In 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.
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.
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.