Author: Doug Toft

Avoiding Stories That Undermine Your Credibility

“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”


Though it’s not exactly a warm fuzzy, Hemingway’s insight can save your reputation.

One place that crap easily enters our writing is the odd anecdote that’s inaccurate or simply untrue. Consider the following examples.

The infamous boiling frog

You’ve probably heard this one — an anecdote that’s often told to illustrate the dangers of ignoring gradual change. Though countless versions exist, the key points are these:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail — to their peril — to notice subtle and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

In Next Time, What Say We Boil A Consultant, the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company quotes two biologists who say that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot enough, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The Fast Company folks verified this by running their own experiment:

We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.

Those legendary earners from Yale

Equally infamous is the “Yale Goal Study.” Again, there are many variations. The main events are these:

  • In 1953 (or 1933, or 1943, depending on the storyteller) researchers interviewed members of Yale’s graduating class, asking the students whether they had written down any goals for the rest of their lives.
  • Twenty years later, researchers tracked down the same group of graduates.
  • The 3 per cent of graduates who had written goals accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined.

This is such a compelling story. We just want it to be true.

“There is just one small problem,” notes Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. “As far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place.”

The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit, which also tried to verify this story, confirms Wiseman on this point.

The moral of this story

Only tell stories that you can verify based on:

  • Direct personal experiences (preferably with objective witnesses involved)
  • Interviews with credible experts that confirm each other
  • Publications from credible sources that you can cite in an accepted format


How to Avoid the Bullshit Industrial Complex

I wanted to cheer after reading Sean Blanda’s post about The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex. His main point: “Don’t fall into the trap of being an expert before you’re ready. We have enough of those.”


As editor of 99u, Sean gets pitches from people who want to write for the website or speak at company’s conferences for creative professionals. In the worst of these pitches, he says:

…there’s nothing to suggest the person has any original experience or research or insight to offer said advice. Instead they choose to quote other people who quote other people and the insights can often be traced back in a recursive loop. Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader. Or, most frustratingly, they all reference the same company case studies (Hello, Apple and Pixar!), the same writers, or the same internet thinkers. I often encounter writers that share “success advice” learned from a blogger who was quoting a book that interviewed a notable prolific person.

Sean also presents a continuum that goes from credibility to bullshit. He identifies four levels:

Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks and sharing first-hand learnings.

Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language.

[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]

Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.

Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.

Our path to freedom from the Bullshit Industrial Complex is to remember that Group 1 sources exist in every field. And, our job is to find them.

If you’re a critical reader of self-help material, for example, Group 1 includes researchers who write well—academics who stay close to the data and have a source of income beyond speaking fees and book royalties.

Notable examples include Martin Seligman, Richard Wiseman, Sojna Lyubomirsky, Tal Ben-Shahar, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Timothy Wilson, BJ Fogg, Orin Davis, and creators of evidence-based psychotherapies.

I trust such people because they abide by the ethics of responsible scholarship.

They go beyond anecdotes to test their ideas with well-designed studies.

They know the professional literature and cite their sources.

They distinguish between hunches and statements that are supported by evidence.

Most of all, Group 1 sources openly acknowledge the possible objections to their ideas and state the limitations in applying them.

This gets to the heart of the scientific method, which includes a deliberate search for evidence that refutes your hypothesis—and an admission that nothing is ever proven.

Our constant challenge as writers and speakers to dwell above the “line of bullshit demarcation.” Our daily job is to create original work that goes beyond aggregating the content of other aggregators—even when mindless aggregation wins shares, likes, and other hollow dings of social approval.

This is hard work. It means cultivating the timeless virtues of honesty and humility—qualities that easily go down the toilet when there’s a book to promote or a mailing list to build.


Avoiding bullshit is one of my favorite topics. For starters, see the only-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek Anecdotes Are Sexy But Not Conclusive. Also check out:

Using a Commonplace Book to Incubate Ideas—The Power of “Zero Drafts”

Of the many benefits of keeping a commonplace book, the one I find most powerful is allowing ideas to simmer, develop, and build  over time.


In a masterful post, Tony Schwartz describes this as incubation—a crucial stage in creative thinking:

The second stage of creativity begins when we walk away from a problem, typically because our left hemisphere can’t seem to solve it. Incubation involves mulling over information, often unconsciously. Intense exercise can be a great way to shift into right hemisphere in order to access new ideas and solutions. After writing for 90 minutes, for example, the best thing I can do to jog my brain, is take a run.

I recommend that you do more than take an exercise break. When you set up your commonplace book, create a section for zero drafts that you incubate over time.

How to create a zero draft

I got the term zero draft from Christian Tietze, coauthor of a wonderful blog about commonplacing. “This draft isn’t meant for reading,” he notes. It’s even worse than the shitty first draft we all need to embrace. This is Frankenstein’s monster turned into text.”

A zero draft is midway between a collection of random notes and the first draft of an article or book on a specific topic. More precisely, it is a growing collection of notes about a single topic grouped into a flat outline.

By flat, I mean just two levels of content:

  • The title of an article, blog post, presentation, or book chapter that you might create
  • Subheadings—one for each major point you could make or story that you could tell to flesh out the title

To create a zero draft, simply “dump” (copy and paste) any relevant notes (facts, anecdotes, quotes, examples, and other information) under the most appropriate subheading. (To get ideas for subheadings, consider some common frameworks for nonfiction writers.)

Note: This process of dumping notes is much harder when you have a “deep” outline with two or more levels of headings: Each level adds another layer of decisions to make about where to place an individual note. By keeping your outline flat, you eliminate all those extra decisions.

Always be researching, always be writing 

Always have several zero drafts in process. Each one might start simply as a note with a working title for something you’d like to publish or present in the future. Add subheadings as they occur to you. When you run across a relevant fact or quote, paste it under the appropriate subheading.

To get the most benefit from this process:

  • Allow plenty of time for adding notes to your zero draft.
  • Review your zero drafts weekly, revising them as you see fit.
  • Remember that zero drafts are not even “shitty first drafts.” They’re simply collections of notes without introductions, transitions, or conclusions. Zero drafts acquired their name because they come before any draft, even the first one.
  • Allow your evolving creations to slowly shape themselves. Some zero drafts naturally fall away and fade into your archives. Others will flourish and expand into projects that you commit to finish. In either case, your zero drafts will speak to you and tell you how they want to be developed. It’s as if your notes have a mind of their own.

Two benefits of zero drafts

This approach allows for incubation, as Tiago Forte explains:

Too often, we force ourselves to take an idea from blue sky ideation to practical execution in 48 hours flat. We call it a “rapid prototyping sprint,” and pride ourselves on how little time was spent, as if a new idea is something to be excreted and moved on from as quickly as possible.

But again, this is not how our mind works. I don’t need to tell you anecdotes about how the brain continues working on problems through the night, or as you do household chores, or take a shower, or do grocery shopping.

The post from which I took the above quote offers an example of incubation. Tiago describes it as the product of a “slow burn”—a process of collecting notes from more than 25 sources over the period of a year.

In addition, zero drafts help you separate the tasks of researching and writing. Every time I try to combine those tasks during one sitting, I end up frustrated and ready to quit. The mental effort required to switch tasks between gathering notes and crafting notes into a first draft is just too great.

Above all, approach zero drafts with a sense of play. See them as mini-experiments and works in progress. Create them to have fun and guide your learning—independent of any deadline. Allow the slow burn to sizzle and then explode into your next big creation.

For more on this topic, see:

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.

Link Feast: Commonplace Books and PIM

My posts about keeping a commonplace book for personal information management (PIM) have led me to other people who are publishing valuable information on these topics.


Tiago Forte is currently my “go-to” source on note-taking as a tool for thinking and workflows for productivity. Tiago is steeped in the relevant research and distills it into useful instructions. His posts offer the most sophisticated treatment of these topics that I’ve seen. Check out his blog, starting with:

Ryan Holiday advocates commonplacing and has published several pieces about his process:

Christian Tietze and Sascha Fast blog about The Zettelkasten Method. Zettelkasten is German for “slip box,” a commonplace book consisting of notes on index cards. In addition, Christian and Sascha published a new book in German on this topic. I’m waiting for an English translation.

Evernote, the note-taking app, has inspired many posts about commonplacing. See the Evernote blog, especially posts by Taylor Pipes. Also sample Michael Hyatt’s posts about Evernote. Note that most of the core principles in these posts apply to any note-taking system, including paper-based tools and other note-taking apps such as OneNote (my favorite).

Taking note—A blog on the nature of note-taking is also worthwhile. There’s lots here about the history of commonplacing, along with some deliciously nerdy cognitive psychology. Enjoy.


James Altucher on Becoming an Idea Machine

altucher-sitting-sidebar1James Altucher is an investor, entrepreneur, and author of many books,  including Choose Yourself and The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth. What fascinates me about James is his personal narrative, which fuels a thriving online presence. It centers on his relationship to ideas—specifically, the power of becoming an idea machine.

“Ideas are the real currency of the universe,” James writes. “Money is the shadow of that.”

It’s easy to let our self-concept ride on shallow metrics—money, possessions, fame, good looks, and “likes” on social media. For James, the only metric that matters is ideas:

…I know if I have good ideas for myself and for others then I can face any situation. I can handle any rejection. I can handle any negative change in my circumstances. Everything in life has cycles with low points and high points. The idea muscle can get stronger during low points and can make wishes come true in the high points.

Ideas are so important to James that he’s built a daily practice around them. Writing by hand on waiter’s pads, he brainstorms at least 10 ideas a day. He says that building your “idea muscle” in this way is just as important as building fitness through physical exercise:

Write down ten ideas. About anything. It doesn’t matter if they are business ideas, book ideas, ideas for surprising your spouse in bed, ideas for what you should do if you are arrested for shoplifting, ideas for how to make a better tennis racquet, anything you want. The key is that it has to be ten or more. You don’t ever have to look at these ideas again. The purpose is not to come up with a good idea. The purpose is to have thousands of ideas over time.

Your daily collection of 10 or more ideas is one of many useful lists to keep in your commonplace book. Following are suggestions from James about getting value from this exercise.

Create ideas for solving other people’s problems

James is blunt on this point: “Nobody cares about your problems.” They’re concerned about their problems: How to get a job. How to get more clients or customers. How to earn more money, lose weight, or get a date.

Figuring out ways for other people to get what they want is a powerful way to flex your idea muscle. The goal is to “have a vision that helps other people make their own visions manifest.”

Create ideas to supply what’s missing from the world

What’s something that you’d like to have and doesn’t exist yet? This question has led to many world-changing inventions, from the light bulb to the personal computer and iPhone. There’s a chance that what’s useful to you will be useful to other people as well.

Pitch ideas without being a pain in the ass.

Don’t invite people to get coffee so that you can share your ideas. People are busy. They already have coffee.

Instead, just send them ideas. If those ideas light a fire for the recipients, they’ll follow up in time.

Don’t ask for money up front

The best way to pitch ideas is not to ask people to pay you to implement them. That’s “amateur hour” and an instant turn-off, says James.

Instead, give ideas a way for free. This is how you get noticed and get your foot in the door. And that can lead to a well-paying gig later.

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas

It hardly ever happens. And if it does, it’s a sign that your idea truly helped someone.

“The more you help,” says James, “the more you are connected to something much bigger than you are.” This connection is how you find meaning in life and create value in the world.

Pitch “do-able” ideas

“I’m not going to send Elon Musk suggesting he make an elevator to Mars instead of a spaceship,” James writes.

At the same time, ignore people who say that ideas are a dime a dozen or execution is everything. Instead, write down ideas for how to execute your ideas.

For example, create a two-column chart. In the left column, write down 10 ideas for businesses to start. In the right column, write down the very next action you would take to start each business.

Aim for risk, humor, and honesty

Remember that great ideas are often labeled “crazy” in the beginning. Pursue them anyway.

As you share ideas, reveal things about yourself that make other people laugh and relate to you as an imperfect human being.

If you’re looking for an example, you won’t find a better one than James Altucher.

Also see:

James Altucher on Writing, Publishing and Becoming an Idea Machine

James Altucher on Making Money by Writing Books

The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine

How to be THE LUCKIEST GUY ON THE PLANET in 4 Easy Steps

10 Ideas to Make Money With Your 10 Ideas a Day

FAQ on How to Become an Idea Machine

Three Trends for the Next 50 Years


Three Simple Ways to Set Up Your Commonplace Book

A commonplace book is a collection of facts, anecdotes, quotations, spontaneous insights, and any other information that has potential use for you. I’ve posted about the many benefits of a commonplace book. So now I’ll switch from why to keep one to how to do it.



Your commonplace book might include thousands of notes. But it doesn’t have to be complicated to set up or hard to navigate. My guiding principle is to use the simplest possible structure that yields the best information. You can achieve that goal in any of the following ways.

  1. One Big Ass Document

This is how Steven Berlin Johnson set up his commonplace book, which he refers to as a “spark file” (boldface is mine):

…for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy—just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them.

Steven is describing how he collects information for his work. But you can use the same strategy to collect any kind of information. Just open up a document in your favorite text editor and write all your notes in it.

For more details, see this post on creating a Big Ass Text File.

  1. Two Big Ass Documents

If your Big Ass document gets too bulky, then consider splitting it in two.

Create one document that functions strictly as an inbox for capturing ideas on the run. This document needs no organization other than chronology (most recent note first).

Then create a second document with notes sorted into whatever categories are useful to you. I call this a reference document. It’s the digital equivalent of a filing cabinet filled with folders that hold sheets of paper. Each category functions as a “folder,” and the notes within those categories are the same information that you’d write on sheets of paper.

A two-document system makes for a simple workflow:

  • Once a week, review your inbox document.
  • Delete any notes that seem irrelevant.
  • Move the remaining notes into an appropriate category in your reference document.
  1. Three Big Ass Documents

Here’s another variation on Steven’s approach. Instead of restricting yourself to one or two big documents, create three:

  • An inbox
  • A reference document
  • A project document

I define project as David Allen does in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity—an outcome that you can achieve only by completing more than one task. Assign each project a name, such as finish first draft of novel or launch new website by December 1. Then use those project names as categories for your notes.

There are three advantages to creating a separate document for project information:

  • The project document is about things you’re actively working on. You’ll refer to it often, and it’s nice to have the crucial information all in one place.
  • Within your project document, you can flag next actions as defined by David Allen—physical, visible behaviors that lead to completing a project. These are the most important notes in your project document. Highlight next actions so they’re easy to spot, or place them at the top of your project document.
  • Keeping your project document free of reference information—which is more static and less crucial for your daily activities—makes the document smaller, easier to manage, and easier to search.

Again, your workflow consists of three main steps:

  • Once a week, review your inbox document.
  • Delete any notes that seem irrelevant.
  • Sort the remaining notes into an appropriate category in your reference document or project document.

More options

So far I’ve listed the three core kinds of “personal information collections” described in theories of personal information management—inbox, reference, and project. But of course you’re free to add any other collections that work for you.

You could also define your commonplace book in a wider sense as any medium for preserving ideas and planning projects. From this perspective, your commonplace book includes:

  • Your calendar
  • Your website and blog
  • Working drafts of articles, books, or presentations (including “zero drafts”)
  • Published articles and books and past presentations
  • Articles that you’ve clipped on paper or online to read later

Focus on function, not tools

For purposes of explanation, I’ve described inbox, project, and reference collections as documents. In reality, however, they are functions:

  • The function of your inbox is to capture incoming information that matters to you
  • The function of your project collection is to store “hot”  information—notes that you’ll refer to often as you complete your active projects.
  • The function of your reference collection is to store “cool” information—notes that you’ll refer to only when you want to look up something that’s not in your working memory.

To accomplish these three functions, you could use a variety of tools.

Index cards are simple. Write one task, quote, fact, anecdote, or other piece of information on each card. Then file cards by category (inbox, reference, or project). Don’t underestimate the power of this technology. Ryan Holiday uses it to write books. And Robert Pirsig organized 11,000 cards with these categories.

Sheets of paper sorted into folders can also work. Label one folder projects and the other one reference. Each folder can house handwritten notes, letters, and printouts of documents stored on your computer.

Paper notebooks are the medium of choice for many people. The Bullet Journal is popular. The Dash/Plus system is simpler and also cool. And of course there’s the humble spiral notebook with section dividers that you used to take notes in school.

Notes apps such as OneNote and Evernote are major players. See this list of examples and factors to consider when choosing among them.

One huge advantage of a notes app is that you can search your notes with key words—just as you use Google or another search engine to find things on the Internet.

OneNote, nvALT, and other apps also allow you to create hyperlinks between notes. The result is a mini-Web filled with the contents of your own mind.

In addition, you can copy and paste content from the Web into a notes app. Just be sure to include a source for everything that you copy.

Also remember that you can combine paper-based and digital tools. For an example, see Ben Casnocha’s system.

Again, simple is best. Opt for fewer tools and fewer steps in your workflow. Keep your idea machine lean, clean, and easy to run.