Archive for category productivity

Simplify, simplify

I just discovered on this blog that I have 1,300+ tags! I deleted 1,000 of them before I reached any that were linked to more than 1 post. I could probably get rid of a couple of hundred more, but I think that’s about enough fun for one day, don’t you?

Teachers scrambling to put their classes online

As schools close or prolong their spring vacations, they are also gearing up for online classes and requiring their teachers to get up to speed on online teaching which means learning various “platforms” and software programs in a hurry.

I work at three different institutions of higher learning, and they each use different platforms for delivering digital content and managing learners. Great!

Although my main employer finally (i.e. April 10th) got around to giving teachers an orientation into how to use the Moodle-based system (all in Japanese, of course), I had to find my own English resources to fill in the gaps. This tutorial was the best, I found: Moodle 3.8 Complete Tutorial for Teachers and Creating Online Courses

Russell Stannerd is an excellent and prolific resource for just every educational platform and software under the sun. I found his YT vid on Zoom security settings particularly helpful.

Much has been said and written and blogged about Zoom’s “security issues”, but this video by Keep Productive and this article about Oxford  Professor Dutton, who is also a fellow of the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre (GCSCC) of Oxford’s Department of Computer Science, suggest there is no big problem: the “problems” happened because people were setting up Zoom meetings without properly educating themselves about the various security settings.

But, many of the issues are actually related to the users moderating the conference, rather than the software, says Professor Dutton. … He maintains, there are numerous ways in which meetings and events can be safeguarded from malicious intent. He says: ‘There has been exaggerated coverage of the problems. It’s not usually a problem with the software. Many of these issues can be addressed by the moderator.’ … Professor Dutton maintains: ‘Part of the problem is that Covid-19 moved so many people online so quickly. Teachers and people with no background are using [this technology] because it is so simple. But it made them vulnerable to malicious intent [because they did not take the security measures that were available].’

FBI follows Oxford academic’s guide to beat the Zoom-bombers

Here’s Prof. Dutton’s original blog post: Zoom-bombing the future of education

However! This article suggests there are other, more serious issues: ZOOM’S ENCRYPTION IS “NOT SUITED FOR SECRETS” AND HAS SURPRISING LINKS TO CHINA, RESEARCHERS DISCOVER Is there truth in this, or is this part of a broader China-bashing fashion? You be the judge.

According to the above Intercept article, Zoom’s user-base has increased 20x (including the US and UK governments) since the corona virus started causing many people to work from home: “Since the coronavirus outbreak started, Zoom’s customer base has surged from 10 million users to 200 million, including “over 90,000 schools across 20 countries,” according to a blog post by Zoom CEO Eric Yuan.”

There are a number of free courses teaching people how to teach online and many more have sprung up in the last few weeks, for obvious reasons. Here’s one I joined: Take Your Teaching Online run by NILE (no idea what that stands for and they’re not telling you! I think the N stands for Norwich in the UK, but not sure). Russell Stannerd is one of the instructors.

This LinkedIn Learning course on using Camtasia is also very good. And it’s free (for a while): How to Create Instructional Videos in Camtasia by Corbin Anderson.


My notes on “The PARA Method”

The PARA Method is “a universal system for organizing digital information”. As such it forms part of Tiago Forte’s online course, Building a Second Brain (sign up for the course here, watch a short introductory video here, read an overview here).

The links above give information by the creator of Building a Second Brain (BASB) himself, so I won’t summarize it here. I’ll just briefly point out a key element of the PARA system as I understand it just from reading some articles and watching a few videos. I’ve been putting it into practice and finding it very useful.

P.A.R.A. stands for Projects — Areas — Resources — Archives

Archive is self-explanatory, as should be resources, though in PARA it seems to be more encompassing than “project support materials”.

It’s the distinction between Project and Areas of Responsibility that I found most enlightening and useful.

If you’re a GTD-er, you’ll be familiar with Areas of Responsibility – the 20,000 ft level or horizon, just above “current projects” – which forms part of the Horizons of Focus: ” The GTD Horizons of Focus is a framework for how to align your daily actions with your visions, goals, and life-purpose. Done right, it will place you in the captain’s seat for controlling the most important aspects of your life.

Forte’s Areas of Responsibility seems to me the same as the GTD one.

A project is “a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline. An area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.” even the smallest confusion between these two categories is a deeply rooted cause of many personal productivity problems.

A project has a goal to be achieved… by a specific moment in time. It has a deadline or timeframe. …

An area of responsibility, by contrast, has a standard to be maintained. And there is no end date or final outcome. Your performance in this area may wax and wane over time, but the standard continues indefinitely and requires a certain level of attention at all times.

The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information

People often mistake their areas of responsibility for projects. They’re not. Projects have defined deadlines; areas continue indefinitely and require attention and adherence to standards.

There are three absolutely critical things you cannot do unless you break out your areas of responsibility into clearly articulated projects. The first is that you can’t truly know the extent of your commitments.

Second, you can’t connect your current efforts to your long-term goals

Third, you can’t know if you’re making progress toward your goals.

The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information

The other useful tip I learned from this article was, once you’ve setup PARA in your note-taking application or your To-Do app, recreate that same setup across all your relevant digital programs. This takes time, but I’ve made a start syncing my YT playlists with my bookmarks and my Evernote notebooks. It makes so much sense and saves time in the long run.

“The exact same project list is replicated across every program”.

Here’s why this is important: you will always need to use multiple programs to complete projects… but technology is advancing too quickly on too many fronts for any one company to do every single function best.

Instead of … looking for “one platform to rule them all,” formulate your Project List and then replicate that list across every single tool you use, now and in the future… down to the exact same spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, so that your transitions between programs are as seamless as possible.

…people tend to use different organizational schemes in every program they use… forcing their brains to “load up” and remember a different one every time they switch programs.

The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information

The article ends with a simple exercise that helps to understand the importance of clearly distinguishing projects from areas:

There is a very illuminating exercise you can perform once you’ve taken the time to formulate a clear Project List. Put it side by side with your Goal List, and draw lines matching each project with its corresponding goal.

The PARA Method: A Universal System for Organizing Digital Information

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Smart notes

P.A.R.A. is Tiago Forte’s “system for organizing digital information” (read more on Forte’s blog “Praxis” – The PARA Method”). Here’s how a Master GTD trainer uses PARA. (See also my notes on Forte’s PARA method.)

This video is a screencast by a highly competent user of the GTD system. He uses Evernote and PARA.

How to Take Smart Notes: a summary of what Forte learned about note-taking from reading a book called How to Take Smart Notes (affiliate link), which is itself based on a system familiar to many as zettelkasten using index cards. (I actually used this system myself for many years – very analog it is, that was part of the attraction.)

Photo by plindberg  via Sean Lawson | Zettelkasten Method for Researchers & Academics

Instead of notes becoming a “graveyard for thoughts,” they can become a life-long pool of rich and interconnected ideas we can draw on no matter where our interests lead us.

How To Take Smart Notes: 10 Principles to Revolutionize Your Note-Taking and Writing

Well, that’s nice, but my index cards did become and remain a “graveyard for thoughts”, and the same thing has happened with my Evernotes, tho to a slightly lesser degree. Which is why I’m interested in both Building a Second Brain and the app Notion.

How many brilliant ideas have you had and forgotten? How many insights have you failed to take action on? How much useful advice have you slowly forgotten as the years have passed?

We feel a constant pressure to be learning, improving ourselves, and making progress. We spend countless hours every year reading, listening, and watching informational content. And yet, where has all that valuable knowledge gone? Where is it when we need it? Our brain can only store a few thoughts at any one time. Our brain is for having ideas, not storing them…

Building A Second Brain is a methodology for saving and systematically reminding us of the ideas, inspirations, insights, and connections we’ve gained through our experience…

This methodology is not only for preserving those ideas, but turning them into reality.

trying to remember all of it is overwhelming and impractical. By consolidating ideas from these sources, you’ll… have an ongoing record of personal discoveries, lessons learned, and actionable insights for any situation.

Building a Second Brain

For the last 5 years or so, I’ve been keeping track of “lessons learned”, but those lessons and their associated action plans are scattered in different places, both digital and analog, and I want to develop a way to keep them if not in one place (although Notion seems to make that feasible) at least more easily and quickly accessible.

Building a Second Brain offers a system for note-taking and for storing information (PARA) in a way that stacks the odds in favour of notes re-surfacing when needed instead of staying “out of sight, out of mind”, and Notion offers an interface that allows many different elements to be easily visible and accessible.

The “master GTD Trainer” uses a great many tags, something I wonder if Forte would approve of, given his opinion that “tagging is broken”!

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What I learned from Notion Office Hours: Tiago Forte

These are notes I made on watching this 1 hour 14 min. YT video of Marie Poulin interviewing Tiago Forte on how he uses Notion.

See my notes on my Notion page. The link should let you view the page whether you have a Notion account or not.


Time management

In addition to Notion-specific information, Tiago answered questions about his workflow, his weekly review, and how he manages his time. His answer to this last question was very interesting:

  • Q: How do you manage your time between management /admin stuff and creative work?
  • A: Anything that is a time-specific obligation, I do on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I’m very religious about this. Tue and Thurs are my “starving Parisian artist” days when I often sleep in. I can’t be creative in a 45-minute (pre-defined) time-slot. Weekly Reviews are done on M, W, F. NEVER on a creative day (Tue, Thur). I don’t even look at email on those days!

About Notion

and learning it, starting out, he said,

I advocate a just-in-time approach where you only add as much structure as is needed to solve the problem at hand.You’re creating structure on demand in response to a real need.”

(Marie): Notion seems very complex, but it’s so easy to move data in Notion, so you can move things around and change things, so you don’t have to get it perfect right off the bat. You can adapt on the fly. Be a little messy as you go.

(Tiago): The question is, What is the correct amount of structure for the task at hand?

YouTube – Notion Office Hours: Tiago Forte

Saving time with text expanders

He uses TextExpander A LOT (a Mac/iOS app. For Windows, there is PhraseExpress). See my Notion page for screenshots.

On GTD’s Weekly Review and Next Actions

Discussing his weekly review he revealed a relaxed attitude. In particular, I remembered, he does not review all his Next Actions: “that would take hours! Put on this list what you’re already going to do anyway!” and ” Only sort things, NOT do things. Clear email inbox does NOT mean responding to email. If you start doing that, you’re lost!”

Book recommendations

  1. Book #1 mentioned is “Work the System : The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less” (affiliate link) by Sam Carpenter  (2014) (Kindle Edition)
  2. Book #2 mentioned is The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business: Make Great Money. Work the Way You Like. Have the Life You Want (affiliate link) by Elaine Pofeldt (Kindle Edition)
  3. Book #3 mentioned is  Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business (affiliate link) by Paul Jarvis   (Kindle Edition) 

See more on my “What I Learned…” Notion page.


Tagging is Broken – Tiago Forte on Evernote

This article is one of a series about Tiago Forte’s ideas on productivity and creative work for knowledge workers, including his system called “Building A Second Brain”. The next online course will take place in April and I already signed up here. (For context, I teach Academic Writing to EFL college students in Japan and am learning as much as I can about this and Notion before the next academic year starts in April.) My particular interests in this topic are:

  • how to make notes that I am more likely to use in future, note that don’t just accumulate then stagnate in Evernote-limbo
  • how to improve the quality and quantity of my writing
  • how to create notes that I can easily find again, saving me time and stress searching or trying to remember.


My earlier articles on Tiago Forte’s work are –

  1. Learning Notion (it was in some Notion YouTube videos that P.A.R.A and Building a Second Brain first came on my radar)
  2. More on PARA and Building a Second Brain
  3. Conversation with Tiago Forte, my notes on the first half of his first filmed interview, in which he discusses his 10 principles of Building a Second Brain
  4. A Manifesto for Human-Centred Work, my notes on the 2nd half of that interview.

This post is about a couple of articles by Forte on using Evernote productively and why tagging is broken. It’s my take on those two articles, not an accurate summary. As Forte wrote,

Have you ever read a book in which someone else has taken notes? The margin notes either don’t make sense, or their conclusions are totally obvious.

“How to Use Evernote for your Creative Workflow” – Tiago Forte, Forte Labs.

You’ve been warned.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Back to the Opera (browser)

UPDATE: Another reason I like Opera is that it has a WhatsApp plugin that lets you read and reply to WhatsApp messages. How cool is that?!?

After playing around with Google Chrome for a while, I re-installed Opera on my desktop pc’s. Why? Because Chrome was so slow. And, I had to login to Google each time if I wanted my extensions to load. What the …? Extensions, of course, include my password manager, so that meant I had to type in my super-secret long-assed Google password BY HAND before I could load and use my password manager. I mean, really!

I blogged recently about Tiago Forte’s suggestions for streamlining one’s email procedures using keyboard shortcuts, which, however, I could not implement as my Google account did not allow me to access that function.  But Opera does have some shortcuts of its own: mouse shortcuts. AND keyboard shortcuts. Coolio.

I still keep Chrome on my USB, tho, because Opera does not have a portable version. Strike that. It does! Just installed it.

Update: 1 downside to Opera is that there is no Grammarly extension for this browser, so I’m keeping Chrome on hand, but Opera is my default browser.


A Manifesto for Human-centred Work

(UPDATE: After mulling over the interview with Tiago Forte [see below], I think what was most valuable and interesting is the idea of fusing work and personal growth. Forte wants to see many many more knowledge workers doing creative work. Productivity (which is a huge buzzword, just google it!) can be a wonderful vehicle for personal growth. Why keep the two separate? They both involve improvement and the desire to improve, but Forte hopes [and is creating tools such as Building a Second Brain for this purpose] that, with some thought, planning and re-orientation, technology can take much of the drudgery out of “productivity” leaving workers a little freer to use all that time and effort and attention and squirreling away of millions of bits of data to actually do creative, interesting and valuable work, both for themselves and for others.

Forte has inspired me to record some of my mini-lectures, as I use them over and over. Why re-invent the wheel every year or semester? And the more I think about it, the more activities occur to me that I can record and use as templates for the future, as well as for others.

PS Building a Second Brain workshop is now accepting applications for its next session in April 2020. Sign up here.

How about you? How can you do more with less? Make things easier for your future self?

The original show-notes with time-stamps can be found here: Video  Interview: Eclectic Spacewalk with Tiago Forte

and the transcript of the entire interview on Medium here: Conversation #3 – Tiago Forte (Transcript).

Up next: I’ll summarize and comment on Tiago Forte’s critical look at Evernote and tagging. OK. Back to the scheduled programming.)

A Manifesto for Human-centered Work. In the second half of the interview I blogged about earlier, Building a Second Brain founder Tiago Forte talks about his vision of work which is both enlightened and enlightening, a vision he calls a Manifesto for Human-centred Work.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Midpoint Collision

This is Max. A cab driver who keeps his cab spotless, memorizes routes and is a sympathetic listener and talker. A people person. He’s saving up to create his own limo company.

And this is Vincent.

Vincent is not a people person. He kills them. For a living. He’s a paid assassin who hires Max for the night to drive him from hit to hit.

Two unlikely and unwilling partners in a night of crime. Max tells Vincent about his dream: to have his own limo company. The story gets interesting when Max starts berating Vincent for what he does. Vincent turns the tables: “how long you been driving this cab? Twelve years??! Some day? Some day my dream will come! One day you’ll wake up and discover it never happened. It never will. And suddenly, you are old.”

Here’s the scene (sound quality is poor, sorry, it’s not my clip).

Max is always planning, dreaming rather, perhaps, and never executing. Unlike Vincent (ha-ha!). Am I like Max? Are you?

Is Max fortunate or unfortunate to meet Vincent? It is rare to meet someone who tells us the unvarnished truth; and rarer when that truth challenges us to become better people instead of staying within our comfort zone.

“The Midpoint Collision” below gives an analysis of the conflict between these two protagonists from a screenwriter’s point of view. (“Midpoint Collision” is a nice title, as you’ll see if you watch the first video “Carpe Diem” to the end.) The movie’s title is Collateral.

This kind of popular YouTube video is not the place you’d expect a Vincent to hang out, but I came across one recently. Someone uploaded a video of the kind pictured above. One of the early commenters wrote (and I paraphrase as I lost the original): “That’s right, you loser. You’d rather upload videos of great footballers than be a great player yourself.”

Midpoint collision. But of a slightly different kind. Harsh, but possibly the kick in the pants somebody needs, as Vincent is the kick in the pants that Max needs. In the YouTube football video example, the YouTuber is definitely executing (he’s making good quality videos), but perhaps he’s busying himself with that as a way to avoid the bigger and more rewarding challenge of being a great footballer himself. (I assume the commenter knows the YouTuber personally.) Am I guilty of that? Is writing this blog post “the easy way”, a way to avoid taking on a greater but more rewarding, interesting and fun challenge? Are you reading this as a way to avoid doing that more difficult yet potentially rewarding thing? Do you have people in your life who will challenge you and who you’ll listen to? Or do you avoid those people?

Charlotte Bronte went to Brussels and fell in love with a professor at the school she was studying at, and later worked at, but at first she hated him because he was always (as she thought) finding fault with her. Later, she gradually realizes that his apparent antagonism is actually helping her to overcome her weaknesses and to grow. She wrote a novel based on her experience: Villette. He was the (at first unwelcome) kick in the pants: he insists that she teach a class at short notice, and she hates him for it as she is a quiet, retiring wall flower and convinced that that’s who she is. But she does it, and though not an unqualified success, it’s not the unqualified disaster she predicted for herself. It’s the beginning of a change in her self-image.

Not quite in the same ball-park, but I was reminded of it so I’ll write about it anyway, is Tiago Forte’s idea of “You only know what you make”  Verum esse ipsum factum  (“What is true is precisely what is made”). Or, as I interpret it, ” It’s not true until you make it”, which he totally ripped off an Italian Renaissance philosopher with the cool name of Giambattista Vico. (Yeah, and that “m” is not, as I’d smuglythought, a mistake for an “n”.) This is not just an idea; it’s a challenge.

How many literary or movie critics read many books or watch many movies, but never write their own book or make their own movie? Am I like that? Are you? Well, yes, I am like that, which is precisely why I’m so interested in reading more about Building a Second Brain, watching videos by with or from Tiago Forte, and waiting impatiently to sign up for his next course.


Conversation with Tiago Forte

Tiago Forte is founder of Forte Labs and creator of the Building a Second Brain course, which I wrote about (briefly) here.

I’m subscribed to his newsletter while waiting for his next Building a Second Brain course to open, and today’s was a link to an interview he did, a filmed podcast. It’s quite long, so I’m just going to pick out some parts that I found interesting.

The original show-notes with time-stamps can be found here: Video  Interview: Eclectic Spacewalk with Tiago Forte

and the transcript of the entire interview on Medium here: Conversation #3 – Tiago Forte (Transcript).

The main topic is knowledge work and knowledge workers, the new economy. The first half of the podcast is about Forte’s background and upbringing, but the first key idea he talks about is Buckminster Fuller‘s concept of doing more with less.

  1. The key thing here is that Forte understood that this concept could be applied not only to manufacturing but also to knowledge work.
  2. The second idea is Toyota’s quality control which broke the belief that you had a choice between quantity and quality: Toyota showed that you could improve both at the same time. And again, Forte applies this to knowledge work, and points out how some of the best knowledge workers out there (he mentions no names but I think of Simon Sinek, Cal Newport and Dr. Ali Abdaal) are also incredibly prolific: they write, they blog, they give public talks, they publish books, they have podcasts.. AND they have a life (and in the case of Dr. Abdaal, a full-time job as well).
  3. The next point is “principles not prescriptions”:  “people want a quick fix, they want a plugin… one action that will fix everything… working temporarily.” But rather than focusing on the app or the steps or the insights, Forte wants to teach people the principles of a system, which is why he went with a course rather than a book (tho he’s working on a book): he works with people to help them create their own second brain. “Creative products are always shiny and new. The creative process is ancient… You can read the ancient Greeks about creativity and it still applies.” But people don’t know about their own creative process, even creative people. All knowledge workers need a creative process.
  4. Distraction, not being focused, with the attention split a million different ways, is an all-too-common condition or tendency that can be countered by creativity.
  5. The 10 principles.
  6. Principle 1: stand on the shoulders of giants.
  7. Principle 2: the capture habit – you need a way to not only store info but systematically so that you can retrieve it. Knowledge workers are constantly creating new bits of knowledge by piecing things together, re-interpreting information, etc., yet all too often that hard work goes to waste. Captured info and the understanding or reason why you thought it was interesting in the first place needs to be stored in a way that you can and will retrieve it later to create something of value to yourself and others.
    1. This is perhaps the main reason why I’m interesting in Forte and his course: I have thousands of Evernotes, tagged and everything, but 95% of them are dormant, not associated with anything and with no schedule or clear plan to revisit, review, and put to use. I do review but in a very haphazard way. And that’s just my Evernotes! There’s tons of other stuff, too – blog posts, jottings, diary entries, voice memos, etc. Just thinking about it all gives me a headache.
  8. Idea recycling: ideas are not single-use only. Every bit of intellectual labour should not be wasted, but re-used – as a template for other things.
  9. Projects over categories. Libraries store information but the way they do that is not suitable for individuals: libraries require a large full-time staff. A much more effective way to organize information for the individual is by attaching it to a particular project, something they are working on, where that information will be most actionable and useful. Projects are finite, as are human beings, so it’s a much more practical way to organize information. (Update: cf Forte’s thoughts on tagging and storing info by categories or hierarchies of folders: Tagging is Broken)
  10. Slow burn. Slow and steady wins the race is the key idea here. The image is from weight-lifting. Lifting a small weight slowly can be more effective than dramatically hoisting a big weight. Forte attributed his attraction to that idea partly to recognizing that he’s getting older (34) and can no longer pull the all-nighters that he did even five years ago. (Update: this is much more important and useful than I thought. See here for my later thoughts on this).
  11. Start with abundance. Although there is a common idea of creativity as, say, the writer facing a blank page or the artist a blank canvas, Forte sees that approach or mindset as contrary to the way the human mind works. Start with a pile of stuff and as you sift, you find something takes shape.
  12. Intermediate packets. To avoid overwhelm, break work into smaller, manageable pieces. See slow burn above.
  13. “You only know what you make.” I didn’t understand this the first time I read it, but in this interview, Forte clarifies: simply knowing something, having memorized or stored the information, is by itself of little value. “I’ve read 100 books!” Ok, but what you have made, built, done, produced, to show for it? (The quote is a paraphrase of Verum esse ipsum factum  (“What is true is precisely what is made”), coined by 17th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, by the way and I know you were dying to know that.
  14. Number 9: make it easier for your future self. “If you make your notes a little better each time you touch them – a little more organized, a little more succinct, a little more clear – then your future self will find it easier and easier to access the knowledge you’ve saved.”
  15. Principle 10: keep your ideas moving. “Your Second Brain will evolve to suit your needs only when you put it to use in your daily work.”

The rest of the interview sounds interesting, too, but it’s my bedtime so let’s call it a day, yeah? I’ll be back tomorrow with another article on the second half of this interview.

The original show-notes with time-stamps can be found here: Video  Interview: Eclectic Spacewalk with Tiago Forte

and the transcript of the entire interview on Medium here: Conversation #3 – Tiago Forte (Transcript).

I’ll just end with my favourite quote from the above interview: “Productivity is the ideal sandbox for life.”

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