Most productivity advice focuses on the challenge of managing the vast amount of information that is continually bombarding us so we can tackle our main priorities and find time for deep work. But to be fully effective in those periods, it helps if we can properly organize the information coming our way so it is available as needed.
Consultant Tiago Forte says that will work best if we build a second brain, a digital storehouse to make retrieval easier. And he has thought it through carefully, with ideas likely to enhance if not replace your current rough-and-ready information storage approach. “I’ve come to believe that personal knowledge is one of the most fundamental challenges – as well as one of the most incredible opportunities – in the world today,” he writes in Building a Second Brain.
He recommends the storehouse be digital so it can be accessed anywhere and retain endless material neatly, but he is agnostic about competing notetaking apps, even offering options on his website that go beyond the best-known software and can be contoured to suit your style.
It begins with capturing information that resonates, keeping it for the future. You aren’t trying to save everything, just the most salient and relevant material – a few of the best quotes from a transcript, some selected passages from a book. “The biggest pitfall I see people falling into once they begin capturing digital notes is saving too much,” he warns.
Next you must organize it for action, where 99 per cent of notetakers get stuck, he points out. He recommends organizing it into four categories:
- Projects: Short-term efforts in your work or life that you are facing now. These have a beginning and an end – and a specific outcome.
- Areas: Not everything is a project, so this stores longer-term responsibilities you need to manage over time.
- Resources: This is a catch-all for topics of interests that may be useful in the future.
- Archives: Storage for inactive items from those three other categories.
Within each of the categories, set up specific folders – for example, the particular projects you are currently focusing on. That means three clicks to find what you need – click on projects, say, the specific project, then the note with the information you are seeking. At a glance, of course, you can survey all the notes for that project.
But don’t rush to organize. Mr. Forte urges you to separate capturing and organizing the information because forcing yourself to make decisions every time you capture something just creates tension. Keep it in the inbox or daily notes section of the app and revisit it later to decide whether to keep it for the long term and where. “Think of it as a waiting area where new ideas live until you are ready to digest them into your second brain,” he writes.
Next comes the distill stage, highlighting the most important parts of each note so you can discover the essence when needed. His progressive summarization technique involves highlighting the main points of a note by bold-facing them and then going back to stress the main points of those through bright yellow highlights. In a few rare situations, he adds another distillation level: an executive summary.
The biggest distillation mistake is over-highlighting. Less is more, he advises.
Now you are prepared for the final stage, creating the concrete building blocks of your work. These packets can range from documents, graphics, agendas and plans for a project to material that didn’t make it into past projects but might be used in future, as well as documents produced by others on your team. These can be tagged with a label, but Mr. Forte prefers searching or browsing.
Put it all together and you have a second brain.
- Use Friday to batch the little things on your to-do list, productivity expert Laura Vanderkam says in her newsletter. It’s easy to procrastinate over bill payments, responding to non-urgent invitations and other low-level tasks, but they can be processed quickly when done together.
- Consultant John Sullivan advises against using the phrase “I’ll try my best” with top executives. They want results, not effort. Also, watch the word “believe,” because it may indicate you lack the data to prove what you’re supporting.
- Walgreens chief executive officer Rosalind Brewer recalls how, early in her career, she wanted everything completed yesterday. “But over time I learned that the more patient I became, the more I learned, and an appetite for learning is so important for your success,” she told CNBC.
- Boston psychotherapist Angela Ficken shares this mantra: “If something makes me anxious, I am going to do it anyway.”
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.
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