Anecdotes Have Their Place — But Not as Proof of Your Ideas

ben-white-178537Human beings are story-telling animals. We need stories, including great fiction, to make sense of our world. We crave a narrative arc for our lives — events that fall into a clear pattern of beginning, middle, and end with clean resolutions and clear lessons learned.

Yet we also have the capacity to tell stories that delude and even harm us. If you’re an idea entrepreneur or someone who curates content in any field, this is a point you cannot afford to forget. To preserve your credibility as a writer and speaker, avoid common mistakes when using anecdotes.

Recognizing anecdotes

Anecdotes are mini-stories. We tell them to make a point. Some that I’ve heard are:

  • “You can’t trust the Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking. My grandfather smoked every day and still lived to be 90.”
  • “Dietary supplements work. I know someone who took that raspberry supplement featured on Dr. Oz’s show. She lost a lot of weight.”
  • “Yoga is dangerous. One my friends injured herself last week during class.”

When I hear statements such as these in casual conversation, I sometimes opt to let them pass by. But when a client’s blog post or book manuscript leans heavily on anecdotal evidence, I’m obligated to share my concern.

Remembering the dangers

In a classic post —Hubris, Not Bad Writing Or Design, Sinks Most Self-Published Nonfiction — April Hamilton illustrates how anecdotes can delude idea entrepreneurs:

A tax attorney who’s struggled with her weight for years finds she’s somehow managed to lose fifteen pounds in one month. On reflection she realizes she’s been eating a lot of hazelnuts lately. Her internet research shows nuts are often encouraged as part of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, and she finds some studies that report hazelnuts have antioxidant properties. BOOM! The Hazelnut Crash Diet book is born. 

A computer programmer’s YouTube parody of a celebrity is brought to the attention of the celebrity, who mentions it on a late-night talk show. The clip goes viral in a matter of hours. In the morning, the man learns what happened and finds he has several interview requests from the media…BOOM! How YouTube Can Make You Famous is born.

A caregiver in a nursing home notices the elderly in her care seem more responsive and alert when she plays music over the facility’s public address system. BOOM! Using Music To Beat Alzheimer’s Disease is born.

Yes, these are hypothetical examples. But they’re not far removed from what I often find on the Internet and bookstore shelves. Much “how to” and self-help material is anecdote-based. And there are entire industries based on this kind of skimpy support.

Eight specific problems with anecdotal evidence

From the fields of logic, statistics, and research design come a powerful list of problems with anecdotal evidence. Following are a few.

1 Small sample size. Anecdotes are commonly based on a random sample of one. And yet one person’s isolated experience proves nothing.

The fact that my friend’s nicotine-addicted grandfather lived to be 90 doesn’t mean that smoking is safe for you and me. The Centers for Disease Control states that smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans each year. Now that’s a meaningful sample size.

2 Confirmation bias. This is the tendency to notice information that supports our existing beliefs — and to ignore information that contradicts those beliefs.

Today our nation’s political discourse is polarized, and one reason for this is confirmation bias. Many Republicans rely on Fox News; I depend on the New York Times. We filter out sources that challenge our views.

To overcome confirmation bias, seek out information that challenges (disconfirms) your current thinking. Do what scientists do: They don’t try to prove a hypothesis. Instead, they merely say that they failed to disconfirm the hypothesis. And they’ll remind us that disconfirming data can occur at any point in the future.

3 Reporting bias. People who seem to benefit from a medical treatment or product are more likely to report their experience. Those who tried the same treatment or product and had no benefits have little incentive to share their anecdotes.

Besides, people who die from diseases or unhealthy behaviors such as smoking are no longer around to share their anecdotes with us!

4 Confusing correlation with causation. When event A occurs shortly before event B, this does not prove that event A caused event B. As statistician Tyler Vigen points out, forgetting this can lead us straight into absurdity.

For example, the divorce rate in Maine correlates strongly with per capita consumption of margarine. This is not a valid argument for banning margarine!

5 Confounding factors. People who live to a ripe old age despite smoking might have other factors — such as an unusual genetic load — working in their favor.

Yoga injuries can result from a failure to follow the teacher’s instructions rather than any inherent flaw in this type of activity.

The person who lost weight while taking a supplement might have also made behavior changes — such as eliminating fast food — that account for the weight loss.

Scientists try to rule out such confounding factors with randomized controlled trials (RCTs). In these experiments, participants are randomly assigned to two groups. One group gets a treatment; the other group does not. Participants are also carefully screened to be a similar as possible in other relevant characteristics, such as age, gender, and habits.

These conditions give researchers more confidence that any change experienced by participants is actually due to the treatment — not to a confounding factor.

6 Faulty memories. Physicians will tell you that one of the biggest challenges in taking a medical history is human memory. We can omit key facts, combine details from various events, or simply forget that an event ever occurred.

7 Embellishment. We also tend to tell and retell our favorite anecdotes. And during social events, we sometimes discover that we get a bigger laugh or more dramatic reaction by subtly altering key incidents or glossing over minor details. As a result, anecdotes can change radically over time, becoming useless as a form of evidence.

8 Lack of replication. Scientists publish papers that describe in detail how they carry out their experiments. (Look for the Methods section.) The reason is to encourage their peers to follow the same procedures and see if they get similar results. When a scientific finding is widely repeated (replicated), we’re more confidence that it’s accurate.

The biggest flaw I see in self-help and other “how to” books is lack of replication. There’s little or no evidence that anyone besides the author has implemented the suggested strategies and seen the same results.

Using anecdotes responsibly

Seeing the flaws in anecdotes does not mean rejecting them entirely. To include them in a credible way:

  • Be thorough. Use fewer anecdotes and make them longer. Tell an interesting story while including as many facts and events as possible. Running examples — anecdotes that cross from section to section or chapter to chapter — are one way to do this. In addition, document anecdotes in detailed notes and archive them for future reference.
  • Supplement anecdotes with credible research. David Allen did this in the second edition of his popular book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. He added a chapter titled “GTD and Cognitive Science” with summaries of studies that support aspects of his method. Allen’s work is still anecdotally-based, but this nod to science gives the book more weight. In addition, he offers many detailed anecdotes that relate to specific GTD strategies.
  • Use anecdotes for color and for clarity. Anecdotes can be entertaining and instructional. They can be memorable. They can drive home an abstract idea with concrete examples. And they can demonstrate how to carry out a set of instructions. In short, use anecdotes for illustration rather than proof.

Finally, remind your audience about individual differences: What works for me might not work for you. And even what works today might not work in the future.

Simply put, YMMV — your mileage may vary.

Also see:

Does Your Personal Experience Prove Anything?

Anecdotes Are Sexy But Not Conclusive

Won’t Get Fooled Again—Three Levels of Credibility in Self-Help Books

John Butman on Stories, Methods, and Metrics—Three Staples of Nonfiction That Can Backfire on Authors

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Beyond Productivity Porn — Moving From Generic Advice to Behavior Design 

igor-ovsyannykov-225463Lately I’ve been crap-detecting the whole  topic of productivity and discovering why tips and tricks can fail. So what are the alternatives?

Well, one is to follow Tiago Forté’s suggestions for creating a personal knowledge base.

Another option is to apply design thinking to your own behavior. For guidance let’s again turn to Tiago, whose thinking on this topic is both provocative and practical.

Anything can be designed

Start from the premise that you can design anything. Design thinking is not just for visual art or commercial products. You can design services. You can design meetings, conferences, and other events. You can processes, workflows, and habits as well.

In this broader sense, design thinking is for all of us. The essence of this approach is:

  • Observing people to discover when and where they encounter problems
  • Testing possible solutions
  • Implementing the solutions that work

(For more details, see Design Thinking 101 by Sarah Gibbons.)

If Productivity 1.0 is about tips and tricks that are endlessly recycled in the bullshit industrial complex, then Productivity 2.0 is about  designing your own behavior. More specifically, says Tiago, it’s about “framing your problems in the context of a system that can be optimized through small experiments.” There are three key terms in that sentence:

  • The focus is on your problems, which — when precisely defined — are unique to you.
  • You design a system of behavior that’s objective — separate from you, so it can be measured and evaluated.
  • You optimize the results of your system by experimenting with specific new behaviors.

This, in short, is how you move from generic advice to strategies that are individually tested and integrated with everything else that you do.

Focus on habits

Tiago suggests that you focus your experiments on habits. Habits are basic units of behavior that can be analyzed, changed, and tested. This makes them ideal for design thinking.

To begin, remember that the brain is a habit-making machine. Your brain:

  • Scans for triggers — such as physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, locations, or the presence of specific people — that create an impulse to act.
  • Deploys a behavior that ranges from simple to complex in response to that impulse.
  • Looks for whether the behavior is rewarded with a pleasant feeling.

If all of the above elements are present, then a habit loop is established.

The great news is that we can consciously choose to practice new behaviors in response to specific triggers in our lives. And once new habits are established, we no longer have to rely on self-discipline, willpower, or motivation to maintain positive behaviors. We create self-sustaining routines instead.

Design small experiments

The key is designing small habit changes. One reason for the failure of many self-help books and other programs for behavior change is that they tell us to implement massive new systems. (This is a common criticism of the Getting Things Done method.)

Another option is to start with a tiny new behavior — such as flossing one tooth every day — and experience immediate success. Once such small behaviors take root, they grow naturally — e.g., from flossing one tooth daily to flossing all of them. Verify this for yourself by doing BJ Fogg’s free Tiny Habits program. Another useful resource is the  Quantified Self movement.

Tiago adds another key element here — stopping to analyze the results of your habit change experiment and think like a scientist. This means asking:

  • Do you want to continue the new habit? Not all behavior changes are worth sustaining. For example, Tiago designed a habit to drink 9 cups of water per day. Though he succeeded at this behavior change, he decided not to continue it. The benefits were negligible, and it led to a lot of bathroom time.
  • Did you isolate the key variables? Say that you want to exercise more. Your habit is to lay out your exercise clothes every night (new behavior) right after you brush your teeth (trigger). And sure enough, you do end up taking a jog every morning right after you wake up. But did your trigger actually work? Perhaps the weather simply got nicer and you suddenly felt like exercising more.
  • Do you want to redesign the habit? Based on your answers to the above questions, consider choosing a new trigger, a new behavior, or both. Over time, you’ll move closer to results that you can replicate — and lessons that you can apply to other habit experiments.

A key trap to avoid is blaming unsuccessful habit changes on character defects: “I’m just weak-willed.” Or, “I don’t have any self-discipline.” Self-blame does not lead to useful insights. Tweak your habit design instead.

Put small changes in a big context

The irony of changing tiny habits is that we acquire a huge meta-skill — the ability to change just about any behavior. And this in turn promotes even more fundamental shifts.

One is self-awareness. As Tiago says, “Use the habit experiment as a vehicle for self-understanding — knowing the leverage points that work specifically for you.”

Beyond this, notice any changes in your self-narrative. No habit change by itself is likely to transform your life. But consistent success with behavior design can shake up the way that you talk about yourself: Wow: I really can change my life.

Image by Igor Ovsyannykov

Beyond Productivity Porn — Moving from Tips and Tricks to a Personal Knowledge Base

clay-banks-258326Last week’s post summarized Tiago Forté’s critique of the productivity advice that litters the Internet. So what’s beyond all those tips and tricks? Start with a personal knowledge base (or commonplace book). Call it whatever you want: If you’re a knowledge worker, you need one.

Why? Because knowledge workers are constant curators. Our job is to:

  • Manage projects — define desired outcomes in all areas of life and the actions needed to produce those outcomes.
  • Develop knowledge — capture useful information from any source, organize it for instant retrieval, and use it for creative thinking.
  • Deliver knowledge — transform our insights into products and services that create value for clients and customers.

These are not just nice ideas. As Tiago notes, these activities are essential to surviving and thriving in the work force:

Our organizations are characterized like never before by job-hopping, mergers and acquisitions, layoffs and reorganizations, outsourcing and automation, harsh competitive environments and even harsher startup ecosystems. Meanwhile, the number of freelancers, online businesses, and independent contractors is exploding…. We can now expect to spend only a few months to a few years with one organization, which means our ability to capture, organize, and retrieve our ideas, and transfer them effectively from project to project and company to company, becomes more important than ever.

Manage projects to clear your head

Tiago and I are fans of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method. When asked to reduce this method to one sentence, David often says: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

This sounds ho-hum until you apply the method and experience the benefits first-hand. The main one is a clear head. I’ll quote Tiago again:

Here is the simple truth: you cannot afford to keep everything in your head. You need tools to help you remember, so you can focus on thinking and creating. Here’s why: once you get your open loops out of your head, establish the habit of clarifying your next action, get your current projects in order, and establish a solid weekly review routine, you’re left with an empty feeling inside. But it’s a good empty feeling. It’s a quiet space where remembering, wondering, and worrying used to take place.

So what can you do with that quiet space? Use to it take on more ambitious and exciting projects. Use it to write books, create podcasts, script videos, launch new services, and develop new products. In short, use that space for creative breakthroughs.

Here is where we need more than GTD. The method is much more about implementing ideas rather than creating them. This is where you go beyond GTD to create your personal knowledge base.

Develop knowledge

If you roll your eyes at the mere mention of “knowledge work,” I don’t blame you. What the hell is “knowledge” anyway? How do we “work” with it?

This is where Tiago steps up to the plate. Knowledge work, he says, starts with capturing information in its most humble and mundane forms — for example:

  • Handwritten notes
  • Web pages
  • Photos, screen shots, and other images
  • Paper documents
  • Digital documents
  • Voice memos
  • Book notes
  • Text messages
  • Emails
  • Meeting notes
  • Class notes
  • Links to podcasts and videos
  • Journal entries

Tiago suggests that you dump most of this information into a digital note-taking app such as Evernote. (I use OneNote.) Then you can organize it into notebooks, sections, and pages. You can also add tags and search everything with key words. And by inserting hyperlinks between individual notes, you in effect create a personal Internet.

When you capture information in this way based on all your reading, thinking, and work over many years, you end with a personal knowledge base: A second brain that exists outside your head. A searchable database of all the information that you want to remember and use in the future. Deep reserves of information assets.

Armed with a personal knowledge base, you can:

  • Manage projects.
  • Brainstorm ideas.
  • Do research.
  • Track source material.
  • Spot significant patterns in your thinking and learning.
  • Look for unexpected connections between notes.
  • Document what you’re learning.
  • Create content to present or publish in any medium.

In summary, you face the fire hose of incoming information and filter out everything that’s irrelevant. You move from being a passive consumer of information to an active user of it. Your personal knowledge base becomes a resource for making decisions and changing your behavior. This is where you make the transition from information to knowledge.

Deliver knowledge in a variety of formats

As a freelance writer and editor, I make a living based on my “deliverables” — articles and book manuscripts that clients pay me to produce. The raw material for all of it comes from my evolving personal knowledge base.

In a similar way, Tiago says that he’s made a living from his collection of digital notes by turning them into a variety of deliverables — blog posts, online courses, workshops, trainings, slide presentations, and in-person presentations.

You can take your productivity to an even higher level by redefining the word deliverable. I once took that word to mean only the final draft of whatever I’m writing. Tiago reminds us that deliverables can also include intermediate packets. These are documents leading up to the final draft — brainstorms, organized notes, outlines, prototypes, zero drafts, first drafts, and more. Submitting these to clients allows me to get feedback early on and define precisely what the client wants. Everybody’s happier with the results.

Enjoy the benefits

My goals with a personal knowledge base are to boost the quantity and quality of my work. Because I have a centralized collection of notes on my favorite topics that is continuously updated, I have juicy facts, anecdotes, and quotes always at my fingertips. This is content that I can combine in endless ways and use across projects for different clients. I can produce more deliverables in less time. And I can create more innovative work by drawing on information from diverse sources.

Imagine having a central library of all the “nuggets” from your reading, conversation, and thinking — all organized for easy access. That’s a personal knowledge base. As Tiago says, “If you’re paid to think for a living, you can’t afford to stop investing in the most powerful tool at your disposal — your mind.”

For more on this topic, see:

Building a Second Brain — online course description

Building a Second Brain — testimonials

Getting Things Done + Personal Knowledge Management: An Integrated Total Life Management System

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Beyond Productivity Porn — Seeing the Problem With Tips and Tricks

leong-lok-262965Productivity drives our work and income. Ironically, it is stagnating at a national level — even though we have an expert-driven industry of productivity advice. Clearly there is something wrong.

For a clear diagnosis of this problem, I turn to Tiago Forte. He runs Forte Labs, a training and consulting firm in San Francisco.

I put Tiago on the same level as David Allen, developer of the epochal Getting Things Done (GTD) method. Using GTD as a foundation, Tiago extends it with insights that surprise and delight me, mapping a territory that’s all his own.

In a radical critique of productivity advice, Tiago notes that it often:

  • Reduces to click-bait. Advice from productivity “experts” often takes the form of “tips and tricks” that are offered as life-changing and even “transformational.” In reality, much of this content is not research-based or presented in ways that we can implement.
  • Ignores individual differences. Most of the advice is generic, based on the naïve assumption that it works equally well for everyone. When it comes to any given technique, however, the reality is YMMV — Your Mileage May Vary.
  • Degenerates into performance art. People who brag about working 80-hour weeks might simply be staging a piece of theater — creating the impression of being productive. In reality, there’s no necessary relationship between the number of hours we work and what we actually get done. It’s possible to work 80 hours per week and still waste 40 of them.
  • Shows evidence of gender bias. This flows directly from the preceding point. Women who deal with the demands of pregnancy and childcare can be just as productive as men. It’s hard for women to prove this, though, when they can’t offer meaningful measurements of their productivity beyond the number of hours worked.
  • Promotes the app industry. This holy grail of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is the perfect task manager, calendar app, or project management tool. Tiago, in contrast, focuses on training over products: If you understand the underlying concepts of workflow design, you can be productive even with pencil and paper or text files as your tools. If you don’t understand the underlying concepts, however, then no tool is going to help you that much.

I agree with Tiago’s basic response to productivity advice: Question everything. Keep your crap detector handy. No tip is transformational, and there are no magic solutions. The next productivity post you find may simply be an excuse to stop thinking about what really works.

In moving beyond tips and tricks, Tiago distinguishes three levels of thinking about productivity. These are crystallized in the core messages of three best-selling books:

  • The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. Values come first. To succeed, develop your character. If you’re a good person, you will do well in business.
  • Your Erroneous Zones by Wayne Dyer. It’s not enough to have values. You also need precisely-defined SMART goals.
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen. Okay, so you’ve got goals. Now, choose the next physical, visible actions that you will take to achieve them.

In short, productivity boils down to three questions:

  • ValuesWhy am I doing this?
  • GoalsWhat, exactly, am I doing?
  • ProcessHow am I doing it?

Our challenge is to link Why and What with Process. And the most powerful processes are individually designed — based on data collected from small behavioral experiments rather than generic productivity advice.

Tiago develops these ideas in Praxis, his subscription-based blog. I’m a member, and I recommend it to you. For an introduction to this body of work, see my previous posts:

Image by Leong Lok,

Finding Credible Self-Help — Separate the Experts from the Entertainers

max-ostrozhinskiy-134186Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable and conform your conduct thereto.


Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.


These quotes often come to mind when I pick up a book written by someone with instructions for changing my behavior.

On the one hand, I feel a sense of possibility and hunger for new ideas.

At the same time, I brace for disappointment.

In book publishing, the popular psychology and self-help genres are plagued with two persistent problems:

  • Generic content. Writers and speakers are often appealing to the masses. Authors splatter a lot of ideas on their audiences, cross their fingers, and hope that the content resonates with as many people as possible. This is about as precise as painting a barn door by throwing open cans of paint at it. Individual differences get ignored. Techniques that work for someone else might fall flat for you.

Stick with the researchers

One solution is to distinguish between two types of self-help authors — data-driven and ego-driven.

The data-driven authors typically do original research. Many of them publish in peer-reviewed journals. Many of them are also academics, but this does not mean that their books are dull, abstract, or jargon-driven. In fact, many of their publications are aimed at a general audience and filled with practical suggestions.

For starters, check out the work of these people:

I also recommend the work of David Allen and Tiago Forte, whose ideas are stated in testable forms and supported by carefully documented anecdotes.

I won’t mention the names of any ego-driven authors, but you can spot them. Their books are not research-based. You won’t find references to rigorously-designed studies. Instead, what you get are mash-ups of random personal stories, uninformed opinion, and ideas cribbed from other sources. Often the result is a vanity piece — a thinly-disguised memoir with little relevance to you.

The problem is that many ego-driven authors are charming and charismatic. Some are riveting presenters who leave you feeling entertained, energized, and inspired — at least temporarily. This just makes them all the more dangerous.

Stay open — and skeptical

As readers of self-help books, our job is to balance open-mindedness with healthy skepticism. This means looking closely at published work, asking questions, and testing ideas in the laboratory of daily life. Yes, expose yourself to new perspectives. At the same time, keep your crap-detector handy.

Start by asking three questions about any book with instructions for changing your behavior:

  • Have these instructions been tested? Look for credible evidence that an author’s suggestions work for someone besides the author. This sounds like such an obvious criterion to meet. Yet many authors fail to do so. Compare, for instance, the motivational speaker who tells an amusing personal anecdote about habit change to BJ Fogg — who through his Tiny Habits program has over a half-million data points from thousands of people that support his model of behavior change. Who has done more to earn your trust?
  • Do these ideas call on me to do something? What’s the overall outcome or big result that the author promises that I can achieve? And what’s the very next action that I can take to achieve that outcome? Is this a physical, visible behavior that I can actually carry out?
  • Do these ideas work for me? As you experiment with an author’s suggestions, collect data. Monitor your new behaviors and their results. You’ll experience the power of precise awareness — and discover more about what truly works for you.

In this blog, I’ll continue to reflect on my experience with books for behavior change. I am not a psychologist or spiritual teacher. But I am an intelligent non-expert.

More importantly, I am a mortal human being who wants to live with a little more wisdom and compassion.

I’ll alert you to ideas that excite me, confuse me, or alarm me. I invite you to stick around for the ride and join me in the conversation.

Photo: Max Ostrozhinskiy,

Writing for Behavior Change — Useful Resources


Writing instructions that guide people to change their behavior is a specific genre with its own set of best practices. If you want to create books, courses, and other materials that actually work for people, then it’s essential to follow evidence-based guidelines.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find a single source with a comprehensive treatment of those guidelines. This post is my ongoing attempt to fill this gap. Following are links to articles with relevant suggestions. I’ll expand and update this list as I find more resources.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers to Learn a Process

Process learning is what usually comes to mind when we think about “teaching” someone to do something. Process learning helps people understand how to complete a task or take a series of actions through traditional elements of instruction:

  • State a rule or principle.
  • Give an example of how to apply the rule or principle (and sometimes a non-example as well).
  • Ask the reader to apply the rule and get immediate feedback.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Stories

Good instructions for behavior change alternate between process (how to do something) and insight (why doing something will benefit me). Stories about people who apply and benefit from your instructions are especially useful for the “why” dimension.

The trick is to write stories that “ring true” with readers while avoiding flat and generic anecdotes that are little more than lectures. This post offers suggestions.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Structured Experiences

You can also promote insight with exercises, or structured experiences. Here is a list of examples with guidelines for creating each one.

Writing for Behavior Change — Keep it Simple, Sweetheart

What makes writing instructions so hard is the curse of knowledge. As Richard Saul Wurman  reminds us in Information Anxiety, “The minute we know something, we forget what it was like to not know it.”

Many of the instructions I see in self-help books presume too much knowledge and skill on the part of readers. This post offers ways to create instructions that don’t fly above the heads of your audience members.

Writing for Behavior Change — A Checklist

This post is a grand summary of the above articles, designed as a point-by-point guide to editing your work.

New Harbinger’s Publishing Guidelines: How to Write a Self-Help Book

New Harbinger publishes clear, compassionate, evidence-based materials that represent the best of the self-help genre. Its publishing guidelines are a gold mine of step-by-step instructions for writing a book. Especially useful are the suggestions for outlining (creating a table of contents) and presenting a process:

To effectively teach an individual step of a skill, follow this sequence: state the rule or instruction first. Be clear and to the point. Then, give an example of how someone else did this step. Lastly, provide the exercise for the reader to perform. This gives the reader three ways to learn the skill: intellectually by precept, emotionally through modeling, and experientially through action.

New Paths to Personal Knowledge Management from Tiago Forte

f1iNbCx4_400x400In personal productivity — a field that’s rife with clichés and half-baked content — Tiago Forte offers a new and important voice. His posts are substantive, original, and practical.

I’ve already featured Tiago’s insights on productivity and taking notes for creative thinking. Today I’ll point you to two more recent resources.

First, check out part one of his Evernote podcast on these topics (edited transcript included). I look forward to part two.

Second, listen to Rewriting the Rules of Productivity and Knowledge Management on Rad Reads, a podcast with Khe Hy. Since there’s no transcript for this, I’m sharing the following list of my personal take-aways from this interview.

Skip motivation

David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system for “stress-free productivity” is not based on personal inspiration or ramping up your motivation. Instead, GTD is practical and grounded. It’s based on tasks — such as making lists — that you already know how to do.

Move from prescriptions to principles

The path to mastery begins with following instructions and copying the behavior of an expert. The challenge here is that you don’t always see deeply into that person’s workflow. Eventually you simplify the expert’s system by focusing on what you need to learn at any given moment, and by grasping the underlying principles.

The ultimate purpose of any system such as GTD is to work itself out of a job. Over time you internalize the principles so deeply and implement them so often that it all becomes second nature.

Start with core GTD principles

First, develop the “collection habit”: Instead of keeping ideas and reminders in your head, write them down. Use paper or a note-taking app for this purpose.

Second, take the items  that you’ve collected and figure out what they mean. In particular, group them into lists of desired outcomes and the next actions you’ll take to produce those outcomes.

Be sure to separate these two tasks, however. Trying to do them at the same time leads to breakdowns.

Expand GTD with personal knowledge management (PKM)

GTD does not say much about managing reference information — such as notes and works in progress — to achieve creative breakthroughs. For this we can turn to the new field of PKM.

PKM recognizes that each of us monitors a continuous stream of information from many sources of our own choosing, both analog and digital. We need ways to organize and retrieve that information for timely insight and action.

In effect, each of us manages an individualized library of information. We are personal library scientists.

PKM appeals to a psychographic rather than a demographic

Tiago offers a course in PKM called Building a Second Brain. The people who take this course come from many age groups and professions. Their common ground is a desire to think creatively in a structured way — in short, design thinking. These folks worry about where to place their attention and how to turn relevant information into creative breakthroughs.

Job mobility mandates PKM

In the days of lifetime employment at a single company, PKM was not needed. The employee’s knowledge and the company’s knowledge largely overlapped.

Today the average job tenure for people ages 25 to 40 at a job is about 2.3 years. In the old days, that was your onboarding period!

This calls on each of us to curate information for lifelong learning. We need a robust collection of personalized and useful information to take from job to job.

PKM has three pillars

First, capture information with progressive summarization. Take notes to capture information from any source. Then condense that information into a series of shorter and shorter summaries.

Look for the semantic triggers — key words and phrases — in every paragraph of your notes. Boldface those words. Then highlight a subset of those.

Don’t worry about creating summaries on a fixed schedule. Just summarize on the fly whenever you review your notes.

Second, organize all the information you collect by PARA.  This is an acronym that stands for Projects, Areas of responsibility, Resources, and Archives. These categories are not static; they are flows. Your notes will move between categories as appropriate.

Third, retrieve information on a “just-in-time” basis. Tiago presents simple, informal methods for project management that are based the theory of constraints.

The goal of all this activity is to clear your head. Instead of relying on memory, you offload information into an external system. Then you retrieve information in a way that’s useful to you in the future.

Tagging does always not work well for this, by the way. Tags that make sense to you today can become unclear or irrelevant over time. If you tag, supplement this practice with organizing by PARA.

PKM and creativity work together

Many of us have culturally-based stereotypes about creative people: We assume that they are chaotic thinkers and chronically disorganized.

In reality, artists can be highly organized. And CEOs can be highly creative.

“Inbox zero” only lasts until your next email

The attempt to keep your email inbox at zero often promotes guilt. Another option is to see email like Twitter — as a continuous stream of information to monitor. It is not a “bucket” or “container” to “empty.” Dip into email periodically to retrieve and act on what’s relevant in the moment.

Note: This approach requires a good GTD system. Develop the habits of capturing ideas and clarifying them as outcomes and next actions. Use a “read later” app for articles that you don’t consume immediately.

Behold the generalist

Being a freelancer used to mean monetizing a specialty — a specific skill and knowledge base. Today, self-employed people can be entrepreneurs with a portfolio of various products and services. The challenge here is to create a personal identity that is fluid, flexible, and not fully defined by your work.

Information Overload? Filter It With These Three Questions

It’s no wonder that people complain about information overload. Most of what we do is managing information. This includes input from thinking, conversations, and all the content that we consume via print media and digital devices.


But as David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, reminds us, “the problem is not information overload”:

If it was, you’d walk into a library and die. The first time you connected to the Web, you’d blow up, and merely browsing a newspaper would make you a nervous wreck. Actually, a plethora of information is relaxing. One reason a stroll in the woods can be so calming is because of the quantity and variety of visual and auditory input. In an environment of too little information, we get really uncomfortable. Sensory deprivation is unsettling.

Another useful perspective on “overload” comes from Clay Shirky, who teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University. In an interview with Russ Juskalian for the Columbia Journalism Review, Shirky said that “there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure…. you never hear twenty-year-olds talking about information overload because they understand the filters they’re given.” These include social filtering sites such as Digg, Metafilter, and Reddit.

An even more immediate strategy is to filter information by asking three questions:

  • Does this information relate to a project I care about? I define project as David Allen does — an outcome that you can achieve only by completing more than one task. One advantage of having a list of your current projects is that you get an automatic set of filters. Say that my list includes finish the first draft of my novel and launch a new blog by December 1. Any information that I find about novel writing and blogging will rise to the top and probably get included in my commonplace book.
  • Does this information relate to a person I care about? I often recommend books and articles to friends because it might help them complete one of their projects, solve one of their problems, or simply experience a moment of delight. This is a sweet spot where content curation and compassion overlap.
  • Does this information relate to a passion of mine? In this wonderful post about organizing large bodies of information, Tiago Forte suggests that you focus on “topics and themes of ongoing interest.” Like me, Tiago is interested in topics such as habit formation, note-taking apps, and project management. Your list will be different and unique to you. The key point, as Richard Saul Wurman reminded us, is that there is no such thing as “keeping up” with the news and other information. There is only the sacred path of “following the trail of your own interests.”

Rethinking Productivity: Five Big Ideas From Tiago Forte

f1iNbCx4_400x400The freshest and most provocative ideas about personal information management and productivity are now coming from Tiago Forte. He runs Forte Labs, which offers consulting, coaching, and workshops.

I belong to Praxis, Tiago’s membership-based blog, which features long, meaty posts. Following are some of the ideas I’ve gleaned from them, and I encourage you to join Praxis for more.


It’s possible, Tiago says, to use a note-taking app such as Evernote to store routine information—receipts, recipes, tax records, contact information, to-do lists, and the like. But where these apps really shine is setting up conditions for creative thinking: Notes are physical artifacts of ideas that you can collect from many different sources, incubate over time, and combine into new structures.

For more details on this point, see Tiago Forte on Taking Notes for Creative Thinking and Evernote and the Brain: Designing Creativity Workflows.


In modern workplaces, employees experience constant interruptions that make it hard to settle into focused and concentrated states of flow. But instead of decrying this, Tiago asks, why not use it to our advantage? Ideas are the true currency of knowledge work, and these can be delivered in “intermediate packets”— notes, outlines, drafts, prototypes—that emerge from short bursts of work.

Tiago develops this idea in Bending the Curves of Productivity.


Your notes can become a “second brain”—a personal knowledge base that appreciates in value over time. But how do you organize all that information? Tiago proposes four major categories that you can use on any note-taking platform:

  • Projects—a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline
  • Areas of responsibility—a sphere of activity, such as health, finances, and professional development
  • Resources—notes related to specific topics that interest you
  • Archives—inactive notes from the other three categories


With some exceptions, the productivity suggestions that you find online have sunk to the level of click-bait driven, generic “tips and tricks.” Tiago proposes an alternative—“framing problems in the context of systems that can be measured and optimized using small experiments.”

The key is to apply design thinking as you test new habits, much along the lines suggested by BJ Fogg. Over time you’ll emerge with an integrated set of behaviors that work specifically for you.


Every day I find dozens of potentially useful articles on the Internet. If I took the time to immediately read every one of them, I’d never get anything else done.

To the rescue comes “read-later” apps such as Instapaper and Pocket. Yet they pose a new problem: How do I decide what content to save for future consumption?

Tiago’s solution is simple and powerful: Save anything and everything that interests you. Then let it sit in your read-later app for a while. Time will give you perspective on what’s worth a second look and what’s not. As Tiago notes:

I am always amazed by what happens: no matter how stringent I was in the original collecting, no matter how certain I was that this thing was worthwhile, I regularly eliminate 1/3 of my list before reading. The post that looked SO INTERESTING when compared to that one task I’d been procrastinating on, in retrospect isn’t even something I care about.

This is near-effortless filtering—and a welcome antidote to information overload.

How to Take Useful Notes on Books


“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember,” said Cicero. Indeed. One key reason to keep a commonplace book is to store notes on your reading. Those notes become a personally-curated reference collection—and a continuing source of inspiration.

Beyond that, taking notes on your reading changes you from a passive consumer of information to an active creator of ideas. This is especially true when you write responses to what you read and make plans to act on an author’s suggestions.

The question is how to begin. What kind of notes on reading are most useful? Ultimately you’ll answer that question for yourself. Following are some options that are specifically tailored to nonfiction books.


Shane Parrish of Farnam Street reads over 150 books each year and blogs about many of them. His note-taking process is this:

  • Read the front matter—preface, the table of contents, and inside jacket.
  • Glance over the index.
  • Decide whether to read the book.
  • Mark up the book—circle words to look up, star key points, underline interesting passages, list questions, note connections, and write comments in the margins.
  • Summarize each chapter with a few bullet points.
  • Writing on a blank sheet of paper, explain the core ideas of the book to yourself.

Essentially, Shane says, he’s taking these steps to “engage in a conversation with the author.”

Shane then puts the book away and waits at least one week before returning to it. At that time, he reviews all his handwritten notes:

If something still strikes my interest, I write a note in the first few pages of the book, in my own words, on the topic. Often this is a summary but increasingly it’s ways to apply the knowledge. I index this to the page number in the book.

Finally, he takes selected quotations and copies them into his commonplace book.

For more on this topic from Shane, see How to Retain More of What You Read.


I don’t know whether Tim Ferriss’s interview with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings went viral, but surely it came close. Brain Pickings has over a million monthly readers, and Maria publishes two or three posts daily. What’s more, she mostly curates offline sources—that is, books.

Maria described her process at 39 minutes into the interview:

On the very last page of each book, which is blank, usually…I create an alternate index. So I basically list out, as I’m reading, the topics and ideas that seem to be important and recurring in that volume. And then next to each of them I start listing out the page numbers where they occur. And on those pages I’ve obviously highlighted the respective passage and have a little sticky tab so that I can find it. It’s basically an index based not on key words…but based on key ideas.

I suggest copying these indexes into your commonplace book. This brings the contents of many books into a single place, allowing you to compare, contrast, and make connections.


Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business and The First 20 Hours: How to Learning Anything Fast! writes masterful book summaries. His approach is unique:

My book notes are different from many of the book summaries you’ll find on the web. Instead of following the structure of the book in question, we’ll isolate and examine the key ideas and themes that make the book useful. Along the way, I’ll tell you how I actually apply the ideas.

For examples, see Josh’s summary of Getting Things Done by David Allen and Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst.

This works well, though it requires time and careful thinking to distill an entire book to its big ideas. You might want to save this strategy for your favorite books.


I often quote Seth Godin on how to read: “The recipe that makes up just about any business book can be condensed to just two or three pages. The rest is the sell. The proof. The persuasion.” Based on this idea, Seth offers a three-point reading program:

  • Set a goal to change three behaviors based on what you read.
  • Highlight “marching orders” — the passages that explain how to implement those three changes. Create a checklist of these behaviors on an index card.
  • Share your favorite books and talk to people about your checklists.

I’m sure that The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande also has useful ideas. I’ll let you know as soon as I read the book.


When reading ebooks, you can mark them up by underlining, highlighting, and adding notes. I like to copy and paste my highlighted passages into my commonplace book, along with the author’s name and book title.

Copying and pasting sounds simple. But consider what you’re actually doing—distilling thousands of words down to a manageable and useful core of key passages. That’s no mean intellectual feat.


People like Shane Parrish favor a structured system for taking notes on reading. If that’s not your style, however, take a cue from Peter Elbow, author of Writing With Power—Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process:

If you want to digest and remember what you are reading, try writing about it instead of taking notes. Stop periodically—at the end of each chapter or when something important strikes you—and simply write about what you have read and your reactions to it. This procedure may make you nervous at first because you can’t ‘cover’ as many points or make something as neatly organized as when you take notes. But you will remember more. Perfectly organized notes that cover everything are beautiful, but they live on paper, not in your mind.

Derek Sivers takes this more free-form approach. And his book notes are fun reads in themselves.

P.S. Also check out Michael Hyatt’s downloadable template for taking notes on nonfiction books.