TL;DR: “Type as quickly as you can and always carry a pencil.” — Clive Thompson.
When the late Iain Banks talked about the inevitable “where do you get your ideas?” question that authors are dogged by, he said, “we have exactly the same amount of ideas as everybody else – authors are just better at capturing them”.
Getting thoughts out of one’s head and onto something where they can make use of is an essential practice for everyone who works with their mind.
The moment when the idea or insight occurs is where every great inspiration starts where every new novel, screenplay, strategy and scheme either sparks into life or winks out of possible existence as if it had never occurred to anyone.
When it comes to meetings and listening to presentations I currently prefer a notebook over a tablet or laptop for taking notes. Actually, I’ll use a smartphone if it’s more discreet – say on a crowded restaurant table. I’m always careful to make it clear I’m taking notes, however – if people suspect you are attending to email or other things they can find it distracting and even a little stressful.
For focused note-taking, though, nothing beats the reliability and – it turns out – self-editing and précis skills required of physical note-taking.
This video of a short talk by Clive Thompson, a journalist who writes a great deal about how our minds work with machines, confirmed many of my suspicions about why I like note-taking by hand, as well as why when it comes to developing ideas and getting them down in a document, nothing beats the ability to type quickly.
Since watching this I’ve got the pencils and sharpener he talks about finding as a result of his obsessive search for the best example of each. I can confirm that they are fantastic.
If there is one online tool that I would recommend anyone who thinks for a living, it’s Diigo.
The new version of Diigo, launched a month or so ago is absolutely amazing. It’s worth noting the ways you can find value in it I think of these into levels. So I thought I’d write some thoughts and tips about this most important of my personal online tools…
Ways of thinking about Diigo (and Diigo-like tools)
Here are three themes I’ve been mulling about Diigo…
1. Immediate and emergent benefits: The way explain the value of online bookmarking services is to say they have enough immediate value to get you hooked long enough to appreciate the deeper or emergent value you can find in them. The immediate value is all about never having to lose or misplace a favorite or bookmark again. I have a record of all the websites, posts and articles I have found interesting about anything since about 2004.
2. Outsourcing memory: In Smarter Than You Think (which I highly recommend by the way) Clive Thompson talks about how humans have always outsourced memory to lighten their personal cognitive load:
In a sense, this is an ancient story. The “extended mind” theory of cognition argues that the reason humans are so intellectually dominant is that we’ve always outsourced bits of cognition, using tools to scaffold our thinking into ever-more-rarefied realms. Printed books amplified our memory.
Partners remember things for each other, groups rely on experts on topics to remember things, we have used notebooks, diaries and then mobile phones to remember dates, telephone numbers and other bits. These days we rely on Google to remember things a lot, but increasingly we want our personal databases to store stuff in – Evernote is of course amazing for this, but Diigo (and other bookmarking sites) allow us to remember in public. We can search our memory, our record of good information sources, then people who are interested in the same things.
3. Creating latent knowledge: When I wrote about social networks in Me and My Web Shadow, I wrote about the people further out in our social circles, people we may not have much to do with day to day but we are connected to on LinkedIn or Twitter as our latent contacts. We can call upon one another when there is a possible shared interest, because the social network has remembered the connection for us and made it easy to pick up the relationship again. The things I store in Diigo aren’t my knowledge – I’ve not read and re-read the information to make it mine yet, but I’m keeping it available, in my reachable network of relevant facts, data, connections, resources.
Useful things to do with Diigo
All my colleagues at Brilliant Noise now use Diigo to store and share useful links. We have started using it with some clients too – both as a practical tool and as a way of introducing concepts like digital and network literacy. This has made my own use more sophisticated, as I’m reminded of some of the service’s features.
Here’s some things I recommend trying…
Sharing research or noteworthy links in a group: People emailing each other interesting stories and links is nice, but an inefficient way of sharing. It adds to the email deluge and can mean that useful reading gets missed as it is culled along with other non-urgent messages. I recommend this: set up a group in Diigo, get everyone to save relevant links there and people can request a daily or weekly digest email of all the useful reading.
Browser extensions: When you are using a desktop browser, most will have an extension or app you can install so that a Diigo window will appear for saving, adding notes and tags. Makes it really fast and easy to save things you might want to refer to again some day.
The iOS browser. There’s a dedicated Diigo web browser for iPads which is kind of useful for bookmarking and reviewing (although with some fiddling you can add a bookmarklet to Safari or Chrome. (There’s an Android one too.)
Emailing in your bookmarks: Actually most mobile browsers are good for Diigo, but a new feature may be even easier – you can email links and tags to your library. Really simple and fast – which is how I like my reading/bookmarking workflows.
Highlighting. The feature that really sets Diigo apart from other services for me is the ability to highlight text. This makes reviewing research, even just for a blog post easier, as you can see all the bits you found most interesting without going into the original article again. (NB: there is a limit of 1000 free highlights per year, then you need to go Premium.)
Syncing with Delicious. I keep my Delicious account active, partly for sentimental reasons and partly just in case it gets good again. This used to be simple and straightforward, but then someone at Yahoo! cut the API cord and I have IFTTT automatically cross-post there for me. (Here’s my IFTTT recipe if you want to copy it for yourself).
Syncing with an Evernote Notebook. Another IFTTT trick I use is to assign a certain hashtag to a folder in my Evernote. This is useful for research projects – for instance I was preparing a weekly trends briefing on the retail sector for a client for a few months. Since I read a lot in my feeds and on Twitter that will be relevant for something like this I just add a tag specific to that project and when report writing day rolled around I simply opened up the folder and started pulling out the highlights and stories – I’d distributed the research part of the workflow across the whole week and was able to go straight into analysis mode when the time came. Here’s the IFTTT recipe for that too, if you want to try it and amend it to your own nefarious purposes…
The premium option. It has become clear in the slightly darker, post-Web 2.0 world, that if you really love something, it is a good idea to pay for it. So I’ve gone premium on Diigo, in part to support them but also to access a really cool feature – page caching. Diigo will cache pages that you bookmark so that if they are deleted or the links broken you will still have the useful information you wanted to keep handy. It’s $40 a year – which when it is as valuable to me as Diigo is, is amazing value
By the way – my Diigo profile is here if you want to have a look at what I’ve been reading. Let me know if you have any tips to share and add to those here.