Productivity and permaculture with Marie Poulin

Reading time: 13 minutes

Welcome to this edition of our Interview series, where we interview prolific creators, entrepreneurs, authors and researchers to ask them how they design their life and work. Today, our guest is Marie Poulin, a designer, teacher, and productivity expert.

Before becoming a Notion specialist and productivity-extraordinaire, Marie co-founded a creative digital agency and launched a SaaS platform for course creators with her husband.

Having studied design thinking and permaculture, Marie uses principles from across these far-ranging disciplines to help people level up their digital systems and workflows. Her focus is on managing day-to-day tasks, organizing big insights and ideas, following through on long-term goals, and getting things launched. She is also the host of Notion Office Hours and the creator of Notion Mastery.

In this interview, we talked about the interconnection between permaculture and digital gardens, building creativity systems, activating your ideas, avoiding burnout, creating empathy, and much more. Enjoy the read!

One thing I find fascinating is how many interests and projects you seem to have. How do all these projects connect together?

It’s been a long and winding journey. I don’t think any of it was in the plan. Things used to be a lot busier. I used to almost feel like a workaholic. But since last year—which I think, not coincidentally, is when I started producing more content—is when things really shifted, and I managed to create more leverage in my life.

I think I’ve always been sort of drawn to systems. I started out studying design and graphic design. That was my background: working on design thinking innovation and studying permaculture. Only in the last year did my career shift and to become more of a workflow consultant.

Did you say permaculture?

Yes! I’d been hearing a few friends talk about permaculture.  I didn’t really know what permaculture was, just that it had something to do with the land. A good friend of mine, who’s an economist, said that studying permaculture changed the way she looked at the world.

We had just bought this house. So, suddenly having a lot of land, no gardening experience, not knowing what to do, I saw this poster for a permaculture course which said: “Become a more conscious designer of your life, landscape relationships and work, while learning how to save time, energy, and money.” That was pretty darn compelling. It sounded like a bit of life design as well as working with the land. I thought: “That sounds amazing.”

Permaculture is really about designing for regenerative systems, using principles based in nature to create more productivity. I’m talking about it in a land capacity, but it’s also really about your life, being aware of your inputs and outputs, of how much energy is being required to create the maximum output, which is related to work and productivity.

I love these sorts of intersections. I couldn’t help but see the similarities on the business side of things for permaculture. It really changed the way I was thinking about my own work and what parts of my business I was spending a lot of time on, but I wasn’t getting a lot of return. Where was I getting energy from my activities? What was causing friction? Permaculture had me paying way more attention to other aspects of my life beyond just the backyard.

Permaculture map by Marie Poulin

This is fascinating. In a lot of systems, we are expected to behave like robots and to apply strict frameworks. But the way you’re talking about permaculture sounds like it’s all centered on sustainability and creating virtuous cycles. It feels much more human to me. You seem to love parallels and intersections, but permaculture reminds me of the concept of digital gardens as well: a sustainable way to grow your thoughts.

Funny enough, the reason that I got into using Notion was actually because I needed a place to store my permaculture notes. I was so excited about everything that I was learning, and I wanted to do a good job of taking notes. Because you are learning so much, so fast. And a lot of the other people in the course, seemed to have a lot more experience with the land than I did. For me it just felt like a lot of information.

As part of our permaculture certificate presentation, we had to do a presentation in whatever format we wanted. We could be really creative. We could make a video, we could show a map. So I needed a place to store messy thinking. For me, Notion became that place. I needed a place where I could throw images, throw videos, put notes, put to-dos, and have a lot of different types of media in one place in a way that was accessible.

And once that space started to grow and become really creative and inspiring for me, I thought: “How else could I use this in my life?” So in a way, my Notion space became a digital garden to store interesting information, resources, inspiring people. It has grown over time. A people database and a knowledge hub emerged. So I very much consider it my digital garden.

I’m personally not a Notion user, but I can see how you’re planting seeds into your digital garden. How do you go about retrieving the seeds and growing them, and really tending to that digital garden of yours?

I think a big part of it comes down to habit building. One of the things that was missing initially in my space was having some processes, such as: what’s the first thing that I should do when the day starts, or what am I doing as part of my weekly routine?

In order to be creative and to plant the right seeds, that stuff needs to be visible. If I have a goal of working on version two of my permaculture land, or if I have a goal of creating a new workout routine, those are seeds. I’m planting and the activities and behaviors that support my creative work, and I need to make them visible and easy to achieve. It’s just like leaving your shoes by the door and making it easier to do that workout. The same is true in a digital capacity.

What I love about Notion is the ability to pull in information from different places. It doesn’t have to live in one place. I have a growth dashboard, I have a planning dashboard where I can pull in permaculture projects, and other projects that are tagged with plants or houseplants. And I can have these dashboards where when I’m in that context, I can see everything related to that thing at one time.

Having those spaces foster growth and foster thinking and creativity allow me to reduce context switching—I’m not seeing every single note I’ve ever clipped, I’m only pulling in the resources that align with what I’m working on, only the ones that are related to that piece of information. It’s like seeds weeding, removing things that don’t make sense over time, and slowly making your own space more valuable for yourself as you move forward and as you use it more. 

This sounds very similar to the way I work. I love how there does seem to be some form of interconnection between the principles behind permaculture and digital gardening. You also mentioned design thinking. How does it help in your creative process?

Several years ago, there was a design thinking course in my university that I really loved. I enjoyed the problem-solving process. Design thinking is really a framework for solving problems that are human centered. It’s about creating empathy, making sure that you’re solving the right problems and then ideating, refining, and prototyping. So much of what I was learning in design thinking was directly applicable to the one-on-one clients that I was working with.

At the time I was working with a lot of course creators. I noticed a lot of people would sign up for our platform and then they would never produce content. They were paying a monthly fee for a course platform, but never shipping. So I wanted to solve that problem: why are people not shipping? What’s happening here? Using some of the principles from design thinking, I asked myself: what are the challenges people are facing along the way? Is there an impostor complex? Not enough time to produce content? There are so many psycho-social angles. It’s not just ever about producing the content. There are many other elements at play.

That’s when we realized the software just solves a technical problem. That’s just one piece of the problem, but there were other elements too. People needed more support. Marketing a course is different from marketing a service. So I used design thinking tools. It was about having more empathy for people and then designing solutions that help people to become more productive and to produce more.

In a way, I wanted to teach my own clients to be a bit more like design thinkers: “You have a hypothesis, let’s come up with some ideas for how you’re going to solve this. Let’s test the waters. Let’s put out something small, let’s build some momentum, then you can iterate, and then you can build a more refined version.”

I feel like there are many parallels between design thinking and permaculture: starting small, obtaining a yield. There are just so many interesting overlaps that I think have influenced the way I look at problem solving always from a people first perspective.

The way you talk about your work and the creative process indicates that you are very aware of how it’s not just about tools. There are many psychological factors, such as your mindset. You mentioned impostor syndrome earlier, and I also read an article you wrote about burnout.

Yeah. I have definitely been a victim of burnout. I’ve been a workaholic for a good chunk of my adult life. I love learning, I love creating, I’m always doing something very active, and I think a lot of my clients are the same. They’re busy people. They’re excited. They’re doing so much.

But most people don’t have a systems background. We’re not taught in school how to organize our digital files, how to deal with having a thousand tabs open, especially if you’re a creator and you’re looking for inspiration. I think there are new skills required in a way to operate in the digital landscape that we haven’t really been taught.

A lot of people don’t have systems for tracking their ideas. People keep it in their head or in a thousand different notebooks, somewhere on the computer, and some are in an Evernote notebook. When we don’t have good systems, that mental RAM is going over capacity.

I’m a big believer in good systems that can foster creativity because all the stuff that’s floating around has a place to live. Even if you’re not going to do it right now, it’s got a place to live. It’s either scheduled or it’s on the back burner. I think good systems can help reduce or prevent burnout too. One of the biggest reasons we add more to our plate is because we forget what’s already on our plate. By making that more visible all of our obligations, all of our responsibilities, all of our commitments, we inherently start making better decisions: is this still important, does this need to stay on my plate? And if not, what better boundaries, structures, and systems do I need to put in place?

Yes, systems can definitely help manage overwhelm. Talking about overwhelm and creativity, how do you deal with the massive amount of raw information and material available to us as creators? Do you have a specific creativity system?

It sort of goes back to goal setting: what do I want? Who do I want to be? What do I want to do? What does it mean to be a creator? What does that look like for me? In my case, one of the goals that I made was to make a YouTube video every week for twelve weeks. And that felt like a huge daunting commitment. YouTube is a whole other beast.

But that was a commitment, so I made that visible and I broke that down into tiny steps. I had a digital notebook full of episode ideas. Making the creative goals that you have visible so you see them every day makes them identity based: “I am a creator. I am someone who produces content. I’m not just consuming and saving this into my digital vault.”

Being really aware of that consumption-to-creation ratio as well… I do find that it fluctuates throughout the year. I might have a season where I’m kind of going dormant. Maybe there are a few skills that I want to refine and hone. So I’m going to read a few more books and take a few more courses. But even as I’m taking courses and I’m reading articles, I’m always asking myself: what is this in service of? How is my future self benefiting from this information? What notes need to be extracted from that? How is this going to support an idea?

There are lots of books that are half-read, or maybe I’ve read a couple of chapters, but then I realized this wasn’t actually aligned with a goal. So I’m okay with putting that book on the back burner. I know maybe in six months, that book will resurface again. You have to be aware of what you want, what your goals are, and what’s going to support you.

Again, it helps to make those big goals visible, to have a system for storing all the things that you need to store somewhere, and finding ways to activate them. That’s why I have a notes and ideas database that’s connected to my knowledge hub, so I can connect ideas when I’m reading something. I can activate that pretty quickly into my notes and ideas.

I’ve also got a system as part of my weekly agenda in Notion where I show the most recent articles that I’ve saved that have not been given a summary yet. I try to make that a habit too, of summarizing what I’m learning, tagging more context, and trying to activate that and pushing everything toward a project.

This is great. I have a very similar system and it’s fairly close to what I’m teaching in the Collector to Creator course. Thank you so much for joining me for this interview. I think lots of people could learn from your work. Where can people go to learn more?

My website is probably the best place. I’m pretty active on Twitter and Instagram depending on whether you want to follow my plant life or my Notion life!