The Case Against Notes Apps — And Why I Still Use Them

Over the past decade we’ve seen an explosion of digital tools for personal knowledge management — that is, note-taking apps. Even so, there remains a vocal, articulate, and delightfully nerdy group of note takers who look at all those apps, shrug, and just say: Meh. Not for me.


Take writer Douglas Barone, for example. His classic File System Infobase Manager post is a breath-taking 4000-word argument against notes apps.

Alex Payne, investor and software developer, describes notes apps as a “plague” of “everything buckets” that violate one of his Rules for Computing Happiness — “Do not use software that does many things poorly.”

I’ve also burned through a number of notes apps, rejecting most of them along the way. Why? For some of the reasons that Doug and Alex mention:

  • Threat of abandonment. At any time, developers can lose interest or companies can go out of business. Result: your precious little app disappears.
  • Lack of feature fit. Some apps have irritating restrictions — limits on file size, for example, or absence of features that I find essential. Other apps are memory hogs and bloated with features I’ll never use. In either case I’m forced to change my workflow to fit the app’s functionality.
  • Proprietary data bases. If you ever decide to export your notes to another app or different file format — well, good luck. You face hours of mind-numbing copy-and-paste operations.
  • Redundancy. You can duplicate the core features of many notes apps by simply using the search functions, file system, and native apps on your device.
  • Cost. Getting the features and storage space you want often means paying an annual subscription fee.

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

What I wanted for many years was something different — an approach to personal knowledge management that was:

  • Agnostic — usable on any platform and not tied to a specific app
  • Future-proof — usable for the long-term with whatever platforms and operating systems emerge in the future
  • Portable — allowing me to easily export and import notes
  • Lightweight — storing notes in smaller, more efficient files
  • Flexible — accepting notes that range in size from a few words to a book-length manuscript
  • Accessible — allowing me to open, edit, and save files with any computer or mobile device
  • Efficient — fast and reliable
  • Free — based on no-cost apps or apps that I already own

One way to get these benefits is to do what Doug and Alex suggest: Forget notes apps. Just create notes as documents using the apps and filing system you already have. Also stick with plain text files as much as possible; they’re small and recognized by all platforms and devices.

Another option is to go wholly analog and take notes on index cards. No kidding. Ryan Holiday does this, and he’s über-productive.

These are both reasonable choices. And, I’m still sticking with a notes app — in my case, OneNote. Here are my reasons:

  • Web clipping. Like Evernote andBear,  OneNote offers a web clipper. This allows me to import the full text of web pages as a note along with the source URL. All it takes is a single click and a few seconds. Web clipping is now essential to my work flow, and I don’t want to lose it.
  • Robust searching. Search features in notes apps have really improved. True, I have Spotlight on my Mac and iPhone. But I’m still not confident about its abilities to consistently locate key words within individual documents created by many different apps.
  • Free form naming. Storing notes as individual documents requires complex conventions for naming them for easy finding. (Check out Doug’s and Alex’s — and Merlin Mann’s as well.) Arriving at conventions that will work for me is a potentially time-consuming and error-prone process. In fact, it involves many of the same traps as tagging. (See Tiago Forte’s masterful post about this.) It’s easier to name notes with a few key words and use OneNote’s search functions instead.
  • Note linking. OneNote, like some other notes apps, allows me to create links between notes that function like hyperlinks on the Internet. This promotes creative thinking. Links also turn OneNote into a personal wiki or mini-web and help me navigate paths through my notes.
  • Integration. Within any note I can embed or attach many types of content  — PDFs, podcasts, videos, Word docs, and more. This helps me overcome the problem of information fragmentation — content that’s spread all over my computer’s hard drive in multiple formats from multiple apps. OneNote becomes the closest thing that I have to a central hub — a top-level view of all my personally curated information.
  • Software compatibility. Let’s face it: Microsoft Word won the word processing wars. It’s still the default option for submitting book manuscripts and other documents to my clients. And it’s a decent outliner as well. I pay an Office 365 subscription to get Word updates, and for that price I get other goodies as well: all the other Office apps — including OneNote — and a terabyte of online storage for each member of my household.
  • Longevity. Any developer can dump any of its apps at any time (as former users of Google Reader like to point out). And, yes, it is theoretically possible that Microsoft might stop developing OneNote in the future. This is not likely, however, and I’m willing to live with the risk.
  • Switching costs. The prospect of exporting thousands of notes to plain text files leaves me with a sinking feeling in my gut. This task would take hours — possibly days. I’m just not up for it.

The key point here is that when creating a personal knowledge base, we have plenty of options. Experiment with a few while remembering that there’s no perfect solution.

After a certain point you just live with the trade-offs — whatever they are — and get back to work.

Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

Seven Ways to Create a Friction-Free Knowledge Base

kyaw-tun-332358David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, describes himself as “the laziest person I’ve ever met.” However, he defines lazy as “making something happen with as little effort as possible.” This isn’t sloth — it’s meeting your goals while having fun along the way.

I like to approach personal knowledge management (PKM) in this spirit. Let’s make it as easy and enjoyable as possible without sacrificing quality. I suggest some ways to streamline the process in Knowledge Management Made Simple — Six Things You Can Stop Doing With Your Notes App. Following are more ideas.

1 Choose a notes app that makes it easy to capture information

One core skill in PKM is capturing ideas on the run — no matter when and where they occur to you. Some people carry a pen and pocket-sized notebook for creating quick notes in the midst of any activity. Voice memo apps and mobile versions of notes apps also work well for this purpose. In fact, I always leave the Notes app on my iPhone open.

If you choose a notes app, strongly consider one with a “Web clipper.” This feature allows you to capture the contents of a Web page with a single click and save it as a note. (Take a look at how Evernote, OneNote, and Bear do this.)

With Evernote and OneNote you can also forward emails to your notes app.

2 If it feels interesting, capture it

Deciding what information to capture and what to ignore is a huge potential source of friction. You can easily end up with a long list of criteria for what to save — a list that’s hard to remember let alone apply.

Instead, follow Tiago Forte’s suggestion to use one simple criterion — resonance:

As in, “that resonates with me.” We know from neuroscience research that “emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking.” Often, when something “resonates” with us, it is our intuitive/right brain/System 1 mind telling us something is valuable before our analytical/left brain/System 2 mind even knows what’s going on….

In fact, I very often find that the most counterintuitively insightful pieces of information I save are the ones whose practical application is initially the least clear. My intuition tells me there’s something special about what I’m seeing or hearing, and only much later does the logic become clear.

Tiago gives an example: While driving and listening to Tim Ferriss’s interview with Brené Brown on vulnerability, he heard some ideas that resonated with him on a gut level. So he pulled off the road to park his car for a moment and create this note.

“I have no idea what vulnerability has to do with my work on productivity and innovation,” Tiago adds, “but I’m 100% sure I will find a connection eventually.”

3 Keep a shallow hierarchy of notes

Some apps allow you to group individual notes into deep hierarchies — folders, subfolders, sections, subsections, pages, and subpages. For me this is overkill. Hierarchies that you have to expand and collapse are invitations to needless complexity.

I like to open up my notes app and see all the major categories at a glance. This makes it much easier to file individual notes and move them around between notebooks.

You can do a lot with just three big categories for your notes:

  • Inbox — a place to stash quick-capture notes for later review and filing.
  • Projects — notes relating to any outcome that requires more than one action to achieve. This is the classic definition of project in David Allen’s Getting Things Done Finishing a blog post, article, book manuscript, or video script is a project. Giving a presentation, changing careers, and starting a business are projects. Perhaps, as Scott Berkun suggests, everything in life is a project. (Scott Belsky agrees.) So it makes sense to process any note by asking: To what project does this belong? Set up a separate “bucket” (document, folder, section, notebook) for notes about each project in your life, both professional and personal.
  • Archives — notes that are worth keeping even if they’re not tied to a project. Examples include lists of professional contacts, financial records, checklists for recurring events in your life, book summaries, and full-text articles that you find valuable. Set up another bucket titled archives or reference for these notes.

For an interesting and useful variation, See Tiago Forte’s posts about his P.A.R.A. system (Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives).

4 Use fewer tools

You can manage a lot of information with just three tools:

  • Paper and pen stored in a pocket or purse for capturing ideas on the run (alternative: a cell phone with a notes app)
  • A calendar for scheduling appointments and due dates
  • A notes app for any other information you want to save

In a summary of Getting Things Done, Josh Kaufman describes his tool set:

Personally, I use a notebook for active tasks, a 3×5 index card in that notebook for projects, the calendar on my computer, someday/maybe and reference files in Backpack and Evernote or physical files, and my 3×5-sized wallet for my capture device.

I offer this suggestion in the spirit of Frank Chimero’s perspective on tools: “Text editor, spreadsheet, email, pencil, paper, Photoshop. OK. That’s enough,” he says:

Everything that’s made has a bias, but simple implements — a hammer, a lever, a text editor — assume little and ask less. The tool doesn’t force the hand. But digital tools for information work are spookier. The tools can force the mind, since they have an ideological perspective baked into them. To best use the tool, you must think like the people who made it. This situation, at its best, is called learning. But more often than not, with my tools, it feels like the tail wagging the dog.

List the tools — both analog and digital — that you currently use to manage projects and reference information. Can you eliminate any?

5 Keep your work flow simple

You can empty any inbox with notes, emails, or paper documents by doing one of the following:

  • Deleting items (tossing it in the trash)
  • Archiving items for later reference
  • Doing a follow-up action immediately (especially if it will only take a couple minutes)
  • Scheduling a follow-up action on your calendar (for date-sensitive items)
  • Listing — adding items to your projects list, next actions (to-do list), or “bucket list” of things you might like to do in the future

Josh Kaufman offers another useful perspective: Getting Clean, Current, and Complete — 4 Ways to Empty Your In-Box.

6 Name notes for easy finding

This is an exercise in metacognition — monitoring the ways that you think. The basic question is: When I search for this note in the future, what key words will I use? Put those words in the title of the note.

For more specific suggestions, see Never Lose An Idea — Naming Notes to Find Them Later.

7 Focus on fun

Above all, adopt a playful mindset to making notes and creating your personal knowledge base. Fire up your notes app for a few minutes and cruise through it with no special purpose in mind. When you see a notebook or note title that catches your eye, open it up. Surface ideas at random. Cultivate serendipity. Follow the trails and see where they lead.

This is one of the benefits of externalizing your knowledge as an organized collection of notes. All those gems of information are stored outside your head in a second brain. They’re safely tucked away and ripe for exploration.

Photo by Kyaw Tun on Unsplash

Mastering Your Notes App — The Power of Creating Links

jannik-selz-45375Making links between ideas that seem unconnected is the essence of creativity. In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler called this bisociation — the “perceiving of a situation or idea…in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.”

Matt Ridley and James Altucher describe this in more graphic terms as “letting ideas have sex with each other.”

Koestler’s book is loaded with examples of bisociation. You can spot more on your own.

Recently, for instance, I re-read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Jack combined his love of jazz with his writing technique in a quest to marry the two art forms.

In Belief and Technique For Modern Prose, Kerouac described his ideal: “Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better.” This led him to write long-flowing lines with strong beats and dizzying cascades of data points — much like a bebop solo by Charlie Parker:

…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!

Incubating notes for creative connections

A major reason for using a notes app to create a personal knowledge base is linking ideas in ways that surprise and delight you. This happens as you collect notes from many sources on many topics and let those notes all sit together in one place.

While reviewing your notes, you might find that unexpected connections leap out by surprise. It’s as if your notes have a mind of their own — an “emergent intelligence.”

For example, collect a bunch of your favorite quotations on a specific topic and place them on the same page. Compare and contrast. Do you see contradictions? Might these be paradoxes? Can you see ways to resolve contradictions by creating a new viewpoint that reconciles apparent disagreements?

At this point you are close to creating something original.

The Internet of you

Notes apps such as Evernote, OneNote, nvALT, and Bear give you another option for creative thinking — the ability to create visible links of your own choosing between individual notes. This makes your knowledge base even more robust by turning it into a personal wiki. Behold the Internet of you, where the links are not between Web pages but different parts of your own brain.

For example, here’s a page from my Projects notebook in OneNote. The underlined words in blue in the first sentence are not links to Web pages. Instead, these are links to notes that I’ve created and stored in other notebooks:

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 12.29.31 PM

For the sake of clarity, I refer to these as notelinks to distinguish them from Internet-based hyperlinks.

Why notelinks matter

You might look at note-linking features and say meh — no big deal. I did at first. Over time, however, I saw notelinks as a hidden path to mental superpowers.

Stacey Harmon, author of Untethered With Evernote, offers this explanation:

Note linking is the single skill that converted me from casual Evernote user, to an all-in Evernote zealot. Why? Because note links create structure in Evernote, which, by design, is an unstructured and flexible platform. And this structure is a key aid in me being able to quickly navigate to what I am looking for, no matter where I’m accessing Evernote from.

In short, notelinks create “bread crumbs” — visible reminders of connections that you’ve already made between ideas.

In addition, notelinks:

  • Allow you to move between notes at blazing speed with a single click — more quickly than doing a search or scanning long lists of note titles.
  • Create connections that have special resonance for you — more personal than a list of “hits” delivered by a search engine’s blind algorithm.
  • Create serendipitous connections based on changes in your thinking over time. Notelinks that you created 5 years ago, for instance, might differ from those you’re making today.

Some practical points to remember

As you play with note-taking apps, look for ways to link notes.

Apps differ widely in how they implement this feature. I’m not an Evernote user, but I’m told that this app only allows you to link individual notes. In contrast, OneNote allows you to create links between pages (individual notes), sections (note groups), and entire notebooks (section groups).

Check out the differences between desktop, mobile, and web-based apps. Note-linking might only be available in the desktop versions.

Also remember that notelinks can break if you retitle a note, revise the body of a note, or delete a note altogether. Your app will not update notelinks, so you’ll need to fix broken links manually.

Some other ways to create useful notelinks:

  • Use keyboard shortcuts to copy and paste multiple notelinks at a time.
  • Use multiple notelinks to create dashboards, overviews, and tables of contents — links to all the notes you’ve included in a specific section or notebook.
  • Use notelinks to connect a to-do item to related information in your project notes.
  • Use notelinks to navigate from a destination note back to the source note.
  • Remember that the text of any notelink can differ from the title of its destination note. Make the notelink text descriptive and meaningful within the context of the source note.
  • Experiment with pasting notelinks into other applications. For example, I can take OneNote notelinks and paste them into Microsoft Word documents. This creates smart connections between the two applications.

Also see

Mastering Evernote: Your Complete Guide to Note Link Nirvana by Stacey Harmon

Why You Should Set Links Manually and Not Rely on Search Alone by Christian Tietze

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten by Christian Tietze

Photo by JANNIK SELZ on Unsplash

Don’t Try to Boost Motivation — Just Ride the Wave

jeremy-bishop-286092Have you ever been forced to sit through a presentation by a “motivational speaker” — someone who’s been hired to squeeze more work out of you by whipping you into a frenzy of positive emotion?

If so, how long did your motivation last?

I’m betting that it was just long enough to look at your to-do list and see some things that you really really didn’t want to do. It was then that the frenzy faded and you sank back into your emotional status quo. Goodbye motivation.

Pete Seeger described this in song: “My get up and go has got up and went.”

This is where so many self-help “experts” try to sell us a bill of goods. They treat motivation as a problem to be solved. They work like mad to boost our motivation or help us ramp it up by ourselves.

But notice what happens when we internalize the gurus’ messages, do everything they say, and still feel unmotivated: We’re likely to see ourselves as failures.

Well, I have good news from Stanford University psychologist BJ Fogg: All the frenzy and shame are unnecessary.

Your lack of motivation is not a problem to be solved. Nor is it a character defect to eliminate.

In fact, you’re just normal. And starting from that premise gives you a much more effective way to solve the “problem” of motivation.

Motivation is a wave

The first thing to notice, says BJ, is that motivation is slippery. More precisely, it’s a wave. It rises and falls. It peaks and ebbs. This is something that any of us can verify by simple self-observation.

A second insight flows directly from the first: When motivation peaks, we temporarily feel like doing hard things. And when motivation ebbs, we gravitate toward easy things.

These are insights that we can apply to any behavior change.

Match behavior with motivation

Consider an example related to a key health habit — exercise. There are at least two ways to lay the ground work for this habit:

  • Do something easy, like simply pick out a pair of running shoes. At this point you don’t have to go for a walk. You don’t have to put the shoes on. You don’t even have to buy the shoes. You simply choose a pair that you intend to use in the future.
  • Do something hard, like find a list of personal trainers, call one up, and commit to a regular schedule of working with this person.

Which option makes more sense when your motivation is high? Of course: schedule the trainer. If you settle for simply choosing a pair of shoes, you squander an opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile and challenging.

And what will you do when motivation is low? If you want guilt-free success, then give yourself permission to just pick the shoes. If you instead try to schedule a trainer or go for a run, then you have to deal with the inner gremlin who says: Naaahhh. I just don’t wanna. And if you try to squelch that gremlin by artificially ramping up your motivation, your odds of success are low.

BJ sums up the big take-away: Don’t worry about motivation. Just choose the most desirable behavior that matches your current level of motivation — whatever that is.

In other words, ride the wave. When motivation peaks, do something hard while you still have the chance. And when motivation falls, go with the flow and do something easy. (For many more ideas about the latter, enroll in BJ Fogg’s free course on Tiny Habits.)

Harness high motivation in three key ways

High motivation is temporary. It can disappear in a matter of days, hours, or minutes. So, seize the precious opportunity that high motivation presents.

According to BJ, the most valuable things that you can do when highly motivated are:

  1. Structure your future behavior. Structured behaviors are presets — default options. For example: If you want to reduce your spending, then cut up your credit cards. If you want to stop eating junk food, then remove all that stuff from your kitchen and throw it away. If you want to exercise regularly, then schedule a personal trainer. This strategy is powerful because reversing your earlier commitment forces you to exert extra effort, such as calling the trainer to cancel.
  2. Reduce barriers to future behavior. For instance, go to the grocery store and buy a lot of vegetables. Then go home, wash them, cut them, and put all that good food into serving size containers. This reduces a barrier to making healthy meals when your motivation to cook sags and you feel the urge to do something easier — like going out to eat.
  3. Increase capacity. When your motivation to cook a healthy meal is high, for example, then take that opportunity to learn a new recipe. This is harder than going out to eat or chopping vegetables. But as you practice making the meal over the coming weeks, you’ll find this behavior easier to do — even when you don’t feel like cooking.

Note that I’ve numbered these options in the order that BJ recommends. So when motivation peaks, start with #1 before trying #2. And opt for #3 after experimenting with #2.

Don’t motivate change — facilitate it

These ideas might sound simple. If we really applied them, however, we’d create a quantum shift in our behavior.

Riding the motivation wave is especially crucial for people design programs for behavior change.

Is your job about helping people to exercise more, eat better, or adopt some other desirable habit? Then forget about boosting their motivation to do hard things, says BJ. Change your job title from motivator to facilitator. Start guiding people to surf their natural waves of motivation.

Note: This post came from my notes on a presentation by BJ Fogg about the motivation wave.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Knowledge Management Made Simple — Six Things You Can Stop Doing With Your Notes App

gaelle-marcel-85383“I want every day to be as smooth as possible,” says James Altucher. “No hassles.”

I often think about this in relation to personal knowledge management (PKM). My goal is to create and maintain a personal knowledge base in ways that are fun and efficient. If it becomes a hassle, I just won’t do it.

Let’s start by speaking in simple terms about what PKM actually means. For me, it’s ultimately about using a note-taking app to remember more, learn more, and produce more. This involves a continual process of:

As Ryan Holiday put it: Always be researching, always be writing. He’s constantly collecting facts, quotations, anecdotes, and other juicy information. This allows him to produce a steady stream of meaty books and articles.

If you practice PKM in a similar way, you’ll soon collect hundreds or even thousands of notes. Managing all that information is inherently challenging, and we can easily complicate the process in unnecessary ways. To reduce friction, avoid the following time wasters.

1 Stop switching apps

It’s possible to lose hours tinkering with various note-taking apps and tweaking their preference panes. When that happens, you can kiss productivity goodbye.

Trust me — I know this from personal experience. When I first got the notion to dump all my notes into a single searchable collection, I used Notational Velocity. For my money this is the greatest Mac app of all time. It was designed to do only one thing and do it well — create plain text notes and retrieve them with dizzying speed.

Alas, the developer of Notational Velocity stopped maintaining it. The impeccable Brett Terpstra took the source code for this app and turned it into nvALT. But Brett is a busy guy, and he has priorities other than updating this beautiful app.

After Notational Velocity I turned to Workflowy and then iA Writer and finally OneNote. In each case, migrating my hundreds of notes (now over 1000) took almost a full work day.

Even so, I’m still feeling impulses to switch apps again. There are some cool newcomers, including Bear and Dynalist. Be still my heart!

The bottom line: Choose one app and stick with it unless you have clear and compelling reasons to change. Also consider staying with one of the major players in this arena — OneNote or Evernote — that is likely to stick around for a long time.

2 Stop trying to save everything

Some people use a notes app only for a single restricted purpose. Josh Kaufman, for example, uses Evernote only to store full-text articles that he clips from the Web.

“I know a lot of people use it for everything: storing documents and receipts, tracking tasks, setting reminders, etc,” Josh writes. “For me, keeping the system simple is best.”

I use OneNote for all my notes, including brainstorms, quotations, book summaries, interview transcripts, and useful lists. But like Josh, I don’t use the app to scan and store paper-based documents. I just keep these to a minimum and file them separately.

Your preferences might be different, and that’s fine. Just make conscious choices about what to not save.

3 Stop copying and pasting Web pages

Until recently, importing text and images from a web page meant creating a clunky PDF of it or doing a massive copy-and-paste job.

Today Evernote, Bear, and OneNote offer “web clippers.” These are extensions that save an uncluttered version of a web page (along with its URL) as a note. This reduces the process of saving a page to a single click.

4 Stop tagging notes

Instead of organizing notes into categories, many people try to rely on tags. On the surface this sounds like a great idea: Don’t worry where to file a note. Just tag it with key words — such as work, personal development, or house project — that describe the content of the note. Add as many tags as you want and create new tags at any time.

Evernote enthusiasts like Michael Hyatt swear by tags. And developers of note taking apps often promote tagging as a time-saving feature.

I side with Tiago Forte, however, who suggests that we forget about tagging notes: “When you rely heavily on tags, you have to perfectly recall every single tag you’ve ever used, and exactly how it is spelled and punctuated.”

The logical alternative to tagging is searching. Tiago makes a strong case for this approach: “We’ve reached the point where search is so good, effectively the whole document is made up of tags, and the cognitive load of meticulously tagging every note becomes truly unforgivable.”

In addition, our memory depends on a sense of place. I find that grouping notes into a small number of categories makes it much easier to locate the information I want. I can almost always remember the notebook or section in which I’ve filed an individual note, even if I don’t recall its exact title or content.

5 Stop agonizing over how to organize your notes

“Information is infinite,” Richard Saul Wurman notes, “but the ways of organizing it are not.” Those organizing methods boil down to the “five ultimate hat racks”:

  • Location
  • Alphabet
  • Time
  • Category
  • Continuum

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.

When organizing notes, you can often get by with a handful of major categories. Start with just three:

  • An inbox for notes that you make on the run and plan to review later
  • Project notes with information about what you intend to get done at work and at home
  • Archived notes with information that does not require any follow-up action but is still useful to remember

If you collect many archived notes about a specific topic, consider moving those notes into a section or notebook of their own. Over time, additional categories will suggest themselves in this organic way.

6 Stop adding extra steps to your workflow

Reflect periodically on the life cycle of your notes. What you do with a note after you create it? When do you look at it again? And how do you ultimately make use of it?

There are lots of creative possibilities here, and the process does not have to involve many steps. Here’s an example from writer Ben Casnocha — a seamless blend of private reflection and public sharing, done with online and offline tools:

I take lots of notes in paper moleskin notebooks; every week or so I go back with a different color pen and circle the key sentences; I then transfer these ideas to Evernote files on my computer; and finally, I blog/tweet/publish/email out the crispest, most important ideas or quotes.

Josh Kaufman has a different workflow. Every month or so, he takes all the articles he clips to Evernote and sorts them into various topic notebooks. For him this is time to delete any duplicate entries and review the essential information.

“This simple process ensures I have a huge archive of quality information close at hand while writing books, blog posts, and essays,” he adds.

If you create content on a regular basis, having such a useful resource at your fingertips will be like having a second brain.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

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,