Did you know journaling less might teach you more?

I have the recurring suspicion that we spend a lot of time doing what is essentially cargo cult work. It looks like work, but because we don’t understand how the work connects with a result, we’re actually play-acting. Going through the motions. What this last week taught me is that I was apparently play-acting note taking…

I use Readwise and Tana to collect highlights from things I consume. Notes from meetings, journaling for personal growth, everything that I might learn from goes in there.

The thoughts I collect are what end up on this blog, and in my newsletter. I didn’t make many notes this week, in fact on one day there’s just a single note. But in my weekly review, it turns out that I have learned about the same number of things as usual.

What I think is going on is that I’ve believed that more notes should mean more learning. But since our mind can only do one thing at a time, what is actually happening is that I’m spending a lot of time writing notes I will never use.

A stressful week resulted in me only taking down the things that are really important. Which is what I always want.

On the other hand, when I’m not writing notes all day long, it’s reasonable to assume that I’m not reflecting on my thoughts and might be spending the week thinking the same thing over and over again. Journaling is a very good method for avoiding this trap, which is why I believe journaling is so helpful for personal growth.

But again, I haven’t stopped journaling. I just journal less.

I’m about to leave on a two week trip to the US, and I think I will continue to journal daily, but not try to take a lot of notes. In note taking less really is more.

What I learned in week 18 2023

Your brain is a super computer. But with a very specific limitation: It can only work on one thing at a time. I’ve known this since my collage days. But I keep discovering what that means in practice.

George Mack introduced me to Thinking Cost.

The idea is deceptively simple: since your brain can only think about one thing at a time, each thought has an opportunity cost.

When you’re thinking about that embarrassing moment in high school you are not thinking about how to move forward on your creative project.

This is why toxic, negative and dramatic people are sucks energy sinks. Because having them in your life drains you of precious thinking time. The time you spend avoiding their drama, or climbing out of their negative hole, is time you didn’t spend thinking about important and exciting things.

Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working; be selective about professions.

Nassim Taleb

This is also why unfinished work, or work where you are not in control of your time, can cause us so much stress. Because we simply can’t let go of work thoughts, and can’t spend our time off thinking about other things.

Later that week Nat Eliason introduced me to thinking about time as split between input and output time.

Input time, output time. Input time is reading books, scrolling social media, watching the news, listening to podcasts, talking to friends and colleagues, or anything else that adds new stuff for your subconscious to process. Output time is creating the space and boredom for those inputs to ferment into something interesting.

Nat Eliason

Nat is approaching the same mental limitation as George, but using a completely different metaphor and comes up with another way of thinking about it:

Find the best ingredients possible to ferment into great ideas, and aggressively prune everything you don’t want your brain to process. Give your brain the boredom and output time it needs to figure out what to do with that information. Don’t keep opening the jar and packing more into it. Finally, be patient with the process. The more you can reduce the amount of information you’re taking in, and the more boredom you can give your brain to work, the better your results will be.

Nat Eliason

Thinking through these two metaphors I’ve come up with these heuristics:

  • Consume information about problems you’re trying to solve. Or art/entertainment that you enjoy.
    Avoid everything else, especially if it’s scary, outrageous, or has a click friendly headline.
  • When thoughts pop up during the day, try to remember to ask yourself the question: is this a valuable thought to be having? If it’s drama, or shame related, shake it off and do something else.
  • Schedule time to be bored. No input. And try to keep your mind away from thinking about drama.

I’ll leave you with this brilliant observation by Nat:

More information is rarely your friend. It’s often a form of distraction and procrastination.

Nat Eliason

What I learned week 17 2023

I learned a lot this week, but didn’t have time to do any experiments. Here are three short ideas that I think I will experiment with next.

Jogs your mind

You think better when you walk. You’ve probably noticed that before? But are you applying it? I really wasn’t. Reading this twitter thread made me realise I can use walking as an activity to think about solutions.

If bored and struggling with ideas — keep walking until the day becomes interesting.

Read-it-later is a river, not a bucket

My most popular tweet this week was based on a fantastic article by Oliver Burkeman:

Asking is asymmetric

If you’ve read Taleb, you will be familiar with the concept of asymmetry. Some things have more upside than downside, or the reverse. So if you only spend time on the things that have asymmetric upside, you are going to win.

I’ve thought about this a lot, but reading this list of asymmetric returns I realised I’ve been over complicating things again. Asking for something has an asymmetric upside: either you get it, or you get a no.

What I learned week 16 2023: cashing in on the byproduct of solving problems

We spend our energy solving a lot of problems. Daily life is basically a series of logistical problems leading us to situations where we can get paid to solve larger problems. But in each problem there is a massive missed opportunity that many of us are not aware of. At least I wasn’t.

Say you’re solving a problem at work. Let’s use the example: setting up an ad for a direct to consumer brand.

You probably start with an existing strategy, or by trying something new. This part of problem solving is quite widely explored, and you probably have a bunch of good heuristics about it already.

Then eventually there’s a result. You “solve” the problem when some ads perform better than others and you reallocate money to the working ads. This is also a widely explored area, and there’s a ton of writing about it.

After that, most of us simply move on to the next problem… And here we’re missing a huge return on investment. The solution you just came up with can almost always be turned into a general pattern that can be reused.

Next time you solve a problem spend a few minutes thinking about how your solution could be phrased as a general rule of thumb: can you say that audience X prefers a ad of the type Y? Or message Z?

Not only will you be able to remember this general rule much better than the details of the problem and solution, but it will also be much easier to apply it to similar problems.

It sounds easy, because it is. I was shocked by just how quickly I started to reap the rewards. The same day I learned this I generalised two other insights, and one of them could be applied to another problem the very next morning!

This blog post is one of my general learnings so far. I discovered this simple rule in Edward de Bono’s Five-Day Course in Thinking. Which I recommend. But more than the book, I recommend you try this next time you solve a problem!

What I learned week 15 2023

Last weekend was both easter and my birthday. Needless to say I spent a lot of time high on sugar. And as a result I learned less. But I kept coming back to an insight about how teams speed up.

Add constraints to speed up

I’ve worked with many teams struggling to go faster. There are all these frameworks and methods that should help us, stuff like Agile, design thinking etc. But they rarely seem to have the impact they promise.

I think the reason they’re failing is because we’re using them once, instead of as iterative tools. Here are three examples:


When you make strategic decisions you need to have a specific user in mind. That’s how you know to chose alternative A over alternative B. Because A fits your user better.

I’ve seen hundreds of personas be created, but I’ve rarely seen them used.

Say you’re selling a new type of deodorant aimed at a niche market. Start simple:
Craig sees himself as a tech-guy, but works a generic office job at a large company. Owns a car.

Then take actions based on this persona. When you discover new things about your audience or customers (oh wait, they don’t always have a car!) you either change the existing persona, or split it into new personas.

How often should you reference personas?
Every time you build, sell, or market anything to your audience.

How often should you update your personas?
Every time you learn something new about your audience.

They key is iteration.

Design system

You have a product that needs several interfaces. A website, some email templates, maybe even *shudder* a powerpoint presentation. They need to look like they’re from the same company.

Should you create a Figma project and map out every possible component?

Start simple: 2-3 rules that have distinct do’s and don’ts for your brand.

We always use our brand color “ultra-pink”
We never use serif typefaces
Our CTAs and clickable things are always

Use it as a checklist. It will be surprisingly consistent.

How often do you use the design system?
Every time you design anything.

How often do you update the design system?
Every time you discover a new reusable part of the design that should be branded as yours.

The key is iteration.

Brand communication

You have a young brand in street wear, just like everyone else. How do you become distinct and noticeable?

Set some distinct, or better yet edgy, rules and be disciplined about sticking to them.

The brand doesn’t speak with a friendly tone of voice, but rather informal.
The brand uses all colors, as long as they’re LOUD.
The brand believes the world is flat, sustainability is key, and that cigarettes are still cool.

Check all your communication against the list. That’s enough to start with.

How often should you use the brand guidelines?
In every choice you make about the brand. Every single one.

How often should you update the brand guidelines?
Every time the market changes, or there is any confusion about what the brand stands for, you should clarify it.

The key is iteration.

Self binding

These methods speed things up because they add constraints. They make it easier to make choices and move on. When they don’t work it’s because we don’t iterate on them, so people end up not applying them or even understanding them,

We can only remain focused if we’re constantly reminded about what we’re focusing on. This is why I believe that iteration is key.

We need simple rules to follow. Checking often that we’re not diverging from them. Constantly updating them as the world changes.

What I learned week 13 2023

Rereading Jakob Greenfelds excellent article “Build a business, not an audience” I realised I’ve been sharing too much content, and not enough of experiments and results. So here’s what I learned the hard way in the last week.

Reaching out to internet strangers

Reaching out to people you discover on the internet used to be a thing. As in something a lot of people did. In the early days of social media, 4sqr and Twitter were used not just to sell courses, but also to meet people that said or did interesting things.

I think it’s sad that many of us have forgotten that we can do this.

A few weeks ago I checked into a favourite coffeeshop (I don’t know why I sometimes still use foursquare, but I do), and I noticed someone I’ve been following on Twitter for years was the major. So these days we live in the same city, I’ve followed their stuff for years, and yet we’ve never talked.

Yesterday we met for coffee, and I had one of the better conversations I’ve had in a long time. We ended up chatting for an hour instead of our scheduled 30min.

The internet is still a magic place filled with interesting people. Why not reach out to someone?

Digital terroir – making products more interesting

Terroir is a term from wine culture that means something like the land and culture that produced this taste of wine. It means everything that goes into the taste of the wine, from the bacteria in the earth, to the work ethic of the winemaker. It’s not a subtle thing, but a distinct tone of each wine.

Jordan writes about how the digital world has lost some of its flavour as we optimise everything into looking and working the same. Our tools have become flat copies of Linear’s design. And he asks an interesting question, would digital experiences be better and more interesting with some terroir?

What if our products were more distinct, more opinionated. Would that be more interesting for people to discover and use? How much local culture and personal flair can we add to our products without losing usability? Quite a lot probably.

As AI continues to take over and make things like UI and feature sets increasingly flat and uniform, maybe digital terroir becomes the defining experience.

Natural language is not the best AI interface

Everyone is excited about what Large Language Models like OpenAIs chatGPT can do. Every week seems to bring a new AI breakthrough release. The limitations are falling to the wayside one by one. Which is why I’m a bit shocked by how little thought there seems to be going on around interfaces for AI.

When Amazon released Alexa, everyone thought that conversational UI was going to take over the world, despite clear (and annoying) limitations. These days everyone seems excited about “natural language” as the universal interface.

“AI copilots will be everywhere. The main way of using a computer is natural language, not pointing and clicking.”

Lorenzo Green paraphrasing Bill Gates

I think they are missing a point. Interfaces are designed to empower the user. Natural language is a messy soup of trial and error trying to convey or understand something. Natural language is great for discovery and learning, less so for expert use.

You have probably heard someone say “text is too slow, it’s quicker if we just talk to each other”. Maybe you’ve felt the same? Choosing to call someone, or meet someone instead of sending them an email. There’s a really important lesson to draw from this common behaviour, and I believe it shows us how we will interact with AIs in the future.

Speech is slower than text, but has an advantage

Language is messy, and so are ideas. If we were to compare the transmission rate of spoken words to that of text, I’m very sure we’ll see that text is far more efficient. We take the time to structure our thoughts into text, which takes effort and time. Something we rarely do while talking.

That’s why talking feels quicker, and easier. You are not conveying information faster, you are simply putting in less effort. Letting the other side do some of the work.

When you’re speaking to someone you can ask a question when you don’t understand. This takes effort and time, but it is much faster than reading more material and hoping you’ll get it eventually.

Natural language will be used to learn new things, to understand topics, and to discover what AI can help you with. But then what? You’re not gonna ask an AI chatbot to fill in an excel formulae, you’ll more likely learn how and do it yourself, because it will feel faster or maybe even be faster, than watching a chat print out characters.

Expert interfaces work differently

Most tech power users will tell you that mechanical keyboards are faster for typing, VIM is the best text editor ever, and everything should be available through the Command Line Interface. I have no idea if the first two are true, but the last one is at least partially true.

Experts are always using complex UIs that a layman would never be able to understand. Because the expert has internalised so much information, they can skip past the fancy buttons and sliders of a user friendly interface and go straight to chaining commands or making exact adjustments.

Text is likely a universal interface, a UI so powerful that it allows us to do anything. Much like speech, it can convey any idea, but unlike speech it can be viciously compacted and exact. Conveying more information, or more commands, in less time.

I have no doubt the AIs of the future will handle CLI-chained-commands-style input, both in audio and text. But what is more interesting to me is that there’s nothing stopping AI from generating all sorts of specialised UI.

Imagine that instead of setting up a spreadsheet and asking AI for a formula, you ask AI to generate a dashboard for your current cash flow. It comes back with a windowed dashboard, you ask it to add additional controls or features, and it does. Highly specific, contextually generated, personalised UIs. Perfectly tailored to your use case, and skill level.


I believe that in the near future we will use AI to generate UI for our personal skill level for the task we’re doing. When our skill increases, we will ask the AI for a new UI.

We will learn and explore using natural language. We will ask AI to generate UIs for more specific, and maybe recurring, tasks. And we will simply trigger chains of commands for truly expert use.

LLMs can generate all these things for us. In real time. But natural language is not the universal UI. AI is itself the universal UI.

What I learned week 12 2023

Second week of travel and workshops, but I learned two new ideas I’m excited to share! The first is about how to become great at something, the second is about how to achieve extreme success.

Become great my seeking out the meta game

To be really good at something, you first have to learn a bunch of low level skills: the fundamentals. This truism is tossed around as advice, and like most bad advice, it’s not actionable. Which fundamentals? How do I choose what to invest my time in?

Cedric Chin has a very interesting strategy outlined in his post To Get Good, Go After the Meta Game.

What he says is that masters of any particular field, performance marketing, product design, or fishing, are using strategies that are not obvious from looking at the basics rules of the game. They are the strategies of Second order effects. Meta game strategies.

The meta game tends to change over time. And in the real world there are usually few, or complex, rules so changes happen rapidly.

To really apply meta strategies you need to be so good at the fundamentals that you understand why and how the meta strategy works.

This also means that by seeking out people who are succeeding with meta strategies, we can be reasonably certain their fundamentals are really good. These are the people we want to learn from.

The simplified version of Cedric’s strategy is:

  1. Find people succeeding with meta strategies.
  2. Learn what they’re doing, seek out their best practices
  3. Derive which fundamentals are implied from those best practices
  4. And spend your time learning those

Execution is not the defining factor of success

I really like Mark Manson and his style of writing. So I was intrigued when I saw his latest video was about how to outperform 99% of people. I should’ve known it would be a kick in the ass…

The basic idea is this: Execution matters, but it’s maybe 50%+ of success. Execution not the defining factor for outlier success. If you want to reach for the moon, execution won’t be the leverage you need.

What you need is a contrarian idea, that is correct. Something other’s are not doing, that turns out to be correct. Making you an outlier.

The slightly worrying side effect is that to do that, you will have to spend your time being terribly wrong. A lot.

I’m ok with not being a massive success. Came to terms with that years ago. But I do wish I had understood this point earlier. I believe Mark is right, and I hope to set some contrarian or unusual goals for myself. But if he’s right, that means this is also true for company strategy. So what is your company’s contrarian positioning for the future?

How your brain is creative

I’m fascinated by creativity. It seems to be the differentiating feature between humans and primates, or AI. We don’t even know what creativity is, or how it works. But there’s a lot to learn about how to be creative.

Neil Gaiman needs to be constrained to not distract himself.

“I go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything…I’m not allowed to do a crossword, read a book, phone a friend…all I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write. But writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while.”

Neil Gaiman

Julian Shapiro thinks that creativity is what happens when you get rid of the first layer of obvious ideas.

“Visualize your creativity as a backed-up pipe of water. The first mile is packed with wastewater. This wastewater must be emptied before the clear water arrives.”

Julian Shapiro

Shigeru Miyamoto at Nintendo would add constraints to his game development teams to force them to be creative.

John Cleese recently wrote a book on the subject, and he knows a lot about creativity. He talks about it in my favourite lecture ever:

Cleese also adds constraints. He’s adding rules about space, and about time spent, in which to be creative. In which to play.

Why do constraints make you creative?

Dr. Nancy Andreasen wanted to know what happens when the brain is resting, doing nothing, and it turns out the brain starts making connections. It’s being creative.

“We found activations in multiple regions of the association cortex,” Dr. Andreasen wrote. “We were not [seeing] a passive silent brain during the ‘resting state,’ but rather a brain that was actively connecting thoughts and experiences.”

Dr. Nancy Andreasen

Now we know why constraints work. The brain starts playing, becoming creative, when there’s no input, and nothing to do. So if you want to be more creative, you should to slack off more.

Please stop multi tasking

I love the rush of feeling busy. I think we all do. Unfortunately being busy is usually the opposite of doing things productively. Multitasking is one of the worst culprits behind this.

One study from Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction lab found that when you try to do two tasks at once, your performance on both tasks gets about 20 percent worse.

Kate Monica