Do Deeper Work Thanks to The Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking
The Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking celebrates its one-year anniversary this month. It addresses a hidden challenge that affects your ability to do what Cal Newport refers to as “deep work”.
Deep work refers to intensely focused professional activities in which you push yourself to your neuro-cognitive limits while creating value. Creating products, developing yourself, and/or solving problems in this way can produce psychological flow.
This Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking, formally modeled on the Agile Manifesto, was first signed by 24 developers, professors and influencers. Since then, it has been signed by a large and growing number of people who value cognitive productivity and who recognize the need for software that supports focused information-processing.
Newport’s Deep Work book provides many strategies to avoid the shallows of distraction. However, the book emphasizes technological minimalism so much that it overlooks many critical challenges and opportunities for using information technology in a cognitively productive manner. I’ve devoted much of my academic and business career to understanding and improving cognitive productivity and well-being. In this article, I describe a specific hidden challenge that I reported in my Cognitive Productivity books, which is addressed by the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking.
We, the signatories of the manifesto, believe you can be more productive if you are aware of this challenge, and if you address it in the right way with the right software.
A huge ‘hidden’ source of distraction
Whether you’re learning something new or creating a new knowledge-intense product, you need to repeatedly consult a relatively tiny subset of all the information you’ve previously experienced: PDFs, notes, web pages, emails, videos, etc. Key information is typically scattered in different repositories, locations and apps.
For example, I’m currently co-authoring a new academic paper on our somnolent information-processing (SIP) theory of sleep onset and insomnolence (the inspiration for our mySleepButton app). It only cites about 100 papers, a puny fraction of all the documents I’ve read. Some of them I’ve had to consult 10–20 times while writing. I had taken notes about many of these papers — each note a separate file — in various apps (outlines, text files and diagrams) which I also need to consult. Of course, I also repeatedly need to consult my outline, topical notes, emails from co-authors and the editor, a shared Dropbox folder that has feedback on drafts, the call for papers, etc. Like many people, I have countless other creative projects of various types on the go. They each involve variously distributed information resources.
Here’s the information retrieval issue as we summarized it on the page describing the manifesto’s rationale.
The human brain has limited mental capacity (such as working memory). It evolved to be easily diverted by new information. Focusing requires more than turning off external notifications. Merely searching for information is distracting. For instance, consult an email app and you might notice an email, web page, file or other information that diverts your attention.
Whereas searching on a device may seem like an instantaneous and effortless process, in fact it involves multiple physical and mental steps that consume limited mental resources (such as working memory) and contribute to fatigue. Moreover, switching task modes, in itself, “breaks our rhythm”, according to Seth Godin.
Or as we say on the manifesto’s home page:
Switching contexts, even to search for information, interferes with flow while consuming precious mental capacity, brain energy and time.
One might suggest that the solution to this problem is : “whenever you work on a project, put all the resources (files, web pages, etc.) in a folder, and simply focus on this folder.” This and many other ‘solutions’ are not workable for most of us. Why?
- It would involve an “everything bucket” that would require far too much effort to manage.
- Information, if it is useful at all, tends to be useful in many different projects of different sizes. You can’t copy everything into the container of every project to which the information is relevant.
- Organizing information in containment hierarchies (folders), while often very useful, is insufficient.
- Over-reliance on containment draws us too frequently into searching. Searching (while not always avoidable) needs to be minimized.
Any system that overly relies on search, tags and/or hierarchical navigation will interfere with its user’s focus, and hence their cognitive productivity.
Hyperlinks to the rescue
Here’s the manifesto’s big idea:
Activating an aptly-placed link to information is easier and faster than searching for the information — and more protective of flow.
We affirm that the ability to copy a link to a resource is as important for cognitive productivity as the ability to copy other types of information. This applies to all persistent digital information.
For instance, while writing my SIP paper, I only used software that provides hyperlinking capabilities — through their automation or user interface. I’m not merely referring to web browsers. I’m also referring to apps running on my computer that enable me to effortlessly link and retrieve related information.
This strategy allowed me easily to create and use links between related resources, whether they are local or on the web. For example, my project’s key local files (draft, outline, todo list, call for papers, etc.) are directly bidirectionally linked to each other, even though they are in different folders. Many key PDFs are bidirectionally linked to the notes about them; and several PDFs are linked to each other. This forms not a single network but a collection of networks. Thanks to the software and some easily acquired habits, I grow my networks organically, without needing to think deeply about the networks; nor do I need to give much thought to where I store information. I can move my notes from one folder to another and they remain linked to what they are about.
In short, while adhering to the principles of the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking is no panacea, it significantly protects my attention, keeping me in flow. It does this while allowing me to use a large enough collection of apps that are specifically tailored to my needs — without turning me into such a digital minimalist that I shoot myself in the foot.
What is link-friendly software?
In a nutshell, link-friendly software — through automation, and possibly via its user interface — enables users to get links to the information resources it deals with. If the software has its own database, then it should normally provide a “Copy Link” user-interface. If it deals with files, those links can be to its files. Either way, link-friendly software must provide automation for users to get and use links to its data; this enables different local apps to communicate with each other about data at the user’s request.
For instance, if you’re using a task management app with its own database (not files), then you’d expect it to enable you to copy a link to its tasks and projects, via the user interface and also via automation (such as AppleScript or Shortcuts).
On the Hookmark web site, we provided a simple description: What’s a Linkable App and Why Does Linkability Matter?. Below, I link to the technical requirements.
What software is link-friendly?
Many of the original signatories of the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking are developers of link-friendly software:
- Hookmark, (full disclosure: I’m a co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. which develops this software for macOS; it is coming soon to an iPhone & iPad near you),
- Merlin Project,
- Nitro PDF Pro,
- Trickster, and
A lot of other software is also linkable by the standards of the manifesto. There are too many to name, but I would like to draw attention to the following apps, to emphasize the variety of apps that are link-friendly: Agenda, AirMail, Apple Mail, BibDesk, Bike, Bookends, Craft, Daylite, GoodLinks, HoudahSpot, Keep It, MailMate, Math and other LibreOffice products, Mathematica, nvUltra, Obsidian, and RStudio.
You’ll notice that I’ve included some Mail apps in the list, because it is so handy to be able to link project info to an email message; this means you can get straight to a key message without being distracted by your inbox.
Fortunately, an increasing number of app developers understand the importance of linking; so they provide automation for linking and, if appropriate, a user-interface for it.
Call to action for developers
Unfortunately, some apps, even newer ones that vaunt their facilities for linking, do not conform to the requirements of the manifesto. Yet adding linking automation for an app is easy; many developers can get it done within a day. So it’s mainly a matter of customer demand and developers’ inclinations. If an app is not link-friendly, it is impossible for users to quickly connect their other data to data in an app. That interferes with your overall ability to focus given that no app can be a truly useful complete walled garden. So we hope developers will serve this basic information-processing need.
The Manifesto defines the technical requirements for developers to make their software linkable. We won’t repeat them here.
How signing this manifesto can improve your productivity
In order to solve a problem, you need to understand it. That’s why, when I wrote my first book, Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, I dedicated the first part of the book to clearly explaining the problems and opportunities that knowledge workers face when trying to use today’s less-than-perfect software to become profoundly effective. I was basically saying “Look, here is what software ought to do. But software’s not quite there yet, which is why you are experiencing so much cognitive pain with IT.” In the second part of the book, I described the cognitive science that is relevant to understanding cognitive productivity. And in the third part, I described strategies to use current software, as broken as it is in a manner that fits with the science I described (i.e., to relieve some of your cognitive pain and take advantage of knowledge-based opportunities). By understanding the problems and opportunities (part 1), readers could piece together their own workflows based on my general suggestions (part 3). My second book Cognitive Productivity with macOS: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge was hyper-focused on seven applied principles of cognitive productivity.
Software has gotten a lot better since my first book. There’s lots of link-friendly software out there to choose from (if you’re on a Mac). At CogSci Apps, we’ve designed the Hookmark app to enable you to bookmark and link almost any information on your Mac. Hookmark does not replace your other apps; it augments them. It lets you instantly bookmark, link and retrieve information from link-friendly software.
Of course, before one signs a manifesto, one should take a moment to understand what the manifesto says and whether/why it is relevant. This blog post has summed it up. Understanding the value of this manifesto is like understanding the usefulness of the iPhone or iPad when it first appeared. Very few people had specifically predicted what these devices would do. But once a knowledge worker understands what a modern smartphone or tablet does, it quickly becomes clear that it’s important to own one. Same goes for the manifesto.
Once you understand the manifesto, you will see the need to incorporate linking in your workflows — not just for web pages, but all kinds of information. Naturally, you will want the software you rely on for your cognitive productivity to be link-friendly.
So, we invite you to
- read, understand and sign the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking;
- choose software that is link-friendly;
- share this information with your colleagues; and
- have yourself a merrily productive 2023 😊.