First principles of workflow design (a 2-part episode)

Episode 17: Tiago Forte and Khe Hy

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Tiago Forte is the founder of Forte Labs and has been called the “next David Allen.” Today’s productivity writing is mostly focused on “squeezing water out of a stone” but this approach overlooks the core human behaviors and tendencies. In these two episodes, we start with First Principles (aka building blocks), share our toolkits, and where we get stuck. This is a 2-part episode where we take turns interviewing each other (and don’t miss our first episode).

A note from Khe:

Tiago’s been a huge influence on my life via his ideas, writing, and his class. I thought I was a productivity Jedi but it’s been a personal game-changer — both output but also joy in having the right systems. Building a Second Braindecreased the time it takes me to produce RadReads AND has unleashed a torrent of productivity. Sign up for the next session, beginning November 6.

Note: Affiliate link, proceeds will support RadReads growth

How to read these notes

We start with each of our First Principles and then our Workflow “tool kit” and then dive into the specifics.

Tiago’s First Principles of Workflow

  • Finishing every work session with a clear deliverable or milestone
  • Optimize for intensity (via time tracking)
  • All priorities are local
  • Go to extremes of sociability or isolation
  • Document everything
  • Make pivots to new tasks or working styles as dramatic as possible
  • Push non-value added tasks as late as possible and pull value-added tasks as early as possible
  • Satisfice wherever possible
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel, don’t do things — look for excuses to do things
  • Getting out of bed in the morning is always the first bottleneck

Tiago’s Toolkit

  • For task management: Things
  • For knowledge management and general reference materialEvernote
  • For reading things laterInstapaper
  • For collaborative documentsGoogle Docs
  • For filesharing / backupDropBox
  • For digital calendarBusyCal

They’re very stable and rarely change over time. Because for most people, the bottleneck is not which tools you’re using (i.e. Apple Calendar vs. Google Calendar). The bottleneck is: are you using an online calendar? ??

Khe’s First Principles

  • Limit cognitive overhead
  • Beware of asymmetric options
  • Deep Work
  • Batch tasks (and single-task)
  • Manage energy over time

Khe’s Toolkit

  • For task management: Omnifocus
  • For knowledge management and general reference materialEvernote
  • For reading things laterInstapaper
  • For collaborative documentsQuip
  • For filesharing / backupDropBox
  • For digital calendarFantastical

Tiago Workflow Deep-Dive

Principle 1: Finishing every work session with a clear deliverable or milestone

Why? Because high-value work has a huge of the ramp-up period. If you complete 90% of a deliverable, and say you’ll “do the last 10% later”, you have to ramp all the way up again just to finish the last 10%.

Khe: “But what if it’s a BIG problem that’s taking you a long time?”

“Make packets of work small”

If your packets of work are 3 hours, you won’t accomplish anything unless you you have 3 uninterrupted hours — And this is rare.

Instead: you make your packets of work smaller (i.e. 30 minutes), you’ll be able to get things done anytime you have 30 minutes. ⏱⏱⏱

Khe: “What if your task NEEDS cognitive momentum and takes longer than 30 minutes?”

“What really creates momentum is an accelerating pace of rewards. Break down work into smaller and smaller packets, to create an accelerating pace of rewards

Momentum in knowledge work isn’t like momentum in horseback riding ? or running ?where you see the trees ?? as you pass by. Momentum is completely defined internally by how you feel.

Here’s a blog post by Tiago on the topic:

Principle 2: Optimize for intensity (via ACTIVE time tracking)

“You must actively track your time. The point is deliberate awareness of your time allocation, not data collection.”

To actively track your time, you’d say “I am now done with project A, I consciously open my app to clock out of project A, and consciously clock into project B”

Tiago prefers an app like Hours Tracker, where you clock in and out, as opposed to RescueTime, that passively tracks your activity.

Khe: But Why Active tracking?

People tend to have very fuzzy edges. They’re sort of checking their email and slowly transitioning from email to a project, but keep going back to check email. To maximize productivity, You need a clean break. ?

You’re not trying to master time, you’re trying to master yourself. Mastering yourself means: making a decision on what to work on, and committing to that decision by taking action.

Tiago: After analyzing two years of my time tracking data, I found that I only really work for 25 hours / week. This was shocking because my perception is that I’m always working

Live look at Tiago after realizing he only works 25 hours per week.

This is seriously throws into question the idea of a 45 hour work week

Khe: How does time tracking lead to intesnity?

“When you start working in this way, it completely cuts down on multi tasking and switching. Because If you decide to multi-task, you have to constantly go into your app and clock in and out of tasks.

My intensity isn’t reinforced by my morals or values (“I should do intense work”) it’s enforced because active time tracking makes multi-tasking a pain.”

Khe has his own intensity hack. Has a 15 character (!) iPhone password and no TouchID ? ? ?


“There’s something human about wanting little bits of distraction & that’s not morally wrong”

Time Tracking Pro tip: there are all kind of issues with time tracking. Don’t miss the forest through the trees — it’s not an exact science. The ? is to be aware and consistent in how you track.

Principle 3: All Priorities are Local

What does it mean? look for “excuses” to do things. Change the order of your priorities based on context.

In productivity, priorities are a BIG deal. You’re supposed to make a list of priorities #1 through #10, and then cross out #2 — #10 and do #1.

But this ignores an important point. The priority # of something is totally context-dependent. It’s not an inherent property of the thing itself.

Let’s take a relatable example, Dry Cleaning.

Dry-cleaning is never going to be the top of your to-do list. EXCEPT when happen to be driving by the dry cleaners.

In this context, you’ve already done 99% of the work required to complete the task by coincidence. So in that moment, the most productive thing you can do is pick up dry cleaning.

“The key here is ‘random access‘ — having more than 1 way to access your tasks”

Use your tools to surface tasks in different ways. We can all relate to the example below:

When I have an hour to read, I don’t want to spend the hour I have looking for things to read, I want to spend it actually reading!!!

Tiago documents each task in his task manager with a standardized word. For example, everything he has to read across all projects and domains in his task manager starts with the keywork “read”

By typing in the word “read,” I can instantly see everything I need to read across all projects and areas on one list

Khe This is MEGA important if you have children ? ?‍?‍?‍? . You have to make the kid’s nap time as productive as possible for you!

Extra Credit: Here’s a good book on Product Development that Tiago recommends:

The Tiago ToolKit

Khe Asks: How do you decide which file goes where? Evernote vs. DropBox vs. Google Docs?

It‘s based what I’m trying to accomplish. If it can go on Evernote, it should.

Here’s the great strength of digital note taking ?: the actual content is close to the surface. Its container is invisible. When you fire up Evernote, the content of the note is front and center

You’re an artist and your digital notetaking app is your studio ?‍? ?‍? . An artist who works with sculpture, painting, and drawing puts everything in their studio so they can see these forms of media juxtaposesd in interesting ways. You do this digitally with your notetaking app.

We need Multiple ways to resurface things. Because the mind is so good at making arbitrary connections.

Tiago has an “Idea Tickler” that he uses instead of checking social media.

You’re tapping into human idea to want novelty and distraction. Don’t treat this desire like a moral failure, use it to your advantage!

Extra Credit: Want to build the script for the Idea Tickler yourself? check it out in Tiago’s blog post (paywalled)

Khe Asks: Where does Tiago Get Stuck?

How do I evaluate my progress in Areas of Responsibility such as Health? I know there are things I could do better. Should I accept that and be satisfied and equanimous? Or is that signaling that I need a change?

The tug of war between equanimity & [driving for change]

Text expanders

Text expanders have quite valuable to Tiago. A text expander = when you type a keyword (such as: #p) it replaces that text with your phone number.

People use them all the time time on mobile, but Tiago believes the most valuable is on desktop. [computer emoji]

There are a few different options for text expanders:

  • TextExpander
  • aText
  • Typinator
  • Dash 3
  • TypeIt4me
  • Keyboard Maestro
  • Alfred 3
  • DIY in “System Preferences

This conversation just scratches the surface of Tiago’s class Building a Second Brain — Go Sign Up for the next session, beginning November 6.

Note: Affiliate link, proceeds will support RadReads growth

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