Organizing Information

Just as time is one of the limited commodities of life, so is attention.

Not all information is equally deserving of your attention. Suppose you own a bakery. An upcoming invoice for your regular delivery of flour probably merits your attention. The shoe size of a stranger you’ll never meet probably doesn’t.

Attention worthiness is not some static attribute of a piece of information–it’s also contextual. Consider an invoice you gave an organization for catering one of their events at the beginning of last year. If you’re doing your taxes for the year, that invoice probably merits your attention. If you’re about to throw a batch of bread in the oven, that invoice probably doesn’t.

I’m taking an online course called Building A Second Brain.

One of the topics this course covers is this idea of PARA. PARA addresses this topic of attention by providing structure to information you’ve collected. It does so by organizing that information by how immediately actionable it is.

PARA stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives.

Tiago Forte has defined these as follows:

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 include “inactive items from the other three categories.”

Projects are things that you’re actively working on. These are the things that most immediately and frequently require your attention.

Your archives are things that aren’t related to your present work or interests. These are the things that least require your attention.

By grouping information by actionability in this way, you can avoid diluting your attention. This allows you to maximize your return on attention.

Accurately and quickly categorizing things into the appropriate group is still a practice for me. I’ve been using this flowchart to try to quickly bucket things:

Flow chart used to categorize information into PARA

Discrete Thinking and Execution Phases with Goals

I’m trying something different this year with regards to annual goals. Normally, I set New Year’s Resolutions. This year, I decided to try something different. Instead of setting goals in December/January that last the whole year, I’m setting goals that last on the order of days to weeks after I complete (or fail) my previous goal.

Marquet writes that we should split our work into cycles with two distinct phases: a thinking phase, and an execution phase. He writes that if every day feels the same, it’s likely that you’re stuck continuing in the same monotonous cycle rather than having discrete thinking and executing phases.

I think this may be a benefit of this new approach to goals I’m trying this year. I’m very familiar with every day feeling the same because I love my routines. By having these shorter goals, I’ve actually in a way split my work into two phases. First, I have the thinking phase when I’m between goals, reflecting on what I learned from my last goal, and reflecting on what I want to work on next. Second, I have the execution phase when I’m actively working on a goal.

Marquet also writes that we should come up with hypotheses–things we want to learn–during thinking phases. These hypotheses will be tested during our execution phases.

I have been using Crabtree’s goal format, which takes the form of “I will accomplish … by … and I will know I have done this because …”. So far, most of my goals this year have been in my Zettelkästen, and a lot of the learnings are set around “How long will it take me to do this much work” or “Can I produce content using this set-up”. I am planning on doing a cooking goal soon (currently unformulated) where I’m hoping to figure out how to make some better-tasting home-cooked food that won’t destroy my macro targets.

One of the benefits of splitting out these phases with my goals is it changes the influence of deadlines and scheduling. For example, I previously had a reading goal of reading 100 books over the course of the year. As I reached halfway through the year, I realized I was still far from being halfway through my goal. Marquet writes that stressors such as these may not negatively impact execution, but they do negatively impact thinking. Perhaps I would have paused to ask myself some questions if I didn’t feel those stressors, such as: Do I need to change my goal? What are the reasons that I’m behind schedule, and do I have influence over those? What changes should I implement to make up for lost ground?

With shorter goals, these stressors do not carry out throughout the whole year (and across multiple goals). The short durations mean I can focus on execution, and I know I’ll have a pause coming up where I can stop to think, unaffected by things such as deadlines (since it’s after the goal).

One possible issue with separating the thinking and execution phases is knowing when to quit. (Mind you, this problem isn’t particularly unique to having shorter goals.) Marquet suggests that if you have a high-degree of control over the results, it would be a good time to practice grit. If the results are largely outside of your control, it makes more sense to pivot on the decision. So that gives some guidance as to when to interrupt an execution phase, and in the worst case scenario, it shouldn’t be too long before the next thinking phase.

  • Crabtree, C. (2020, December 15). The 3 Steps You Must Take to Reach Any Goal.
  • Marquet, L. D. (2020). Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say–and What You Don’t. Portfolio/Penguin.

Choosing New Thoughts

Lately, I’ve started playing with Castillo’s self-coaching model. In brief, she writes that circumstances produce thoughts, which lead to feelings, which cause us to perform actions, which produce results, which reinforce those thoughts in a positive feedback cycle. She suggests that the place we have the most power in this cycle lies with our ability to choose new thoughts.

Harris writes that it’s not possible to control our feelings, and that attempting to do so can leave us feeling disheartened, angry, or defeated. For example, if we want to feel more confidence, he writes that we need to behave confidently before we can start to feel those feelings.

Although Castillo agrees that we don’t control our feelings, she writes that changing our actions without first changing our thoughts creates tension between our internal and external experiences. Additionally, because our thoughts haven’t changed, they’ll continue to produce the same feelings which will drive us to perform our same original behaviours. So changing our actions here would always require us to expend energy to fight against what we want to do by default.

Harris also writes about a study that showed how using positive self-affirmations had a negative impact on people with low self-esteem. I suspect this is because these positive self-affirmations are meant to be repeated until they are believed, in similar spirit to “fake it till you make it.” This works well with Castillo’s model, as she writes that it’s important to choose thoughts you genuinely believe when choosing new thoughts (see example at end of this article).

Something I’ve been thinking about related to this is the idea that there aren’t specific thoughts that need to dominate our consciousness. True thoughts don’t need to dominate our consciousness, nor do the thoughts that generate our strongest feelings. We can always choose to focus on other thoughts (and sometimes it ultimately can be useful to do so).

Example: I find myself in circumstances where I’m being critiqued by somebody… …again. I think that they must really have it out for me because they’re always critiquing me more than I seem them critiquing other people. This thinking has me feeling angry, frustrated, defensive, and hostile.

So now to find an alternative thought that I genuinely believe that I can choose to think instead:

(I find myself in circumstances where I’m being critiqued by somebody… …again.) I think it’s possible that they can see something actually useful here that I’m not currently seeing. This thinking has me feeling open, curious, and interested.

  • Castillo, B. (2018). Self-Coaching 101: Use Your Mind–Don’t Let It Use You.
  • Harris, R. (2011). The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt. Trumpeter.

Random Thinking About Work

My thoughts are sort of scattered right now. It has been a lot harder to navigate streams of thought within my Zettelkästen than I anticipated. I realize I need to change some things in its implementation to address this.

The common theme that I’m choosing to write about today is work. Unfortunately, there’s no one coherent argument or thought process through this piece. Bear with me as I bounce around a bit.

To start, I’d like to contrast two different models for working environments I’ve been reflecting on.

The first is a model which maximizes team cohesion through high coupling of individuals. When an individual needs something, they can put the request out to the other people on the team and expect a fast response. Examples of these needs may include answers to questions, status updates, or code reviews. Often these needs prevent them from moving forward on the task at hand. The fast response from the team decreases the amount of time they are stopped on their task. It also decreases the cost of the context-switching which takes place if they switch to another task while they are blocked. Overall, this allows the team to move faster by reducing these costs of being stopped and jumping back and forth between tasks.

The second is a model which minimizes coupling of individuals at the cost of decreasing team cohesion. Largely inspired by Newport’s idea of deep work, this model emphasizes the ability of individuals to focus on their work in periods of isolation from the rest of the team. This approach also decreases the cost of context-switching by preventing people from immediately switching from their work to addressing the needs of others on the team. Especially for knowledge work, long periods of concentration are required for productivity. As Stephenson has pointed out, his own productivity drops off significantly when he these long periods of concentration become fragmented.

At present, I find the second model to be better with regards to overall productivity. There are many additional considerations which demonstrate costs of the first model. One of these involves the need for constant connection via email or a chat client in order to address incoming requests. Because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish important messages from non-important messages without reading them, any unread messages need to be screened immediately to determine if they are urgent and/or important. In environments where messages are exchanged frequently, this makes concentration time impossible. Another consideration is that there’s less incentive to spend effort improving how you work. Fried writes that part of the motivation of adding constraints (ie. a 4-day work week) to how people work is to incentivize them to be more deliberate about how they spend their time and to improve their planning and organization abilities. Similarly, when there is a constraint of longer periods of time before people respond to questions, people become incentivized to be creative about solving their own problems, to make their writing clear so as to prevent foreseeable rounds of back and forth, and to pick up the next meaningful task instead of waiting for people to address your request. Without these sorts of constraints, there’s no incentive to change the status quo.

However, I find it difficult to move from the first model to the second model in my working environment. One issue is that a lot of our work is centered around small changesets of code. By design, small changesets are meant to be easier to understand and thus faster to review. (For context, in an ideal case, review requests are addressed almost immediately. Often people will bump/repeat requests if they aren’t addressed within an hour.) However, it also means that your work can stall if you don’t know how to juggle multiple small changesets that depend on each other effectively. This can feel like a big wall, and thus make the second model unappealing. Another issue is that people are resistant to change, especially when that change feels accessory. Some developers see their primary function as writing code. They can get frustrated if they need to start spending more time on things such as writing descriptive and concise changeset descriptions, or planning their time for when part of their work is awaiting review from someone else. Thus, there are many obstacles to making this switch.

Perhaps it would be wise to take Beck’s suggestion here: do the (possibly hard) work to make the desired change easy, and then make that change.

Another topic I’ve been thinking about recently is authenticity, in particular in the context of bringing your authentic self to work.

One anecdote that illustrates what I’m thinking about came up in an interview with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. In a crisis, Stone felt frustrated that issues were continuing to happen. However, after chatting with Jack Dorsey, he decided to behave calmly and help people to solve the problem. Part of me saw this as inauthentic because his behaviour is inconsistent with his frustration.

However, I also acknowledge that experience is complicated. Perhaps Stone both felt frustrated and wanted to behave calmly and supportive. Another example: I want to lose weight, and I want to eat cookies, and I know that eating cookies is not helping me to lose weight.

Furthermore, Ibarra points out that authenticity is problematic if it relates to the idea of “one true self.” This ignores the fact that with a growth mindset, people have the capacity to change.

So what does it even mean to bring one’s authentic self to work? My thinking on this continues.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about feedback since I’m participating in a book club at work for Thanks for the Feedback.

Stone & Heen write that feedback is anything that gives you information about yourself. It was interesting to see a bunch of things re-framed as feedback. Some examples of this include break-ups, complaints, or having your work ignored. Some of these may appear to be pretty vague. However, if we think about a performance review (ie. something more likely to be recognized as feedback), it can also be hard to understand what the actual feedback is. If you’ve signficiantly improved at your job this year, but you get a performance rating of 4 out of 5 (which was the same as you got last year), it can leave you feeling pretty flat. But maybe your manager was coming from a place where 4 out of 5 means you’re exceeding expectations and doing an amazing job. So no matter whether the feedback is that people overlook your work or that your performance is rated at 4 out of 5, it can be difficult to understand the feedback being presented to you.

Stone & Heen suggest that in order to receive feedback well, you first you have to understand where the feedback giver is coming from (ie. what they’re observing, what they’re concerned about, and what they want), and then you have to determine if (and if so, how) that feedback will be useful to you. (Although this may seem straightforward, it looks there’s quite a bit to unpack here as I think much of the book covers this. I may talk more about this in future blog posts as I continue reading.)

This makes me think that Bushe’s experience cube framework for communication would be useful for these feedback conversations. By having each person share their observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants, it makes it clearer where the feedback giver is coming from and whether the feedback receiver is on the same page.

One last reflection from this book is when Stone & Heen talk about distinguishing entertainment from feedback. This reminded me of Brown’s TEDxHouston talk and the Roosevelt speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Both Brown and Roosevelt recognize that we need to be selective about whose words we choose to value.

More recently, I was reminded of Isla’s experience in The Social Dilemma where she perceives a lot of the social media comments (made for entertainment purposes) to be evaluation of her worth as a human being. I think it was a good example of the potential impact of confusing entertainment with actual feedback.

Anyhow, that is a mess of my recent thoughts. Hopefully there was something valuable in there.