Tiago Forte on Taking Notes for Creative Thinking

f1iNbCx4_400x400Tiago Forte is head of Forte Labs, a firm that trains knowledge workers to “use design and technology to improve their productivity.”

Your eyes might roll at the thought of more posts about productivity, but please stick around. Tiago is rethinking the whole field based on recent research in cognitive psychology and behavior change. His posts offer the most sophisticated treatment of workflows for idea entrepreneurs that I’ve ever seen.

Tiago’s posts are dense, substantial, and worth close reading. I’m still absorbing them, but I want to highlight some suggestions that excite me right now.

(Note that Tiago often refers to Evernote as a tool for personal information management and keeping a commonplace book. However, you can apply his core ideas with any tool, paper-based or digital.)

Take notes for creative thinking, not just for storage

It’s possible to use a commonplace book simply for storing mundane notes—receipts, recipes, tax records, contact information, to-do lists, and the like.

But where a commonplace book really shines, Tiago says, is setting up the conditions for creative thinking:

  • Promoting unusual associations. Creativity means connecting things that don’t seem to be connected. Collecting notes in a central place—a commonplace book—helps you make those connections by storing notes from many sources (online and offline) in many formats (digital and analog) on many topics. When you see those notes in one place, you might find that unexpected connections leap out by surprise. It’s almost as if your notes have mind of their own—an “emergent intelligence.”
  • Creating artifacts of ideas. “Essentially, it’s easier for us to interact with physical objects in the environment than with abstract ideas in our heads,” Tiago writes. “By externalizing your ideas in a variety of formats — text, sketches, photos, videos, documents, diagrams, webclips, hyperlinks — you create a system of distributed cognition across ‘artifacts’ that can be moved, edited, rearranged, and combined.”
  • Incubating ideas over long periods of time. No doubt you’ve had the experience of struggling with a problem until you reach a stalemate. Then, while taking a shower or doing chores, the heavens part and the solution suddenly appears. This demonstrates that your brain continues to work on problems during periods of unrelated activity. If you want to be more creative, allow plenty of time for such “incubation” periods. Also take notes to document the steps in your thinking.
  • Providing the raw material for unique interpretations. Your job is less likely to be outsourced if it involves creating a unique viewpoint or plan of action and convincing other people to adopt it. This is essentially what sales people, project planners, researchers, and managers do. All of them can benefit from deep reserves of supporting material—facts, anecdotes, quotations, examples, scientific studies, and the like. By capturing that supporting material in a commonplace book, your notes turn into “information weapons.”
  • Creating opportunities for resonance. How do you choose when to take a note? Tiago’s answer is to hit a midpoint between the extremes of capturing too much information and too little. That midpoint is resonance, as in “that fact, anecdote, or quote resonates with me.” Just remember that you might be surprised at what resonates. The value of the information that you capture might only become clear after an incubation period.

Don’t worry about creating the perfect system

“Misdirected optimization is the root of all evil.” Tiago writes.

This is especially true of elaborate systems for tagging, titling, grouping, or cross-referencing notes so that you can retrieve them with total accuracy. Such systems are time-consuming to use, hard to remember, and inevitably flawed. In addition, they actually make it harder for you to spot new connections between notes by locking you into your past thinking.

Instead, group notes in a shallow hierarchy of categories. Then use an app with good search features to find information in the future. With search capability, every word in every note in effect becomes a tag or title. Your notes organize themselves with minimal effort on your part.

Design your notes to document “Return On Attention” (ROA)

Your commonplace book gains value when it reveals how much attention you pay to individual notes. The notes that you retrieve and revise the most are potent clues to the topics, projects, and people that interest you most right now.

According to Tiago, such notes are high on return on attention (ROA): “In an economy where attention really is currency, the value of a note is based on how much attention has been invested in it.”

How do you measure ROA? By designing notes in layers that instantly reveal how much attention you’ve paid to them. Tiago’s system is simple and powerful:

  • Layer 1 is saving a note from any source.
  • Layer 2 is boldfacing the key points in a note.
  • Layer 3 is highlighting the key boldfaced passages.
  • Layer 4 is summarizing the note in his own words and stating how he will personally apply the key points.

Build a knowledge base that grows in value over time

Tiago describes his Evernote database in glowing terms. It is a “Cliff’s Notes” to everything valuable that he’s learned in that past, a “business asset,” a “knowledge base that appreciates over time,” a record of his best thinking, and “a personal Wikipedia of learnings I can selectively share to create value for others, while preserving the highest value (the connections to other notes) for myself.”

You can gain the same benefits by keeping a commonplace book in any digital or analog form that works for you.

For more details on all the above points, see Tiago’s blog, especially How to Use Evernote for Your Creative Workflow and Evernote and the Brain: Designing Creativity Workflows.

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