‘finish setting it up’. I lose a lot of time trying to get everything just right - even though I think I’m honest enough to know it’ll never be perfect.

I watched a video about digital minimalism by Harshibar that talks about getting distracted by your technology. The money shot is when she says something about using social media and other distractions as ways we trick ourselves into feeling productive without actually doing anything of value.
That concept struck a nerve with me, in that I think of theme tweaking and templating as ways of fooling myself into thinking I’m being productive. “I’m working on the PKB, so it must be valuable - riiight?”

I’m nowhere near over the mountain, but I’m hoping that at least recognizing the warning signs is a good first step. Every time I open VSCode I make sure it’s for a precise and deliberate reason. I got rid of a ton of todo app accounts I really was not using anyways.

Recognizing that imperfect content is better than no content was a major shift in my personal journey.


I think what you’re talking about is just the most current form of procrastination. Because we’re discussing it in the context of a particular tool we tend to sometimes opine about the “old days” when people didn’t have these tools.

You know what we did when we didn’t have a digital file cabinet to adjust and readjust? We did the same thing with our physical file cabinet. We created a new category and insisted on going through each existing file to see if anything that we had should go in the new file we’d just created. Or we recopied our fragmented notes into the new leather bound notebook that we’d spent hours shopping for. Or tried out the new pen we bought because we’d heard it was one that our favorite author used. Or shuffled and recopied our note cards.

My point is simple (and I’m preaching to myself here) when you don’t want to do the work that you’re supposed to do, you’ll find ways to avoid it. The problem is always the person, not the tool they’ve chosen to utilize.


I’ve always heard the term “self-masturbatory” instead of “pornographic,” but, yeah. It’s a big problem with the bullet journal community too, unfortunately. It’s actually one of the reasons I did the live notetaking session with Nick Milo — I wanted to show people how I avoid this by staying laser-focused on outputs & what I’m planning to use the information for.

Realistically, I view this as the same problem students who “highlight everything” have. It’s not a problem with the nature of highlighters — it’s a problem of metacognition.


@davecan What you said is exactly what I am looking for, outlining is just the first step, it is never perfect but it paves the way for next stage. I also try to ask questions and find the answers to them after the first inspectional reading of every chapter, that can help with finding themes in the text.
I am trying to do it on paper too, but it is not going to be automated or searchable (typing it would be to much work IMO).
But I think the decisive factor is automation and the workflow can be improved. For example I should be able to just write few lines describing every section in every reading of the book and putting chunks together can be done after looking and comparing them, In a long text it is not practical to go back and forth multiple time, It should be done in to or three reads I think/hope. Finding themes should be very easy if notes processed first. Also maybe we should set a different procedure for different kind of books. For example gathering author’s arguments and evidence is not very important for a textbook kind of book or a general historical one.

Thanks for this really nice example. These topics you mentioned are super-relevant to me because I also study security.

Didn’t know this term exist :grinning: It’s true. In Obsidian, this exaggerated “thinking about thinking” is definitely a thing.


I was just thinking of linking to your video! Around the 1-hour mark you talk about how making pretty notes isn’t the job and that really resonated with me.

Even after making positive changes through the LYT framework I’m still fighting my instincts to fiddle with all the things™ and not actually engage in the content. It’s totally a way I procrastinate or get hit with productivity paralysis, like @Erisred mentioned because everything has to be perfect before I can engage with it.

@Flegeth I sometimes handle this by asking myself questions. Why do I need this thing this way? How does it help me? and so on. That gets me to refocus.


I was going to make same comment… if you are watching productivity videos and trying out a ton of tools, that may be “Productivity porn”, but if you are over engineering you own PKM that may be the M-word! (I think the word “self-“ was redundant!

In all seriousness, everyone suffers from Procrastination and it comes in many forms. These tools and systems are a way to keep us focused, so it is valuable to watch what you are doing.

I think Markdown is a step forward for me — i to minimal formatting, mostly headings and indented bullet lists and a little bold if I remember. Simple is good.

I tag tasks that I know I am procrastinating on with how many minutes it will take, like #5min or i might use a tag of #avoiding.

Usually behind procrastination is some fear - fear of being wrong, of being judged, of being not good enough. Try to label your procrastination for what it is. But don’t make it good or bad, it just is.

It could be you didn’t get enough sleep, ate junkie food, had too many pints with the lads the night before. It could be the task is not even valuable.

Define a basic system and stick with it. Periodically, not continuously, make a deliberate change to the system.

I hope some of these things helped, it is simply what helped for me.



inspectional reading

:eyes: A wild Adler reference! :metal:

His principles and processes are exactly what I’m getting at. :slight_smile:

I am trying to do it on paper too, but it is not going to be automated or searchable

If you have iOS: Capture your favorite book quotes with this brilliant new app

Also I’m experimenting with the Nebo app on iPad w/ Apple Pencil, it is extremely good at correctly guessing my chicken scratch and converting it to readable and copyable text. It also shows you what is being interpreted at the time it is written. Not perfect of course but it seems to get about 99% correct which is shocking since I write terribly lol.

It should be done in to or three reads I think/hope

My goal is a single read and then done. Not counting potential 1-second and 5-second prereads of course.

maybe we should set a different procedure for different kind of books

The last half or so of Adler’s book is dedicated to exactly this IIRC.

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Agree w/ @EleanorKonik on the metacognition issue.

I disagree that it is exaggerated. Or rather, it can be but it is necessary to use metacognition. The point is that blindly highlighting is not applying metacognitive tools, its just collecting and hoping things click. Oh wait that sounds familiar… The Collector’s Fallacy • Zettelkasten Method

We have to think about how we think so we can develop our workflows and order our notes (representing our thoughts) in a meaningful way. (on that note, as Feynman said the writing is the thinking, and according to Alan Jacobs in How To Think thinking is the effort we put in before we make decisions, so to some extent our workflow is our thinking to an increasing extent and it is difficult/impossible to separate them – the tool influences and structures our thinking as much as the other way around)

We can go too far with this of course, into what @EleanorKonik points out becomes masturbatory thinking where we are focusing on it as the end goal rather than as a means to achieve a goal. We get lost in our own thoughts instead of producing meaningful work – we become unproductive.

It’s very difficult for me to resist the siren song sometimes, especially when we have online forums that reward us for talking about taking notes instead of rewarding us for taking notes. :laughing:

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It turns out Merlin Mann appears to have coined the “productivity porn” term (he called it “productivity pr0n”) and then later realized it was harmful and abandoned his site entirely.

As his influence grew, he popularized a new term for the genre that he was helping to create: “productivity pr0n,” an adaptation of the “leet speak,” or geek lingo, word for pornography. The hunger for this pr0n, he noticed, was insatiable. People were desperate to tinker with their productivity systems.

What Mann and his fellow-enthusiasts were doing felt perfectly natural: they were trying to be more productive in a knowledge-work environment that seemed increasingly frenetic and harder to control. What they didn’t realize was that they were reacting to a profound shift in the workplace that had gone largely unnoticed.

Not long afterward, Mann posted a self-reflective essay on 43 Folders, in which he revealed a growing dissatisfaction with the world of personal productivity. Productivity pr0n, he suggested, was becoming a bewildering, complexifying end in itself—list-making as a “cargo cult,” system-tweaking as an addiction. “On more than a few days, I wondered what, precisely, I was trying to accomplish,” he wrote. Part of the problem was the recursive quality of his work. Refining his productivity system so that he could blog more efficiently about productivity made him feel as if he were being “tossed around by a menacing Rube Goldberg device” of his own design; at times, he said, “I thought I might be losing my mind.” He also wondered whether, on a substantive level, the approach that he’d been following was really capable of addressing his frustrations. It seemed to him that it was possible to implement many G.T.D.-inflected life hacks without feeling “more competent, stable, and alive.”

(it’s a good article capturing how we are often trying to treat the complexity symptoms resulting from society’s shift into the Information Age without understanding the shift itself)

As Andy Matuschak wrote more succinctly:

People who blog about note-taking systems don’t produce them. … I don’t think it’s an accident that Luhmann wrote “Communicating with slip boxes” near the end of his career.

So the question then is: to what extent are we engaging in productivity masturbation/pornography by spending time online writing about our systems and swapping system ideas and tinkering with our systems and then reporting back to others so they can cheer us on and tinker with their own systems so they can report back to others so they can be cheered on and …?


Maybe it’s some kind of hobby. Some people enjoy playing games, some people can talk for hours about fishing or politics. And we spend time here talking about notes, organization and productivity. Because we are all social beings interested in it. And there’s nothing wrong with that (when it’s in a moderate amount, of course :grinning:). We got time. We can’t be 100% productive-working-robots all day. (truth is, we should not even try to be like that, but that’s thing for different topic)