The biggest cause of information overload for most people is a lack of organization. Even though your brain is not a hard drive, people treat it like one. Between a dozen inboxes, notifications, and text messages, we wake up and drink from a digital fire hose. And we wonder why we’re so scatterbrained. Then, we mindlessly scroll, click on and consume so much content that we hardly remember any of it.
Your Brain is a Not Hard Drive
bit We all have open loops in our lives—things we know we need to take care of, but keep putting off. For example, we might have:
- Bills to pay
- Forms to submit
- Appointments to make
While I was moving out of my apartment, I noticed that I was spending a lot of time on things like this. It’s a bit like moving piles of paper from one folder to another. It wasn’t the most productive use of my time.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, unproductive, and distracted all the time, it might be because of how you’ve organized the information in your life.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed David Allen. When I was reading his book for the second time, I came across a quote that has been essential to my productivity and creativity.
Your brain is for having ideas, not storing them.
When you store ideas inside your brain, it’s not only difficult to have new ideas, but it’s hard to bring your ideas to life. Since your brain is not a hard drive, when you stop using it like one, you become productive, prolific, and profitable.
Use An External System
Since your brain is not a had drive, it’s a terrible place to store information. How many times you’ve said you were going to do something and failed to honor your commitments? Getting things out of your head and onto paper or into an app of some sort is the first step to externalization.
Make a List
Most people who are productive make lists. When you write things down, they are more likely to get done. When you don’t, you’re likely to drop the ball. Use any of the following tools.
Todoist: We all got emails that require an action of some sort. It might be paying an invoice or giving someone access to something. Switching back and forth between your emails and an app is kind of a pain and not good for your focus. But with an app like Todoist, we can forward emails to the app and turn them into tasks.
Range: This might be my favorite discovery of the last few weeks. As a remote team, we need to know what’s going on with everyone. But we also believe it doesn’t have to be crazy at work. None of our tools were helping us figure out if we were on track from day-to-day. That’s where Range comes in. You create a daily update and a plan for the day along with it.
If you have a consistent location for capturing tasks, you’ll be much more likely to cross them off your list.
Use a Mindmap
Earlier this year, Naval Ravikant released a 2-hour episode about how to get rich. It was so dense that I’ve gone back and listened to it 5 times, but taking notes on it would have been a pain.
So I created this mind map of the podcast. Create a mind map of all your professional and personal obligations. This gives you a comprehensive view of all the things going on in your life.
Give Every Piece of Information a Home
If you put your kitchen utensils in the bathroom, car keys in the silverware drawer and shoes under the bathroom sink, your life would be a chaotic mess. But that’s exactly what most people do with digital information.
The key is to give every idea and piece of information a home. Information falls into 4 basic categories. We use 20 essential tools to run the Unmistakable Creative. Each tool falls into one of the categories below:
Ideas, Tasks, and Projects:
- Airtable – Managing the editorial calendar for our podcast
- Notion – Ideas, writing, editing, editorial calendars, task and project management
- Range – Keeping track of what people are working on day-to-day
- Zencastr – Recording podcast episodes
- ConvertKit – Sending newsletters
- Slack – Communication with team members
- Mighty Network – Our online community
- Beautiful.ai – Slide design
- Lingo – Storing all our visual assets
- Raindrop – Browser extension for saving ideas for podcast guests
Every creative person’s toolbox is going to be different. It depends on the nature of the work.
- Figure out what tasks you need to complete on a regular basis.
- Identify a tool for each task.
- Look for redundancies, overlaps, and whichever tools can be used for more than one purpose.
By putting everything into categories, you’ll feel a lot less overwhelmed. Rather than using your brain to sift through information, you can use it do high-value creative work.
Build a Second Brain
Unless you capture your ideas, you’ll never capitalize on them. Since your brain is not a hard drive, build yourself a second one. A second brain is basically a digital repository of everything you want to remember. There are a few different ways to build your second brain, which I go over in the articles below:
The Notecard System: The notecard system is something Ryan Holiday learned from Robert Greene. If you’ve read a Robert Greene book, you know the man is a beast when it comes to research.
When I asked Ryan about it, he said, “Many of the cards lead to nothing. But I wrote down the idea for The Obstacle is the Way on one of those cards years ago. That book sold 300,000 copies. So despite most of them leading to nothing, one of them you could build a career from.”
Tiago Forte’s Second Brain Method: I frequently write about what I read. While I don’t follow Ryan’s system to the letter, I do have my own version of it. After reading each book, I wait a couple of weeks. Then I transfer the things I’ve underlined to my personal knowledge base in Notion.
Robyn Scott’s 30 Second Habit: Every week, I talk to some really interesting person on the Unmistakable Creative. At the beginning of this year, I decided to use a small notebook to adopt this 30-second habit with a lifelong impact. This habit has led to blog posts, solutions to problems I’m having and more.
Document and Eliminate
Documented policies and processes are much easier to multiply and scale up. – Victor Cheng
Most of us say we want 10 times more customers or traffic. But if we looked at our systems, we’d see they’d break if that happens.
In every process, it’s possible to simplify and eliminate steps. But to simplify your process, you first have to know what it is. So document it somewhere.
Writing a Blog Post: Take something like writing a blog post. Every post I’ve written has certain things in common. Unless I know exactly what those are, it would be hard to automate or delegate the publishing process. For the purposes of this post, I’ve oversimplified it.
- Write a draft.
- Polish the draft.
- Enter it into our editorial calendar.
- Give it to my VA to proofread, add pictures and publish.
- Send it to our readers via email.
While working with our developer, Chris, we realized our process for publishing blog posts was unnecessarily complicated. He created a template so we can cut and paste directly from Notion, which saves almost 30 minutes.
The day I was moving out of my apartment, I scheduled a cleaning person. But that person canceled an hour before. I had to scramble and call everyone I could on Yelp before I found someone who could come that afternoon. That’s’ when I decided it was time to hire an assistant and discovered Okayrelax.com.
You don’t have to be a millionaire to have a personal assistant. For 120 dollars a month, you can stop making calls to customer service, waiting on hold, and reserving your flights. It’s amazing how much time we waste on pointless nonsense that doesn’t help us accomplish any of our goals.
I’ve included a video below which gives you a high-level overview of everything I’ve mentioned above:
Organizing the information you allow into your life is critical. But information is only useful when you transform it into knowledge and wisdom.
As someone who curates people and ideas for a living, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to filter information. I read about 3 books a week and interview at least 3 people. Over the course of a typical week, the average person reads dozens of articles online, listens to some podcasts, and watches some TV.
Chances are, you don’t remember anything about the content you consumed on Monday by the time you get to Friday. There are limits to your cognitive bandwidth and attention. For consumption to be valuable, we have to learn how to transform information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom.
Information by itself is just noise. Excessive consumption makes it difficult to transform information into knowledge because your brain is over-stimulated. It’s like running a race in 10 different directions and wondering why you aren’t reaching a finish line. It’s also why some of the most successful and productive people have a low-information diet.
Knowledge is how you filter relevant information. Knowledge is what happens when our consumption becomes more deliberate. It’s why you remember more from a book you bought on Amazon than you do from an article you read on Medium. The first was a default choice. The second was a deliberate one.
Wisdom is the practical application of knowledge. Wisdom emerges when you remember and take action on the content you consume. For example, if you read a book on happiness that encourages you to start a gratitude practice, that’s wisdom.
To transform information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom, we first have to understand how the brain processes information.
1. Attention and Willpower
The state of your attention determines the state of your life. It’s also the biggest leverage you have for turning information into knowledge. Your attention is the filter that causes information to become knowledge.
But for most people in the modern world, by default, their attention is scattered between email, social media, and text messages. Since all of these things produce dopamine, having a short attention span gradually becomes more and more addictive. If your drowning in noise, how the hell are you going to hear the sound of your own voice?
There are limits to both your attention span and willpower. Those limits must be taken into account if you want to get the most out of the books you read and the podcasts you listen to.
Starting the day by reaching for your phone is terrible for your brain. And it forces you to make inconsequential decisions like which links to click. With each decision, you reduce your willpower. With the loss of willpower, you lose the capacity to be selective with your attention.
“Our cognitive control is really quite limited: we have a restricted ability to distribute, divide, and sustain attention; actively hold detailed information in mind; and concurrently manage or even rapidly switch between competing goals,” says Adam Gazalley in his book The Distracted Mind.
Say you distribute and divide your attention among the 10 links, 5 emails, and a bit of time on social media. Because none of those things required sustained attention, you decrease your attention span. So what’s the answer?
2. Deliberate and Deep Consumption
For information to become knowledge, it has to become a memory. But if you keep shifting your attention from one shiny object to the next, none of those things will stick.
In An Audience of One, I coined the term deliberate consumption. It’s the first step in transforming information into knowledge. And most of us aren’t that deliberate about any of our consumption habits (myself included). Even though I read books that require sustained attention, my library is kind of all over the place. At times, it feels like the library of a sociopath.
One of the easiest ways to have a more deliberate approach to your media consumption is to go deep. Go through one person’s entire body of work or focus on one topic.
One of my favorite interviewers is Sam Jones who hosts Off Camera. He not only gets amazing guests but also asks great questions. Many of the conversations on the show have actually made their way into my books. So I decided rather than listening to multiple interview-based podcasts, I’d listen to everything he’s done.
You could read all of Seth Godin’s 19 books and every post on his blog for the next 3 months.
By going deep into one person’s body of work, you get a window into their progression and thought process. You learn that nobody falls out of the womb as a cultural icon or artistic genius.
How do you decide what to consume? If you want to be deliberate about your consumption, align it with your goals. Part of why I chose Sam Jones was that I wanted to be a better interviewer. I’ve also heard him ask questions that I can steal like an artist.
3. Transforming Information Into Knowledge
In our physical world, everything is compartmentalized. We hang our clothes in the closet; keep our dishes in the sink, and detergent in the laundry room. To make the most of the information we take in, it needs to be compartmentalized. Hence, the reason we started giving every piece of information a home.
Only take notes when you know there’s a big idea or concept or something that you think is really important: A lot of people take notes just kind of willy-nilly as much information as they can get down. Stick with the people. Stick with the speaker. Stick with the lecture until there’s a huge enough idea that you’re willing to lose a bit of information, but lock something important down.
Always take notes by hand: If you take notes on a computer, you can typically type as fast or just slightly slower than I can speak. So you can take a lot of content down. But when you’re taking down content, the only thing of importance is the sound of the words themselves. All that matters is the words themselves and their order which means you’re only listening to noise. You’re not actually paying attention to meaning.
If you take notes by hand, you can’t write anywhere near as fast as I can speak. By definition, you have to already be processing that information. You have to be making sense of it in order to have the time to go write it down. And that’s why handwritten notes have lines and circles and arrows and stars. That’s the sign that you’re processing that information as meaning, not simply as noise.
- Do something with that information: Rather than writing it down verbatim, change that into your own words. Rewrite it into a different meaning. Take all the underlying bits and create a paragraph out of it or a summary, that kind of work. This deepens the understanding as well because, again, now you’re moving from simple words into meaning then into purpose and into linkage.
All of the prolific and poetic writers I know have one thing in common. They read physical books.
Sometime in 2013, I ditched my Kindle and returned exclusively to physical books. I’m convinced it had a positive impact on my writing. When people send me their galleys in PDF form, I tell them I can’t read it. I struggle with digital books because I don’t read them.
When we read on screens, we don’t read. We scan. Content on screens is designed for us to scan. That’s why we use headers and bullet points. You probably don’t remember every detail of this article if you’ve made it this far.
After I started reading physical books, I found it easier to come up with ideas to write about. This article was inspired by an interview with Jared Horvath and his book. There’s something visceral that takes place when you’re doing something with pen and paper.
4. Transforming Knowledge Into Wisdom
It turns out the key to deep memories isn’t input. It doesn’t matter how the information comes in. It’s output. – Jared Horvath
Wisdom is the practical application of knowledge.
1. Write About The Things You Read/Teach What You’ve Learned
One of the best ways to reinforce something you’ve learned is to teach it to somebody else. This article is a perfect example of that. I read Jared Horvath’s book, interviewed him for the podcast, and decided to write about it.
2. Relate Facts to Personal Stories
Turning facts into personal stories is not whiny. That is how we learn.
A few weeks ago, I was interviewing Annie Duke about how to make better decisions by thinking in bets. To make it more concrete, I asked her about how I could apply this framework into a real-life decision. It was a long-distance relationship that didn’t work. Because it was personal, her thought process made all the sense in the world to me. And it also led to this article about what a professional poker player can teach you about making decisions you won’t regret.
3. Leverage the Power of Distribution
Whether it’s studying, listening to a podcast or reading books, binging is rarely effective if you intend to transform information into knowledge and wisdom. You’re better off writing 1000 words a day for a month than trying to write 5000 words a day for a week.
Now that we have a framework for transforming knowledge into wisdom, let’s apply it to something.
How to Read a Book
People think that it’s hard to read 100 books a year. But, it’s really just a matter of breaking it up into the smallest manageable parts.
To keep the math simple, let’s say an average book is 200 pages. Divide it by 7 days a week and it comes out to a little more than 30 pages a day. If you read 15 pages in the morning and 15 in the evening you’ll be reading a book a week. If you up that to 30 pages in the morning and 30 in the evening, you’re reading 100 books a year.
I read with a pen in hand. By placing your pen in the middle of the page, you’re able to increase your reading speed. As things catch my attention, I highlight or underline them. I also keep a notebook on my desk in case something I read sparks an insight for something I want to write about.
Read with the intent of transforming information into knowledge and wisdom. You’ll be more likely to remember and take action on what you read.
How to Listen to a Podcast or Lecture
The worst possible thing you can do is try to take notes on everything that someone says verbatim. You’re trying to learn something, not transcribe it.
Filter Important Ideas: When you’re listening to a lecture or a podcast, filter for the most important ideas. It might be one phrase or one soundbite. Don’t write down everything verbatim.
Create Sketch Notes: If you’re a visual learner, create sketch notes. You can use drawing as a way to see the world. And you can do sketch notes even if you’re not a skilled artist. For advice on this, check out our interview with Mike Rohde.
Talk to Someone About It: If you talk to someone about it, you’re more likely to remember it. When I was working with my old business partner, Brian Koehn, I’d ask him to read every book that I read. Then I would talk to him about it. He’d tell me things I missed and vice versa.
You can also use a mind map as I mentioned above. You get ten times the value out of books, podcasts, and lectures when you can transform information into knowledge and wisdom.
You might have read all this and thought, “That’s insane. It sounds like a lot of work.” But trying to keep all this in your head is far more work. Remember, I’m the guy who has to get shit done despite having ADHD. Having systems is not only essential to your creative output. It creates mental space.
It keeps you from wasting your brainpower on storing ideas. You can put that effort towards having them instead.