Frameworks for Your Ideas—Lists

I’ve posted about the power of frameworks (ways of organizing your ideas) in creating content that people can remember and use. Many idea entrepreneurs rely on a particular framework—problem-solution-process—for this purpose.


However, you do have other options. One is the almighty list.

Including lists in your commonplace book can help you manage projects and extend your memory. Lists are also useful for writing articles and creating tables of contents for books that you want to publish.


Tons of books are based on lists. For example:

  • The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen R. Covey
  • 42 Rules of Marketing by Laura Lowell
  • Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina
  • 101 Ways to Love Your Job by Stephanie Davidson
  • The 48 Laws of Power and The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene.

Also consider the many books based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The table of contents for Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, for instance, is simply a list of the Steps and Traditions, with a chapter devoted to each one.

How to create effective lists

Test your list. When you organize your content as a list, is some essential material excluded? Do you find yourself trying to force a fit to the list? If so, then use another framework.

If you can structure your material as a list without compromising your content, however, then go for it. The numbered list is sometimes maligned as simplistic. Yet when done well, this framework is intuitive for both readers and writers.

Remember that certain numbers appear to be favored in book titles (don’t ask me why): 5, 7, 10, 12, 99, 100, 101. Again, don’t force it. If a different number suits your content, then use it.

Tell people whether your big list of ideas or strategies is unordered or ordered. If it’s unordered, then it’s OK for people to begin with any chapter or section and choose their own path through your content. They can read or listen to any section or chapter in any order.

If your list is ordered, however, then your book is based on steps that come in a specific sequence. When this is true, let people know that you’d like them to read or listen to chapters or sections in the order that you’ve laid out. Otherwise, readers will get confused—and doubt your credibility.

Turn each list item into a headline. The purpose of a headline is to attract attention and draw people into your content. Give as much care to the wording of each list item as you do to the title of a book, article, or presentation.

Copywriters specialize in writing headlines, and their techniques are useful for any writer or speaker. Start with these suggestions from Neville Medhora, Jeff Goins, and Ray Edwards. They’ll lead you to more.

Frameworks for Your Ideas—Problem, Solution, Process

If you’re an idea entrepreneur, you’re on a mission. You want to help people solve an urgent problem by using a process—a plan of action that involves new behaviors.


This is the purpose of most business, self-help, and other “how to” books. They’re all about:

  • Diagnosing a problem
  • Offering a solution
  • Presenting a process to solve the problem

In short—problem, solution, process.

Example—Getting Things Done

In his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen targets a problem experienced by millions of us—feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of things we want to remember and do.

Traditional to-do lists and time management strategies don’t relieve this feeling, says David. We end up trying to keep track of all our commitments in our head, constantly fearing that we’re still forgetting something important.

The result is mental clutter—a state of distraction that leads to a constant, low-level stress. That’s a problem.

The solution that David offers is “mind like water.” This is the freedom from distraction that we experience when we stop tracking commitments in our head.

We experience “mind like water” by adopting a cluster of habits:

  • Collecting emails, voice mails, paper-based mail, meeting notes, and other “information inputs”
  • Clarifying those inputs to determine what requires follow-up action, what can be filed for future reference, and what can be tossed or ignored
  • Organizing reminders to take that follow-up action by using a calendar and specific set of lists
  • Reviewing those reminders in the light of your personal mission and vision
  • Engaging with the world by doing the items on noted in the calendar and lists

This reduces to:

  • Mental Clutter (Problem)
  • Mind Like Water (Solution)
  • Collect, Clarify, Organize, Review, Engage (Process)

There you have it—the essence of David’s teaching in 10 words.

Use this framework to fine tune your content

If you ever feel overwhelmed with information or confused about your fundamental message, get back to those three words—problem, solution, process. Can you map the information that you’ve captured to one of those three timeless categories? This is your path to clarity.

More specifically, ask:

Do I diagnose an urgent problem? Locate a pain point for the people in your target audience. Describe a situation that genuinely complicates their lives and keeps them awake at night.

Do I propose a clear solution? It must relate directly to the problem you diagnose and lead to the sweet pleasure of relief.

Do I explain a process that works? For Tucker Max and Zach Obront, authors of The Book In A Box Method, this is all about reassurance and guidance. It’s the part of your book where you say “here is how you are going to do this, I’m going to walk you through it, step by step by step, until you understand how to do it.”

The challenge is to propose a process that actually people can actually use. Offer genuine next actions—instructions for real behavior change. List tiny habits—small changes in behavior that require no motivation or special ability and lead to big results over time.

If you can’t answer these three questions with a clear yes, then your framework needs more work at a fundamental level. The sooner you discover this issue, the sooner you can fix it.

Structure, Structure, Structure!

The ultimate impact of your writing has a lot to do with structure—the way that your information is organized. You might have a thousand juicy facts, stories, and quotes for your book. But without a framework, they’re toast.


In his masterful book about making a living from your ideas, John Butman uses the term framework to describe how books are structured. He defines a framework as:

… a limited number of key elements that are basically descriptive in nature, such as principles, characteristics, parts, or themes. A framework may also include a number of elements that are more prescriptive, such as strategies, methods, rules, and the like.

Powerful frameworks can burn your ideas into the collective mind and boost the impact of your work. Even if your ideas are not wildly original, giving them a memorable framework can lead to a breakout book.

For examples of the power of frameworks, consider:

Frameworks are created and discovered

One reason for keeping a commonplace book is to experiment with frameworks for your ideas until you find one that fits.

The challenge is that frameworks can be hard to create. They result from a mysterious dance between discovery and intention.

Sometimes you impose a framework on information.

Sometimes you just let the framework emerge organically after months or years of immersion in a topic.

And often it’s a combination of these two methods.

Start with the “five ultimate hat racks”

Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman includes a sentence that makes me cheer:

While information may be infinite, the ways of structuring it are not.

In fact, Wurman reduces the options to a handful of structures—the “five ultimate hat racks”:

  • Category
  • Time
  • Location
  • Continuum
  • Alphabet

He gives these examples:

If you were preparing a report on the automobile industry, you could organize cars by model (category), year (time), place of manufacture (location), or Consumer Reports rating (continuum). Within each, you might list them alphabetically.

In the five ultimate hat racks is a path to freedom from information overload and to structures that resonate with your audience.

One of my goals is to create a meta-framework for idea entrepreneurs—a “framework of frameworks” that you can to turn to for structuring ideas. I’ve got several up my sleeve. Look for more details in future posts.

How a Commonplace Book Differs From a Journal

A friend asked me about the difference between keeping a journal and keeping a commonplace book: “Aren’t they two words for the same thing?”


At the moment I didn’t have a good answer. Then I stumbled on to a website from the University of Chicago about the history of books. There I found a page about Commonplace Thinking with this passage:

A commonplace book is at once a book form and a method of reading. Commonplacing was a system of using books in which readers digested the books they read by extracting, ordering and recording particular phrases or passages in notebooks of their own. This process encouraged readers to atomize books by isolating units that might later be useful in one or another discursive context….

This gets to the heart of the distinction between a journal and a commonplace book. I see three activities that a commonplace book emphasizes more.

A commonplace book preserves the best of your reading

Think back to the times when books were not widely available, and when libraries were few. When people did manage to get their hands on a book, it was truly an event.

To aid their memory, people copied out—by hand—their favorite passages from an author into a blank, bound set of papers. This served as a portable mini-library to savor at any moment.

This is how commonplace books began. And it’s still a powerful application of the concept. When filled with quotations—the “greatest hits” from the your favorite authors—a commonplace book distills all your reading into a single, personally-curated collection.

A commonplace book promotes creative thinking

The beautiful thing about a collection of quotations is that you can read them in any order and move them around.

Each individual quotation is an “atom” of thought. When you collect quotations from several books by different authors on the same topic, you see these atoms in a broader context. Your individual way of combining them can lead to new insights.

In his book The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler referred this way of thinking as bisociation. For him, it was the essence of creativity.

A commonplace book is a step toward making ideas public

Commonplace books are more output-oriented and outward-facing than journals. They’re used to create things that go out into the world, such as:

  • Articles, blog posts, books, and other publications (literally, ideas made public)
  • Services based on the exchange of information, such as training, consulting, and coaching
  • Businesses and other organizations that are closely tied to a mission

Each of these starts as an idea in someone’s head. A commonplace book is the perfect system for capturing such ideas, developing them, refining them, and making plans to implement them.

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Commonplace Book

363017310_9d8bf3ac1f_mThere’s a cool word in German for commonplace book — zettelkasten, which means “card index” or “slip box.”

Christian Tietze wrote a book about using a zettelkasten, which he defines as “a device to extend your mind and memory so you can work with texts efficiently and never forget things again.”

Today zettelkasten refers to any system—digital or paper-based—used for this purpose. Check out the following posts from Christian for more details.

  • Create a Zettelkasten for your Notes to Improve Thinking and Writing: “Notes can and should stimulate new associations and foster your creativity just like a good talk does.”
  • Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten: “Both permanent storage and interconnectedness are necessary to use the full potential of an archive for your notes.”
  • Building Blocks of a Zettelkasten: “In short, you and your note archive can communicate with one another if the results your archive produces are sufficiently surprising and thought-inspiring.”
  • You Only Find What You Have Identified: “The objective of a Zettelkasten note archive is to store notes and allow connections. Both are necessary to extend our mind and memory.”
  • The Need to Craft: “Writing a single note doesn’t take a lot of time. Also, a single note is self-contained and can be re-used, so when I finish a note it almost feels like I completed a small writing project which I find deeply gratifying.”
  • Preparing Fragments Helps You to Ease Into Writing: “A Zettelkasten makes writing texts easy. It encourages you to prepare research and the most of your writing before you compile your first draft. This way you can focus on one task at a time and needn’t sweat about getting through.”

P.S. Index cards are great for capturing ideas on the run, as Hipster PDA fanatics will remind you.

Photo credit: hawkexpress via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Journey Notes—More Lists to Enrich Your Commonplace Book

7012412-MAfter posting that lists of many kinds can become vital elements of your commonplace book, I remembered one of my favorite books—JourneyNotes: Writing for Recovery and Spiritual Growth by Richard Solly and Roseann Lloyd. Though out of print, it’s a shining gem. Maybe your local library or used book store has a copy.

JourneyNotes includes a whole chapter about the power of lists. The authors note that even a humble shopping list is a “symbol of a world greater than itself”:

… a summary of what you need, want, or have, or see at a particular moment in time. It’s an overview, a summary of the crucial facts of the state of one aspect of your life. It’s a kind of blueprint that can be a guide to the future.

Richard and Roseann suggest several types of lists as paths to insight and value-driven behavior.

Lists as warm-ups for writing

Dealing with writer’s block? Then make a list of:

  • What you would write about if you weren’t feeling blocked
  • Your favorite words and phrases
  • Images that you find mysterious
  • What you’re thinking and feeling at the present moment
  • Sensory details—what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting right now
  • Quotes from a conversation that you’re overhearing (or overheard recently) that could become dialogue between characters in a story

Emergency lists

Emergency lists are created to keep you sane during bouts of confusion, fear, anger, or sadness. I describe them as “lifesavers.”

For instance, people who feel lonely can list ways to recognize their isolation. They can also list friends and relatives who are open to calls and visits.

Richard and Roseann remind us that the simple, straightforward nature of a list becomes a lifeline during moments of despair:

When we are in a downward spiral, we forget what we know. We panic, go blank, split, numb out. If we have a list—in a familiar place, like the first page of a journal, or taped by the wall by the phone—we are more likely to catch ourselves before we fall.

Lists for self-discovery

One of my favorite self-discovery lists comes from a wonderful podcast by meditation teacher Jonathan Foust. He offers a list of questions for moving from personal insight to intentional action:

  • What are you not willing to pay attention to right now?
  • What are you feeling right now?
  • What are you not willing to feel?
  • Are you willing to be with this?
  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • What could be great about this?
  • What’s not perfect about your life yet?
  • What are you willing to do about this?
  • What are you no longer willing to do about this?
  • How can you resolve this and have a great time doing it?

Lists that work over time

Lists of this kind are spiritual practices. For example, people in recovery from addiction make lists of resentments to release and amends to make. They also write gratitude lists.

In Japan, people in treatment for addiction sometimes do Naikan practice. This is based on listing answers to three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?

Yoshimoto Ishin, creator of Naikan, emphasized the third question. This one helps us overcome our natural self-centeredness and open our heart to other people.

For instance, make a list of the people who were affected when you procrastinated on a task or failed to meet a deadline. Seeing the names in front of you is an inducement to change your behavior in the future.


Enrich your commonplace book with a list of slogans, sayings, and quotations to review on a regular basis.

I’ll end this post with a quotation collected in JourneyNotes, originally circulated among members of a Twelve Step recovery group:


Tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fears based on past experience.

An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment.

Loss of interest in judging other people.

Loss of interest in judging self.

Loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others.

Loss of ability to worry. (This is a very serious symptom.)

Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation.

Contented feelings of connectedness with others and nature.

Frequent attacks of smiling through the eyes from the heart.

Increasing tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen.

Increased susceptibility to love extended by others as well as the uncontrollable urge to extend it.

Warning: If you have all or even most of the above symptoms, please be advised that your condition of PEACE may be so far advanced as not to be curable


10 Useful Lists to Keep in Your Commonplace Book

Lists can be liberating. Umberto Eco, novelist and philosopher, boldly described lists as “the origin of culture.” I learned this from Maria Popova, creator of the immensely popular Brain Pickings and a herself a great lover of lists.

One timeless use of a commonplace book is to curate the lists that you find most useful. The possibilities are limitless. Following is a list of lists for you to consider.

  1. Current projects

What’s “on your plate” right now? It’s hard to answer that question unless you have a list of the projects that you’re committed to finish in the near future.

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, defines a project as any outcome that will take you more than one action to achieve. One of the core activities in his Getting Things Done (GTD) method is keeping an updated list of your current projects.

When you do this, be prepared for surprise. You might have more projects underway than you can possibly complete this year. To save your sanity, delete or defer some of them.

  1. Next actions

This is another list from David. (Actually, the first 5 items in this post are all GTD ideas.) A next action is something you can do immediately to move one of your current projects to completion.

Next actions are physical, visible behaviors—something that distinguishes them from the undefined stuff on most to-do lists. Learn more about next actions here.

  1. “Waiting for” items

Do you delegate tasks to coworkers and family members? If so, don’t let those items slip through the cracks. Keep a list of what you’re waiting for people to do. Add names and due dates.

  1. “Someday/maybe” items

This is a “bucket list” of fun things you might like to do in the future. Your someday/maybe list is a sacred place to hold projects that you’re not committed to yet but don’t want to forget. Get more details from this post by Andre Kibbe.

  1. Checklists

These can range from shopping lists and lists of stuff to pack when you travel to lists of core values and long-range goals.

Atul Gawande, physician and author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, describes the power of checklists to save lives. (Shane Parrish wrote a nice summary of the book.)

  1. People who matter

Bronnie Ware, a nurse who worked in hospice care, wrote Regrets of the Dying. One thing that many patients told her was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

Keep a list of family members and friends that you want to contact regularly. On your death bed, you’ll be glad you did.

  1. Mistakes made, lessons learned

I’ve learned more from my mistakes than from anything I’ve ever read or heard. My commonplace book includes a running list of my mistakes and the life-changing insights they produced. This is a fairly long section.

My goal is to avoid repeating past mistakes—and to make only interesting and instructive mistakes in the future.

I also take comfort in this list of people who persisted through failure to success.

  1. Favorite quotations

Many of mine are from a favorite book—The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas. Tad reminds me that “We are always in the company of our equals” and to “Love as much as you can from wherever you are.” These lines have saved me from self-induced misery on several occasions.

To rise above the herd, verify the sources of your quotations. Sadly, many of the quotations embedded in articles and books are misattributed and inaccurate. Get the straight poop fromGarson O’Toole’s masterful Quote Investigator.

  1. Things to read, watch, hear, and learn

See Dan Coleman’s lists of free audiobooks, ebook, films, and courses at Open Culture. They can keep you busy for the rest of your life.

  1. Text playlist

I got this idea from a wonderful post by Leo Babauta. He defines a text playlist as “a series of articles I come back to and read on a regular basis, for inspiration or as a reminder.”

See Leo’s list here. Also check out examples from Liz Danzico and Frank Chimero.

Bonus: The Daily Practice List

James Altucher is an author and entrepreneur who turns list-making into a daily practice. His goal is to be an “idea machine.” So, he writes down 10 ideas every day, by hand, using a pen and waiter’s pad.

This practice, he says, enables him to create the stream of products and services that make him a multi-millionaire:

IDEAS ARE  THE CURRENCY OF LIFE. Not money. Money gets depleted until you go broke.  But good ideas buy you good experiences, buy you better ideas, buy you  better experiences, buy you more time, save your life. Financial wealth  is a side effect of the “runner’s high” of your idea muscle.

The bottom line: Don’t lead a “list-less” life.

For more options, see:

David’s Cool/Convenient Lists to Have

The Best Lists To Keep (That Might Seem Obsessive But Are Actually Super Useful)

Thirteen Things to Do with a Moleskine Notebook

12 Tips to Keep Your To-do List Short, as Well as Useful

9 Lists To Keep Updated, and Keep Handy

Practicing Simplified GTD (Gina Trapani just keeps 3 lists)


Ryan Holiday on the Pleasures of Reading and Keeping a Commonplace Book

picture-238129Ryan Holiday is a media strategist and author. His books include Ego is the Enemy, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, and Growth Hacker Marketing.

Besides being a voracious reader, Ryan writes a lot. And he attributes his productivity to keeping a commonplace book. To learn more, check out the following links.

How and Why to Keep a Commonplace Book

“A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

Everyone Should Keep A Commonplace Book: Great Tips From People Who Do

“I understand my method [of keeping a commonplace book] is a little unique — it was taught to me by a rather unique person. But I am very encouraged to see that other people have their own unique way of recording the wisdom they come across in their own lives, in their own reading and during the course of the work…. Whether you use notebooks or notecards or Evernote, a commonplace book is a fantastic idea that I promise will improve your life.”

The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read

“This isn’t the perfect system. It might not work for you. All I can say is that since learning it about 7 years ago, it has totally transformed my process and drastically increased my creative output. It’s responsible for helping me publish three books in three years, (along with other books I’ve had the privilege of contributing to), write countless articles published in newspapers and websites, send out my reading recommendations every month, and make all sorts of other work and personal successes possible.”

How I Did Research For 3 New York Times Bestselling Authors (In My Spare Time)

“If you want to be able to make compelling case for something — whether it’s in a book, on a blog, or in a multi-million dollar VC pitch — you need stories that frame your arguments, rich anecdotes to compliment tangible examples, and impressive data so you can empirically crush counter arguments…. But good research doesn’t just magically appear. Stories, anecdotes and data have to be found before you can use them.”

How I Wrote Three Books in Three Years

“Because I am always researching, I have somewhere close to 10,000 cards on various themes. Each potential book, once it gets enough cards, gets its own box. And I just bought a box for my next book … before the paint is even dry on this new one.”

How To Read More — A Lot More

“Even though I read hundreds of books every single year, I actually read quite slow. In fact, I read deliberately slow, so that I can take notes (and then whenever I finish a book, I go back through and transcribe these notes for my version of a commonplace book.”

Marginalia, The Anti-Library, And Other Ways To Master The Lost Art Of Reading

“Even if you are not a writer, having stories and quotes ready at hand will always come in useful, whether it is in conversations, presentations, memos, pitches, etc. Always strive to return back to the purpose of it. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said, we need to read so that ‘words become works.’”

What Matters: Information Vs. Knowledge Vs. Experience

“…there is a dark side to this glut of free information. It’s enabled a whole industry of self-help gurus, life coaches, and social media marketers to sell snake oil to the masses, tricking people—people who genuinely want to improve their lives—into thinking they can get something for nothing…. knowledge requires more than just books and instruction. It requires experience. It needs the interplay–the back and forth feedback loop–between theory and practice, hypothesis and results, ideas and action.”

Print Out Good Advice And Put It Where You Work (You Won’t Be Able To Run Away From It)

“Today, I have three quotes printed and framed above my desk…. One reminds me about how to live, one reminds me what to think about as a businessman and entrepreneur, the other reminds me what to think as a writer. At different times they have meant different things to me but they are reminders I need always.”

Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Measuring and Evaluating

If it’s too hard to manage our personal information, we won’t do it. We’ll stop viewing our commonplace book as a strategic asset. We’ll descend into the hell of “information overload.”

This is why it pays to reflect on the ways that we practice personal information management (PIM) and measure the results in some meaningful way.


Once per year or so, we can ask:

  • How well are my current tools—analog and digital—actually working for me?
  • Would new tools work better?
  • Am I using my tools in efficient and effective ways? Can I do something differently to save time, money, and effort?
  • Overall, am I managing information to complete projects and connect with people who matter to me?

Do an annual review to answer those questions. The following suggestions—based on the book Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management by William Jones—can help.

Use the critical incident technique

Think about the last time that you had a “information breakdown.”

Maybe you spent an hour looking for a lost document or the information you needed to write a short email.

Perhaps you quickly found the information you were looking for but discovered that it was outdated or incomplete.

Or maybe you invested in expensive new app and decided later that it was just too hard to use.

You can get value from such incidents by asking:

  • What information was I trying to find?
  • Where did I look for it?
  • How did I eventually find it?
  • When I found it, was the information useful?
  • Why did I decide to buy that app?
  • What made the app hard to use?
  • What will I do differently to prevent breakdowns in the future?

Use the experience sampling method

For this method of psychological research, participants are reminded to stop at various points in the day to answer questions about what they’re doing at that moment.

You can do this informally to evaluate the ways that you manage information. Take a moment to ask:

  • Am I working with information right now?
  • What exactly am I doing? Finding information? Keeping it? Maintaining it? Managing information flow? Making sense of information and creating something?
  • Am I doing this in a deliberate way—or just coasting on autopilot?
  • How do I feel about what I’m doing? Am I enjoying this? Am I resisting because the activity seems pointless or difficult?
  • What results do I want from this activity?
  • What can I do differently to get better results with less friction?

Reflect on key activities

William Jones breaks PIM down into 6 key activities. They offer another lens for evaluation. Does your system for managing information (tools plus behaviors) help you:

  • Find information efficiently by searching, scanning documents, or both?
  • Keep information easily by capturing it and organizing it for later use?
  • Maintain your system by archiving information that’s not in active use and backing everything up?
  • Manage how much information flows into your life while controlling your privacy and security?
  • Make sense of information by revealing patterns and relationships between ideas?
  • Measure and evaluate your system by collecting data to answer the above questions?

Find a confidant

William Jones studies PIM by asking people to give him a “tour” of their information collections and talk about the ways that they do the above activities. In the process, people get a new perspective on their system and ideas for making it better.

You can do something like this by sharing your PIM practices with other people and asking about theirs.

Before changing your system, consider the costs

Creating a combination of apps, tools, file names, folders, and tags to manage your information will take time. Once you have a system that works for you, stick with it for a while. If you’re ever tempted to change it, weigh the benefits and costs first:

  • Don’t fall for a flashy new “killer app” right away. Ask these questions first. (Trust me on this. I’ve spent entire days moving from one note-taking app to another.)
  • Do trial runs. Many software developers offer trial versions of their apps that you can try for a limited period at no cost.
  • If you do decide to change your system, then do it completely. Set aside a full day to make the transition to a new app or other set of tools. Trying to maintain two competing systems—your old one and the new one—is a one-way ticket to information hell.
  • Remember: the status quo is always an option. True, you might miss out on the latest bells and whistles offered by new tools. But if you’re currently managing information in a way that supports your priorities, then you’re doing well.




Core Skills in Personal Information Management—Making Sense

Keeping a commonplace book allows you to systematically capture the best ideas that come from your reading, conversation, and thinking on many topics. While that alone is worth the effort, there’s an even deeper pleasure that awaits you—making sense of it all.


Take the information you’ve captured and look at it from many angles. Play with it. Massage it. See if you can link ideas in new ways. Look for connections that no one else has seen before.

The result could be a new blog post, book, course, product, service, career, or relationship.

In his book  Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, William Jones explains two primary ways of taking isolated pieces of information and making sense of them.

“Top down” methods

One option is to create a hierarchy of ideas with the main topic at the top and supporting details at various levels below it. This is the “top down” approach, and there are many ways to do it.

Mind mapping, for example, is a visual way of showing the links between ideas. It’s useful for brainstorming. To create a mind map, take a blank sheet of paper and write your main topic in the center of the page. Circle it. Then write related topics on “spokes” that radiate outward from the center. For examples, see Brett Terpstra’s posts about mind mapping (starting with How I Mind Map).

Concept mapping is another cool option based on research in cognitive psychology. Concept maps look like mind maps, but the main concept sits at the top of the page instead of the center. And instead of connecting concepts with simple lines, you add words to describe the precise links. For the theory of concept mapping, examples, and a free app, see this website from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition.

Of course, there’s always the classic top-down method for organizing ideas—outlining. Keep in mind that you don’t have to use the traditional outlining format with forbidding levels of Roman numerals, letters, and number. Any method that allows you to create a hierarchy of ideas will work.

For instance, see Workflowy—a robust online outliner that you can use to organize all your project and reference information. Other online outliners are listed here. And if you’re a Mac user, check out Omni Outliner.

There are tons of other top-down approaches. You’ll get more options from my posts on creating a framework for your ideas and writing a message hierarchy.

“Bottom up” methods

The second sense-making method that Jones recommends is something that you already know how to do. Card sorting is one of them:

  • Write down your ideas on index cards—one card for each idea.
  • Sort the cards into piles—one pile for each set of related cards.
  • When you’re done, survey the piles. Each pile represents a specific category or topic.
  • Place the piles in a logical order. Now you have a rough diagram of the structure for your article, book, or presentation.

This is called a “bottom up” method because the main topics emerge only after you sort through a lot of details. In contrast, a top down method starts with the main topic and proceeds through supporting details.

You can use many tools, both digital and analog, to organize information from the bottom up. For examples, see the literature on affinity diagramming. Also see The Sticky Note System for Structuring a Book, Using Your Commonplace Book for Creative Thinking, and Organizing 11,000 Ideas—Here’s How Robert Pirsig Did It.

More options

Experiment with all these techniques, use them in combination, and invent methods of your own. Also check out apps that are based on the various methods.

But remember that there’s a lot you can do with tools that already own—paper and pencil, index cards, sticky notes, office software, and the way you set up files and folders on your computer.

Any tool is simply a path to unlocking your potential for making sense of information and thinking creatively.