Organizing 11,000 Ideas — Here’s How Robert Pirsig Did It

iuOne of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Less well known is Pirsig’s second book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, which was published 17 years after Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

During those years, Pirsig took notes for Lila on small slips of paper. He used them like index cards, writing one idea on each slip and filing all the slips in a big box. (Many people — including Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday — still prefer this method.)

Pirsig ended up with over 11,000 slips. Most of these fell logically into various categories. But many did not. To save his sanity, he created five special categories for rogue ideas. Consider using these categories whenever you organize any large body of notes:

  • Unassimilated is a holding zone for recent notes that still need to be reviewed and filed.
  • Program is for instructions about what to do with the rest of your notes. If Pirsig had visions for a whole new set of categories, for example, he filed those ideas here.
  • Crit slips describe all the notes you want to destroy and the reasons for destroying them. Often these ideas came to Pirsig in moments of despair. Rather than immediately trashing his notes, however, he simply noted his first thoughts and filed them here to review later.
  • Tough is for important notes that don’t fit in any existing category.
  • Junk is for notes that initially seemed important but now look useless. “Most of the slips died there but some reincarnated,” Pirsig wrote, “and some of these reincarnated slips were the most important ones he had.”

The beauty of these categories is that they allow you to keep notes organized while your ideas are still incubating. In particular, you’ll make room for the “junk” ideas that later emerge as shining gems.

Readers Will Tweak Our Instructions — And That’s OK

IMG_8642Idea entrepreneurs sometimes labor for years to create step-based processes. These authors load their books with methods, tips, strategies, applications, and action plans. Yet the inevitable fact is that people will tweak our precious processes to fit their personal style.

Instead of berating our audiences for “corrupting” our content, let’s let go of our attachments and allow for individual differences.

As a case in point, consider David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Avoid an “us versus them” mindset

Like many best-sellers, GTD (the acronym for David’s book and the method it presents) inspires zealots and heretics.

Some people swear by GTD and describe it as the Bible for productivity.

Others berate the GTD community as a cult and dismiss the method as hopelessly complex.

(To see what they’re talking about, get a GTD overview.)

Such polarizing reactions are unnecessary. Underlying them is an all-or-nothing, love-it-or-leave-it mentality: either take an author’s ideas in toto as absolutes. Or, reject them entirely.

What’s most reasonable and realistic is a middle ground. I, for example, count myself as a GTD enthusiast. Yet there are many suggestions in David’s book that I don’t implement. They just don’t make a difference for me. I adhere to the spirit rather than the letter of his ideas.

Clarify core distinctions

Seth Godin notes that the core content in any business book — he calls it the “recipe” — can usually be reduced to 2 or 3 pages. The rest of the book is the “sell” — persuading you to actually do something differently.

The recipe often boils down to a small list of concepts that are truly original, uniquely presented, or especially useful. When it comes to GTD, for instance, here’s what I ultimately take away:

  • Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. To keep your head clear, capture ideas as they occur to you and put them in writing, even when you’re on the run. Jot them down on index cards or “sticky notes” and toss them into your in basket. Another option is to open up a plain text file on your smart phone, tablet, or computer and make a quick note.
  • Use the “three D’s” to clear out your in basket. Take each item, one at a time, and choose wether to delete it, do it now, or defer it to a later time. Note deferred items on your calendar or a list. (Some people add a fourth “D” — delegate.)
  • Distinguish between projects and next actions. Projects are outcomes that require more than one action to achieve. Next actions are physical and visible — things that you can actually do today, such as making a phone call, running an errand, or sending an email.
  • Do a weekly review. Keep a list of all the active projects in your life and then ask: What is the very next action I will take to move each project forward? (David recommends that you keep many lists, but projects and next actions are the only ones I use.)

Your content has a center of gravity, an irreducible essence. What is it? Put that recipe in writing, and keep it short. Then do your readers a favor by placing it in prominently in your book — as an introduction, summary, or both.

Encourage readers to experiment

Four crucial words are missing from most instructions that I read — your mileage may vary (YMMV). The larger and more complex your method, the more these words apply.

The Tiny Habits program from BJ Fogg perfectly embodies this message while delivering a powerful and focused set of instructions. BJ offers a tested recipe for creating a new habit. He also cautions that you may go through several tries before settling on a behavior that actually sticks.

This is the kind of message that readers can run with. Our goal is a balance of rigor and permission. Achieving it is no small feat.

Writing as Spiritual Practice — Insights from Haruki Murakami

Murakami_Haruki_(2009)Like yoga, writing can be a spiritual path. By “spiritual,” I mean the experience of unity — when mind and body work together.

If you don’t like spiritual, then say integrative instead. Either word describes a daily practice that fuses physical movement and creativity.

My inspiration comes from novelist Haruki Murakami, who knows this territory well. When interviewed for The Paris Review, he said:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

(For more details, see The Running Novelist, Murakami’s article for the The New Yorker.)

I used to think of exercise as a break from the work day. Murakami reminds me to see physical movement as part of the creative process.

Image:, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

Robert Greene On Thinking and Writing Well

330px-Robert_Greene_B&WRobert Greene wrote several best-selling books, including Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 50th Law (with 50 Cent). Though I have qualms about the Machavellian philosophy in several of these, I am fascinated by Robert’s writing process.

“What I learned is that willpower, the intensity of desire, and practice can take us to levels of performance we never thought possible,” Robert writes. He suggests the following strategies.


Like Haruki Murakami, Robert compares writing books to running a marathon. There’s nothing glamorous about the process, which can involve periods of physical and mental depletion.

To prevent this, says Greene, develop a rigorous exercise routine. Avoid boredom by alternating between several activities, such as running and biking.

Gradually increase the intensity of your daily exercise. If you reach a point where you feel sustained tiredness, then back off a little. The goal is a plateau of activity that gives you more energy throughout the day.


Robert does at least 30 minutes of Zen meditation daily. This increases his ability to concentrate and let unexpected insights emerge.

Research to discover an original structure for your ideas

To research a new book, Robert reads 200 to 300 existing books on his topic. This takes about a year.

He takes notes in an old-school way, writing by hand on index cards:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes (called marginalia) on the side.

After I’m done reading I’ll often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards. A good book will generate 20 to 30 notecards, while a bad book will generate two or three notecards.

Essentially, Robert deconstructs existing books into smaller pieces and looks for new relationships between them. Eventually the table of contents for his next book is born.

Cultivate “negative capability”

Negative capability — a concept from the poet John Keats — means tolerating uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox. This prods us to think in new ways that resolve apparent contradictions.

To practice negative capability, develop a habit of observing people without judging them. Try to see the world from their point of view.

Also, as you begin a writing project, list your current assumptions about the topic. Then throw out or suspend as many as possible.

Think like an outsider

If you have training in a field that’s not directly related to your project, then use this as an advantage. What concepts from this field can you “import”? The answers will help you ask new questions and find novel connections between ideas.

Subvert your current patterns of thinking

Seek out facts and theories that contradict your current conclusions. Then ask why and how they can exist. When studying an event, ask yourself how it could have unfolded in a different way.

Use active imagination

For example, Henry Ford imagined workers standing still and working with auto parts that came to them. Result: the assembly line.

Use notebooks, drawings, and diagrams to visualize new ideas. Translate ideas into predictions and even physical models that you can test. Iterate and see what works — even if it takes you in a surprising direction.

In short, think of creativity as fusing two entities within you:

  • The child, who explores the world with few assumptions and thinks in fluid, flexible ways
  • The adult, who uses knowledge, experience, and observation to refine first thoughts into working theories

Note: For more about how Robert works, go to my sources for this post:

The Art of Relaxed Productivity — Four Ideas from Jay Parini

JayParini-052212-0021-crop.jpgI read a wonderful memoir — The Art of Teaching by Jay Parini, professor of English at Middlebury College. Besides reflecting on the challenges of teaching college students, Parini sprinkles the book with gems about ways to get a lot of writing done.

This man is prolific. He has written 20 books and many articles. And he’s done this in the midst of a daily grind — lectures, seminars, advising, meetings, and the other minutiae of academic and family life.

How does Parini do it? By trashing several assumptions — for example, that productivity requires ascetic self-discipline, large blocks of time, sustained concentration, and large daily outputs. He’s replaced those ideas with options that sound a lot more practical and fun.

Cultivate a studied laziness

Most of us—including myself—waste vast amounts of time. I don’t actually mind that, I should add. Like Robert Frost, I believe that laziness is essential to creativity; I get a lot done because I have time to burn. I tell myself over and over that there is so much time, so little to do.

Seize small chunks of time

As a graduate student at St. Andrews, I watched a few of my more prolific mentors carefully. One of them, an extremely productive and original scholar of Greek literature, culture, and language, was Sir Kenneth Dover…. I once asked him the secret of his productivity and he said, without hesitation: “I’ve learned how to use the odd gaps of 20 minutes or so that occur at various points during the day”…. I suspect that most of us fail to use the hours of the day properly. We imagine, foolishly, that huge quantities of time are needed to settle into a project, to reactivate the engines of thought.

Welcome the structure provided by other commitments

I don’t care what they say: it is possible to write and teach and the same time. In fact, I have a hard time writing without teaching…. Teaching organizes my life, gives a structure to my week, puts before me certain goals: classes to conduct, books to reread, papers to grade, meetings to attend. I move from event to event, having a clear picture in my head of what I must do next.

Work in bursts

Most good work gets done in short stretches. It isn’t really possible to concentrate for more than half an hour without a solid break…. Even when I have the whole day to work, I stop every 20 minutes to make a cup of tea, eat a cookie, call a friend, do a little yoga or a few stomach crunches, shower, or take a short walk.

P.S. One of Parini’s inspirations is John Updike, who wrote 50 books and won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and other honors. And what was Updike’s daily output? Two pages. I’m a schmuck but that sounds totally do-able.

Avoiding Stories That Undermine Your Credibility

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”

Though it’s not exactly a warm fuzzy, Hemingway’s insight can save your reputation.

One place that crap easily enters our thinking is the odd anecdote that’s inaccurate or simply untrue. Consider the following examples.

The infamous boiling frog

You’ve probably heard this one — an anecdote that’s often told to illustrate the dangers of ignoring gradual change. Though countless versions exist, the key points are these:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail — to their peril — to notice subtle and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

In Next Time, What Say We Boil A Consultant, the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company quotes two biologists who say that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot enough, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The Fast Company folks verified this by running their own experiment:

We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.

Those legendary earners from Yale

Equally infamous is the “Yale Goal Study.” Again, there are many variations. The main events are these:

  • In 1953 (or 1933, or 1943, depending on the storyteller) researchers interviewed members of Yale’s graduating class, asking the students whether they had written down any goals for the rest of their lives.
  • Twenty years later, researchers tracked down the same group of graduates.
  • The 3 per cent of graduates who had written goals accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined.

This is such a compelling story. We just want it to be true.

“There is just one small problem,” notes Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. “As far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place.”

The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit, which also tried to verify this story, confirms Wiseman on this point.

The moral of this story

Only tell stories that you can verify based on:

  • Direct personal experiences (preferably with objective witnesses involved)
  • Interviews with credible experts that confirm each other
  • Publications from credible sources that you can cite in an accepted format

Image courtesy of Free Nature Pictures

Writing Self-Help That Actually Helps People — Three Lessons From David Allen

iuI recently bought the new edition of Getting Things Done by David Allen and was delighted to see a foreword by James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and GTD enthusiast. (GTD is the acronym for Getting Things Done.)

Writing about the benefits of GTD, Fallows makes several points that writers of business and self-help books cannot afford to ignore. To begin:

Book catalogs are full of listings for volumes that offer advice on how to improve your work habits, your health, your productivity, and your overall success in life.

Some of what they say is typically dressed-up common sense. A fraction of it is baloney. Much of it is worth reading one time, if that, and is forgettable hours or days after you have put the book down.

What sets GTD apart, says Fallows, are the following three features. Let’s bake these into our own publications and presentations as well.

A flexible and forgiving approach

Many authors offer a multi-step program with the assumption that you will complete all the steps in the suggested order. In some cases — as with people who do the Twelve Steps as part of their recovery from addiction — this is the norm.

In most cases, however, readers will balk at wholesale implementation of a “one size fits all” program. As Fallows notes, “approaches that are incremental and forgiving of error are more likely to pay off in the long run.”

Whenever possible, present a program that still offers benefits even when it is applied piece by piece.

A timelessness that is tool-agnostic

David Allen revised Getting Things Done, in part, because the first edition referred to obsolete technology such as Palm Pilots and Filofaxes. With the second edition, he removes these references and offers suggestions that do not depend on specific products. People can implement GTD methods with software, with paper-based tools, or a combination of both.

At bottom, GTD is a way to think clearly about your commitments and choose the very next action to move each of them forward. What counts is the underlying principles — not the specific tools that you use.

Authenticity and integrity

As a personal friend of David Allen, James Fallows can attest that David actually lives by the ideas that he teaches. This is key for authors of how-to books: They lead by their example as well as their words. Our credibility is undermined when readers sense a disconnect between what we say and what we do.

Ask yourself: Do I actually use the ideas that I recommend? And am I getting the desired results? If the answer to either question is no, then you’ve got a problem. It’s time to tweak your program, change your behavior, or do a little of both.

Never Lose An Idea — Naming Files to Find Them Later

IMG_2508When writing, the last thing I want to do is waste time searching for a specific fact, anecdote, or quote in a mass of disorganized notes. Through painful experience, I learned to store my notes in plain text files and title them for instant retrieval.

I came to this strategy after diving into the literature on tagging and personal taxonomies. This stuff quickly gets geeky.

Save yourself the effort and start with the following three suggestions. Along with the search options built in to your software, they might be all you need.

1. Predict the future you

This is the most important thing: Know your own mind. What key words will you use to search for a file in the future? Put those words in the file name.

To arrive at key words, list the attributes of files that matter most to you. Attributes of a file are words that describe its content. Some examples are:

  • Date that the file was created or changed
  • Topic and subtopic
  • Names of people and organizations
  • Author and title of a book, article, or blog post
  • File type (such as .pdf or .doc)

Ian Beck gives these additional examples:

For instance, when you are filing or searching for a photo, what do you think of? The location of the photo? The subject or people in the photo? The event taking place when you took the photo? Something else entirely? Write out a list of the attributes that you think of when thinking of your target items.

List the attributes that matter to you. Pick the top two or three and think of corresponding key words to put in your file names.

2. Call out projects

Consider an über-useful idea from Scott Berkun: Everything that you do is a project. Here I define project as David Allen does in Getting Things Done — any outcome that requires more than one action step.

You can start to organize your files by asking one question: Is this my main collection of notes about a specific project? If so, include the project in the file name.

3. Add “x” to the first word in a file name

For example, begin project file names with projectx, as in projectx write a blog post or projectx buy a new car.  Then, when I search with the keyword projectx, I only get a list of my current projects — not a list of all the files that merely contain the word project.

Bonus suggestions

  • Consider creating two specific filesactionx (a list of the next action you intend to take on each of your current projects) and inx (an “inbox” or journal for random thoughts that occur to you on the run).
  • Pick a single key word word for each attribute. Make the key word short, simple, and memorable. Make a list of your keywords and refer to it often.
  • Use lowercase filenames. They’re easier to type and remember. Avoid punctuation, hyphenation, and plural forms for the same reason.

Move Over, Evernote — Capture Your Ideas Without “Big Bucket” Apps

DSCN2469I’ve been writing professionally since 1980. Since then I’ve burned through multiple operating systems, hardware configurations, and software packages.

(Confession: I used Wordstar back in the days when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.)

Eventually my hard disk became a battle zone. Documents with incompatible structures and warring formats littered the charred landscape. Often I couldn’t even open the older files.

To writers and idea entrepreneurs, this is perilous. Buried in all that digital detritus are veins of pure gold: Unpublished drafts. Still-relevant research. Glittering anecdotes. Sparkling quotes. Material that could be recycled, re-used, and re-sold.

At some point we face the task of poking through our electronic trash to extract the gems. But the effort is doomed unless we move them into a trusted system where nothing ever gets lost again.

The perils of “big bucket” apps

In my search for solutions, I first turned to apps that are specifically designed to house huge collections of notes. I call them “big bucket” apps because in many cases you can throw just about anything in them — photos, PDFs, web pages, and anything else in digital form.

Among these apps are:

Apps like these are intoxicating. I’ve spent entire days playing with them — importing my data, tinkering with features, and marveling at gorgeous interfaces.

In the end, I abandoned them all.

Why? Because of their inherent shortcomings:

  • Uncertainty. At any time, developers can lose interest or companies can go out out of business. Result: your app gets abandoned.
  • Inflexibility. No matter what the developers claim, you eventually outgrow the features and file limits that the apps impose.
  •  Imprisonment. You get locked in to a proprietary data base. If you ever decide to export your notes to another app or different file format — well, good luck. You might face hours of mind-numbing copy-and-paste operations.

In short, using big bucket apps means that your life’s work is stuck in someone else’s app, subject to their preferences and schedule.

Seven goals of personal information management

When it comes to managing my ideas, what I want is a set of tools that is:

  1. Agnostic — usable on any platform and not tied to a specific app
  2. Future-proof — usable for the long-term with whatever platforms and operating systems emerge in the future
  3. Portable — allowing me to easily export and import notes
  4. Lightweight — storing notes in smaller, more efficient files
  5. Flexible — accepting files that range in size from a few words to a book-length manuscript
  6. Accessible — allowing me to open, edit, and save files with any computer or mobile device
  7. Free or inexpensive — based on apps that I already own, such as those that were shipped with my computer, or apps that don’t cost much

My solution is a system of plain-text files stored in the “cloud.” Check out Organize Your Ideas With Plain Text Files and Never Lose An Idea — Naming Files to Find Them Later.

Note: This post was inspired by a long, nerdy, and delicious article from Douglas Barone.

Rereading ‘Information Anxiety’ — Seven Ideas That Still Make a Difference

0553348566.01._SL130_SCLZZZZZZZ__Recently I pulled my copies of Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman off the shelf. The first edition, published in 1989 — pre-Internet — blew me away. The 2001 edition was even better. (Alas, the book is no longer in print, but look for it at your library or search online.)

Following are some insights from the book that still nourish me.

1 Learning begins with admitting ignorance

This is more than a platitude. Admitting ignorance is often a descent into chaos, with all the attendant fear. I’ve felt this fear at the beginning of projects about complex topics that were new to me.

Admitting ignorance runs counter to the sound-bite mentality of our culture. We fear looking stupid. And we admire people who exude confidence and deliver quick answers.

What helps me is remembering Richard’s words:

When you can admit that you don’t know, you are more likely to ask the questions that will enable you to learn. When you don’t have to filter your inquisitiveness through a smoke screen of intellectual posturing, you can genuinely receive or listen to new information. If you are always trying to disguise your ignorance of a subject, you will be distracted from understanding it.

Richard admits that he is typically the first person in a room full of experts to ask the “stupid” questions. What empowers him is remembering the curse of knowledge: Once you understand something, you immediately forget what it’s like not to understand it. Asking the first questions that occur to you can nudge the experts past this curse.

2 Access is the antidote to anxiety

For every body of information that’s new to you, there is a point of access — a “personal table of contents.” Be patient, and be willing to look.

Begin by remembering the difference between raw data and information. For example, an acre equals 43,560 square feet. This is data, and it doesn’t mean much to me.

In contrast, I can remember that an acre is about as big as an American football field without the end zones. That is information. I gain access by connecting a new fact to something I already understand.

3 Information is infinite, but the ways of organizing it are not

Those ways of organizing information boil down to the “five ultimate hat racks”:

  • Location
  • Alphabet
  • Time
  • Category
  • Hierarchy

Richard gives this example:

If you were preparing a report on the automobile industry, you could organize cars by model (category), year (time), place of manufacture (location), or Consumer Reports rating (continuum). Within each, you might list them alphabetically.

Take the first letter of each item in the above list and you get the acronym LATCH. Easy to remember.

4 There is no such thing as “keeping up” — only following the trail of your own interests

“Learning can be defined as the process of remembering what you are interested in,” Richard notes. Due to the inherent connection between subjects, you can “follow any interest on a path through all knowledge.”

It’s perfectly fine to indulge ourselves by turning our personal interests into our primary information filter. The stuff that stimulates our curiosity is probably all that we’ll remember. Besides, there’s so much available information that we’ll never track it all anyway.

5 “News” usually increases information anxiety

News has been defined as “the same things happening over and over again to different people.” This is an exaggeration, of course. And it points us in a useful direction.

Too often, the news gets packaged as isolated facts, devoid of context. And let’s be honest: On any given day, there are only a handful of stories that really matter. The rest are optional.

In the first edition of Information Anxiety, Richard suggests that we ask these questions when consuming news:

  • What do the numbers mean?
  • To what other events does this incident relate?
  • What is it the announcer isn’t telling me?
  • Why is this story more important than another?
  • And, the most crucial question, how does this story apply to my life?

6 Most of our communication is about giving and receiving instructions

“Every successful communication is really an instruction in disguise — from love letters to company brochures,” Richard writes. This is particularly true when the desired outcome is an action for someone to take.

Good instructions include these elements:

  • Mission — the purpose or main benefit of following the instructions
  • Destination — the ideal outcome of following the instructions
  • Procedure — the essential tasks to perform
  • Duration — the amount of time that the procedure will take
  • Anticipation — the conditions that I can expect to encounter as I carry out the procedure
  • Failure — signs that I’m making errors and how to correct them

When we give instructions, Richard adds, “we test our ability to communicate information and gauge what we really know.”

7 Talk is deep

Conversation “is imbued with extraordinary complexities, nuances, and ephemeral magic.” When talking to others, we start, stop, digress, and make connections in non-linear ways.

Conversation leads to understanding as we allow ourselves to admit ignorance, explore options, and probe for context. Richard gives this example:

The industrial design critic Ralph Kaplan was talking to a woman who was trying to explain something to him. “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t put it into words,” she told him. Puzzled, Caplan asked her, “Can you tell me what form it is in now?”

The inherent richness of conversation makes it a worthy match for the sheer onslaught of data that confronts us daily. Ironically, the oldest medium of communication helps us make peace with the newest ones.