Optimization addiction

How do you all find balance between the desire to tinker with your PKM systems and the need to actually “do the work?”

Hi, my name is Joe and I’m an optimization addict. I’ve spent countless hours setting up systems that were forgotten as soon as they were finished. I’ve made hundreds of Keyboard Maestro macros, Alfred workflows, and scripts to funnel pointless bits into different buckets. I spend more time thinking about the structure and design of my PKM than the content.

I’m kidding. Mostly. But I am curious to hear if this resonates with any of you. Do you strictly divide time for thinking and time for PKM development? Or are they inseparable?

I often see people advise others to “just start taking notes” once they reach a minimal organizational threshold and then let the system design itself organically. There’s definitely some wisdom in this (it’ll never be perfect in the beginning) but have noticed a problem:

When working in my PKM, diligently writing and linking notes, I will often notice something that could be improved. I usually make a quick note of it in my inbox and carry on but sometimes, the impulse to “fix” it is too great.

I’m not sure how best to avoid this disruption to my “real work.” Interested to read your thoughts.


For what it’s worth, this is a common-enough issue that it actually has a couple of names: yak shaving, CRIMP, and productivity porn are three that I’ve seen. (Or, at least, there’s a set of well-defined patterns of behaviour that overlap on this problem.)

To be a bit bitter, one of the worst symptoms of this problem are all the folks who start peddling “their” approach to it as a new and shiny way of solving it. This productivity self-help industry is quite ugly, and I don’t think it has the best interests of its customers at heart. (The incentives just aren’t there. If a system solves the problem, the customer stops buying.)

To that end, I think the latter half of episode 72 of the podcast Reconcilable Differences is essential listening. Start listening at 46:30.

If you aren’t familiar with it/its hosts, the podcast is a regular conversation between John Siracusa and Merlin Mann. Merlin coined the ideas “inbox zero” and “productivity porn,” and was probably one of the biggest “gurus” on productivity topics at one point in time (maybe still is!). So, he was almost at the top of the industry. John’s a thoughtful tech writer/podcaster and is an excellent foil for Merlin.

In this episode, Merlin and John get into what you’re calling “optimization addiction.” In particular, Merlin provides some reflections on the nature of this problem and the industry that reinforces it, as someone who perpetuated the industry for some time and who also practices these habits.

I find it enlightening. For instance, at one point he suggests that people with this habit make themselves work a second career. It’s a clearer discussion of the challenges we face (in both doing our work and in trying to find better ways of working) than I’ve heard elsewhere.

Seriously, listen to the last 50ish minutes of that episode.


I’ve come to think of my notes kind of like a Bonsai tree or a garden. You tend to it constantly, a little very day. If you see something wrong go, something that needs a trim, or needs to be adjusted, go fix it. Focus on the tweaks and stop yourself from ripping up huge portions or trying to force it in to something it’s not meant to be. I know that’s easier said than done.


As someone who puts out content in this industry, I’m frustrated by this culture. Sure personal growth is never-ending, but everyone’s journey is different. No solution is going to work for everyone, probably let alone a small group of people. Merlin’s said (I think, at least to paraphrase what I remember) that there’s one person whom GTD works for, insinuating that’s David Allen.

We can be addicted to optimization. I’ve dealt with that myself. I’ve gotten stuck in tools versus embracing the process of my life. Ultimately that’s what I’m aiming to help others do – go on a journey versus try to get everything right.


Great episode, thank you. I especially appreciated the discussion of motivation- for some people, even getting out of bed requires several mechanisms meant to override the lizard brain. Though this is a severe oversimplification, the stronger one’s motivation about a particular endeavor the fewer mechanisms their “rational,” slow brain will need to devise.

I think part of the reason I am consistently distracted by tinkering with my PKM system is because it is so tightly intertwined with my values and self conception. I, (and most people who devote time to developing a PKM, probably) enjoy thinking of myself as a smart person- intellectual engagement one of my primary aspirational virtues. I’m therefore powerfully motivated to spend time on anything that promises to enhance that part of my life. Fiddling with PKM makes me feel like the kind of person I imagine and hope myself to be. Simply put, I’m vain.

But, that leads me to the thing I love most about Obsidian and PKM practices. They can serve (after much fiddling) to remind yourself of who you want to be beyond narcissism.

Hello, my name is Matt, and I’m an optimization addict.

Thank you for this thread, I’m definitely guilty of over-tinkering at the severe detriment of note-curation. I’ve always attributed this to some combination of restlessness and/or the compulsion to make things perfect.

@ryanjamurphy 's post (and the linked podcast ep. - thanks for the recommendation!) forces me to realize that there is probably some element of procrastination as well. I hope my soul-searching to that end doesn’t rob even more precious time, although it will (probably) be well-spent. :slight_smile:

@scooks 's post introduces another element I was perhaps aware of sub-consciously but would never have admitted to myself. I’ve built apps, wikis, and websites that are ‘pretty’ and might have a wide appeal to others with absolutely no intention of publishing them whatsoever. More wasted time - as you say, for vanity’s sake. I sometimes go weeks without curating or even entering a single note. WEEKS!

Obsidian (actually, the community at large) has introduced me to such a new way of thinking about information that my creativity has been jump started immeasurably of late.
I admit, though, that I initially fell into the css trap here too. I’ve since forced myself to revert to the standard basic dark theme with only minimal personal theming. I’ve been tempted to trash VSCode just to deter tinkering…

Thank you again for this post, it allowed me to process some thoughts I’ve had about my productivity for quite some time, but didn’t quite have the audience for.

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One thing I really appreciate about Obsidian and this community is that it and the plug ins work pretty well out of the box. I too have seen my writing:tinkering ratio go way up since using it, I think because it requires less customization- I’m the grateful beneficiary of others’ tinkering.


I feel very much the same when I’m creating new literature or permanent notes… I can’t help but follow the urge to restructure some topic notes, search for a new plugin or try changing the theme so I can feel more comfortable.

Thanks, I haven’t watched that podcast yet but the thanks is for having made me learn a new word - “foil”. :wink:

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