March 14

How to Maximize Productivity with Networked Thinking

In the ever-expanding digital cosmos we navigate daily, the influx of information isn’t just overwhelming—it’s outstripping the capabilities of the very tools we’ve relied on to manage it. As a writer and podcast host, I’ve hit this wall time and again, watching my trusted note-taking apps and productivity tools become less useful under the weight of data they were never designed to handle. It’s clear: the traditional methods aren’t just falling short; they’re becoming obsolete.

This realization didn’t come easily. I spent countless hours trying to force a square peg into a round hole, attempting to organize an increasingly complex web of information through linear processes and hierarchical structures. But here’s the catch—the human brain doesn’t operate in neat, orderly files or straight lines. It thrives on connections, on the rich, tangled networks of thoughts, ideas, and insights that mirror the complexity of the world around us.

Enter the era of networked knowledge management toolsRoam Research,, Obsidian, and similar tools—which promise not just to accommodate this deluge but to turn it into a navigable, enriching network that mirrors our natural cognitive processes. These tools aren’t just storage spaces; they’re extensions of our brain’s filing system, allowing us to map out our thoughts, connections, and insights in a way that’s both intuitive and profound.

The question isn’t just about finding a better way to manage information. It’s about fundamentally rethinking how we interact with knowledge itself, moving from a linear to a networked mindset. It’s about breaking free from the confines of outdated systems and embracing the non-linear, interconnected way our brains naturally work. This is more than a shift in tools; it’s a revolution in thinking.

Understanding How Information is Organized in Your Brain

To optimize productivity through networked thinking and understand why networked knowledge management aligns with our inherent cognitive processes, we need to first understand how our brains organize information.

Contrary to what you might think, there’s no such thing as networked thinking — it’s simply how we naturally think

Contrary to what you might think, there’s no such thing as networked thinking — it’s simply how we naturally think. Take, for example, a significant date like January 16, 1983. For me, this date triggers a cascade of vivid memories: the weather, my parents dropping me off at a friend’s house, and many other details. Why? Because it was the day my sister was born.

Now, consider a word or a major event in your life, such as “parents,” “hometown,” “wedding,” or “girlfriend/boyfriend.” You’ll likely find that everything you associate with these words comes to mind in an instant. This instant recall is due to three psychological phenomena:

  1. Memories are Triggered By Cues: Our thoughts and ideas don’t exist in isolation. Each word is “linked” to a memory that we associate with it, triggering a cascade of related memories.
  2. Priming Effects Set Off a Chain of Unconscious Associations: When we see a list of words, it sets off a chain reaction of memories and associations, like a series of lights being turned on, illuminating the memory.
  3. Our Brain Operates as a Network, Not a Hierarchy: This concept is evident in the process of vocabulary development. As we learn new words (the nodes in our cognitive network), we start to construct sentences, connecting these nodes to form coherent thoughts. As our proficiency grows, we tell stories, weaving these sentences into larger narratives. Ultimately, we may compile these narratives to write a book or undertake more ambitious creative endeavors.

Each step in this progression represents the expansion of our cognitive network, demonstrating the interconnected, non-hierarchical nature of our thought processes. This understanding is key to unlocking the power of networked thinking and maximizing productivity.

The 3 Limitations of Hierarchies

Hierarchies have three basic limitations which contribute to the inefficiency of knowledge work.

First, the Mismatch with Our Natural Thought Processes: We often organize information in hierarchies, but our minds naturally operate in networks. This mismatch is a significant drawback and a primary reason behind inefficient knowledge work.

We often organize information in hierarchies, but our minds naturally operate in networks. This mismatch is a significant drawback and a primary reason behind inefficient knowledge work.

Second, the Friction in Information Flow: Hierarchical systems, like folders and subfolders, force us to multitask and context shift, which is detrimental to productivity. They also create friction for the flow of information, slowing down our work and affecting its quality. This friction can have serious implications. For instance, in the military, it can be the difference between life and death. This was a key point in my interview with Chris Fussel, a former Navy SEAL. He shared that in late 2003 and early 2004 in Iraq, despite superior resources and personnel, the US Military was being outmaneuvered by Al-Qaeda. The problem wasn’t a lack of skill or resources, but the inability to move information and decisions quickly enough to compete with Al-Qaeda’s organic network. The top-down structure of information flow created friction that gave terrorists an advantage.

Third, the Lack of Scalability: Hierarchical systems also lack scalability. As more information is added, managing these systems becomes increasingly time-consuming, leading to their collapse under their own weight.

Given these limitations, it’s clear that we need to rethink our approach to managing knowledge.

The Counterintuitive Nature of Networked Knowledge and Networked Thinking

In our quest to manage and process information, we’ve become accustomed to linear, hierarchical systems where information is neatly categorized and nested. This approach, however, creates a conundrum. The way we think – in networks, not hierarchies – doesn’t match the way we work. Our thoughts and ideas do not exist in isolation but are interconnected nodes in a vast network. Yet, our work environments often rely on hierarchies that compound complexity and linear processes that decrease productivity.

The Root Cause of Inefficient Knowledge Work

To address this mismatch, we’ve built productivity tools, distraction blockers, and note-taking apps. While these tools can alleviate some symptoms, they often fail to address the root cause of inefficient knowledge work: how we organize, access, and utilize the information we need. It’s a bit like prescribing a Tylenol for a tumor and wondering why a patient dies.

Embracing the Counterintuitive

The concept of organizing information in a network can initially create cognitive dissonance because it feels counterintuitive to the way we’ve been conditioned to process and manage information.

The concept of organizing information in a network can initially create cognitive dissonance because it feels counterintuitive to the way we’ve been conditioned to process and manage information. It feels unfamiliar and potentially chaotic. The challenge lies in reconditioning ourselves to this non-linear, interconnected way of thinking.

However, once we experience the benefits of this approach – such as the ease of retrieving information, the ability to see connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, and the potential for spontaneous insight – it becomes clear that networked knowledge management can significantly enhance our productivity and creativity. It’s about shifting our perspective and embracing a system that aligns with our natural cognitive processes.

Networked Knowledge Management: An Externalization of Brain’s Organization

Networked knowledge management is powerful because it externalizes the way your brain naturally organizes information. It does this through four key concepts:

Nodes in a Network, Not Notes in a Database

In your brain, memories, experiences, thoughts, and ideas don’t exist in isolation. They’re interconnected, forming a vast network. Similarly, in a networked knowledge management system, your notes are not isolated entries in a database. They’re nodes in a network, each connected to many others. This mirrors the natural, associative nature of your brain’s filing system.

Bidirectional Linking

Bidirectional linking is a key feature of networked knowledge management. It allows you to associate one note with thousands of others, mirroring the way your brain links related pieces of information. While in our brains these connections form naturally, in a note-taking system, we have to create these links manually. This might seem like an extra step, but it’s a crucial one. It allows you to retrace your line of thought that sparked an idea, providing context and depth to your notes.

Spontaneous Recall and Retrieval

The beauty of networked knowledge management is that it facilitates spontaneous recall and retrieval. When you create a new note, you can see the previous notes that are related to it. This mirrors the way our brains work when we build on previous knowledge to form new ideas. Good ideas are often a collection of existing parts, and all knowledge is built on previous knowledge. By seeing the connections between your notes, you can more easily generate new ideas and insights.

Building a “Vocabulary” of Knowledge

The major difference between your brain and a personal network of knowledge is that the latter starts as a blank slate. Just like you have to build your vocabulary to construct sentences, every note you capture becomes part of your vocabulary of knowledge. When you think of every note you capture as part of that vocabulary, it becomes clear why you need to accumulate a critical mass of knowledge before you can start to make connections between your ideas. It’s like learning a language – you can’t start forming sentences until you know enough words. Similarly, you can’t start connecting ideas until you’ve captured enough of them.

The Power of Networked Knowledge

In an interview on the Unmistakable Creative podcast, Tiago Forte said, “We know that connectivity of ideas is extremely important. We know that associations, especially like unexpected associations, unusual associations is important. If you want the links and associations that you’ve discovered to last, basically you want them to be preserved over time. You have to make those linkages somewhere outside of your head such as in a piece of software.” And that’s precisely what networked knowledge enables you to do.

Boost Your Cognitive Capabilities with Networked Information

Imagine your knowledge as a dynamic, interconnected network, much like the wirings of your brain. In this model, every piece of information is a node in a vast, interconnected network – no note is an isolated island. This setup not only mirrors the way our brains work, but also supercharges our ability to convert knowledge into action. From book notes to project plans, everything is part of this expansive network.

Spontaneous Insight and the Power of ‘Idea Sex’

Networked thinking allows you to capture and develop ideas as they arise, thanks to the magic of bidirectional links. This echoes Steve Johnson’s perspective that great ideas are essentially a mashup of existing parts. This way, you can seize ideas in their raw, unrefined form, and let them simmer in your network until they’re ready to be molded into something tangible.

Supercharge Your Recall and Foster Interdisciplinary Breakthroughs

Just as our brain uses cues to trigger memories, networked systems facilitate spontaneous recall of ideas. Your notes are interlinked, making them easily retrievable and enhancing their discoverability. This interconnectedness is the secret sauce to generating original insights, especially in complex fields where innovation often emerges from the intersection of diverse disciplines.

Unleash Your Non-linear Creative Potential

Embracing a networked approach to information frees us from the shackles of linear creativity. This was a game-changer for me when transitioning from writing blog posts to books. It illustrates that while the end product may need to be linear, the creative process thrives on curiosity-driven exploration and non-linear pathways.

The Dance of Divergent and Convergent Thinking

‘Networked thought’ encourages what I like to call ‘idea sex,’ where existing notions intermingle to spark fresh insights. This approach fosters both divergent thinking, for broad exploration, and convergent thinking, for focused problem-solving – a harmonious dance between creativity and analytical precision.

Amplifying the Value of Information through Networks

When your information is organized in a network, it becomes more accessible, connectable, and discoverable – think of it as a personal Google focused on fueling creative exploration. This setup enhances the overall utility and reachability of your knowledge, ensuring that your insights are not just preserved, but actively engaged with and expanded upon.

Transitioning to a networked thinking model is like trading in an old, rigid bicycle for a sleek, high-speed motorcycle. It shifts us from stiff, hierarchical methods to a dynamic, interconnected approach that resonates with our natural cognitive processes. It supercharges our creativity, innovation, and productivity, empowering us to create knowledge that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Maximizing Productivity with Networked Knowledge Management

1. The Military’s Shift to Networked Knowledge and a Shared Consciousness

Earlier in this article, we discussed the military’s struggle with hierarchical structures. Let’s see how they solved this.

Chris Fussel, in an Unmistakable Creative interview, revealed the military’s shift from a hierarchical to a networked approach. This change hinged on two factors: deep trust among team members and confidence in shared information. The goal? Replicate the efficiency of small teams at an organizational level, creating a shared consciousness for immediate access to necessary information.

This networked approach outpaced all other economic systems in information flow speed, even besting distributed networks like ISIS. It’s a powerful demonstration of how networked knowledge management can overcome hierarchical limitations.

2. Transforming a Simple Word List into a Business Idea

In November, my one-year-old nephew’s growing vocabulary inspired me to create a list of his words. This seemingly simple list, when integrated into my network of knowledge in Mem, sparked a cascade of creativity.

First it led to a children’s book, then puppet shows, and eventually the idea for The Little Genius Learning Journey, an innovative platform for early childhood education, that uses AI to personalize the education of every child from a very early age. This is networked thinking in action – a single note, when connected to a broader network, can ignite transformative ideas.

3. Writing This Article: A Journey Through Networked Thinking

Writing this article was like navigating a web of interconnected thoughts. It all started with a random thought – There’s No Such Thing as Networked Thinking. After writing that, I clicked on the synopsis for The Networked Mind, a book idea I had previously noted.

At the bottom, there was a suggestion generated by Mem chat to test the viability, which was the title of this article. Then, I wrote the ideas in whatever order they came to me. This was convergent thinking – focusing and organizing my thoughts into a coherent piece.

To keep everything organized, I tagged every idea as ‘networked productivity article’, creating a collection. So, when it came time to assemble the article, everything was there.

I stumbled upon a nugget from months ago about maximizing productivity with networked thinking. This wasn’t a planned expedition, but a spontaneous exploration that unearthed valuable insights.

The beauty of it all? What started as a fleeting thought morphed into an article, all thanks to the reuse and recombination of my past notes, even those that had nothing more than a title.

This process allowed me to follow my creativity where it flowed. It’s a perfect example of the idea that while your structure has to be linear, your process doesn’t.

Practical Tips for Networked Knowledge Management

Networked thinking is not just about connecting ideas, but also about capturing them. It’s a way of working that might feel strange at first, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. Here are some key best practices to help you get started:

  1. Give Every Note You Capture a Title: In a networked knowledge system, titles are like filenames. But unlike filenames, titles increase the connectability of your notes. A good litmus test for titles is whether you can embed links to other notes in sentences. In other words, when you are writing a new note, you should be able to complete a sentence using the title of another note.
  2. Capture Ideas as They Occur: Whenever you have a thought or idea, write a note. Even if you do nothing other than write a title, that note could be invaluable in the future. Remember, any note you capture could be the one that changes your life.
  3. Use Bidirectional Linking to Make Connections: Bidirectional links are not only for connecting ideas but also for capturing them without disrupting your workflow. A simple heuristic based on the work of Nick Milo is “this reminds me of that.” This principle encourages you to actively seek connections between new information and what you already know, thereby creating a rich, interconnected web of knowledge. For instance, if you’re reading a book about productivity and a particular concept reminds you of a note you wrote about time management, you can create a bidirectional link between the two. This not only enriches your understanding of both concepts but also makes it easier to retrieve related information in the future. Another technique inspired by Milo’s work is turning the end of one sentence into the title of a new note. This practice emphasizes the importance of good titles and encourages you to think about how each piece of information fits into your broader knowledge network.
  4. Accumulate a Critical Mass of Knowledge: Aim for roughly 50 notes, but these notes need to have some depth to them. While it’s great to have access to personal information and important numbers at your fingertips, these types of notes are not going to help you expand your knowledge in a way that enables you to convert knowledge into action.
  5. Learn How to Take Smart Notes: Smart notes are more than just verbatim quotes. They are knowledge assets and building blocks. Here’s how to create them:
    • Highlight and underline as you read.
    • Make note of the key insights you want to remember.
    • Rewrite those insights in your own words in a new note, give that note a title, and look for opportunities to incorporate all of the ideas above.

Remember, knowledge generation is circular in a network. You’ll know you have reached a critical mass of knowledge when you can write a couple of paragraphs using the titles of your notes.

The True Power of Networked Thinking

Networked knowledge management is more than just a new way to organize information; it’s a paradigm shift that aligns with the natural associative organization of our brains. By transitioning from hierarchical to networked systems, we can unlock new levels of productivity and creativity.

The key advantage of this approach is its alignment with our brain’s natural organization. Our thoughts and ideas don’t exist in isolation; they’re interconnected, triggering chains of associations. Networked knowledge management mirrors this process, allowing us to capture, connect, and retrieve information seamlessly.

Moreover, networked systems offer a solution to the limitations of hierarchical structures. They provide the freedom to organize information the way we think, not the way a file system dictates. This freedom, coupled with the ability to retrieve knowledge with zero friction, makes networked knowledge management an invaluable tool for increasing productivity.

But the true power of networked thinking goes beyond productivity. It turns every piece of information you capture into a timeless asset, mitigating the “black hole effect” of hierarchical note-taking. This means that every note, every idea, every piece of knowledge you capture becomes a building block for future insights and innovations.

Layering AI on top of networked knowledge can further enhance this process, making it an integral part of the future of knowledge work. But you don’t have to wait for the future to experience the benefits. I encourage you to experiment with networked knowledge management today. As you seamlessly integrate it into your everyday life, you’ll unlock new levels of learning and innovation.

Build an Artificially Intelligent Second Brain

Ready to take your productivity to the next level? Dive deeper into the world of networked thinking with our Ultimate Guide to Building a Second Brain in Mem. This comprehensive guide will equip you with the tools and strategies to capture, connect, and retrieve information seamlessly, transforming the way you handle information and supercharging your creative potential. Don’t just learn — build a network of knowledge that grows with you. Start your journey with Mem today.


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