How I became more productive during the pandemic

The metacognitive notetaking app that brought me out of a slump

Around November of 2020, I hit a low-point in productivity. I was planning a second novel (that I’ll hopefully publish) and trying to keep up with my other passions while working a full-time job; however, once I was “off” from teleworking, I just felt — blah. It was hard to keep my creative self energized because every day felt like Groundhog Day. My environment never changed, save for the occasional trip to a grocery store.

But in 2021, my productivity suddenly skyrocketed to new heights. Not only did I finish planning the second novel, but I blazed through 50,000 words in less than two months. On top of that, I was reading books again and spending more time on other hobbies, such as painting or kintsugi. It was a dramatic change, and it really wasn’t hard pinpointing the source.

Athens Research.

What is Athens?

My graphed database of notes — screenshot of Athens Research application.

To put it simply: Athens is a network-based notetaking tool. What does that mean? Well, let’s talk about traditional notetaking real quickly:

While notetaking apps such as Evernote have been around for years, they operate with hierarchical structures. In hierarchical notetaking apps, you create the organization upfront and then nest your thoughts within the existing folder structure (think Apple Notes). Making connections between siloes using this method can be hard and require a lot of additional time and energy.

In comes Athens.

Athens opened its gates on February 23, 2021. It was not the very first software of its kind, but I decided that I like Athens the most because it’s free and open-source. Athens doesn’t store your notes in siloes. Instead, all of your notes are linked together in a cloud of information.

While the organization may seem foreign at first (“do you mean there are no folders?”), it’s actually super simple. The way you take notes on Athens is very much like how your brain works. Let me give you an example of a basic note in Athens:

Page title: March 26, 2021

  • Went to [[Muzita Abyssinian Bistro]] in [[San Diego]] with [[Kaito]]. The [[Siga Kilwa]] was delicious!

All you need to do is type a word in double-brackets, [[like so]], and the software instantly creates a new page for you if one does not already exist. If you mention two pages in tandem, either in the same bullet or sub-bullet (just as I did above), Athens will automatically link the pages. So, using the example I created, if you clicked on the restaurant [[Muzita Abyssinian Bistro]], not only can you type new content on that page, but you can immediately see it’s linked to “March 26, 2021”, “Kaito”, “San Diego”, and “Siga Kilwa”. Athens generated those associations that you determined were important.

The real power of network-based notetaking

Now, the example I linked above is really basic, but imagine using this system for other tasks in your life.

Let’s say you’re a writer and you’re working on an article about the Roman Empire (as one does). While reading an academic book for research, you realize a new fact: that Rome never developed a feudal system. In your notes (see the image below), you mention that this author claims that historians in the 20th century were influenced by “historical materialism” and imposed a narrative of feudal class tensions on medieval Rome.

Screenshot of my reading notes using Athens.

Well, fast forward to later. Let’s say you want to know more about this “historical materialism” and decide to read the Communist Manifesto (as one does). While reading it, you notice that Marx describes the rise of capitalism similarly to how 20th-century historians understood Rome’s supposed “feudalism”. Two seemingly unrelated topics, but you put two-and-two together and a question forms:

Screenshot of “slip box”-style notetaking using Athens.

All had I had to do was type the page name on the Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood and The Communist Manifesto pages, right-click and paste two references for context, and — bam! Athens did the rest for me. Now I when I try to answer my question in the future, I can instantly revisit my notes from the past.

Who would have thought a passing connection between a Roman history book and Karl Marx would result in a whole new article topic?

How Athens affected my productivity

Introducing Athens to my daily life super-charged my ability to get things done. I could easily keep track of my accomplishments, frustrations, and piece of new information, all while spending little time worrying about where I should write notes or how I should organize them.

Qualitatively-speaking, I’ve also noticed a marked improvement in retaining new information. I’d theorize this is likely due to having explicit connections form with every note I take.

If your work demands a lot of abstract thinking, if you’re a student, or if you enjoy creating in your own free time (or just like notetaking), then I’d highly recommend you give Athens a try. There are fantastic resources out there about ways to organize your notes, and Athens has a thriving Discord community to join.

To try out Athens for yourself, follow this link.

San Diego-based writer. Interested in urban planning, languages, cultures, travel, history, and fiction.

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