Here’s the most important thing I ever learned about the way we see the world and process information…. The brain is in charge of two very different goals:
1. Successfully move our bodies around through space and time (accomplish tasks needed for survival)
2. Use as little energy as possible. Even though it accounts for 2% of our weight, the brain uses about 20% of our body’s energy. Unless we’re really motivated—given extra rewards, or come across a mistake we can’t avoid—we conserve energy.
Ergo, the Law of Least Effort
In Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning researcher Daniel Kahneman, here’s a primer: we do the “thinking fast” bit unless we really, really have to.
Thinking Fast = System 1, our automatic, intuitive mind that usually lets us navigate the world easily and successfully; habitual, model-free thinking (actions → outcome, regardless of where we are).
Thinking Slow = System 2, our controlled, deliberative, analytical mind; model-based and goal-directed (takes other things into account)
So, to repeat: our brain appears to view controlling itself—or thinking—as a cost: it will only use System 2 to think deeply, learn something new, and update itself when it has to, when there’s real value.
Another function of System 2 (slow) is to monitor System 1 (fast): we’ll learn when we have no choice but to confront a mistake, which means that it does a miraculous job of avoiding situations when it could be at fault. Why? From our brain’s perspective, finding out that we’ve made a mistake is tiring, because it means that we have to adjust the controls, and reconfigure how we make sense of the world.
The idea that thinking itself is a cost leads to the most common cognitive error, the focusing illusion, commonly referred to as WYSIATI: What You See Is All There Is.
We all view the world like a fisheye lens:
This makes sense from a survival standpoint: we have to focus on what’s right around us. From our perspective, we are always at the center of the world. Everything is right in front of us; thinking of anything else takes work.
After I signed papers for my book deal, I started reading everything I could about how authors actually write books. Why? I had never written a nonfiction book, yet I was under contract with a German corporation to write a book.
What do the days of authors look like? Where do they even start? (I have a hunch that writers are especially prone to this “Am I doing it right?” fear because while we might get to see people writing articles in a newsroom, we get to see authors working on a book as frequently as we get to see my brother admitting that he’s wrong: it just doesn’t happen.)
First, I had to do lots and lots of research. But what tools do authors use to organize their research? I wanted to do this impeccably, because I wanted every point I made in my book to be bulletproof, fully backed by great research.
Screenshot of DevonThink. Not pictured: my eyes bleeding after staring at screens for years.
I started using DevonThink because of this post by one of my favorite authors, Steven Johnson. DevonThink is also used by Ph.D. students to organize the research used in their dissertations; the manual is hefty and it involves a lot of tagging, uploading, and folder-creating.
Johnson used it for its AI: for years, he’d read books and religiously copy and paste passages of interest into DevonThink. Then, after opening up one of those passages (shown), he’d click on the nearby “See Also” button. The program would auto-magically summon other passages, making multidisciplinary connections that Johnson is known for.
I spent more hours than I’d care to admit learning how to use DevonThink, inputting passages, and troubleshooting the 3.5 gb database I ended up creating. I developed a routine of reading ebooks, highlighting passages, making notations, and then transferring the notes to DevonThink via Calibre, an open-source ebook management tool.
I bought Scrivener, which everyone seemed to use to write. Plus, the program can help organize research. Like DevonThink, getting the full benefits of its capabilities depends on how much time you spend on the input end of the process, adding metadata, links, notes, bookmarks, and folders to organize the data and PDFs connected to your document.
I bought the premium version of Evernote so that I could read research on my phone. More folders; more tags; much uploading.
Shown: organizing my ideas and making connections between disciplines. I AM OLD SCHOOL.
I started compiling PDFs of research papers on my computer into different folders on my hard drive and color-coding those folders. I used tags. I used so many tags. (I did this in case I didn’t feel like using one of those other expensive programs that still felt unintuitive and cumbersome.)
I spent about four years reading about psychology, compiling research, and fine-tuning the book’s outline before I started seriously working on the draft.
I emailed tons of author-friends, as well as authors I’d interviewed over the years, for advice on all of this. The most common tip I received from friends echoed what ended up being the most useful piece of advice on this list—which was not directly about organizing:
Don’t wait too long to start writing.
I did not want to believe that advice. I wanted the inside scoop of how writers actually write books. Surely, that advice was silly. But there it was again, in an email from someone with a few solid books under his belt:
I strongly recommend that you begin writing much sooner than you might think feasible—certainly before you’ve done all the reporting.
And yet again:
Just start getting words on the page. Believe me, there will never be a time when you say to yourself, “I’ve done all the reporting I need to”; you need to cut the cord and start drafting, or it’ll go on forever. There is literally no downside to starting the drafting process.
I did not want to believe that advice; I wanted the secret. The thing that professionals do. The secret, it turns out, is that there is no secret: the best way to write a book is to just start writing a book. And big projects take a lot of work for everyone.
Writing helps you figure out how to organize your research because it forces you to figure out what you actually use while writing, and what method works best with your own writing process. There is no singular “best” way to organize your research because everyone’s brain, method of gathering information, and writing process is different.
My obsession with the perfect productivity / organization method was merely my own anxiety about doing it wrong.
The best way to get over anxiety is to simply do the thing that you’re anxious about and practice self-compassion. If you’re learning and making progress, you’re not doing it wrong. Improving and developing a method that works for you takes time for everyone.
I went through two hard drive meltdowns, an erased DevonThink database, and a frozen Kindle that deleted two years of notes.
I ended up organizing the PDFs into folders on my computer, one for each chapter.
I used Scrivener to write the whole thing.
And how did I organize the structure? COLORED INDEX CARDS.