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Madonnalisa Chan on Notes for Living

“It’s not just the tools, but how is it part of our actual life?”

Madonnalisa Chan is director of product management, taxonomy, and content services at Salesforce. I’ve known Lisa for a long time and admire her work as a taxonomist. But this conversation doesn’t focus on her work; instead, we discuss how she uses physical notes to manage her personal life.

Show notes

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Read the transcript

Jorge: Lisa, welcome to the show.

Lisa: Hi Jorge! Thanks so much for having me.

Jorge: I’m very glad to have you on the show. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Lisa

Lisa: Sure. So I’m Madonnalisa Chan, and I am director of product for content and taxonomy service at Salesforce. Previous to that, I was consulting for close to 20 years, helping different companies in organizations figure out their information architecture and taxonomy problems.

Jorge: Yes, you are one of the folks in the industry that I have known the longest and you are someone who I consider is very mindful in the way that you approach the organization of information. And I was curious about how you manage your own information and what role the organization of information plays in your own life — in your personal life.

Lisa: I think one of the first times we met, we were talking about the tools we use to capture information. Like note-taking and just all the ephemera of life and what we do with it. And I think that was one of the reasons probably where you talk about that all the time when we meet. I think I experiment with so many different things, right? We have the index cards. We have the little micro index cards. We’ve got all shapes and sizes and colors of Post-It® notes. I have many whiteboards. I have an eight foot white board right next to me. I’ve got white boards all over the house, and I’m always looking at ways of optimizing that.

You know, with my library science background, I’m always thinking about how do I catalog this? How do I access it again in the future? And of course between the offline and online worlds, it’s hard to bring them back together. So it’s still stuck in my head. Ideally, it would be neat to have… I don’t know if you remember in Harry Potter the pensieve, where you can take all this stuff out of your head and put it in a bowl and be able to examine it and then see something that you didn’t see before. I want that, because I think that would be the easiest way to just capture that, all of the things that you touch or interact with or hear, or see, or read. And it’s kind of that dream tool I’m looking for. And I still haven’t found it, but I think all of us have been all trying to figure that out as well together with all the new tools especially.

And I think you had someone on your podcast also talking about that kind of thing. But what I think it comes back to is, you have to have some kind of self-awareness of what is the optimal way for you to learn. For me, I’m still trying to figure that out. Even trying to figure out even if I had auditory processing issues where I could be hearing something, but it’s not connecting, but if I read it, it connects. But then I have to hear both. Like, I have to hear it and read it and be able to interact with someone to really fully understand it.

So I’m trying to optimize for my learning. But I’m also experimenting, because I don’t know what’s the best way for me to learn. And so I think that’s why I have all these different artifacts, both digital and offline to just figure that out. And I mean, as old as I am, I’m still trying to optimize my learning. I’m even finding courses and there’s people who are like teaching courses! I mean, one of the most popular classes on Coursera is “Learning How To Learn,” by Barbara Oakley. So I’m like… that’s like, people care about that thing. They want to optimize. They want to be more efficient. And I likewise want to do the same thing and teach others and help others.

On my projects, in my previous life as a consultant, helping out my clients to figure out like, how can we organize this better? That kind of thing. So, yeah, there’s a lot of that personal-professional overlap of that optimizing for information management and learning.

Digital and physical organization

Jorge: I heard several different things there that are worth unpacking. When I hear library sciences and I hear index cards, the thought that comes to mind is like, “oh my gosh, you’re going off and categorizing everything and indexing everything,” and I don’t know that that’s the case. And I’m wondering, how you use index cards. What’s the role that they play in your life?

Lisa: Well, I’m trying to find a method that works for me. And I think, there’s so many books out there on that… was it The Shoebox Method? I can’t remember the name of it, but basically like, anytime you have an idea, you put it on the card and then there’s like a whole indexing program around that. But, I’m pretty much just grouping things at general categories. And then, when I’m trying to generate a new article or generate a paper or some idea, I just revisit some of those categories and flip through all the cards.

So, there isn’t any formal things. It’s almost pre-digital, all those photo boxes that you might have and you would group the similar, you know, if it was based on an event or a date, or certain people, you would group it. And I pretty much do that with a lot of my offline materials. And at some point it gets digitized. I either take a picture of it or I transcribe some of the notes into something like Evernote or some Google Doc, just so I can access it again, using search. So that’s the challenge of the whole, offline-online situation I’m in.

Structuring around projects

Jorge: I remember reading an interview or seeing an interview somewhere with Ryan Holiday, the author of several books on stoicism among other things. And, his name came to mind as you were talking about shoe boxes, because he used his index cards to work on his books. And, I believe that he has like a box per book. Like, every book is a box. And he was saying how he keeps ideas on index cards, which he then consults as he’s working through the book. And that’s how I think of something like index cards. Very related to a particular project, like writing a book. And I’m wondering if that’s the way in which you’re using things like index cards, and you also talked about digital notes. Is there like a structure around projects or is this more free-form?

Lisa: It’s structured around projects. So if I am planning to write on something, it really is grouped. I’ll have like a stack with a binder clip on it, and then I’ll look at old categories of cards that I might have. And then try to see if there’s any correlation or any relationship between the two ideas. I think if anything, it’s hard to capture, right?

Like, I’m not wandering around with index cards in my pocket all the time. Although there’s many authors who are known to do that. But when the idea comes down, I just write it down on whatever. Back of an envelope, scraps of paper, that kind of thing. But it is hard, right? Once you have it down, is the tool to help you remember the full jist? Or is the tool to actually capture as much as you can so you don’t forget? I’m still refining that. I don’t know.

If the idea is in relationship to something I’m doing and some event, it’s easier to remember. If it’s just a random idea, I really have to write down as much as I can. And I think there’s a lot of research already around that. Like, I’m reading The Extended Mind right now and it’s mentioning all the things that I’m like, “oh, that’s why I can remember those events better than I can just writing something down!” Because there’s a correlation between the outside world and movement and physically writing it and an event, and a memory versus just writing down an idea and there’s no context. So I’m enjoying, embracing that book and like, “oh, I need to experiment more about what I’m physically doing and the setting I’m in when those ideas come so that I can really embrace where that is in my brain.”

Jorge: Funny enough, that book is partly responsible for us having this conversation because, Annie Murphy Paul was on the podcast last year talking about the book and it was one of my favorites of last year. And it’s rekindled my interest in finding out how we’re all doing this for ourselves. How we’re managing our personal information.

Wrangling loose notes

Jorge: When you were describing capturing things — you’ve talked about index cards and scraps of paper and stuff — what do you do with that? Do you have some kind of inbox that you put them into? Because, for me personally, like I have sticky notes, and if I need to remember something, I’ll write it down really quick and I’ll put it somewhere, but then if I don’t do something with that sticky note, it will drop from my consciousness.

Lisa: Oh my gosh, same here. I actually have a certain notation scheme that I’ve been doing for so long, using like different colored pens, different inks, whatever. You know, the little Post-It® notes that are like arrows? I use that sometimes. If I have some kind of signifier on that note, by the end of the day, I will transcribe it, or take a picture of it so that I have it digitally. And then I process a lot of that, like link it back to some conversation or even from our conversations and previous… I’ll link back the email or I’ll link back the picture of what we were talking about or something into a running document of our conversations. So, yeah, there’s a mindfulness, but then there’s also like an action too.

Jorge: Where do you keep those running documents?

Lisa: Oh my gosh! I actually have a stack. So if I’m not doing Post-It® notes, I have, what is this size? I can’t even think of it’s a half-sheet. And I usually put my calendar at the top of the sheet and then what might like be my goals for that day. Like focus? What am I focusing on that day? And then as I’m doing my notes for the day, I just cross off things as it happens. And then anything that has an action item and I put a little box or I highlight it, I actually spend like the end of my day, just transcribing it into what my action needs to be. Like, “schedule an appointment,” or, “write up this document and put a due date in the calendar,” when I say this is a task I need to do.

So it’s almost like you’re revisiting your day. When you’re decompressing and then putting things away… it’s, for me, it’s a good transition point between the workday and the rest of my day? It’s like spending that, I don’t know, fifteenor twenty minutes revisiting the day, looking at the action items, putting them in my calendar to remind me to actually do the work and notify me or whatever. And then same thing with Post-It® notes, if I’m out and about in the house.

Jorge: And to be clear, because folks listening in will not have seen you show the piece of paper, you were talking about physical paper, right?

Lisa: Yeah. Physical paper.

Jorge: These are physical… and it looked like loose leafs of paper, yeah?

Lisa: Yes, I just get a big stack of them. And then I shred them at the end of the week and it’s very satisfying.

Jorge: Oh, so these are kind of ephemeral. They are of the moment. Is that right?

Lisa: Yeah. I noticed that when I take online notes, it’s not as… it doesn’t stick in my head as much. And that’s, like I said, I experiment. Like, what’s better? Doing it online, as it’s happening, or doing an offline, where I capture the distilled information? And that’s where I take action. But if I do online, I end up transcribing a meeting and that’s not useful.

So, I have to actively distill. And doing it on paper was better for me than in digital. I think we’ve talked about that there is this self-awareness and mindfulness. Like, what works for you? You have to keep trying different things. And I noticed I keep coming to these half sheets of paper. And I have a huge stack, but I just buy this huge box, and I feel most effective when I can write the notes that I think are important. And then my action items on it. So it works out, offline.

Jorge: Well, you were talking earlier about modalities, right? Learning modalities and how some of us learn more effectively using one modality than another. And I’ve seen research that suggests that writing by hand is better for recall than typing things out into a digital document and what you’re saying resonates with that.

Note-taking stations

Jorge: I’m wondering if you have a place in your house where you keep these pieces of paper? Because I’m imagining, in my case, if I did this sort of thing in loose paper, I’d have them all over the place and I would not be able to find the most recent ones.

Lisa: Oh, yeah, that’s hard. For me, the paper thing works at my desk. When I’m not at my desk, I have stacks of index cards and Post-It® notes, wherever I sit in the house. So, by the couch, I have a stash of pens and index cards and Post-It® notes. By the kitchen, I have the same thing. And then by my nightstand, I also have… so if there’s ever some idea. And then in the morning, if there’s… you know, I try to keep it on me, so, once I write it down, I like keep it on me. But it’s the best thing. Like, even the kids use it. Like they can take notes! They have a to-do list… that kind of thing. So they know that everywhere… there’s a station in the house with index cards and pens or pencils.

Sharing with others

Jorge: Sounds like there’s these little kind of thinking caches to capture thoughts, which is a lovely idea. You’ve brought up the fact that you have a family. And I was wondering how, if any, this notion of capturing information for later processing works with others? Or if it’s something that you do exclusively on your own?

Lisa: No, we have to do it as a… if anything, because of some of the learning challenges that one of my kids has, we’ve had to actively learn how to do it together. There are a lot of tools out there. One of the books that I recommend is, Scattered But Smart. They talk about a lot of the executive functions around young children and helping them learn how to organize themselves, how to communicate structure and time and judging how long something would take.

And we’ve had to actively help our child to learn what that means in the context of their learning and their projects. And so, mind mapping is such a big thing with that… and outlining and how to take notes and how to pull things that are out of your head and putting it on paper or even using voice, right? If I interview my son and ask him the same prompts that a school assignment has, he will talk and talk and talk and talk! It’s great! So, I can record him and we can outline, you know? And then play it back and then get all the notes that he needs.

But if you were to give him a piece of paper and a pencil, or even just on the computer, he’ll have a hard time starting. But if you engage in the conversation and ask the questions that the teacher will want to have, you know, have prompted and just have that as a casual conversation, he opens up so much more with such richness and vocabulary that he has a hard time putting in handwriting or in typing. So, a lot of these techniques that I do is kind of the things that we do with our children as well.

Jorge: It’s fascinating because it comes back again to this notion of identifying the optimal modalities for you to capture your thoughts and to synthesize your thoughts and articulate them, right? And it seems to me that what you’re doing for your child there is helping guide them to the modalities that work best for them, while also interfacing with the modalities that they need to employ to interact in school or what have you.

Lisa: Yeah.

Family vision board

Jorge: When we were talking about this earlier, you mentioned an exercise that you’ve done as a family. I think you called it a vision board? And we’ve not talked much about it, but just from the name of it, I’m very intrigued! And I’m wondering what that is. Is it something you can share with us?

Lisa: Sure, sure. So, many, many years ago, I came across this exercise of projecting what you want for your future with a vision board. You basically get magazines and cut out pictures and cut out phrases to kind of just project what you care about and what you want for yourself. Of course, when you’re younger, you’re like putting in a fancy car, a big house, or a picture of a family, or, you know, you’re… it’s a lot more material, you know? Like wants.

And, I transformed that exercise for something that would help my kids when they were really little, be able to articulate what their hopes and dreams are together as a family and for themselves. And the exercise starts first with helping everyone identify what do we care about as a family? What are our values? How do we spend our time and prioritize what we do together — or separately — to make us better people, and a better family? Or better than what we were yesterday. And when my kids were little, it was easy to get stickers and magazines and cut out words and whatnot and actually put that together as a picture.

So, just imagine a poster size board. In the middle are the values that we care about as a family, and what our goals are as a family. So, anything from like, “spend more time together,” or “let’s go camping more,” or that kind of thing. And then there’s four quadrants outside of that center that represents each of the family members. And we each have our own personal goals and things we want to achieve, and our hopes and dreams for ourselves. And so, each of those four boxes would represent pictures and words that we care about or sentences. And it’s not so much like a… it’s not really a checklist? But really to just… it’s a sign in the road to remind you like, these are the things you care about, and these are the things you want to achieve in the next few years.

So, I did this several years ago with the kids and my husband. And then we recently moved and before we moved, we did another one. It was good to revisit it because of course my youngest child didn’t know how to write when we did it the first time. So, it was just all scratchings and sketches and doodles and like stickers. But now he’s been able to articulate, “these are the things I care about. These are the things I want to do.” And it’s been great to help us organize prioritizing what we’re working on. Like, “are we going to plan that vacation?” Or, “are we going to read a book together?” Or, “are we going to learn a new skill together?” And it’s been a great… you know, like a totem for all of us to just reflect and help us organize our days and our weeks and our priorities from a values-based perspective.

Jorge: It sounds wonderful. And I was going to ask you about the frequency, but it sounds like it’s been a couple of years between doing the exercise. I have pictures in my mind as to how this might unfold, but I would really love to hear what the exercise actually looks like. If I were in the room when you’re doing this, what would I see?

Lisa: Sure. Kitchen table is clear. You get all the construction paper, magazines and scissors, and tape or glue. Just arming yourself with things you would find at any craft store. And you think… especially if you have little ones, just all the fun things that they would care about like scrapbooking paper or ribbons or whatnot.

So, that’s the materials. But the harder part is coming together and talking through what the values are, right? What are the things we care about as a family? How we spend our time, about kindness, about giving, about trust, about helping people in need, the connecting… like really writing it down and making lists and then refining it if needed. First time we did it, we must have had like twenty or thirty words that we put, and we happened to find stickers with those words. So, we were able to just put the stickers in a circle and say, “this is our family.” And our circle is bounded by all these values. And, in the middle ended up being all the things we wanted to work on together as a family.

Jorge: Again, this is sounding so lovely and like something that I would like to do with my family. I think my kids are a little older than yours, and I’m wondering about the discussion around values. When kids are smaller, the parents can set the tone for the values. But I’m trying to imagine how to structure the discussion around values in such a way where they, I mean, if nothing else that would be incredibly valuable in this exercise.

Lisa: It’s a learning process, right? Like you’re not only trying to itemize them, but help the children… Well, my kids are older now. Like I’ve got teenagers now. But when they were little, we had to explain what those values are. Fortunate for me, I used to be a Girl Scout leader — a Girl Scout troop leader. And the first things that we did as a troop was trying to identify what is the Girl Scout values. And a lot of them are definitely like those globally accepted types of values where, yeah! Of course that makes sense. And having examples made sense and resonated with my daughter because we were in the troop together. So, we used that jumping board to see this is the value and this is how you demonstrate it in your community and for others and for yourself.

And so, that’s where you start, right? Like just having the language and the examples and then how you would do it as a family. Like, what does it mean to be trustworthy as a family? Or what does it mean to express kindness as a family, and to others, right? You first start with your family, for each other, and then for others. So it’s a great way to introduce that, especially for little ones, you know? And then as you revisit the vision board, you can say, “are these still the values we care about? Or do we have better examples for how we can express these values?” and then that’s how we can find activities or think about our giving plan for the year and that kind of thing.

Revisiting the vision board

Jorge: You said revisit the vision board. Does that mean that you keep the old ones so that you can consult them later?

Lisa: Right. So we looked at the old one when we made our new one a few months ago. We looked at the old one and said, “are these still true?” Or have they become bigger or smaller or should we reshuffle things because certain things are more important to us now. So I think COVID changed a lot of those values, too. So we had to rethink… well, how do we express this value?

Jorge: I want to be clear on the format for the vision board itself, because it sounded to me like the values exercise was the kind of setup part, but then there’s the board itself, which you described as having a center and then quadrants for each one of the family members. And what exactly goes in the quadrants? Are these our visions for how we would like to live our lives or…

Lisa: How do you articulate the values for yourself? So, for me, I said I wanted to get healthy, right? So I would articulate in my quadrant a picture of exercising or a cookbook or things that would be related to being healthy. For my son, he wanted to learn how — this is when he was really little! — he wanted to learn how to tie his shoes. So, he actually… we tied a ribbon and he put it on the board. So, those are the things he wanted to learn. That was the kind of things… like for him, that was an expression of wanting to learn. And so, it’s having the value and then finding a picture or a word to actually like… how that would be expressed for your context. Like, as an adult, it would be different about learning versus a child, right? So, for me, it would be like, take a class, or read a book. For my son it was like, “I want to learn how to tie my shoes.” So that was his expression of we value learning.

Jorge: I’m hearing two types of things there. One is something that could be thought of as a goal, right? Like learning to tie your shoes is an achievement that you’re looking to strive for.

Lisa: How do you measure it? And what’s the… yeah! What the outcome is.

Jorge: Right! And the other is some kind of action plan because you mentioned taking a class, right? Which is like, “well, if I know I want to achieve this and I know that I need to, I don’t know, brush up my knowledge or whatever, then what can I do about it? Well, I can take a class,” right?

Planning next steps

Jorge: I’m wondering about the next steps here. I would imagine that for something like learning to tie your shoes or getting healthy, it can’t stop there, right? You actually have to take steps, especially if you plan to revisit this and see how you’re fairing against your vision. Are there next steps? Like how do you go about turning this into action?

Lisa: I think thats why we had to revisit it because a lot of things have changed over the last couple of years, right? The kids are older, they can articulate things better as their goals. But we always relate it back to what the values are. Since we just recently moved, I haven’t put it up in a central place, but we used to actually have it in our living room where we congregated. And so, it was the first thing you saw in the morning and it’s the last thing you saw in the day. But now I need to find a new place because we just moved in. We’re still sort of unpacking, but it’s definitely something that we want to make more accessible so that we can revisit and make sure that we’re on track.

So… and it’s for each person; they have their own goals and they ask us for help in those areas where they know they need help. But, yeah! It takes time. It comes back to the mindfulness, right? Like, that’s very important to us, you know? Do we do this together as a family? And it’s tricky! We’re trying to figure it out, because now I have teenagers. It’s a very different environment at home in terms of like, what’s a goal, what’s our values. And they perceive it differently than we do as parents. So…

Jorge: No eye-rolling happening about…

Lisa: Oh my goodness! That could be a whole different parenting conversation, but that’s all the process, right? Of growing up.

Jorge: Right. I want try to articulate what I’ve heard here. If I might extract a learning or a big takeaway for me, it’s that you’re using physical artifacts to extend your mind in various ways. In the case of your own personal reflections, you have your desk and these caches of notes throughout the house, right? Where you can take stuff out of your consciousness and kind of put it out into the world where you can interact with it and use it later.

And then, as a family unit, you have this artifact that you referred to earlier as totemic, which sounds like it has like a special place in the home as well. And I just find that fascinating because oftentimes when we think of the places where we live, we think of the practical purposes they serve: keeping us safe, keeping us warm, dry, giving us a place to sleep, a place to eat, et cetera. But then there’s also this… kind of like this conception of the home as an extension of our mind as individuals and as a group. And it sounds to me like y’all are using that to its fullest extent. Does that sound like a good reflection of what I’ve heard?

Lisa: Yeah, it is! It’s that embodied, I don’t know, memory maker? Memory keeper? It really is that informed life — it’s not just the tools, but how is it part of our actual life? And I think… I think it’s hard to imagine because it’s just something that… you know? I’m not going to share the image because it’s just too personal. But I think you were having, you wanted to kind of see it! Like I said, it’s all the values, and then the goals we had as a family, and then each of us had our own thing. And then you could see my little one, he didn’t know how to write yet! So his is just sketches and doodles. And I think somewhere I had to translate some of it too, so that we were focused, like someone has transcribed what he was saying in these things.

But, yeah! It’s a very important tool for us as a family, because it does inform our life, right? Like this is a tool that we’ve generated together and have agreed upon in terms of the values and then articulated it with pictures and words into a analog memory-keeper type thing. Or I don’t know what you want to call that.

Jorge: Which you’ve made a feature of the home, right? And I think that that’s a critical component because you talked about the role that this thing plays in reminding you of who you are and your values on a day-to-day basis. Not just when you’re doing the exercise, which I think is really valuable.

And I’ll say you did show me the image over Zoom here, but obviously I’m not going to share it in the show notes, but I’ll just describe for listeners that it is a beautiful artifact, clearly handmade and very crafty in the sense of like craft work, like craft paper. And you can tell that it’s been built lovingly by a group of people with a diverse range of skills, right? Like you said, some of them are clearly a child’s drawings, others are written lists, right? So, there’s a range there. Again, thank you for sharing that personal artifact. It’s really wonderful. For folks who might want to follow up with you, how can they best reach you?

Closing

Lisa: I guess LinkedIn would be the best way to reach out and/or follow. I share a lot about my thinking about information architecture and taxonomy and ontology. I sometimes share about things that involve just how we learn and that kind of thing. And up-skilling so… but definitely reach out if you are curious about this vision board for families.

Jorge: Well, I am so grateful that you shared it with us and that I got to spend this time talking with you about it. Thank you for being on the show.

Lisa: Thanks, Jorge. This has been fun.