Author: Doug Toft

Writer and editor fascinated by commonplace books and personal information management

Writing for Behavior Change — Useful Resources

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Writing instructions that guide people to change their behavior is a specific genre with its own set of best practices. If you want to create books, courses, and other materials that actually work for people, then it’s essential to follow evidence-based guidelines.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find a single source with a comprehensive treatment of those guidelines. This post is my ongoing attempt to fill this gap. Following are links to articles with relevant suggestions. I’ll expand and update this list as I find more resources.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers to Learn a Process

Process learning is what usually comes to mind when we think about “teaching” someone to do something. Process learning helps people understand how to complete a task or take a series of actions through traditional elements of instruction:

  • State a rule or principle.
  • Give an example of how to apply the rule or principle (and sometimes a non-example as well).
  • Ask the reader to apply the rule and get immediate feedback.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Stories

Good instructions for behavior change alternate between process (how to do something) and insight (why doing something will benefit me). Stories about people who apply and benefit from your instructions are especially useful for the “why” dimension.

The trick is to write stories that “ring true” with readers while avoiding flat and generic anecdotes that are little more than lectures. This post offers suggestions.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Structured Experiences

You can also promote insight with exercises, or structured experiences. Here is a list of examples with guidelines for creating each one.

Writing for Behavior Change — Keep it Simple, Sweetheart

What makes writing instructions so hard is the curse of knowledge. As Richard Saul Wurman  reminds us in Information Anxiety, “The minute we know something, we forget what it was like to not know it.”

Many of the instructions I see in self-help books presume too much knowledge and skill on the part of readers. This post offers ways to create instructions that don’t fly above the heads of your audience members.

Writing for Behavior Change — A Checklist

This post is a grand summary of the above articles, designed as a point-by-point guide to editing your work.

New Harbinger’s Publishing Guidelines: How to Write a Self-Help Book

New Harbinger publishes clear, compassionate, evidence-based materials that represent the best of the self-help genre. Its publishing guidelines are a gold mine of step-by-step instructions for writing a book. Especially useful are the suggestions for outlining (creating a table of contents) and presenting a process:

To effectively teach an individual step of a skill, follow this sequence: state the rule or instruction first. Be clear and to the point. Then, give an example of how someone else did this step. Lastly, provide the exercise for the reader to perform. This gives the reader three ways to learn the skill: intellectually by precept, emotionally through modeling, and experientially through action.

New Paths to Personal Knowledge Management from Tiago Forte

f1iNbCx4_400x400In 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.

I’ve already featured Tiago’s insights on productivity and taking notes for creative thinking. Today I’ll point you to two more recent resources.

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.

Skip motivation

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.

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.

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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.

1: TAKE NOTES FOR CREATIVE THINKING, NOT JUST FOR REFERENCE

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.

2: DELIVER THE RESULTS OF YOUR THINKING AS A SERIES OF EVOLVING PRODUCTS

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.

3: USE A SIMPLE SET OF CATEGORIES TO ORGANIZE ANY COLLECTION OF INFORMATION 

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

4: MOVE FROM TIPS AND TRICKS TO BEHAVIORAL EXPERIMENTS

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.

5: SAVE INFORMATION FREELY; FILTER IT BASED ON TIME

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.

How to Take Useful Notes on Books

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“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember,” said Cicero. Indeed. One key reason to keep a commonplace book is to store notes on your reading. Those notes become a personally-curated reference collection—and a continuing source of inspiration.

Beyond that, taking notes on your reading changes you from a passive consumer of information to an active creator of ideas. This is especially true when you write responses to what you read and make plans to act on an author’s suggestions.

The question is how to begin. What kind of notes on reading are most useful? Ultimately you’ll answer that question for yourself. Following are some options that are specifically tailored to nonfiction books.

ANNOTATE, MARINATE AND REVIEW

Shane Parrish of Farnam Street reads over 150 books each year and blogs about many of them. His note-taking process is this:

  • Read the front matter—preface, the table of contents, and inside jacket.
  • Glance over the index.
  • Decide whether to read the book.
  • Mark up the book—circle words to look up, star key points, underline interesting passages, list questions, note connections, and write comments in the margins.
  • Summarize each chapter with a few bullet points.
  • Writing on a blank sheet of paper, explain the core ideas of the book to yourself.

Essentially, Shane says, he’s taking these steps to “engage in a conversation with the author.”

Shane then puts the book away and waits at least one week before returning to it. At that time, he reviews all his handwritten notes:

If something still strikes my interest, I write a note in the first few pages of the book, in my own words, on the topic. Often this is a summary but increasingly it’s ways to apply the knowledge. I index this to the page number in the book.

Finally, he takes selected quotations and copies them into his commonplace book.

For more on this topic from Shane, see How to Retain More of What You Read.

INDEX KEY TOPICS

I don’t know whether Tim Ferriss’s interview with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings went viral, but surely it came close. Brain Pickings has over a million monthly readers, and Maria publishes two or three posts daily. What’s more, she mostly curates offline sources—that is, books.

Maria described her process at 39 minutes into the interview:

On the very last page of each book, which is blank, usually…I create an alternate index. So I basically list out, as I’m reading, the topics and ideas that seem to be important and recurring in that volume. And then next to each of them I start listing out the page numbers where they occur. And on those pages I’ve obviously highlighted the respective passage and have a little sticky tab so that I can find it. It’s basically an index based not on key words…but based on key ideas.

I suggest copying these indexes into your commonplace book. This brings the contents of many books into a single place, allowing you to compare, contrast, and make connections.

LIST BIG IDEAS

Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business and The First 20 Hours: How to Learning Anything Fast! writes masterful book summaries. His approach is unique:

My book notes are different from many of the book summaries you’ll find on the web. Instead of following the structure of the book in question, we’ll isolate and examine the key ideas and themes that make the book useful. Along the way, I’ll tell you how I actually apply the ideas.

For examples, see Josh’s summary of Getting Things Done by David Allen and Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst.

This works well, though it requires time and careful thinking to distill an entire book to its big ideas. You might want to save this strategy for your favorite books.

CREATE CHECKLISTS

I often quote Seth Godin on how to read: “The recipe that makes up just about any business book can be condensed to just two or three pages. The rest is the sell. The proof. The persuasion.” Based on this idea, Seth offers a three-point reading program:

  • Set a goal to change three behaviors based on what you read.
  • Highlight “marching orders” — the passages that explain how to implement those three changes. Create a checklist of these behaviors on an index card.
  • Share your favorite books and talk to people about your checklists.

I’m sure that The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande also has useful ideas. I’ll let you know as soon as I read the book.

HIGHTLIGHT, COPY, PASTE

When reading ebooks, you can mark them up by underlining, highlighting, and adding notes. I like to copy and paste my highlighted passages into my commonplace book, along with the author’s name and book title.

Copying and pasting sounds simple. But consider what you’re actually doing—distilling thousands of words down to a manageable and useful core of key passages. That’s no mean intellectual feat.

FORGET TECHNIQUE AND JUST WRITE

People like Shane Parrish favor a structured system for taking notes on reading. If that’s not your style, however, take a cue from Peter Elbow, author of Writing With Power—Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process:

If you want to digest and remember what you are reading, try writing about it instead of taking notes. Stop periodically—at the end of each chapter or when something important strikes you—and simply write about what you have read and your reactions to it. This procedure may make you nervous at first because you can’t ‘cover’ as many points or make something as neatly organized as when you take notes. But you will remember more. Perfectly organized notes that cover everything are beautiful, but they live on paper, not in your mind.

Derek Sivers takes this more free-form approach. And his book notes are fun reads in themselves.

P.S. Also check out Michael Hyatt’s downloadable template for taking notes on nonfiction books.

Five Principles for the Care and Feeding of Ideas

ryan-johns-188568I blog to explore a single question: How can I systematically capture ideas, refine them, and execute on the best ones?

My answers lead me in many directions — from the time-honored practice of creating a commonplace book to the new field of personal information management. While this sometimes takes me down pretty nerdy paths, I remind myself that the potential benefits are straightforward: I want to get organized, learn continuously, and create a body of original work that leaves a legacy.

Today we have more options for meeting these goals than ever before. Analog tools — paper and pen — have worked for centuries, and they’re still viable tools. (Ryan Holiday, the prolific writer, uses good old-fashioned index cards.)

We also have a growing number of digital tools. And I agree with Tiago Forte that “the humble category of note-taking apps represents the next frontier of productivity.”

What ultimately matters, however, is not a specific set of tools but a systematic process that’s based on the following principles.

1: CAPTURING IS A WAY OF LIFE

You are swimming in ideas — facts, quotes, anecdotes, insights, and instructions. They come at you constantly from your reading, your conversations, the people you overhear in coffee shops, and your random moments of inspiration. Maybe some of those ideas could make money, make the world a better place, or do both.

Unfortunately, ideas are fragile and fleeting. They’re easily lost. They need constant care and feeding. Sudden inspirations are lost forever unless you have a fail-safe system for capturing them.

The key is KISS — keep it simple, sweetheart. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, uses a pocket-size pad and pen to make handwritten notes on the run, which he throws into an in-box. (Collecting ideas is the first phase of his esteemed GTD method, in fact.) I use the lean and speedy Notes app on my iPhone for the same purpose: It functions as a digital in-box.

Whatever tool you choose, make sure it’s easy and friction-free. I explore the “capturing habit” in these posts:

2: KEEP THE MACHINE LEAN, CLEAN, AND CURRENT

If you capture faithfully, your in-boxes will eventually overflow with ideas. So what the heck do you do with all that stuff?

I process all my notes once per week by asking three questions:

  • Delete? Some ideas seem über-cool at the moment of inspiration but odd or useless a few days later. If it’s clear that I’ll never do anything with a note, I just toss it.
  • Archive? Some notes don’t call for follow-up action but are still valuable as reference material. I file such notes by topic in either a paper folder or in a OneNote notebook.
  • Do it now? David Allen is famous for the “two-minute” rule: If a note describes a useful task that you can do in two minutes or less, then don’t put it off. Just do it now.

Asking these three questions will reduce your stack of notes considerably. But there are inevitably some notes that require more than two-minute follow-up actions. Transfer these notes either on to your calendar or an appropriate list. For more details, see:

3: STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE

I’m inspired (and relieved) by Richard Saul Wurman’s observation that information is infinite, but the ways of organizing it are not. When you truly get this idea, you discover that there is no such thing as “information overload.”

If you want to channel your ideas into publications and presentations, then practice the art of creating clear and memorable frameworks for your ideas. Frameworks are primal organizing structures that can lead to detailed tables of contents.

The goals here are two. One, find the simplest possible structure that accommodates your ideas. Two, think creatively by taking existing ideas and folding them into new structures. You do this by incubating ideas in your commonplace book and looking for new patterns in them that emerge over time.

I explore this process in:

4: BE WILLING TO DESTROY YOUR IDEAS

In the foreword to his book The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, Tad Golas wrote that:

I never varied from my determination to evolve hard information, a way of being that could be relied on even in chaos. It was chaos that taught me. I was so ruthless in testing, suspecting every sentiment, that I came to feel I was a destroyer of ideas, and indeed my books are based on what I could not demolish. Anyone who wants to tear those books down will have to work harder and longer than I did.

This is an ideal that we can all aspire to. Our audiences — who are drowning in half-truths, click bait, and hastily-published fluff — will appreciate the effort. The core discipline here is crap-detecting, and there are many ways to practice it.

5: ALWAYS BE READING, ALWAYS BE WRITING

In this post on influencing people with your ideas, John Butman lists six questions to ask if you want to become an idea entrepreneur. One of them is “Do I have enough supporting material?” This is critical, Butman notes, because:

An idea has to be expressed in different ways for people to understand it as fully as possible, and in their individual way. You need to build out your idea with analysis, stories, facts and data, references, and examples. George Stalk, the strategy expert, has a rule of thumb for accumulation: gather enough material so you can talk about your idea for a full day — and keep your audience interested. The richer the understanding of an idea, the more meaning it will have for people.

This is precisely how the regular care and feeding of ideas can help you. You develop a habit of capturing those examples, facts, references, stories, and studies as you find them. Then you use this rich and constantly expanding collection of material to boost the power of your messages and enhance your credibility. Your commonplace book, or collection of notes, is always ready to be mined for a steady stream of articles, books, courses, presentations, and other vehicles for sharing your ideas.

For more on this topic, see:

Photo by Ryan Johns on Unsplash

Write More, Sell More — Nuggets of Wisdom from Bob Bly

writemore0325I’m not a huge fan of tips, but following is a list of them. They’re from my notes on Write More, Sell More, a book by Bob Bly. (Please note: This is not the distinguished poet Robert Bly. I’m referring to Bob Bly, the copywriter from New Jersey.)

The following suggestions are directed at people like me whose income depends on writing every day and selling what we create. However, the following list has potential value for idea entrepreneurs and anyone who writes regularly.

  • Focus on three basic ways to make more money as a writer: Write more, sell more, and charge more. All of the following are ways to implement these broad strategies.
  • Write a lot. Produce a lot. Create a big body of work.
  • Leverage your interests. Write about topics you know and enjoy.
  • Leverage your assignments. Get multiple assignments from the same editors and clients on the same topics in the same formats. To stay profitable, devote 80 percent of your work day to what you already know. Devote about 20 percent to new formats and topics. Also plan to write articles and books in series. To avoid boredom, switch between multiple projects.
  • Create a business plan. Determine how much money you want to make this year. Then determine how much you must make each day, week, and month to achieve that annual goal.
  • Plan your day. Set a daily production goal. Break your work day into one-hour segments and schedule a task for each hour. Then reward yourself for completing those tasks. See if you can get up one hour earlier and start working. Break large projects into small tasks, and match tasks to your energy level throughout the day. For added efficiency, design your workspace so that the things you use most often are within easy reach.
  • Keep it simple. Write simple prose with familiar words and simple sentence structures. Also write in your natural voice, which reduces the need for revision and preserves an authentic voice.
  • Keep it short. Write shorter articles and books. Plan projects that you can finish quickly.
  • Know when to stop. Write to the point that your piece is good enough. Don’t revise forever, and don’t aim for perfection. Likewise, don’t research forever.
  • Design your behavior. Identify habits that reduce your productivity. Post visible reminders to stop those behaviors. Use this list to create new habits that promote productivity.
  • Value people. Build ongoing relationships with editors and clients. Think beyond doing one project at a time. Ask current clients for referrals and repeat assignments.
  • Keep track of how much you earn per hour. Measure productivity by dollars per hour—not dollars per word or project. Even if projects don’t pay much, you can sometimes make good money by doing many of them quickly. Also remember that not all your time is billable. Spend more time on billable tasks and delegate as many non-writing tasks as possible. In short: Do more projects that yield more dollars per hour.
  • Build a personal content library. (I call this a commonplace book.) Keep notes and drafts for all your projects in central place — virtual, digital, or both. Mine this library for material that you can reuse. Include copyright-free materials from the US government. Review your library to keep it current, organized, and manageable in size.
  • Start projects right away. As soon as you get a writing assignment, create a file for it in your notes app, writing app, or both.
  • Write by filling in the blanks. To create a first draft, write a title for your piece and related subheadings. Then copy and paste your notes under the appropriate subheadings. Revise until the copy flows smoothly and the ideas are your own.
  • Keep your butt on the chair and write without interruption. Stay in your office as much as possible. Avoid meetings. Do interviews by phone or email whenever possible. If you must leave your office, then call to confirm the meeting first. The key is to stay at work in an environment with minimal interruption. And if you get on a roll — in a flow state — then keep working until you get tired.
  • Expect to get paid well. Negotiate higher fees. Don’t always accept the first offer from a client or editor. Be willing to walk if you don’t get what you want.
  • Keep all this a professional secret. Don’t let others know how quickly and efficiently you write. They might think that you’re lazy, sloppy, or careless. This is just between you and me:)

The Writer’s No-Fear Guide to Getting Up to Speed on a New Topic

There’s something about the term personal information management (PIM) that sounds so abstract, so dry, so computer-y, so. . . dull. But for me, the essence of PIM is the ability to get up to speed on a new topic quickly — especially when your income and your professional reputation are on the line.

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Like other writers for hire, I welcome the chance to work with new clients. I enjoy brainstorming ideas for articles, blog posts, and books. I relish opening an email with an assignment from an editor, complete with a working title, final word count, due date, and terms of payment.

And then — the moment of truth.

The feeling of stark, paralytic terror.

Oh my God — I actually have to write this thing. And I don’t know sh*t about it.

After finding myself in this situation dozens of times in the past 30 years, I’ve developed some ways of dealing with it.

There’s nothing academic about these suggestions. They’ve saved my sanity. They’ve helped me deliver work on time and get repeat business from the people who hire me. And they can be used by students, journalists, consultants, speakers — or anyone else in a job where quickly getting up to speed on a new topic is a make-it-or-break-it skill.

Accept your emotions

Three things to remember about emotions:

  • We cannot directly control them.
  • They begin as bundles of physical sensations.
  • We can interpret those sensations in any way that we want — or simply observe them mindfully while staying in the present moment.

The third point is most important. My default mode was to focus on the most negative interpretation — sometimes to the point of absurdity: I will blow this project, lose this client, stop getting assignments, go broke, and end up financially dependent on my wife.

Of course, many other interpretations are possible, such as:

  • I’m worried about doing this assignment, but I’ve felt like this in the past and done fine in the end.
  • What I’m feeling right now means that this assignment is important to me and I want to do well.
  • What I’m feeling right now is energy that I can channel into getting this assignment done.

Another option is the “Zen” response: Release all interpretations about what you’re feeling. Just observe your physical sensations without judgment until they change. Trust me — they will. Just try it.

Search the web with a time limit

I remember the days before the Internet. Researching a topic meant schlepping your butt to a library, accessing a catalog with lousy search tools, and hoping that the materials you needed were parked on a shelf somewhere.

Now you can find reliable information with a few clicks. Just follow guidelines for judging a website’s credibility. (And avoid the bullshit industrial complex.)

Wikipedia is an okay place to start. The key word is start. If a Wikipedia article is well-written, I’ll read the whole thing to get an overview. Mainly, though, I go to the “External links” at the bottom to see what sources are cited. If they look decent, I’ll click on them.

Britannica — a real online encyclopedia with editors and fact checkers — is also worthwhile. I get free access via my local library system. Perhaps you can, too.

Don’t be afraid to go to Britannica Kids, by the way. The articles are decent. They’re useful when you want an overview of a complex topic.

Websites posted by the United States government are usually credible sources. Poke around USA.gov to find out what’s available on your favorite topics.

The key thing with web-based research is to do it in one sitting. Set a time limit and then stop. Stop even earlier if you see significant duplication —the same points being repeated in the pages that you find.

While researching, copy and paste the key sentences, paragraphs, and images into a note-taking app. To clearly identify them as quotations, put them in a bold color such as red or green. Also be sure to include the source of each quotation. If you don’t, you’re risking plagiarism — a big-time offense and reputation-destroyer.

List your questions

After mining the web, you might have some decent information. You might also have questions. That’s great. Follow these suggestions for using questions to refine your thinking and organize your writing.

Pose your questions to people

My editors often give me contact information for subject matter experts to interview. I contact them only after my initial research. I don’t want to waste their time by asking questions that are already answered in credible web or print-based sources.

If you don’t have a list of subject matter experts, then find them on your own. Go back to the web pages you uncovered, looking for authors and contact information.

I used to interview experts by phone. Today you can often reach them by email. That’s great, because you get their comments in writing without having to transcribe an interview recording.

If you do talk to an expert, keep in mind that many of them will give you their best ideas after you say the interview is officially over. People tend to relax and loosen up at this point. Don’t be in a hurry to hang up.

In addition, ask one more question that goes beyond your list. There are different ways to word this question, but they all get at the same idea:

  • Is there anything else that’s important that I haven’t asked about?
  • If you were talking to my audience on this topic, what would you focus on?
  • What questions should I be asking about this topic?

Dump your quotes into a document and organize them with subheadings

By this point you’ll have lots of quotes from your reading and contacts with experts. Copy and paste those quotes into your writing app. (Keep the original quotes in your note-taking app so that you can return to them later.)

Now step back and review what’s in front of you. Look for redundant or unimportant quotes and delete them.

Next, rearrange the remaining quotes in a logical order. They’ll cluster together to make a series of points. Put each point in a subheading and group related quotes under each heading. (For more details, see Never Face a Blank Page—Easing the Transition from Research to Writing.)

Transform quotes into original prose

Okay. You’ve got a document with the title of your article or post or chapter — and subheadings with quotes under them.

Now make this material your own. Integrate ideas from all your sources. Put ideas into your own words and add your own ideas. Throw in a few direct quotes if you want, making sure to cite the source of each one.

If you do this well, you’ll build on the ideas of others to create something that’s truly original.

Create a commonplace book

If you research and write a lot, you’ll capture many ideas from yourself and others. Don’t lose this stuff! It’s a gold mine.

Store all the material you develop over time in a single notebook or collection of notebooks that you can organize and search. Develop a continuously expanding and personally curated collection of notes that you can reuse across projects. If you write about the same topics again, you’ll have your own portable library/wiki/personal mini-Internet already in hand.

In short, create a commonplace book. You‘ll find, as Tiago Forte says, that it becomes a business asset — “a potent information weapon, its ideas and facts ready to be used in a wide variety of future contexts, at a moment’s notice.”

Going Beyond Tips to Experimental Habit Change

Much of popular literature for behavior change — both online and offline — sinks to tip-dispensing. Authors crank out reams of bulleted and numbered lists aimed at easy change and instant gratification.

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Want to make more money? Hundreds of bloggers will give you quick tips for that.

Want to boost your productivity? Tip-based books for that abound.

Want to attract a lover? Tips for that are all over the Web.

Much of this stuff is curated lists of tips based on other lists of tips — second- and third-hand content based on God knows what theory or research. Sean Blanda gives it an apt name — the bullshit industrial complex.

Tips might satisfy our desire for easy wins and quick results. But what about the long-term? We run into three problems here.

Tips ignore context

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Annie Murphy Paul writes in The Tyranny of Tips. “Sometimes a tip — the right bit of information at the right time — is a lifesaver.” More often, however, tips “skim lightly across the surface of our attention and then disappear.”

Annie claims that behavior change is often tied to context. For example, she cites a study in which kids who understood why a balanced diet promotes health made better food choices than kids who were simply told to eat certain foods.

Tips ignore character

A teacher once asked William Zinsser — author of On Writing Well — to give students some writing tips.

Zinsser’s reply: “I don’t do tips”:

Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package — a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is a complex engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

His point applies to tips for doing anything. You can implement a “life hack” — an incremental change in behavior—and take a chance on the results. But molding character calls for the slow, steady acquisition of new skills and insights. And this is the work of a lifetime.

Tips ignore culture

Beyond individual character is the behavior of other people. Each of us is embedded in multiple cultures — the culture of our family, our coworkers, and our friend groups. These are powerful contexts that can quickly undermine our ability to implement tips.

Joe Lee, medical director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum, gives an example of this perspective as it applies to parents. In Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond, he writes:

These days, so many of the parenting tips are based on superficial matters. The conversations are about finding the right activities, having enough activities, staying cool as parents, learning to talk on your child’s level, and the like…. I emphasize that parents need to invest in their family culture and maintain it over time, much like they would invest over the long-term in a savings account or a college fund. Only then will the resources be available in a family’s time of need.

A different approach — experimental habit change

We can cut through vast swaths of tips by seeing them as invitations to run personal experiments with habit change. This is the perspective of Tiago Forte, the most sophisticated thinker about productivity that I’ve found.

Why focus on habits instead of isolated tips that are implemented at random? Because, Tiago writes, habits are Minimum Viable Behaviors (MVBs) that occur in context:

They have a clear beginning, middle, and end (cue, behavior, reward), making them easy to define and identify when they appear. The good ones tend to be internally coherent and inherently rewarding, thus self-sustaining. They are situated in a physical and social context, which makes them socially acceptable and integrate relatively seamlessly into daily life.

Habits are ideal for testing. They have a binary/on-off/yes-no nature — either you do a habit or you don’t. This makes them relatively easy to measure.

Tiago gives an example — his experiments with measuring levels of happiness throughout the day. He did this as a participant in Harvard University’s TrackYourHappiness project. Via a mobile app, Tiago got notifications at random times throughout the day. These were questions such as:

  • How happy are you right now?
  • When was the last time you exercised?
  • Where are you right now?

“By cross-referencing my answers, the app generated reports of which people, places, and activities make me happiest,” Tiago adds.

With a single experiment, Tiago got past the generic happiness tips. He gathered data to discover which habits actually made a difference for him.

The same thing is possible for any of us. All it takes is a willingness to play with habit change, taking the attitude that there is no failure in the attempt — only continuous learning.

Meditate, Move, Destroy — Robert Greene on Writing

Robert Greene wrote several best-selling books, including Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 50th Law (with 50 Cent). Though I have qualms about the Machavellian philosophy in these books, I am fascinated by Robert’s writing process.

330px-Robert_Greene_B&W“What I learned is that willpower, the intensity of desire, and practice can take us to levels of performance we never thought possible,” Robert writes. He suggests the following strategies.

Exercise

Like Haruki Murakami, Robert compares writing books to running a marathon. There’s nothing glamorous about the process, which can involve periods of physical and mental depletion.

To prevent this, says Greene, develop a rigorous exercise routine. Avoid boredom by alternating between several activities, such as running and biking.

Gradually increase the intensity of your daily exercise. If you reach a point where you feel sustained tiredness, then back off a little. The goal is a plateau of activity that gives you more energy throughout the day.

Meditate

Robert does at least 30 minutes of Zen meditation daily. This increases his ability to concentrate and let unexpected insights emerge.

Research to discover an original structure for your ideas

To research a new book, Robert reads 200 to 300 existing books on his topic. This takes about a year.

He takes notes in an old-school way, writing by hand on index cards:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes (called marginalia) on the side.

After I’m done reading I’ll often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards. A good book will generate 20 to 30 notecards, while a bad book will generate two or three notecards.

Essentially, Robert deconstructs existing books into smaller pieces and looks for new relationships between them. He destroys the original structures in order to create a new one. Eventually the table of contents for his next book is born.

Cultivate “negative capability”

Negative capability — a concept from the poet John Keats — means tolerating uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox. This prods us to think in new ways that resolve apparent contradictions.

To practice negative capability, develop a habit of observing people without judging them. Try to see the world from their point of view.

Also, as you begin a writing project, list your current assumptions about the topic. Then throw out or suspend as many as possible.

Think like an outsider

If you have training in a field that’s not directly related to your project, then use this as an advantage. What concepts from this field can you “import”? The answers will help you ask new questions and find novel connections between ideas.

Subvert your current patterns of thinking

Seek out facts and theories that contradict your current conclusions. Then ask why and how they can exist. When studying an event, ask yourself how it could have unfolded in a different way.

Use active imagination

For example, Henry Ford imagined workers standing still and working with auto parts that came to them. Result: the assembly line.

Use notebooks, drawings, and diagrams to visualize new ideas. Translate ideas into predictions and even physical models that you can test. Iterate and see what works — even if it takes you in a surprising direction.

In short, think of creativity as fusing two entities within you:

  • The child, who explores the world with few assumptions and thinks in fluid, flexible ways
  • The adult, who uses knowledge, experience, and observation to refine first thoughts into working theories

Note: For more about how Robert works, go to my sources for this post: