Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were something you could start doing at work that would immediately make you more effective at your job?
Good news, because I believe there is: Digital note taking.
A Foundational Work Practice
For most of us, note taking amounts to an activity we do when we attend meetings—we record information we definitely need to know or share, commitments we make, instructions we’re given, and perhaps a few additional thoughts depending on your personal preferences for information capture.
Note taking can be so much more.
If you take your way of capturing notes in a meeting, improve it, and expand the activity to everything else you do at work, digital note taking will help you be more effective at what you do.
That’s because our jobs amount to turning 1) information into 2) knowledge and 3) applying it. That’s it. That’s all of our jobs. And digital note taking can help us with all three.
Taking digital notes is a foundational work practice that will help you think, help you focus, create a record, document your learning, and direct your work.
That’s what note taking has done for me, at least, because digital note taking makes collecting, remembering, and using the enormity of information we consume every day at work … possible.
So if you haven’t already, pay for a digital note-taking app such as Evernote or any of the many other available options and install the application. I use Evernote and recommend it—it’s accessible across operating systems and, for reasons that will become clear, is usable with other components of a digital note taking system.
(Evernote is also accessible via your browser. I prefer the functionality of the desktop and mobile device apps.)
Evernote uses notebooks as its organizing metaphor (think of a notebook like you think of a folder on your computer); the period at the beginning of inbox is important because it will keep the notebook at the top of your notebook list as you add more and more.
Start adding notes to your .Inbox … about everything: thoughts, observations, meetings, employee interactions, highlights from what you read, and any other information that seems relevant.
Taking notes about … everything is likely to be different from your usual approach. This change in behavior, and the comprehensive collection of notes that will follow, is part of what lends digital note taking its utility.
Once you have a few notes, create new notebooks to organize those notes by topic, for instance:
Earlier I mentioned how Evernote uses notebooks instead of folders. This makes setting-up PARA a bit more difficult than it should be because instead of using folders to implement PARA we must create four “stacks” of notebooks. To create a stack requires two notebooks. Here’s how to do it. Once you have two notebooks that fit into one of the PARA categories (an easy work-around: create a nonsense notebook to create a stack, then delete the nonsense notebook and the stack remains). Your set-up should look like this:
Now whenever you create a new note, and that new note doesn’t have a home, create a new folder and add that folder to an existing stack.
Team Staff Meetings and 2021 Strategy Thoughts, as an example, would both be added to the Areas stack. The 1:1 Tools, because the folder contains examples of how to improve 1:1 conversations, would be added to Resources. New Clinic Opening is a project. When any of these folders (and the notes within them) lose their relevance, they are moved to the Archives stack.
An Essential Part of the Job
Taking digital notes is a bit of work, not in a burdensome way, but in a way that it adds an extra task to what you’re already doing. This is a non-trivial reality for an overburdened administrator and, speaking from experience, once I started taking notes it was always tempting to not take notes … for a variety of reasons. However, not taking notes when you should be taking notes defeats the purpose of note taking. The whole reason to take notes is because when you want to use the notes you’ve taken, those notes exist.
In my estimation, a better way to look at digital note taking, which is the view I’ve adopted, is that digital note taking adds significant value to the work we’re already doing. Digital note taking is an essential part of the job because digital notes help us collect, remember, and use … knowledge.
Knowledge is essential to the work we do as knowledge workers in a knowledge economy. The things you know, the knowledge you have, is the stuff you learn from experience and education.
Yet most of us don’t do a very good job collecting our knowledge, not in a systematized fashion anyway; which makes it difficult to remember knowledge; and that all but makes it impossible to use our knowledge.
Make more knowledge more usable by taking digital notes.
I learned about digital notes from Tiago Forte and his Building a Second Brain course. It was very helpful to me and I believe it could be just as helpful for you.
“In your life, you will be evaluated on your output,” shares writer Ted Giola, “Your boss will evaluate you on your output. If you’re a writer like me, the audience will evaluate you on your output.”
But your input is just as important. If you don’t have good input, you cannot maintain good output.
The problem is no one manages your input. The boss never cares about your input. The boss doesn’t care about what books you read. Your boss doesn’t ask you what newspapers you read. The boss doesn’t ask you what movies you saw or what TV shows or what ideas you consume.
The boss may not care about your input, but you should. Because there may be no more important activity to your professional success. I don’t think that’s hyperbole, either.
What we’re talking about when we talk about input are ideas. And our jobs require ideas, specifically for the purposes of applying ideas. How we approach any situation—problem, opportunity, or otherwise—is governed by whatever we think as a possible response. Any response is always a function of the ideas we’re familiar with.
And the ideas we’re familiar with are a function of our input.
Input eventually becomes output through some mystical combination of learning, thinking, and applying. That makes input, the things the boss doesn’t see, vital to our output, the things the boss uses to judge our performance. “Problems of output are often problems of input,” writes author Austin Kleon, “If you’re output isn’t where you want it to be, try working on your input.”
Input are the ideas we are exposed to. Input can come from books, podcasts, movies, research articles, television shows, magazines, blog posts, tweets, presentations, news articles, events, conversations, webinars, experiences, museums, email newsletters, trainings, internet searches, and anything and everything else that might fit into this category. It’s also worth explicitly stating that input comes to all of us through the actual experience of working—from the meetings, emails, projects, initiatives, and the rest.
When we’re exposed to new ideas, which is happening all the time, we’re collecting new stimuli for approaching the problems we’re working on.
New stimuli are especially important in complexity because we’re constantly working on problems and opportunities that are brand spanking new. Their newness is a result of constantly changing … everything—new regulations, new competitors, new employees, new services, new initiatives, new cultural movements, new, new, new …
When every problem is called a new problem, that’s not to say every problem is a problem we’ve never seen before, it means the problem has never been solved in a particular context because context is constantly changing. And it’s not to say the way we do things now isn’t going to work, or that everything we’ve ever known gets tossed out the window, or the training that we attended three weeks ago is useless; it’s to say that in complexity every situation is context-specific and making progress is always a function of your ideas and that mystical combination of learning, thinking, and applying.
Input expose us to ideas that help us formulate novel approaches to the context-specific problems and opportunities we face in complexity. That makes input vital because—and choose any metaphor that makes sense to you—it holds the potential to add stimuli to your brain, ingredients to your pantry, colors to your palette, tools to your toolbox …
“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write,” writes Stephen King in his book On Writing. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” he adds, “There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Your Input System is a phrase I use to describe all the sources providing ideas to you and, at least in some way, influencing how you do your work and the output you produce.
Since all of life is input, and because conscientiously collecting all that input would be a burdensome existence, my recommendation is to improve and optimize your input system to the extent you feel 1) you can and 2) it helps you work more effectively. The rest is 1) life worth living or 2) noise.
Here are a few thoughts on that.
Input has a way of influencing your output at a subconscious level. That’s good! You also want your input to explicitly influence you consciously—”Hey!, I just attended a webinar on this subject last week!”—and so the most important component of input is its accessibility when you need it.
So Take Digital Notes and give yourself a chance at 1) remembering what you’ve learned and 2) finding it when you need it. I save almost everything to Evernote and my personal and work devices are set-up to make it easy to collect newly discovered input. Setting up PARA across your digital tools will also be helpful.
Finding ways to collect your input will be helpful in processing that input so it’s worth spending some time thinking about your Collection Mechanisms. Read later apps, note taking apps, email inboxes, and social feeds seem to be the basic tools for making it happen.
Follow people on Twitter or LinkedIn. Send any article you may be interested in reading to Instapaper or Pocket. Sign-up for newsletters. Take digital notes on digital-world experiences: meetings, webinars, podcasts, emails, etc. Take digital notes on real-world interactions: books, meetings, conversations, conferences, trainings you attend, observations from working, and the like.
Input that comes from working, Input at Work—attending meetings, exchanging emails, conversing at the water cooler—is an important source of input as it holds significant influence on the work you do. I believe it’s worth treating it like any other source of input.
Input doesn’t only come to you, it also, at times, must be sought out. So one notable distinction in Your Input System is between Active Input and Passive Input. Active input is input you seek. There will be topics you need to educate yourself on quickly. Those require, for example, finding books that may be helpful, internet searches—the deeper the better, given Google’s decreasing utility with each passing day, calling colleagues, and setting up news alerts for relevant information, among others.
Passive input is input that comes your way, as a result of your interests, and effort to allow passive input to just show up when it does. It’s pulling a book from your anti-library and spending a Saturday afternoon reading, it’s reading through a weekly email newsletter, it’s scrolling your Twitter feed, it’s opening LinkedIn. Passive input requires a more conscientious approach knowing that you may come across something that’s of interest to you for whatever reason. What you do with it—read it now or send it to Instapaper, add it to a watch later playlist on YouTube, etc—is up to you.
A note on Addressing the Filter Bubble. It’s real. Most of the time your filter bubble is okay as long as you are aware of it. In fact, it’s part of what makes Your Input System valuable. But some of what is filtered out could be of interest so it’s something to be aware of and, if you desire, do something about by actively seeking out ideas beyond your filter.
Back inside your filter bubble, leaning on Curation as a powerful winnowing force can help direct your limited attention to input of interest and it works on a number of different levels.
On one level, Your Input System is a curation device for topics that are of interest to you, or may be of interest when discovered. That may be the ultimate goal.
Curation also works by depending on curators. When you find people who always seem to be creating (or have created) things interesting to you, it’s worth following them as their output is likely to continue to appeal to you. The same can be said of publications. Curation can also work at the topic level through something like a Google news alert or hashtags.
One more thing: Validity. The validity, or the extent to which an idea is well-founded and representative of the real word, is critical to good input. You may be astonished to learn how many of the models, frameworks, and methods we use at work which have very little supporting evidence or are used out of context, or both. Then again you may not. In either case, It’s always good to remember the George Box aphorism, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and in management and organizations this is extra true.
The thing about input is that with everything else going on at work no one has any time for input. But no one can have the luxury of having no input, at least on a professional level, if you desire any level of career progression. Besides, you’re collecting input all the time, whether you’re intending to or not.
There’s certainly an opportunity to optimize your input and go all out for making your input system the best it can be, but I believe a more managed approach to improving your input system over time is a more sustainable approach. You’re busy so make Your Input System work for you.
A few years ago I started spending time reading a book while at work. Not the whole day. Just a half hour here and there of intentional reading on a work-related topic. It felt … wrong. Especially when people walked past the office and saw what I was up to.
But it helped me … think. It helped me to formulate thoughts on problems we were solving and develop theory to go about working on them. It helped me be a more effective employee, which is what bosses desire, even if their actions don’t always align with that ideal.
My willingness to trade 30-minutes of morning email responding for a chapter in a book that increased my knowledge on a topical subject was good for me and my boss. (And the emails still miraculously received replies.)
When your input system is intended to support your output at work, then it should be okay to make time to collect input while at work. How well we do our jobs is increasingly a result of our ideas and how we apply those ideas to context-specific problems in complexity.
There are two additional points worth highlighting: 1) books are an important component of my input system and 2) my input system is largely framed by topics I’m already interested in and am exploring further.
Input arrives in a variety of ways for me including internet searches (although I find this effort less and less worthwhile as Google succumbs to the SEO-madness every website is optimized for), reading (from a variety of channels), my job (work is an input through meetings, projects, emails, and the rest), conversations with colleagues, as well as email newsletters.
This approach has a way of removing serendipity from my input system, which I generally believe is more of a focusing mechanism than anything, but there are a few ways I’ve found that do allow for serendipitous discovery, even within the confines of my existing interests:
Twitter is my most important input. I say that because I’ve turned Twitter off (logged out, deleted the app) on multiple occasions and I always come back. Some people experience Twitter as an awful place, but I’ve found it to be helpful more often than not. It’s my main source of new topics, new things to read, and it allows me to follow people directly.
People as input: Not everyone I “follow” is on Twitter, but many are and if I’ve started following them because of things they’ve created, they’re generally a good signal of other things I may be interested in. I stay attuned to their output.
Podcasts, especially interview podcasts, are a wonderful combination of people-I-follow and serendipity. Podcasts are a great serendipity subcontracting mechanism because if I like the podcast, I’m likely to enjoy the weekly guest and a long-form interview is a great way to be introduced to new ideas.
Email newsletters, which I briefly mentioned above, are a special blend of serendipity and predictability. They’re effective at following people and subjects and interests and, most importantly, most email newsletters have links links links to things on topic, related to a topic, and often completely off topic.
Events have been a fruitful source of input for me. Talks, presentations, panels, conferences, book readings. They’re a good reason to get out of the house and return with something useful.
Knowing my input system exists (whether I craft it, curate it, improve it or not) has helped to be aware that input can come from anywhere and to have a general orientation toward being open to it.
Do you have an email strategy? What messages do you keep? How do you organize your inbox folders? Can you find what you’re looking for when you need it? What gets deleted?
One of the first things I did the week I started a new job was organize my (empty) inbox in preparation for the email coming my way.
As part of a course taught by Tiago Forte, I learned an organization method that has changed how I use every digital tool that requires organization: email, Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, network drive, a to do app, Evernote, and any other I need to start using that collects information.
It’s called PARA, which is an acronym for:
The system of PARA is meant to “encompass every type of information you might encounter in your work and life,” Tiago writes. And after more than three years of using PARA to keep myself organized, I’m proclaiming its benefits and extolling its virtues, and going even a step beyond to say:
Get organized. It will make you more effective. It will lead to less stress. It will help you make (more) change happen.
PARA “works” because it means every piece of information you create or receive has a place to go and—this is important—is findable when you need it.
One virtue of PARA is its universal applicability. It’s usable across all the digital tools you use in the exact same way, whether they are organization-sponsored or personal to your productivity preferences. Being organized across all the tools I use helps me to be more effective.
It’s simple to get started and email is a perfect first step and the ideal proving ground for deliberate organization. Here we go.
Under your Inbox folder in Outlook, create four folders (including the numbers—some tools sort items alphabetically automatically and the numbers ensure the folders are in the correct order):
Each project you work on, or area of responsibility, or resource you collect gets an individual folder under one of those three headings. When a project is ended, a responsibility is concluded, or a resource no longer relevant, the folder is moved to the Archives.
Create a folder in Outlook when you receive the first email on that topic, and not before. PARA is designed to help you organize in your normal workflow and only when necessary.
So when you receive an email from the finance department outlining the 2021 budget process, create a folder under the “1. Projects” folder and title it something like “2021 Budget.” There you go. Now any email you receive from finance, your boss, or whomever you’re collaborating with on the 2021 budget project goes in the “2021 Budget” folder so you can find it when you need it.
Sometimes, of course, your inbox isn’t the best place to keep something—the file is too large, it’s a PowerPoint deck you need to edit and send along, your IT department limits file storage, etc.—and in that case, move the contents of the message to the most appropriate digital tool.
As an example, let’s say the finance department distributed a PowerPoint template for the purposes of presenting your department’s 2021 budget to the executive team. Knowing you’ll need this template in the near future for the purposes outlined in the email, now would be the opportune time to move over to your personal file storage and set it up for use in the PARA System. Create four folders:
And, you probably saw this coming, create a folder under the “1. Projects” folder and title it “2021 Budget.” It should use the exact same name you used for the folder in Outlook. This practice is what lends the system its universality.
Save the PowerPoint template to the just-created folder. You’re well on your way.
It’s here we should cover required definitional clarity around the four folders of PARA. Tiago believes many a productivity challenge is a result of confusion, especially between projects and areas, so I’ll turn to him for explicit definitions:
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.”
A resource is “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.”
Archives are “inactive items from the other three categories.”
So “Budget 2021” is definitely a project. It has a deadline, though in some of the organizations I’ve worked for, that deadline may be many months from the first email I received. There are a set of tasks that must be completed to receive approval for your department’s budget.
After approval and the start of the fiscal year, monitoring the budget, on the other hand, is quite decidedly an area. There may be tasks from time to time, such as explaining variances above a certain percentage, but tasks like these don’t amount to a project.
What could amount to a project is a response to something like, and I don’t mean to give you bad dreams with this example, not meeting a departmental revenue goal midway through the year. I’m not sure what that project would be in your world, but a folder like “Plan B – The Increase Revenue Project” probably covers most possibilities.
Differentiating between projects and areas requires a bit of organizational ruthlessness on your part. You’ll probably miss the mark every now and again, but that’s okay, and practice is good.
Deadlines and maintenance usually are the distinguishing characteristics for me.
Another example of distinguishing between projects and areas is in the meetings you attend. If the meeting is a monthly management meeting, or a weekly staff meeting, or a committee meeting, you’re definitely saving items to Areas because these are maintenance meetings, a fact made evident by their perpetuity. Those meetings may cover other Areas (e.g., tips for more effective meeting management) and they may produce Projects.
If you receive a directive with an associated deadline then you’ve likely just started a new project.
If an email, or an attachment to an email, is something you want to keep but doesn’t fit in Projects or Areas, it belongs in Resources. Resources is a broad and all-encompassing catch-all for, as Tiago stated above, “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.” The timeframe of an ongoing interest can extend far, far into the future.
So it’s critical to name folders in the “3. Resources” folder in a way that promotes findability for when you need it. For example, a folder named “Leadership” may seem the most appropriate name, but after a few months, there will be so many resources in the “Leadership” folder, you’re going to be overwhelmed when trying to locate something. Consider going a step further, such as “Crisis Leadership” or “Leadership Myths” or “Leadership and Systems” or …
Not every topic is given a folder in every tool (and this goes for Projects, Areas, and Resources). A topic only requires a folder when there’s something to put in that folder. That way you don’t waste your time needlessly organizing things that don’t exist.
Unique to Resources, at least in my usage, is how different topics are usually organized into different digital tools. In Outlook, for example, Resources generally are related to the goings-on of the organization. It may include things like instructions for accessing different technology systems, shared log-in information (don’t tell IT), and memos from the executive team on of-the-moment topics. My enterprise Box folder (the modern-day version of your network drive) holds a broader array of subjects related to my job responsibilities like strategy documents, research reports, survey results, etc. Evernote—a digital note application—is where I keep everything else: meetings notes, reflections, articles, blog posts, etc., etc., etc.
A bit of an aside: Taking digital notes, whether in Evernote or Microsoft’s OneNote or some other digital tool, was such a productivity enhancing breakthrough that I am going to write about it more completely in a future post. I’m not even a productivity guru—and much prefer the notion of effectiveness over productivity—but it’s life changing and I can’t recommend it enough.
Continuing the aside: You know all of those shared files on your team? And how you never can find what you’re looking for? Well digital notes are very helpful in this scenario because you can save the URL of the file in Box, Dropbox, or on your network drive into a personal note to have an easy way to find what you need and it’s within your complete control.
So what about all those printed materials you receive at in-person meetings? If you have a file cabinet, you could PARA them in physical form. I’ve never done it. I imagine it requires a lot of effort. But if it works for you, go for it. The best option, in my opinion, is to get the file in a digital format. Ask the meeting organizer for a digital copy or scan the file and convert it into a PDF.
An alternative option, and I use this in combination with the digital format advice just above, is to create a pile on my desk of the printed materials that I’m not interested in converting or won’t convert because the loss of fidelity is too high. I put the date and the name of the meeting (or wherever I received it) in the upper right-hand corner of the material. At the end of a month or quarter—I place the entire pile into a tan file folder and label the folder with the date range of the contents. I can find what I need when I need it.
This is where everything goes when it’s no longer in use. I prefer to archive over deleting. Your email storage restrictions may require more deleting, or if you think something could be helpful in the future, moving the contents of a folder to other digital tools may be worthy.
The point of the Archives is to hang on to things in the event something from a Project, Area, or Resource makes a comeback and, instead of starting over, you have the opportunity to start from where you last ended. Or perhaps there’s some work from a previous year that could inform what you’re working on this year. You just never know. That’s the reason to hang on to digital things. You may need it again and you can put it where you don’t see it and where other people don’t see it, so there should be no fears of being labeled a pack-rat.
Getting Started and/or Reorganizing
You’re unlikely to be starting a new job with a fresh and brand new inbox like me. Don’t let that deter you from making the jump.
Create the four PARA folders in your Inbox, right now, or on Monday when you’d rather do anything than respond to what’s in your inbox, or any other moment this week when you have ten free minutes.
Done? Great. Start using them for the emails in your inbox as you read the emails in your inbox. Create folders under the appropriate folder for each Project, Area, and Resource as you go. Move the message as you need.
If you’re making progress, and your inbox is emptied—because, really, that’s the point: move stuff out of your inbox and into folders where there is more context and can become usable—address the existing folders (if you have any) by moving them to one of the four PARA headings, deleting them, or moving individual messages into the appropriate folder.
You’re going to be tempted, because I know I was, to make modifications to the system. Most of those didn’t work out for me, so my advice is to strictly use the PARA approach, at least as you’re getting started.
Also: if it feels daunting to reorganize everything in Outlook right at this moment, don’t do it. Start with the new four PARA folders and go from there.
To be sure, going from there means committing to the process of organizing new emails into one of the four PARA folders, moving the relevant contents of a message to another digital tool like a network drive folder (also organized using PARA), or deleting the message altogether. Not doing so reduces the benefit of being organized because those frustrations of being unable to find something will persist.
Additionally, “going from there” also means organizing the folders that feel too daunting to organize now when you “touch” them in the future. As you’re in this transition state, commit to organizing the folders and emails “outside” of PARA into PARA as you use them. This approach allows you to chop up one daunting task into many little manageable tasks as you go.
I believe being organized, whatever your organizational method, is essential to being more effective at work and making (more) change happen.
I also believe being organized requires getting organized. That’s a basic fact with a deeper truth: being organized requires you give your organizational system thought.
A lot of us, at least for me, become “organized” as a result of the people we work with, the social norms of the department we work in, a system that just develops, and any number of other factors that can be labeled as happenstance. I’ve found it helpful to be more deliberate in how I work.
In Tiago’s introductory blog post about PARA he helps us get started with the thoughtfulness required to become organized: “Imagine for a moment the perfect organizational system. One that supported and enhanced the work you do, telling you exactly where to put a piece of information, and exactly where to find it when you needed it.
“This system would have to be,” he explains:
universal, encompassing any conceivable kind of information from any source
flexible, able to work with any project or activity you take on, now and in the future
simple, not requiring any time-consuming maintenance, cataloguing, tagging, or reorganizing beyond a bare minimum
actionable, integrating seamlessly with task management and project management methods
cross-platform, able to be used with any application, now existing or yet to be developed
outcome-oriented, structuring information in a way that supports the delivery of valuable work
modular, allowing different levels of detail to be hidden or revealed, depending on the needs of the current task
opportunistic, in the good sense, taking advantage of work already being performed, instead of requiring dedicated overhead time
I’m not saying these must be your organizing principles, but they’re a heckuva good start, and they’ve worked wonders in my world. To me (and certainly for me), an organizing system exists not for the sake of being organized, but for the purpose of improved effectiveness.
Being more effective comes as a result of making (more) change happen, which occurs through productive action, which comes by improved thinking and learning, which is made possible by … being organized.
That’s my set of dominoes, anyway. I think they’ll work for you, too.
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