PersonalBrain as a management tool

The more I use PersonalBrain, the more I like it. That’s not usually the case with information management software and me. I’m usually dazzled by a new application until I get deeply into using it and then all its shortcomings burst forth causing me to cast it aside with disdain. Or something like that.

Don’t get me wrong, PersonalBrain has its shortcomings, but they are easy to work around and overlook. What makes me shrug my shoulders at these issues is just how much fun PersonalBrain is to use, and how adaptable it is. I wrote a fairly extensive review of PersonalBrain for Mac Appstorm, which you can find here. And I’ve written about it on this site here and here. I do not want to cover old ground, so I’m going to try to provide only new insights I’ve uncovered about PersonalBrain (hereafter known as PB) in this post.

I realized for me that it is best to create one Brain (“Brain” is what the developer calls a database) for keeping all my work-related information. It took me a few months to come to this conclusion. I had four or five different Brains for different aspects of my job. That led to frustration on my part and I gradually merged them into my main work Brain. That was the first step to achieving PB bliss.

The next “ah-ha” moment came after I decided to use PB as my work diary. At first blush, this was not an obvious choice as PB doesn’t appear to lend itself to this use — afterall, you have to create a new thought (that’s the PB nomenclature for an item) for each day of the year, or at least each work day. That’s a lot of thoughts populating your Brain. But after finding myself entirely unsatisfied with other day-book options, I thought I’d give it a shot.

The easiest way I know of to populate a Brain with a structured set of thoughts for a year is to use the great diary generator available on the Brainstorm website. With that small application, I could easily create a single text file with a listing for each day of the year on separate lines, indented by month. So the first part of the file looks like this:

Text file for diary
First part of the text file for the year 2011

Using the diary generator, you may want to play around with the settings to get the output date format to look like you want. Then it is a simple matter of copying the file and then pasting it as an outline onto the Brain. I pasted my outline under a thought called “Day Books.”  With “2011” as the active thought, my Day Book looks like this:

My 2011 Day Book in PersonalBrain

You’ll notice that I edited the titles of the thoughts for each month. I chose this approach for a couple of reasons. First, I like being able to read the name of the month instead of having to interpret the number, but the number in front is important, because it helps keep the months in the correct order. I left the year as part of the names so that when I make a Day Book for 2012, I can distinguish between February 2011 and February 2012.

So now I navigate to the thought for the day, where I can use the notes tool to keep notes on the day’s activities. Because I have all my other work information in this Brain, I can make projects I work on child thoughts for the day. It’s important not to get carried away with this. If you work on a project every day for a month, you’ll end up giving that project two-dozen parent thoughts, and that is pretty much useless information. I’ll use this linking ability to connect day thoughts to projects for three purposes: 1. to mark the day I begin working on the project; 2. to mark the day I complete work on it; and 3. to remind myself to work on it on a certain day. When I use the linking for this last purpose, I will unlink the project thought at the end of the day. (If I want to keep a log of which projects I worked on each day, I can add that to the notes information and create a wiki-style link to the project thought.)

I always pin the current day, which puts it along the row at the top of the Plex (which is the main Brain pane). In the screenshot above, you will see the pin for the 24th of February (24/02/2011) in the top right side. Each day I navigate to yesterday’s thought, move any links to the current day, un-pin yesterday’s thought and pin today’s thought. Pinning the day thought gives me instant access to it from anywhere in the Brain.

In the screenshot below, today’s thought is the active thought. “2. February 2011” is the parent thought. All the other days in February are sibling thoughts (those thoughts that share at least one parent with the active thought). I have one item as a child thought — IBPA, the Independent Book Publishers Association. That’s a web site link that I came across at the end of yesterday and wanted to be sure I explored more, so I just dragged the URL into PB beneath today’s thought.

PersonalBrain Day Book "opened" to today.
PersonalBrain Day Book "opened" to today.

Now I can go to work on the IBPA thought, assigning it as a child thought of an agency I want to keep in touch with and to a project, as you can see here:

PersonalBrain screenshot
The PersonalBrain Plex, now with the tool panes open.

(A quick note about these screenshots: I have intentially enlarged the type on the screen to make them legible in these screen captures. Normally, I keep the text smaller, so more information is available. Also, note that in the screenshot directly above, I’ve opened the tool panes — which you can toggle on and off simply by double-clicking the Plex.)

At the end of the day I will unlink this thought from today’s thought. I don’t like a thought to have too many parents — too many for me seems to be three or four. But I may re-link it to tomorrow’s thought or the thought for a day I plan next to work on it. I also delete the thoughts for any days that do not have anything notable associated with them. This way I can help to keep this Brain pruned.

There are things I can’t accomplish using PB, and for these information management activities I use other applications. For structured data, I use Zoot and FileMaker. For making lists and tables, I use OneNote. Because OneNote allows me to copy a URL to any of its pages, or even paragraphs on those pages, I can paste these as external links (different from the links in the Plex) onto any thought in PB, which helps me manage that information too.

I think you can see from this little example that working with PB is a continuous process. You won’t get a lot out of it just by dumping information into it — if that’s the type of function you need, you’ll be better off with another option, Zoot or MyInfo (on PCs), or DevonThink (Mac). But this constant massaging of the information is precisely what I’ve found so appealing about PB. It keeps me engaged in ways that so many other applications do not.

8 thoughts on “PersonalBrain as a management tool

  1. Thanks for this great review. Is there a “diary generator” for the mac? I would love to reproduce your Personal Brain schema, but – unlike you – I rely entirely on the mac. Any suggestions will be much appreciated.

    1. Hi, Marcelo,

      I’m sorry it has taken so long to respond to your message. I can send you a file that you can just paste into your Brain. Just send me an e-mail.

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