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.
A really useful piece of advice from Adam Tinworth about blogging is this: bring the inspiration or desire to blog as close as possible to actually blogging.
This sounds obvious, but over time all sorts of tools and steps in the process can get added. Consequently, I have an Evernote notebook full of links to blog about, and a Byword folder stacked with ideas and links I’ve not got round to writing up.
This IFTTT recipe is one attempt to overcome this. I’ve created it so that every time I bookmark on my Diigo with the tag “to_blog“, a draft post is created on my personal blog.
If you think it could work for you too, create an IFTTT.com account and give it a go.
Outliners were one of the first writing tools available on computers and they continue to be very important. Ford defines it as…
…a kind of mental tree. Say level 1 is a line of text. Then level 1.1 would be subordinate to 1, and 1.1.1 subordinate to 1.1; 1.2, like 1.1, is subordinate to the first line. And so forth.
Personally, I use Omnioutliner Pro, CarbonFin’s excellent Outliner app for IOS, as well the outlining functions in Evernote and Curio on occasion. I picked up the practice from Jim Byford and my now business-partner Jason Ryan, who conjures major projects, intricate strategies and complex plans on a screen, turning an interesting conversation into an action plan and the beginning of a briefing document or proposal.
I like mindmaps, but outliners suit my needs more often. Sometimes an idea will be developed in a mindmap and then be transferred (as an OPML file – Curio does this automatically very well) to an outline and later that outline will turn into a Google Doc, Pages or Word file that can be made more beautiful and complicated and ready for sharing with the world outside the project team.
It’s a case of the right tool for the way you need to think in a given situation. But also, the right tool in chain of tools that can become a workflow that means you move from idea, to concept, to model, to prototype to plan in smooth transitions, with as little friction and cognitive costs between each step as possible.
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.
Despite having at least four other devices with Kindle apps on them at any given moment at home or work, my reading weapon of choice is the Kindle Paperwhite.
I rip through books on it, lose myself in them fast and deeply. Two reasons: first, there is less pull from the web and apps; second, the little “time left in book” statistic in the bottom-left corner seems to help me focus. The effect of the latter is a little like using the Pomodoro technique – it gives a sense of manageable scale and progress through the text. There may also be that effect some drivers report of their satnav’s estimated time of arrival at a destination – the temptation to beat the computer’s prediction.
For my money, there’s a far more immediate danger to the quality of our in-brain memory: that old op-ed page demon, distraction. If you want to internalize a piece of knowledge, you’ve got to linger over it. You can’t flit back and forth; you have to focus for a reasonable amount of time, with mental peace. But today’s digital environment rarely leaves you any such peace.
With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
Like any good design team, we can have a sense of purpose without deluding ourselves that we can predict every outcome in advance, for this is the space of creativity. We can blur the distinction between the final product and the creative process that got us there. We can learn how to take joy in the things we create. We can work within the constraints of our own natures—and still be agile, build capabilities, iterate. We can conduct experiments, make discoveries, change our perspectives.
Think of today as a prototype. What would you change?
Nice thought. Within the constraints of time, money and ability – how would you like your day to work?
There are millions of information sources we could, in theory, keep up with, but only a few that we tell ourselves we must – and the distinction’s pretty arbitrary. I try to answer all personal emails, but I don’t worry about answering all personal Twitter messages.
The way to deal with our irrational, modern malady may be to make choices and use tools that trick us into thinking we are in control:
When Google launched Priority Inbox, which sifts email into “important” and “everything else”, I was sceptical: prioritisation systems mainly involve pointlessly reordering your to-do list. But friends who swear by it don’t really use it to prioritise: they use it as a guiltless way to ignore the non-important emails entirely, and thus feel more in command.
….I capture a page in the note-taking application Evernote, label it with the tag “to read” and file it away. Frequently, I never read it. But it works: the information feels tamed. The tug is gone. I’m in control, so I’m happy.
Funnily enough, Instapaper fills this role for me right now and I feel terrible about it.
I used to love Instapaper – the simplicity of the layout, the focus on reading longer form pieces. Now I just throw everything in there that I think I should read, but in reality I never get round to reading it much. Now it feels like a grim box where I have locked away all of my procrastination and I never really fancy opening it much.