Discover more from Richard Mathews II
Notion’s New Database Automations
The application I find most useful for Notion's latest feature release
Epistemic Status: high confidence, I’ve actively used Database Automations to improve my workflows
Epistemic Effort: medium, I did a lot of experimentation and surfing public templates prior to writing this
Notion continues their product trend in automation, building on buttons and Slack notifications with a new feature for databases called Database Automations. I was really excited when this came out and I’ve spent the last couple weeks trying to tease out where it adds value and where it’s merely a distraction.
I have to be honest, when I first got access, it wasn't immediately clear how it could be useful. After some ideation and experimentalism, it became apparent that the feature allows for some much-needed auto-logging and auto-tracking pipelines. In this brief post, I’ll highlight my use cases for this feature and provide some cautionary advice at the end. I won’t go into how database automations actually work since the Notion documentation is sufficient, so if you’re unfamiliar give the docs a read.
The application I have found most useful is tracking and logging. There are several use cases for these tracking mechanisms.
You may want to log an activity in your Notion system. If you start a journal entry, that gets logged. If you finish the entry, that gets logged. Over time, you can track how consistent you've been with journaling, when you journal, and the total duration you've spent journaling.
And it doesn’t have to be journaling. It can be any activity where you engage in bouts of effort–exercise, deep cognitive work, musical practice, language learning, etc. And it requires nearly zero extra effort with the assistance of Database Automations!
This realization inspired me to create a system for goal pursuit using the scientific findings espoused by Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman on his podcast. One of the major takeaways is that goals should be measurable and focused on verb states. The simplest and most generalizable way to implement this in a system is to define goals as “time spent in a verb state.” My latest template release, Huberman Goal Pursuit System, uses Database Automations to auto-track the time spent in pursuit of a goal.
As a scientist myself, I believe in making scientific tools accessible to everyone for zero cost, so you can duplicate it for free from my store if you’re curious about how time tracking looks in action or just want to use the system for goal attainment.
You can get a bit fancier with it. I almost always set goals on a time basis (time dedicated to a verb state), but I occasionally focus more on consistency, such as the percentage of days in April that I did 30 minutes of writing. There could be a goal on that, and an automation pipeline would add no extra overhead in tracking that progress.
We can generalize this further and think about tracking what you do and when. As a quantified self, I track what I spend my time on so I can compute a “time portfolio.”
To be clear, I don’t track every minute of the day, that’s obsessive and not useful. I only track what I consider “productive hours”. This is time spent writing, doing admin work, and working on projects, to name a few.
This portfolio, like financial expenses, conveys what I am spending my time on every month, and I can compare this against a “time budget” to make sure I am appropriately allocating my time, the second most important resource behind attention.
Before automations, it was too much overhead to track when I started and stopped an activity in some database. With Database Automations, I can automatically track when I work in a productive state and gain insight into what I’m doing at different times of the day.
This information becomes useful if I want to rethink how to distribute my activity in line with my circadian rhythm (e.g. linear thinking early in the day and creative thinking later in the day).
What have I been doing? How has that worked? What happens if I shift things around? All quantified, with no extra work on my part. How nice.
Another use case that could benefit from this feature is a career that involves billing hours to clients, e.g. consultants. Without a good system, time tracking could be a huge pain.
A Notion database with an automation feature for tracking time spent per client would free many consultants from annoying friction points in their workflows.
Tracking time for tasks or projects is also possible. There is always the overhead of linking some work session to a task or project, but then you can roll up all the time spent on that activity over time.
Why is that useful information?
Maybe you are overspending time on something without knowing it.
Maybe you feel overwhelmed and want to figure out what is sucking up your time.
Maybe you really liked your life 9 months ago and want to revisit how you spent your time back then.
These are difficult questions to answer without data, and the friction of data collection often renders it unfeasible, but an automated data collector lets you easily gather that data to answer those questions.
Maybe you are a hypergrapher and want a bunch of events tracked in your Notion system so you can revisit prior months to see what you were up to. It’s quite easy to automate all of this, adding zero overhead to your existing workflows, by setting up automations.
Any time you finish a book, write an article, close a task, process a podcast, engage in deep work, etc., you can log that as an “event.”
If you’re an experimentalist like me, tracking and event logging are key aspects to your systems. For example, maybe you’re curious if a new daily routine improves productivity. You could use time spent in a productive state as your proxy for productivity and set up some automations to track this. Then it becomes easy to compare before and after an intervention.
The Virtue of Moderation
As with all productivity systems, the Stoic virtue of moderation is important to keep in mind. There is such a thing as too much tracking and logging. You have to keep it down to what is actually useful.
Do not overdo it.
I always ask myself, "Is this automation adding value, or am I just being commanded by a systems addiction complex?" When I track something, I force myself to define the feedback loop it’s part of and why that feedback loop will improve my life. If it’s difficult to formulate that value proposition, I opt for simplicity and omit that automation.
In summary, I see Notion automations as a useful feature for event logging and tracking mechanisms, but it’s another feature in the suite of potential distractions. Don’t just create automations because it makes you feel more efficient.
Do it where it removes friction, otherwise, you just add friction and unnecessary technical debt to your systems.
Be disciplined, and use it with moderation.
Happy automating :)
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