Podcast: Tiago Forte on Productivity, Provocation, and Layering Knowledge

When it comes to productivity, there are plenty of people who want you to do things their way. Tiago Forte, a productivity consultant based in San Francisco, wants to help you think for yourself. “I try to provoke people,” he says. “I try to find what is becoming the common wisdom that ‘everyone’ knows, and just attack it. Because that gets people thinking.”

In Part 1 of our podcast interview with Tiago, we talked about chaos in the modern workplace, the virtues of small-batch productivity vs. deep work, and the system Tiago has devised to organize his thinking in Evernote. For Part 2, we take a deeper look at how he structures his notes and get a peek into “Building a Second Brain,” Tiago’s five-week boot camp for personal knowledge management.

Taking Note: Episode 6

Length: 20 minutes
iTunes | SoundCloud | Overcast | MP3 | RSS


Selected highlights of our conversation are transcribed below. Please note that this episode builds on concepts Tiago introduced in Episode 5, such as the “PARA” organizing system (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives) and Tiago’s argument for breaking down work projects into “intermediate packets.” You may want to check out that episode before diving into this one.

You wrote a guest blog post for us awhile back, a very lengthy one, and one that generated a lot of discussion. In it, you argued pretty forcefully against something that is a key factor in many people’s organization of Evernote, and that is tagging. If I remember correctly, you argued that it was putting a lot of effort where it wasn’t delivering value. Could you expand on that?

I try to provoke people. I try to find what is becoming the common wisdom that “everyone” knows, and just attack it because it just gets people thinking. Like the comments on that post and the various messages I received through social media, in many cases people counter-arguing against me and saying, “No, you’re wrong for this reason, this reason, this reason.” That, right there, was some of the best thinking I’ve ever seen on this stuff. They were provoked into defending their viewpoint.

I may have kind of been a bit melodramatic on purpose. It’s not that I never use tags or think tags are completely worthless. It’s just a pattern I see with people. Working with people one on one is always so illuminating because they get so caught up in their tagging system. It becomes this game of perfectionism that’s never quite ready.

It’s the same thing with like evaluating which program is correct, right? I actually see people like, “Oh, yeah, I have all these book notes on paper. I want to wait until I have my tagging system correct to get these into my database.” Meanwhile, they’re stuck in — in some cases, literally — a cardboard box in your closet. All of that knowledge is going stale, or at least not being used, because you don’t have the “perfect system.”

Yeah, I’ve definitely heard cases of that as well. Because they want to get that tagging system just right, and then apply all the tags to everything. And they’ve got hundreds and hundreds of tags. And I wonder, are you spending more time tagging than you’re spending using the information?

I have a good antidote to that. Temporary tags. I think where the pressure comes from, that pressure to have everything perfect, is the “long-term” thing. The idea that this is going to be around forever, so it needs to last years and years.

So what I do is I have project-specific tags. For a given project, I use tags to track my progress to that deliverable or that intermediate packet. And then once in a while, usually when I do my monthly review for GTD, I delete all my tags. So every single month I have a blank slate, which sounds crazy because you think all that work is going to waste. But I got what I wanted, which was the deliverable, the project outcome.

And the interesting thing is it allows me to bring my creativity to it. Some months I’ll do tagging based on emotions. The next month, the slate is clean, I’ll do tagging based on deliverables. Next month, I’ll do tagging based on time slots. And I’ve just discovered so many little things that I wouldn’t have been able to discover just thinking about it abstractly, but actually trying it. And there’s never any pressure because I know, at most, a month from now it’s all going to go away.

What about your notes themselves? We all have different ways of taking notes, especially when we have a tool like Evernote to work with. Is there a particular style that your notes tend to have?

A very particular one. So, there are the three pillars of the course that I teach: capture, organize, and retrieve. The middle one, organize, is the PARA system. The first one, capture, is something I call “progressive summarization.” This is a method I’ve developed over a number of years that is essentially designing notes; really putting a lot of thought into the design of individual notes.

But the way I do this is not maybe what you typically think of design… I’ll take notes on a source, whether it’s a conversation, an article, a book, a podcast, audiobook, whatever. And then I just put it in my system. Just the raw notes. The next time I see that, the next time I serendipitously come across it — or it might be that I’m looking for a project or looking for a resource that I want to use this note for — I summarize it.

The first layer, as I call it, is bolding. I go though, and I’m already reading the source anyway, I bold the best parts. The next time I see it, which could be months later, in some cases a year or two later, I do the next layer: I highlight in yellow only the best bolded parts.[…]

There’s an 80/20 thing, where a tiny minority of your notes has the great majority of value. So it makes sense to concentrate your design attention on that small minority that’s actually very insightful, rather than spread your attention equally across all your notes, which is what I see with tagging. You may spend a minute tagging a note that has very little value, which doesn’t seem like a lot but that’s one minute too much for me.

a tiny minority of your notes has the great majority of value. So it makes sense to concentrate your design attention on that small minority.

You’ve talked a bit about the boot camp/workshop called “Building a Second Brain.” I believe you’ve run that twice now. So what are you learning from running that pretty intensive program, and are you going to keep it going?

I’m definitely keeping it going. It’s been, honestly, the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on, and for just the reason you said. I learn, without a doubt, more than anyone actually taking the course. In each group, we’ve had between 50 and 55 people. And reading their bios, because I do some Linkedin stalking, their bios are incredible. They’re engineers, they’re Ph.D.s, doctors, professors, startup CEOs. Incredible people that have spent, in many cases, just as long as I have thinking about personal knowledge management. So they come with their own insights, perhaps not quite as structured as the way that I’m presenting it, but I’m on the sessions presenting, and on the side, taking notes from what everyone else is saying. It’s been a great experience.

What do you go through in the workshop? Did you say it was five weeks? How do you break that down?

It’s really those three pillars. So we start with organization, because people usually have this mass of messy notes they’re not too happy with. And so to kind of give them the initial confidence to really dive in, we start with PARA. So after the first week, they have every single digital file in their life, actually, because PARA is not only Evernote, it goes across cloud storage, your file system, your task manager… everything. So it’s really a universal digital organizing system. That’s the first part of the course.

The we go to progressive summarization and cover capture, and really build the skill — and it is a skill — to capture not just the original note, but the insights and the most important ideas within that note.

And then we end the course with retrieval, which is a method called “just in time project management,” which is sort of related to the intermediate packet thing. It’s always working towards the next intermediate packet in these short sprints. And building systems and support routines and all this so that you can do that as quickly and with as much acceleration as possible.

And you mentioned that you get some really interesting people who are taking these classes, because I presume a class like that is going to appeal to a certain type of person. Have any of the people that you have taught in this course changed the way you think about some of these issues?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, one thing was this technique of layering and summarizing, one of the students was a Finnish entrepreneur in the music business. And he got that idea and said, “Okay, I get it, but I’m going to completely change it and apply it to music.” I thought it was a textual analysis method. He showed me that it’s actually about the structure of any sort of information.

Layer Zero for him is just all of his notes on random songs and concertos, sources and inspiration, sounds, instruments, all these things. Layer 1 is anything that he’s put into a piece of music. Layer 2 is anything that he’s performed for someone else. Layer 3 is anything that he’s recorded.

It’s kind of like a topology of your knowledge that has peaks. The peaks are where your thinking has gone the furthest, whereas the valleys are where the thinking is still kind of raw and unfiltered. So that kind of blew my mind, and I’m still trying to work out the implications of what does it mean to apply this to images, to photographs, to art, to sports and the movement of the body? It’s a pretty fundamental principle that you want to surface the key components of any body of knowledge.

And that ties into some of the things you’ve mentioned throughout this interview. You talked about the art of organizing. You talked about how on a core level we’re all designers. And you’ve talked about the importance of creativity. How can we foster creativity within a productivity system?

Great question. I love that because there’s this implicit assumption that they’re opposites. I get this all the time, actually. People come up to me, sometimes, and their initial entry will be, “I don’t like productivity because it’s about being efficient, and like a machine, and just sticking to the plan.” And I just go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s your definition of productivity?” And they tell me something like, “Oh, what machines do, basically.” And then I say, “Can I tell you my definition?” And my definition is creating as much value in the world as efficiently and as effectively as possible. And they go, “Oh, well, I can buy that.”

My definition of productivity is creating as much value in the world as efficiently and as effectively as possible.

No. And that’s where creativity comes in. It takes immense creativity to use processes in that way. To not be a slave to the process, to not just obey the process, but to think, “This part isn’t working,” or to have the courage to say, “Look, this process we’ve always followed does not serve our purposes. It’s no longer in line with our values. Let’s change it.”

That’s one of the insights from the Toyota Production System, is when you give workers the freedom to point things out — to pull the cord, so to speak — they come up with an incredible number of ideas. They think of things that management would never think about in a million years. Small things, big things, human things, software things, hardware things.

And it’s almost like having the foundation or the structure — we talked about structure before — already in place, just like a scaffolding gives you these little pockets where creativity can happen. Because the thing with creativity is, creativity cannot happen without constraints. This is a really important point. The same with design. Design cannot happen without constraints. If you tell me “just design something” … Oh, what should I design? What are the user needs? What is the purpose it serves? What are the constraints? And you give me none? I literally cannot design anything useful.

Another term that gets used a lot and has an inherent assumption of a dichotomy is “work-life balance.” We all say we want it, at the same time work and life seem to be blending together. And I mean, that’s nothing new … farmers, artisans, soldiers have always had a blended work and life experience, but it’s new to office workers. Is this a trend we should be fighting or embracing?

My initial reaction is fighting, going along the “provoking people” thing. And you know, my take on that is just … I just don’t get it. I don’t think about work-life balance. I don’t think about work-life blending or whatever the new term is.

I think that whole way of thinking is an artifact of a previous time. Just having those two things that need to be balanced or blended or whatever it is, assumes there’s a division, there’s a dichotomy. And I see the consequences of that are many.

One thing I notice is, people not giving much credit to themselves for side projects. Like a programmer works on an open source project, and they think, “Oh, I’m not getting paid, so it doesn’t fall in the ‘work’ category.” Therefore, they’ll be hesitant to put it on their resume. They won’t really use it as evidence that they continue to learn and improve. And I go, “Oh my gosh, that is one of your key assets. The fact that you do this stuff for fun, it’s a part of you and what you care about and what matters to you, not just something you do for money? That should be front and center in your resume or your portfolio.”

You can hear the complete interview and subscribe to future episodes of “Taking Note” at iTunes, SoundCloud, or Overcast

Upgrade your notes with Evernote Personal.

Go Personal