Personal Brain 5 Review

PersonalBrain 5 is out. A new year is out and I haven’t posted anything yet. Now seems like a great time for a new, long, rambling review of PersonalBrain followed up by a bit of philosophizing.

First up: What’s new?

The coolest changes in PersonalBrain (okay maybe not the coolest) are the changes I submitted myself. A few months ago I created some open source icons and sent in some suggestions as to how PersonalBrain could look more natural in OS X. TheBrain (the company that makes PersonalBrain) changed PersonalBrain to use icons very similar to the ones I created. Also gone is the giant, unnecessary “PERSONALBRAIN 5 PRO EDITION” button that previously was at the top right corner. I also created a new background for PersonalBrain, but it wasn’t included. If you’re interested in downloading the background, you can get it here.

The full list of new features in PersonalBrain 5 is located here  thebrain.com [pdf]. I won’t go through the entire list, but I will mention a few highlights. The biggest new feature is the outline view  – which offers another way of visualizing your data. This feature is probably the most useful for newer users. When I first started using PB it took some time to adjust to the mindset of having parents at the top, siblings to the left, “other relationships” (I’m not sure what the official terminology is) off to the right etc. The new outline view makes it very apparent what the relationships are between each node.

PersonalBrain Outline View

PersonalBrain Outline View

Another great new feature is the ability to save “expanded views.” It replaces my previous method of taking a ‘snapshot’ of my Brain which was simply to take a screen capture. The new presentation view is useful as well. I have never given a public presentation usingPersonalBrain , but given the opportunity, I’d love to try this new mode out.  Tagging was introduced in PersonalBrain 5 and while I haven’t used it much, I think it has some good potential. Also new are some nice Mac only features like iCal and Spotlight integration which are definitely welcome.

On the whole, PersonalBrain 5 is a solid release. Most of the changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but there are enough of them to make it a significant improvement.

My Wishlist

I’m happy with PersonalBrain as it is, but since I have a soapbox, here are a few things I’d love to see in the future.

iPhone app. This is surely the hardest, and possibly the least likely item on my wishlist. If, however, there was an iPhone app for PersonalBrain that could sync with the desktop version it would be amazing.

Better keyboard navigation. Currently you can navigate PB almost entirely by keyboard, but doing so involves using lots of “F” keys (F7 creates a parent thought for example). Keyboard shortcuts would be much better if they the common conventions of using the command key on OS X or the control key for Windows. Even better would be to allow user-customizable keyboard shortcuts.

Sync. Lately I’ve had a big need to use PersonalBrain on two different machines. Dropbox has made this fairly simple. I put my whole PersonalBrain file in Dropbox and it syncs automatically to any computer that I’ve installed Dropbox on. There is one potential pitfall though–if I forget to close PB on one computer then open it on another it causes some, non-fatal, errors. I leave screen sharing (VNC) enabled on my home computer so if I leave PersonalBrain open I can login and close it on the home machine, but sometimes if I’ve closed the laptop at home I can’t do that and it’s problematic… but I digress.PersonalBrain makers: an “official” way of syncing PersonalBrain between machines has been long-hinted at, how’s that coming along?

Even more native look improvements. As mentioned before, PB has come a long way on OS X, however there are still some major areas for improvement, most having to do with the bottom half of the screen. PB could take a great leap forward by cleaning up the interface down there, even without adding any new functionality.

Areas for Improvement

Areas for Improvement

Some philosophizing about PersonalBrain

The PersonalBrain website lists 12 “top PersonalBrain Uses.” Unfortunately, I think that they still miss the real benefit of PersonalBrain which is that you can have an infinite amount of information connected in extremely flexible ways all stored in one place. No other piece of software does this. Consider the following diagram. It’s a little complex and cluttered, but it illustrates well the uniqueness of PersonalBrain (click to enlarge):

PersonalBrain Capabilities

PersonalBrain Capabilities

If you’re a curious person, if you want to know something about everything, if you’re a generalist, an aspiring polymath, a reader, a researcher, you can’t beat PersonalBrain for organizing all the stuff you come across. Nothing comes close.

Let me preface the following thoughts by saying that I am strongly biased towards the way I use PersonalBrain. Some of these thoughts are controversial for those who use PB in other ways, which is fine, some controversy is welcome.

I think that the list on thebrain.com gets most of the top uses for PersonalBrain wrong. Most of the items on the list are things that could be done in PersonalBrain but could better done with other software. Before I dive into specifics, let me reiterate, PersonalBrain is quite possibly my favorite piece of software and I use it every day. My criticism is meant to be constructive.

The uses listed on thebrain.com

1. Visual bookmark manager. I think this is better done by something like delicious.com and the del.icio.us extension and/or native browser bookmarks. I have bookmarks in PersonalBrain, quite a few actually, but I prefer to keep the majority of my bookmarks in the browser where they can be tightly integrated and easily accessed as I’m browsing.

2. File and everything in your life manager. In OS X I use the Finder and I use Windows Explorer in Windows. These programs are built with the specific purpose of managing files and they do it well. I have hundreds of file attachments in my PB but I still can’t imagine trying to use it as a general purpose file manager. As far as the “everything in your life manager” part goes, I’m just going to ignore because it’s not specific enough to be meaningful.

3. Capturing expertise and special interests. This is the best item in the list. It ends with this gem: “PersonalBrain becomes your ultimate reference.” Indeed. I think that (or something very similar) should be right on the front page of the site. Make this one number one in the list, make it bold, elaborate on it for a few more sentences and make the font size 3 points bigger.

4. Competitive Intelligence and Product Development. I like this one too. I think it could be a great addition to any PersonalBrain though I wouldn’t create a separate brain just for this.

5. Research and Analysis. Another good one, though why the heavy business focus? Because that’s where the money is? Fair enough, but it minimizes a whole world of other research.

6. Event planning. I think this would be done better in iCal or Outlook or Entourage or even in a mind map or an outline. PersonalBrain just doesn’t seem like a natural tool for this.

7. Brainstorming and mind mapping. I much, much prefer Freemind or MindManager for this. If it’s a finite brainstorming session or a mindmap related to some specific, ephemeral project then I’d prefer to capture it in mindmapping software where I can use it, then be done with it (again, perhaps attaching it to a PB node when I’m done.) I think suggesting PersonalBrain for general mind mapping is confusing because it lumps it in with specialized mind mapping software that all have specific features thatPersonalBrain can’t (and shouldn’t try to) compete with. Another way of stating this is that PersonalBrain is a great mind mapper, but not a great Mind Mapper.

8,9,10,11,12. I’m not going to cover each one specifically because the general problem with each them is the same: you could find specialized software that would better suit your needs. It isn’t that you can’t do any of these things in PersonalBrain, it’s that PB is not the “best tool for the job” and presenting it as such only serves to take away from the real uses of PersonalBrain.

A Personal Note

My PersonalBrain has over 5000 thoughts. 5179 as of this moment to be specific. I have grown to “trust the system.” If you’ve read GTD you’ll understand the significance of that statement. If I was sent to a deserted island and could only take one piece of software, it’d be PersonalBrain. I have enough reading material in the attachments to keep me busy for the next 10 years. There are enough areas to left to explore to last me a lifetime, which is what I plan on doing–spending a little time every day for the rest of my life adding to both of my brains, myPersonalBrain and the one on top of my shoulders.

I have much more I could say about my uses for PersonalBrain, and at some point I’ll create another video showing how I use it, but for now, thanks for reading, feel free to comment and disagree (or agree) as much as you’d like.

PersonalBrain vs. Mindmapping Part II

After writing yesterday about the differences between PersonalBrain and Mindmappers, I started thinking more about what the core difference between them are.

  • Is it a temporal difference? Mindmaps tend to expire whereas information in PersonalBrain tends to be valid over a longer period of time.
  • Is it a difference in the amount of data you can to see at once? Mindmaps allow you to see possibly hundreds of nodes at once where realistically in PersonalBrain you can only deal with maybe 10 or 20 on the screen at a time.
  • Is it a difference in the way you can connect the information? PersonalBrain is more organic and mindmaps are structured.

While these are all valid points, they don’t get at the heart of it which seems to be:

In PersonalBrain each node is first class data, whereas in a Mindmap, nodes have hierarchal importance. This means that in PersonalBrain any element in the “plex” can have infinitely detailed information associated with it. You can extend any node with unlimited sub-nodes that provide additional detail without consciously structuring the data to allow for specialization.

For example, I’ve created a Mindmap of my notes for the book Linked and one of the nodes in the map is “Power Laws”. The more I research power laws and get into the details, the more nodes I’ll need to add. Eventually, one of two things will happen – either the mindmap will become cluttered and unwieldy or I’ll have to start a new mindmap. If I do the latter, I’ll then have to remember it exists and open separately if I go back to my book notes. Neither is desirable.

In PersonalBrain if I have a power laws node I’ll never run out of space under it and everything associated with that node can be associated with any other node in the system.

On the other hand, it’s sometimes beneficial to have the concept of a leaf node and the structure a mindmap offers. In PersonalBrain it’s difficult to emphasize the importance of a node since there really isn’t the concept of the “center node” that a mindmap has.

So, the conclusion remains the same–different tools for different purposes.

PersonalBrain vs. Mindmapping

When I started using PersonalBrain sometimes I was unclear about when to use PersonalBrain or when to use a more traditional mindmapping tool like Freemind or MindJet. Now I think I can break it down pretty simply to this:

PersonalBrain is for research, learning and long-term planning. Mindmapping is for brainstorming.

The two tools overlap and can be used for either purpose, but I find that generalizing helps make the decision of which software to use quick and more intuitive.

An example where I prefer Mindmapping: If I’m starting a project such as building a website I use Freemind to quickly lay out the potential navigation, what content will go where and even the contact information for the involved parties. The information I need is limited in context and fairly isolated. It’s useful in the time that I’m building the website but it’s likely that I won’t need to revisit it in the future. It also helps to be able to see it all at a glance–Mindmaps are great for this.

Examples of where I prefer PersonalBrain: Pretty much everything else :). If I’m reading a book and taking notes, I use Personal Brain. If I’m taking notes on an article or planning out my future I use PersonalBrain. Philosophical or political information goes into PersonalBrain. All of this is information I’m likely to want to go back to and that is likely to connect to other bits of information and help with me be more creative, recognize patterns, and recall what I’ve learned.

That’s how I differentiate between what goes where. If you’ve got another way of doing it, I’m curious to learn about it!

An example of flow in Anna Karenina

In part Chapter Four of Part Three of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy I came across a great example of flow, written well before Mihály Csíkszentmihályi formally identified and defined flow in 1990 and it became popular in positive psychology.

In the example, Levin, a Russian land owner, decides to go out and work side by side with the peasants who work his land. The job at hand is mowing the long grass to make hay. Levin is an inexperienced mower, but wants to try it anyway.

Initially he struggles a bit with it:

The grass was short close to the road, and Levin, who had not done any mowing for a long while, and was disconcerted by the eyes fastened upon him, cut badly for the first moments, though he swung his scythe vigorously.

And alongside the strong peasants, he begins to feel that he won’t have the energy to finish:

Levin followed him, trying not to get left behind, and he found it harder and harder: the moment came when he felt he had no strength left, but at that very moment Tit stopped and whetted the scythes.

After finishing his first row he gets a taste of victory:

And this long row seemed particularly hard work to Levin; but when the end was reached … Levin walked back in the same way over the space he had cut, in spite of the sweat that ran in streams over his face and fell in drops down his nose, and drenched his back as though he had been soaked in water, he felt very happy. What delighted him particularly was that now he knew he would be able to hold out.

Still not quite perfect, “His pleasure was only disturbed by his row not being well cut.” but he’s intent on getting it:

He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible.

Then, the great description of his feeling of flow:

Another row, and yet another row, followed–long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown.

It’s pretty cool how closely Tolstoy’s description fits with Csíkszentmihályi’s definition.

PS – Yes, it’s been 10 months since my last post. Despite being pretty busy, I just haven’t felt I’ve had much to write. Hopefully there will be a few good posts coming up in the near future.

Personal Brain 4 Review

I recently discovered Personal Brain and I’m taken with it. It took me a couple hours of experimentation and more importantly, playing with Jerry Michalski’s brain to get used to it and to realize how powerful it is. For those of you who ‘get’ and use GTD, I’ll say that this gave me the same feeling I got when I started really using GTD-it’s a trusted system for all the information I want to make sure I remember. It’s more than that though–it’s a way to find patterns in knowledge and thing I’m learning, a way to create patterns, to store about anything… it’s fun, addictive (after a little over a week I have well over 1000 thoughts).

I made a video review of it (my first video review) here:

In the video I call Personal Brain “new”–really it’s only new for me, it’s been around for about 10 years.

Personal Brain is Java which means it’s available on Mac, Linux and Windows. It also means it’s not as Mac-like as most of my other favorite software, but it’s really not bad.

Personal Brain comes in 3 versions – free, core and pro. The core and pro versions are expensive. Fortunately the free version is very adequate. There’s also an enterprise version (BrainEKP) which is networked and web-based.

UPDATED: Video should work now – moved to YouTube

10. Don’t Stress About It | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the last in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.

Thinking

10. Don’t stress about it. The purpose of improving your life is just that–improving it. A good way to tell if any of these steps are worthwhile is that you’ll feel better not only after you doing them but while you’re doing them. If you dread doing something it usually comes down to one of the following reasons:

  • You’re not confident you can do it well, in which case you need to break it down to steps small enough to accomplish and start moving. If you start breaking it down only to find it’s completely out of your capacity then just let it go completely. You can only do what you can do.
  • It’s not worth doing. If whatever it is doesn’t provide some innate satisfaction it may just not be worth doing. This isn’t a plug for hedonism, but the fact is that when you’re doing what’s right, generally it feels good at least at some level both while you’re doing it and after it’s done. (e.g. having the knowledge that it’s the best thing to do in the long run).
  • It’s a task you find menial, repetitive, boring etc. Washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning in general, doing the budget etc. Many times these tasks can be enhanced by doing other things at the same time. Listen to an audiobook while you wash the dishes. Meditate while you mow the lawn (who says you have to be sitting with your legs crossed!) If you’ve got problems doing your budget it may be that you need to re-analyize your finances and get them in order. For these kinds of tasks it comes down to distracting yourself from the menial, automating the repetitive if possible or searching for the true root of the problem and fixing it.Life does not always have to be exciting and stimulating but there’s hardly anything worth doing that can’t be enjoyed at least to a degree.

Once you’ve eliminated dread then it’s probable that a large portion of the stress will be gone from your life. Of course there is no way to simplify every cause of stress down to one small list but you can at least eliminate most self-imposed stress and this includes stress imposed by trying to do things to improve your life.

That’s it! Hopefully you’ve been able to glean a bit of useful information from the articles over the last ten days. If you have (even if you haven’t) I’d love to hear about it in the comments! As I stated in the beginning of the series I really believe that if the things I’ve suggested in these articles are applied to daily life they will really improve the quality of your life and provide you with meaningful experiences and memories.

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9. Stop Broken Thoughts | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the ninth in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.

9. Stop broken thoughts. Broken thoughts are those subtle patterns that aren’t quite big enough to fall into the bad habits category. This means that despite their harmful effect they often escape under the radar. Broken thoughts often take the form of justifications. Examples? I’m just going to leave my dish here by the sink, I’ll wash it later (when you know your spouse will end up washing it). I’m bookmarking this article to read later (how often do you ever go back and read old bookmarked articles?). I’ll hang my shirt up later (when you know it will be there for a week before you touch it).

At first it will be hard to recognize broken thoughts since they are so ingrained into our world views–they are things we do every day and we’re so used to doing them that we don’t even recognize that they are harmful to ourselves or those around us. If you make an effort to find them soon you’ll notice broken thoughts everywhere which might be negative if weren’t so easy to fix!

Often broken thoughts are the result of procrastination–anytime you hear the word later pronounced by your inner-voice let it be a trigger that alerts you to the possibility of a broken thought. The other big one is offsetting responsibility to someone else. If you’re leaving something because someone else (your wife/husband/mom/dad/co-worker) will pick up your slack it’s a broken thought–improve their life and yours and take care of it yourself.

The great thing about these broken thoughts is that fixing them generally takes a day or two–they’re not like bad habits that can take years to cure. It’s such a good feeling to see a noticeable improvement so quickly. It keeps you on your toes and keeps your actions in sync with your values.

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8. Recognize What Makes You Happy | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the eight in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.
Pondering

8. Recognize what makes you happy. Reflect on the parts of your day that bring you real satisfaction. Everyone is working towards something, but what makes you happy now? Rate your overall satisfaction with your quality of life for each day on a scale of 1 to 10, focus on the things that happened that pushed the number higher rather than what made it lower. Try to incorporate more of what made you happy yesterday into today.

I think that too many people pass through the happiest times in their lives without recognizing them as such. Live in the moment–savor the things that bring you true satisfaction. If you’re in school focus on the opportunity you have to spend every day learning and improving yourself rather than on how hard it is to have so much homework and so little free time. If you’re starting your career relish the opportunity you have to shape your path rather than focusing on how good it will be once you have a raise or a better position.

Taking time each day to rate it will help you realize either that you’re already living a pretty happy life or it will help you recognize the specific things you can do to improve your life by incorporating more of what brings you real and immediate satisfaction into each day. Take small steps that will lead towards longer term improvements. Remember that serving others and making the lives of those around you better directly contributes to your own quality of life.

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7. Go Outside | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the seventh in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.

Trees

7. Go outside. If you don’t naturally spend time outside, make it a point to do it more. There’s something about the expanse of the sky that will bring out your inner philosopher. Consider this passage from Tolstoy in War and Peace as Andrew lies on the field of battle at the point of death:

…how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!..’

Outside is where ‘real’ stuff happens. Read Lonesome Dove (read it outside of course) and you’ll know what I mean. If you paint, do it en plein air. If you write try writing on real paper outside. While you’re out there, count the bugs. Become a bird-watcher, catalog the plants you see. Learn the constellations. Everywhere you look outside you find things the the combined human knowledge can’t explain–so many mysteries, so much to discover.

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6. Spend Time With a Child | Ten Ways to Improve Your Quality of Life

This is the sixth in a series of 10 articles that give suggestions meant to improve the over-all quality of your life.
Swinging
6. Spend time with a child. If you have one, consider yourself lucky, if you don’t, I bet you have friends who would be happy to let you borrow theirs for a few minutes (or hours). It doesn’t matter what age they are, children see the world entirely different. Look at it from their eyes. Be their hero. Appreciate what they appreciate. Enjoy the simple things again. You’ll love it and they’ll love you for it.

Take the time to just do the things they want to do rather than being a teacher. With my son this would usually include one of the following:

  • Playing with sticks or dirt
  • Reading Where’s Waldo
  • Playing with Play Doh
  • Swinging at the Park
  • Playing the “talking car game”

Children will help you appreciate the simple things in life. They’ll keep you on your toes with questions that you can’t even begin to answer. They’ll amaze you with the seemingly endless levels of energy they have. After spending time with a child you’ll also realize just how much of an influence you are over their moldable minds–they almost worship you. It is a humbling experience.

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