Author: Doug Toft

Writer and editor fascinated by commonplace books and personal information management


Authors, speakers, and other idea entrepreneurs are brilliant people who often struggle with information fragmentation. Their content is spread all over the place—in blog posts, emails, social media, note-taking apps, PDFs, Office documents, and handwritten notes.

I help clients solve this problem  with insights from the new field of personal information management (PIM). Our core tool is a commonplace book — a centralized collection of notes that’s curated for continuous learning and content creation.

To learn more, please explore my archives and feel free to contact me.

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.