Podcast: Tiago Forte’s Approach to Productivity

The Taking Note podcast is back and moving from a monthly to a bi-weekly schedule! For this episode and the next, we were pleased to invite productivity consultant Tiago Forte down to Evernote HQ for a two-part interview. Check out Part 1 now:

Taking Note: Episode 5

Length: 22 minutes
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You may recognize Tiago’s name from his guest posts for the Evernote blog, in which he’s argued for a brain-based approach to creative workflows and changing the productivity curve of our work days. More recently, he’s launched “Building a Second Brain,” a productivity boot camp for personal knowledge management.

Highlights of our conversation are transcribed below. To hear the complete interview and subscribe to future episodes of “Taking Note,” head over to iTunes, SoundCloud, or Overcast.

Let’s talk about the modern workforce. We all live in this giant paradox. We’ve got access to endless information and we’ve got more flexible ways to work than every before, but at the same time, we’ve got so many inputs. Our days are fractured. We’re frustrated. We’re burning out. And to add a paradox on top of a paradox, we’ve got this seemingly endless series of solutions which are presented to us, prescriptions and methods for productivity. What’s your solution to this problem?

It’s just what you said. I mean, with great freedom comes great responsibility, right? It’s like we’re kids getting out of school, just throwing off our backpacks, “We’re free. We can work anytime, anywhere, on any device.” But then, summer vacation starts and we realize we’re kind of bored or frustrated or stressed because all the structure that is there in the workplace is gone.

And I kind of have a theory about this. I call it the rise of the freelance generalist. Freelancing has been around a long time, but almost by definition you had to be a specialist. You had to be a very niche, focused specialist because that was the only way that you had skills that could be monetized easily enough that you could do away with the organization. And that kind of provided its own structure. You’d wake up in the morning and know that you were doing copywriting, you were doing coding, you were doing design. It was pretty straightforward.

Now, I think technology is reaching an inflection point where it’s easy to use enough, cheap enough, seamless enough, frictionless enough, that you can be a generalist, which is what I consider myself to be, and make a living as a freelancer using these tools.

Are there solutions out there that you find are counterproductive?

Yes, there are. In particular, the trend with deep work. I’m opposed.

You know, I get it. People are feeling frazzled and just scatterbrained and all these things. But I really think this idea that you’re sort of this monastic knowledge worker, that you’re going to enter your chambers and just think deeply for hours and hours and hours on end, is a holdover from that freelance specialist mindset. And following up on that idea of a generalist as a freelancer, to do that effectively you need a portfolio. You can’t have just one narrow skill that you do.

You need a portfolio. You can’t have just one narrow skill that you do.

And this is kind of how I think now. I have free products — like my blog I write for free for lead generation — but then I have other things that are not free, like online courses. Then I have consulting and corporate training for companies, but also one-on-one coaching for consumers. So it’s like I’m constantly managing this portfolio of products and services. Some are passive, some are active.

What that requires is not this kind of intense mono-focus. It requires being very skilled and fluid with switching between things. Multi-tasking is not going away. That’s not a disease or a plague. It’s just the way the world is going. We can either fight it and treat it like a threat, or we can get better at it.

You wrote a guest piece for the Evernote blog not too long ago where you got into some of these topics. You argued that since our days are filled with these interruptions constantly, and those interruptions do make it harder to deliver value from our work, maybe instead of trying to alter the shape of our days, we should try to alter the shape of our value curves and deliver more value in smaller pieces throughout the day.

That post came from a lot of research I’d been doing on the history of productivity, specifically manufacturing. And it’s kind of amazing being here in Silicon Valley that we have this breathless fascination with technology and the future, which is great, but a side effect of that is we ignore history.

If you look at the history of manufacturing, one of the great, great insights that took decades and decades to discover was small batches, right? That was one of the key breakthroughs to better quality, to speed, to more throughput, to more profitability in manufacturing. And then you go to knowledge work and you have the deep work thing, which is another way of saying big batch sizes. Deep work, spending hours and hours in deep flow, is a big batch size. So it’s like we’ve completely gone against decades of experience in manufacturing.

But, like with the example of Toyota developing this entire culture around it, using small batch sizes requires skill, and requires a different way of thinking and doing things.

So with the question of changing the value curve, I always kind of come back to this idea that there’s no inherent structure to work. Work has no inherent unit. We make units; we make tasks, and projects, and milestones, and goals. But nothing about those is inherent in the nature of work. So that’s a little scary because it’s all arbitrary, but it’s also an opportunity because it means we can use whatever units we want.

There’s no inherent structure to work. Work has no inherent unit. We make units. But nothing about those is inherent in the nature of work.

Say, the word “project.” That word comes with baggage. All these ideas about how big should a project be, how long should it last, how much money should it make, how many people should be on a project? I almost like using different words. I have this one word “intermediate packet.” Instead of “deliverable,” I say an intermediate packet. Try to finish every working session, whether it’s 15 minutes or 8 hours, with an intermediate packet that you expose to the world; that you get some sort of feedback on.

I look at my to-do lists and I’m kind of overwhelmed by that. I don’t even necessarily get 25 minutes free because there are meetings and there are requests, and there are emails, and it’s all coming in constantly. Is there any way to get past that sense of overwhelm?

There is, and this is starting to get into the particular philosophy I have around using Evernote, actually. This is my main project these days, it’s an online course called “Building a Second Brain,” that’s actually a virtual boot camp because it’s not self-paced, take whenever you want, however you want. It’s five weeks, really intense, two meetings per week, and live video conferences. And essentially, it’s an end-to-end personal knowledge management system.

PKM, personal knowledge management, is related to PIM, personal information management. It’s basically making use of the knowledge that you gain on a personal level. Knowledge management, traditionally, has been organizations. When an employee walked out the door, all the knowledge that person had gained would go with them. So for years now, organizations have been trying to capture and catalog and use the knowledge of their employees.

Well, now if you look at the research, employee tenure is at, I think, 2.3 years. We spend a couple of years at a company. We do a few projects, a certain number of projects, and we’re gone. We need a better way to take knowledge with us. Not proprietary, confidential stuff, but actually just the insights and the breakthroughs and the learnings that we gained in the course of our work.

You mentioned that this plays into how you use Evernote. I know when you do the “Building a Second Brain” course and the other workshops you do, you try to structure them in a way so that they’re not tied to a particular platform or tool, but you are an Evernote user and Evernote is sort of the default example you give. So let’s talk about how you use Evernote. How is it set up? How is your personal Evernote set up?

I have this method I’ve developed called PARA, which stands for projects, areas, resources, and archives. And the inspiration from this — a little bit of historical background — is something called the OODA loop, which stands for observe, orient, decide, and act. It was developed by this guy named Colonel John Boyd starting the the ’40s or ’50s. He essentially used it to revolutionize aircraft fighter warfare. And it was basically a way of thinking about how to react dynamically to quickly changing conditions. You observe, you orient yourself, you decide on a course of action, and then you act.

It’s been an incredible inspiration for a lot of people in a lot of fields. It’s sort of underappreciated, the impact it’s had. But the thing that really sets is apart is it’s not a static way of thinking. It’s not like a flow chart — do A, do B, do C, do D. It’s loops, and then loops within loops, and then loops within those loops. Because you’re at all times intaking information, turning that into decisions, and then into actions.

And it’s the same with PARA. PARA is 4 categories, and that’s kind of the starting point. You divide your work into projects, which I’m using here the GTD definition, a series of tasks linked to an outcome.

Areas of responsibility: Some standard or area of your life that’s an ongoing concern; that you want to maintain on an ongoing basis.

Resources: Basically, interests or topics. Things like website design. For me, it’s not a particular project — not even really an area because that’s not my work — but it’s something I’m interested in that I’d like to keep track of.

And then Archives, which is anything from the previous three categories that’s no longer active, because you want to avoid clogging up your actionable categories. As soon as something is not top of mind, not front and center, you want to move it to the archives, but still keep it in case you want to go and find something there.

You have a whole workshop around applying design thinking to workflows, and to doing day-to-day work. What concepts do you draw from design thinking, and how do they apply?

Great question. Design thinking is an incredible way of thinking; an incredible movement, really, and taking place across many decades. The thing I take away the most from design thinking, especially when it comes to productivity and personal knowledge management, is just really the idea that you are a designer. Each one of us truly is a designer by nature, even if not by training. And that’s something that’s hard for people to get used to.

Each one of us truly is a designer by nature, even if not by training. And that’s something that’s hard for people to get used to.

I actually had a previous course called “Design Your Habits.” It was on habit formation. And I had to be constantly explaining to people, because they would see “Design Your Habits” and they’d go “Oh, I’m not a designer. I didn’t go to design school.” And I’d have to be like, “No, you design habits. If you’re trying to lose weight and you want to change your diet, you design this whole routine that might be around exercise, or walking, or food. And you do that, in most cases, pretty instantaneously, intuitively, and just naturally on the course of your day.”

It’s a spontaneous process, but it does involve, I think, a lot of the same steps; sort of looking around and taking stock of sort of the elements in front of you, thinking of a workflow and a process, having some sort of a feedback loop.

Yes, design thinking, getting this process that has become a profession and bringing it back to its origins, which is just the way humans think. We are designers, we make, we create, we modify, we get new information and we change, we tweak. That’s completely natural to what it means to be human.

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