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

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