Book Launch: Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest

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Dear Friends,Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest

I am delighted to announce that my book – Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest – has been launched on Amazon Kindle.

UPDATE, Thursday, May 12: Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest (version 1.1) is available on Amazon. This is the time to read it!

What is this book is all about?

It is a no-nonsense guide for anyone who wishes to improve their memory and learning and acquire powerful techniques and tools to organize information from all kinds of sources.

It merges highly effective learning and memory improvement techniques with information and knowledge management to provide a complete solution for students, professionals, and life-long learners. The techniques are accompanied by easy-to-follow examples.

Memorizing Information is not enough

Many memory books claim, “You are only using 10% of your brain.” “Create a memory palace and multiply your brainpower.” Yes – mnemonic techniques work and are fascinating. You can use them to memorize a large number of facts or foreign language vocabulary fast and with confidence. They allow you to give a speech to the point completely from memory. Mnemonics are a real time saver, so we cover the most effective memory improvement techniques and accompany them with easy-to-follow examples.

But contrary to what some people might claim, you will forget a large part of this information after a relatively short time if you don’t use it. This is just how the brain works. You have to reinforce what you want to keep. Did you know that you have to spend about 50% of your learning time practicing recall to create a reliable long-term memory? And you have to do this over time.

We take an in-depth look at the most powerful memory technique of all – Reviewing by practicing recall using effective methods and modern computer software.

What’s more, information and knowledge management are equally important for modern learners:

These days an enormous amount of information is available on the Internet, in databases, and in huge libraries. A lot of this information will be outdated in a few years. You’d better not “store” everything in your brain. Remember, you need a considerable time to keep the information there. Most of it you shouldn’t even download to your computer or smartphone.

This book shows you how to extract the important information and organize what is relevant for your business, research, or studies, so that you can re-find it with ease while it is relevant. We introduce smart and mostly free computer applications allowing you to distill and manage information from all kinds of sources with the click of a few buttons.

In this book, you learn:

  • Highly effective memory improvement techniques: Learn and review faster, pass exams, memorize foreign language vocabulary with confidence, and improve your memory in all areas of your life.
  • Methods and mostly free computer software to distill, organize, and review information from all kinds of sources.
  • How to re-find your information with ease, build your personal digital library, and create bibliographies for your own writing by clicking only a few buttons.
  • How to take and manage notes in innovative ways, including techniques such as mind mapping and outlining.
  • How to improve your attention span and concentration and beat absentmindedness and stress.

So this is it.

If you like what you are reading, check out Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest on Amazon.

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still read this book. In fact, I think it looks great in the Kindle App. Just download the Amazon Kindle App, which is available for PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry.

Thank you very much for all your support!

Have a great day,

Helmut Sachs

How to Take the Perfect Nap for Performance, Mood and Memory

how to take the perfect nap

I have been an afternoon napper for more than 14 years. I started napping after moving to a country where most people took a siesta. For various reasons, I just couldn’t get enough sleep during the night, so it was easy to fall asleep.

Over the years, I have tried short power naps, 60-minute naps, and occasionally 90-minute mid-afternoon sleeps. In this post, I would like to share with you how to nap for better mood, alertness, concentration, improved memory, and restoration of learning capacity. We will cover how long and when to nap for maximum benefit, how to avoid after-nap grogginess (sleep inertia), and the possible risks associated with longer naps.

As a final point, I am going to share my personal napping experience and my favorite napping hacks.

The benefits of napping are numerous

For me personally, the most important benefits are improved mood and decreased sleepiness. I just feel happier and ready to tackle my afternoon after a nap.

Napping studies have found a large number and variety of benefits of napping in all kinds of workplace and operational settings.  Studies looked at drivers, commercial airliner pilots, shift workers, doctors and nurses, students, children, senior citizens…

Here is a non-exhaustive list of research-proven benefits:

  • Improved cognitive performance
    • Increased alertness and concentration
    • Decreased reaction time
    • Speed and accuracy improvement on cognitive tasks
  • Better mood
  • Less sleepiness and fatigue
  • Significantly reduced number of driving incidents such as drifting out of one’s lane in a car simulator experiment: the number of incidents caused by drivers who had taken a 15-minute coffee nap (see below for details) was 91% less than for drivers who had just taken a break. Coffee alone reduced the number of incidents by 66%.
  • In a NASA study, pilots who took naps were able to maintain their performance and reduce incidents during a demanding multi-day schedule. Pilots who weren’t allowed to nap experienced deceasing performance and a significantly larger number of incidents, including during the descent and landing.
  • Significantly Improved memory and protection of learned information from interference: a study that focused on declarative learning found a 60% increased memory retention for nappers at a final test one week after initial learning, compared to learners who hadn’t napped.
  • Nappers perform better at abstracting general concepts and making connections that weren’t directly learned but can be inferred from what was learned (relational memory).
  • A nap can restore the capacity to learn, which otherwise deteriorates considerably with time awake.
  • Performance on a creative problem solving task where subjects had to find a linking word between three seemingly unrelated words was improved by more than 40% after a 90-minute nap containing REM sleep (see below) compared to rest and naps containing only non-REM sleep.

To better understand what nap length you should aim for, here is a sleep architecture primer

Continue reading

How to Create, Extract, and Manage PDF Annotations and Highlights

An efficient workflow for annotating PDFs, extracting highlights and comments, and filing them is essential for research, writing, and studying. Ideally highlights and comments should contain back-links that take you right back to the correct page in the PDF source document.Extracted-PDF-Annotations

Adobe’s Acrobat Reader DC, PDF-XChange Editor, and various other PDF readers allow you to annotate PDF files. But, you don’t want these annotations to remain “imprisoned” in your PDF. Your highlights and comments become a lot more useful if you can extract them, aggregate markups from several documents, and re-find them when you need them. Unsurprisingly, the free version of Acrobat Reader doesn’t allow the export of annotations as a word or text file.

To accomplish this in an elegant way, I recommend that you manage your PDF documents in Zotero, a free, open-source research document management system created and maintained by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media     (George Mason University). With Zotero, you can collect and organize a large variety of document types, including PDF documents and web pages with the click of a few buttons.
To extract and manage PDF annotations in Zotero, you additionally need the free add-on Zotfile from zotfile.com. Zotfile was created by Joscha Legewie, a professor at New York University. A big thank you to Dr. Legewie for programming and maintaining this excellent cannot-live-without add-on!

Adobe’s free Acrobat Reader DC is the most popular PDF reader; it is available on all major platforms, and allows you to highlight and annotate PDF documents. Consequently, in this post I am focusing on Acrobat Reader DC.

You can, however, use any PDF reader that includes annotating tools. My personal favorite on Windows PCs is PDF-XChange Editor (formerly Viewer), which does allow text export of annotations, albeit in a less ideal form.

As a PDf sample, I have added the free psychology text book by Openstax College to Zotero.1, 2 This is a massive 750-page book, so it serves as a good test case:

Zotero-attached-pdf-psychology

Double-clicking the book title opens the PDF file in Acrobat Reader (or your default PDF viewer). In the following screenshot, I have highlighted a passage and added a comment:

Adobe Acrobat Reader PDF annotationsSaving PDF highlights and comments

After I am done with annotating, I save the file back to Zotero, i.e., modify the original book: File->Save brings up this dialog:

PDF-annotation-save-dialogUpon saving the file I confirm that I want to overwrite the original file.

Troubleshooting Acrobat Reader DC – how to find and and overwrite a file in its original folder

Previous versions of Acrobat Reader automatically opened the PDF source folder and allowed the user to save the modified PDF document back to its original location, i.e., overwrite the file. If you have trouble saving your file, or are not been taken back to the source folder, you might have to change a setting to re-enable this behavior.3 In Acrobat Reader go to Edit->Preferences and deselect “Show online storage when saving files”:

Troubleshooting-Adober-Reader-finding-overwriting-PDFSave your settings, restart Acrobat Reader, and everything should work smoothly.

Extracting and managing PDF annotations

Back to our Zotero / Zotfile workflow: right-click the modified PDF attachment and select Manage Attachments->Extract Annotations:Zotero-Zotfile-PDF-extract-annotationsZotfile goes to work and inserts a note with the extracted annotations:

Zotfile-PDF-extracted-annotationsDouble-click this note to show the annotations:

Zotero-extracted-PDF-annotationsFrom the extracted-annotations window, you can directly copy your annotations and paste them into your favorite word processor.

Each annotation also contains a link back to the PDF file in Zotero, together with the page number. Clicking on this link takes your right back to the page where the annotation can be found:

Zotero-PDF-annotations-link-to-source-pageUnfortunately, in Acrobat Reader this only takes you to the right page if the file is not yet open. (In PDF-XChange Viewer, this function also works with currently open files.) If this bothers you, on Windows definitely give PDF-XChange Viewer or its successor PDF-XChange Editor a try.4 The free version might be all you need.

Aggregating annotations from multiple PDF documents

Alternatively, you can also select multiple documents (Ctrl+mouse) and aggregate all selected annotations in one report (Right-click->Generate Report from items):Aggregating-PDF-highlights-commentsThe report can be saved as a web page (e.g., back to Zotero) or copied to Word / your favorite writing software:

Zotero-Report-Aggregated-PDF-Highlights-CommentsIs setting up Zotero and Zotfile worth the effort if you only want to export annotations? If you are regularly annotating PDFs, my answer is a clear Yes! The time savings for managing and finding your annotations will easily compensate for the initial setup effort.

In a future post, we are going to look at including iPads and Androids in the workflow and other options for extracting highlights and comments from PDF documents.

This concludes part 1 of creating, extracting and managing PDF annotations. I hope you have found it useful. Have a great day!

Notes:

  1. “About OpenStax College,” OpenStax College, accessed April 18, 2016, http://openstaxcollege.org. OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University, providing a great selection of free, peer-reviewed college-level text books.
  2. Rose M Spielman et al., Psychology (OpenStax College, 2014), http://openstaxcollege.org/textbooks/psychology.
  3. Richil, “‘save As’ pop up Box Does Not Allow Me to Save the Document.,” accessed April 18, 2016, https://forums.adobe.com/thread/1815625?start=0&tstart=0. Hat tip to Richil for finding this elegant solution.
  4. Tracker Software, “Tracker Software Products :: PDF-XChange Editor,” accessed April 20, 2016, http://www.tracker-software.com/product/pdf-xchange-editor. PDF-XChange Editor has superseded PDF-XChange Viewer. If you want the free version, download PDF-XChange Editor standard. The setup includes the option to install the free version, which includes the annotation tools.

How to Improve Focus and Concentration and Enjoy a Happy Morning

Butter coffee helps improve focus and concentrationIn this post, I want to share my secret to enjoyable and productive days. The short form of the formula goes like this: prepare and drink a strong cup of butter coffee; meditate for 10 to 30 minutes; eat a protein-rich breakfast on some days and skip breakfast on other days; and finally, use timeboxing to alternate between 30-minute bursts of work and 5-to-10-minute breaks.

This formula keeps my energy levels up and helps to maintain focus and concentration throughout the day. Best of all, when I consequently apply it, I still have plenty of energy to spare in the evening.

Does this sound too good to be true? If you suffer from brain fog, low energy, or a lack of focus and concentration, or crave sugar or food to keep you going, give it a try.

Here is how I implement the different steps of my formula:

1. Butter Coffee

Put 4 to 5 g of instant coffee and 10 to 15 g of salted butter (preferably from grass-fed cows, e.g., Anchor butter) into a coffee mug. Fill the mug two-thirds with boiling water and stir the brew until coffee and butter are completely dissolved. Top it up with 100 ml of whole (unskimmed) milk.

How much caffeine is in a mug of butter coffee? Using the numbers for instant coffee from the USDA’s national nutrient database, a mug of butter coffee contains between 126 and 157 mg of caffeine1. This is well below the amount considered safe for healthy adults2.

I usually enjoy my coffee first thing in the morning. I can feel its effect in about 15 minutes – I become alert, sometimes slightly euphoric, and can concentrate easily.

Why do I put butter in my coffee? It tastes great, helps me to avoid a caffeine crash, and keeps hunger at bay.

Why do I use instant coffee instead of ground coffee? This is for convenience. Instant coffee, butter, and boiling water can be mixed together quite well by just stirring with a spoon. After lunch, I have a cup of more refined coffee or a cappuccino. You could easily brew you own coffee and mix everything in a blender though.

Variations on buttered coffee:  Sometimes, I add a table spoon of coconut oil or a bit of cinnamon to my coffee, but generally I feel great with just the butter and the milk. A variation on the theme of butter coffee, bulletproof coffee, has been suggested by Dave Asprey, who learned about the power of butter during a trip to Tibet where he was served yak butter tea. Dave Asprey’s bulletproof coffee calls for the addition of a specific MCT oil (a component of coconut oil) and doesn’t contain milk or salt in the butter. The original yak butter tea typically does contain salt though.

2. Meditation

Meditation

Meditation is a sanctuary for me, a place where I can simply be and enjoy myself – and my morning coffee euphoria. After my morning coffee, I sit in a comfortable chair, close my eyes and observe my breathing, or what else may be going on in my body. I often alternate between the two. When thoughts pop up or I realize that my mind has started wandering, I simply go back to my breathing or observing of bodily sensations. I usually meditate for 20 to 30 minutes, but 10 minutes are just fine to start with. To remind me of the end of my meditation, I set a subtle alarm, such as a temple gong. That way, I don’t constantly have to check the clock. Herbert Benson, a Harvard cardiologist has devoted most of his research to the stress-relieving effects of meditation. In his 20-min Harvard lecture from 2004 he guides the participants on how to invoke the relaxation response, i.e., the antidote to the stress response through an easy-to-follow meditation. You could use this as a starting point.

3. How about breakfast?

Two or three days per week, I skip breakfast – and when I do this in combination with Breakfast Eggsbutter coffee, I rarely have cravings for food or snacks before lunch. A carbohydrate-rich breakfast tends to do just the opposite: I get hungry mid-morning and am more prone to mood-swings.

On other days, I have a protein-rich breakfast such as two eggs or an omelet fried in olive oil with a little bit of beef, pork, or cheese and two whole tomatoes and a quarter of an onion (for some carbohydrates). These days, I avoid bread, rice, potatoes, and other starches for breakfast as they tend to make me hungry faster and impact my mood.

There is a good number of people who experiment with intermittent fasting, e.g., shortening their daily window of food intake. James Clear, for example, has written an interesting post on intermittent fasting.

4. Timeboxing and ExerciseTime Boxing • RememberEverything.Org

Our attention span and ability to focus on a specific task is limited. Most people cannot  concentrate on a difficult mental task such as reading dense non-fiction for prolonged periods of time without switching off or letting their mind wander all over the Internet. What’s more, research suggests that physical inactivity and sitting for prolonged periods of time can be detrimental to our health. We were built to move, and evolution hasn’t yet caught up with a brain sitting on a chair.

To keep my energy levels up, I work in so-called timeboxes of 30 minutes. After each timebox, I get up from my chair and move for 5 to 10 minutes. During some of the breaks, I put on my earphones and dance for 10 minutes. You could also do push-ups or just walk the stairs. This way, I easily get 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise during my working day. Here is my in-depth post on timeboxing.

Timeboxing allows me to keep my energy and concentration up for the whole day. What’s more, when I finally shutdown my computer, I still have plenty of energy left for leisure. I still remember the old days when I was completely worn out after a day’s work – and this feels very different. A word of warning though: Timeboxing allows you to extend your working day, but, unless you absolutely have to, don’t do it: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

What if you don’t like certain aspects of this routine or can’t handle coffee? Pick the parts that work for you: substitute tea for coffee or completely skip the energy drinks. But, don’t skip timeboxing and getting up from your chair. These two things alone have had such a profound impact on my ability to concentrate, energy levels, and general well-being.

Notes:

  1. United States Department of Agriculture, “Beverages, Coffee, Instant, Regular, Powder,” National Nutrient Database, accessed March 25, 2016, https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/4280?manu=&fgcd=.
  2. Melanie A. Heckman, Jorge Weil, and Elvira Gonzalez De Mejia, “Caffeine (1, 3, 7-Trimethylxanthine) in Foods: A Comprehensive Review on Consumption, Functionality, Safety, and Regulatory Matters,” Journal of Food Science 75, no. 3 (April 1, 2010): R77–87, doi:10.1111/j.1750-3841.2010.01561.x.
  3. Image credit: Meditation, Redvries and Fried Eggs, Gerald_G via Openclipart.org

Taking Flashcards Deluxe for a Spin: A Brief Review

Flashcards-DeluxeRecently, a reader recommended Flashcards Deluxe to me, a spaced review software for iOS and Android. He was looking for an app that could also be used on a Kindle Fire and settled on this program. Being myself an avid user of flashcard software, I decided to get the version for Android and take it for a spin. I tested it over a period of three weeks and reviewed it using a specific set of criteria. I decided to use Flashcards Deluxe for two specific purposes:

  1. Studying Chinese characters and vocabulary. I want to add and review characters and vocabulary on the fly, alternating between an Android mobile and a PC or Mac.
  2. Creating summary questions and answers while reading a non-fiction book to remember the important information.

In this post, you will read more about use case 1 since it calls for the creation of more complex flashcards, that is, three-sided flashcards containing English text, Chinese characters, images for some obscure characters and components, and sound. Everything stated should, however, be transferable.

Here are a summary and recommendations based on my experience with Flashcards Deluxe

  • I have found Flashcards Deluxe (FCD) to be a capable spaced review/repetition program. Reviewing flashcards is fun with this app. The review interface is straight-forward and intuitive: just swipe to the left (I know the card), down (I don’t know the card), or up (I know it well) to communicate with the program. Creating and editing cards is not quite as intuitive, but also works well after some getting used to the user interface. Three- and more-sided flash cards are also supported and worked well for my use cases.
  • Consider this app a strong contender if you are looking to primarily create and learn with flashcards on Android or/and iOS (e.g., an iPhone or iPad). It also supports downloading decks from the popular sites Cram.com (formerly Flashcard Exchange) and Quizlet.
  • FCD is not available for Windows/Mac, so review and synchronization with a PC/Mac companion are not possible. Users can, however, establish a workflow to create and edit cards on a PC/Mac via Excel/a text editor and cloud services. Import and export are facilitated via an Internet connection and a cloud service, such as Dropbox or the developer’s website.
  • I used Flashcards Deluxe and Excel to create flashcards and Dropbox to exchange the information. This setup allowed me to efficiently create and edit cards on both an Android phone and a PC. (See the workflow below.)

Continue reading

Updated Version for Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest

Remember-Everything-Version-AlertI’ve spent quite some time during the past few months updating Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest. The new version is 1.1 and available on Amazon.

  • All illustrations, maps, screenshots, and tables have been redone with a higher resolution and color adjustments to allow for better viewing on the new Kindles and tablets. The book should, however, continue to work well on older Kindles and in the reading apps. New legends and call-outs have been added to make it as easy as possible to find stuff.
  • The illustrations and step-by-step guidelines for knowledge and information management have been updated to match the latest versions of the software tools. While the software and website changes haven’t been huge, I wanted to make it as easy as possible to follow the guidelines.
  • The formatting of the book has been loosened up. The book now also allows for a free choice of fonts on Kindles that support this.
  • The notes and bibliography sections have been expanded.
  • The section on the Phonetic Number System has been updated.
  • Various smaller improvements and corrections have been made throughout the book.

If you have already bought the book and would like to get hold of this updated version (1.1), please contact Amazon’s customer service and have them update the book in your library. I have done this successfully for several books (including this one) where I wanted to read an updated version. I usually use their chat function and they just walk me through the steps. You should not have to repurchase the book! In fact, if you delete and then repurchase the book, you will likely get the version you already had (Amazon keeps track of this).

How do you know whether you already have version 1.1? If your book doesn’t contain the line “Kindle Version 1.1” in the copyright section, you have version 1.0.

Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest Version-ImageFirst-time buyers of the book will of course automatically get the newest version (i.e., version 1.1) delivered to their Kindle and library.

Thank you very much for your feedback, your good wishes, and for supporting Remember Everything You Want and Manage the Rest.

Have a wonderful day!

 

Managing Kindle Highlights and Notes in Zotero, Evernote, and OneNote

Zotero-Kindle-highlights-Evernote-OneNoteAmazon’s Kindle allows you to highlight passages in books and take notes. Do you want to export and organize these highlights and notes, so that you can archive, review, search, and share them? Then this post is for you.

Let me put forward some suggestions on how you can save and manage a Kindle book’s annotations together with its bibliographic information in your Zotero library. We are also going to look at saving Kindle annotations in Evernote and OneNote and linking these notes to a Zotero library.  The exported annotations will allow us to jump directly to the corresponding locations in the book. For more info on Zotero, please check this post.

In the following, I use Spark!: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain, by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman to illustrate the procedure.

Let’s get started by saving the book’s bibliographic information to Zotero

  1. Find the book’s sales page on Amazon.
  2. Open your Zotero library, open the collection (here Brain Improvement) in which you want to save the book’s information and Kindle annotations, and click the book symbol:

Zotero-Amazon-Kindle-save-bibliographic-entry-1This will save the book’s bibliographic entry as an item in your Zotero library.

Next, we are going to retrieve the highlights and notes for the book

Continue reading

Syncing Zotero with Dropbox and Between Several Computers

Zotero-Dropbox-Sync-Remember-Everything-OrgIn this post I want to shed some light on how you can sync your Zotero library between different computers, and between your computer and Dropbox, a popular cloud storage service. Due to the nature of the matter, what follows is somewhat technical, but don’t let that deter you. Once setup, the synchronization works automatically in the background, without any further effort.

In a previous post, I introduced Zotero, a popular free research tool by the Roy Rosenberg Center for History and New Media of George Mason University. As a brief recap: Zotero allows you to organize all your research sources and create a complete digital library with the click of a few buttons. To learn more about this fantastic tool and why every knowledge worker should consider using it, please check this post.

Recommended approach for syncing Zotero between different computers.

Zotero allows you to synchronize everything via its own cloud storage service, Zotero Storage. “Everything” includes:

  1. the Zotero data (i.e., the database with all bibliographic information, tags, and notes)
  2. the Zotero files (i.e. attachments, such as PDF documents, videos, books, and webpage snapshots)

The basic plan (upto 300 MB) is free. 2GB will cost you $1.67 per month ($20 per year), and 6 GB set you back $5 per month ($60 per year). IMO, Zotero Storage should be your first consideration as it is very easy to setup and manage, it is affordable, and your payments support the up-keeping of the infrastructure.

There are, however, some good reasons why you might want to employ a different method to sync your Zotero files:

  1. You have a very large number of attachments or some very large attachments.
  2. You have already subscribed to a service like the popular Dropbox, and would rather avoid paying for an additional cloud storage service.
  3. You have a very slow or expensive internet connection, but have your computers connected via a local area network.
  4. You are looking for a solution to create a local backup for your files (and database).

(The database is usually below the free storage limit and should always be synchronized via Zotero’s cloud service.)

Here then are some alternative solutions you can employ: Continue reading

A Walk in Tropical Battambang – Applying the Journey Method

Let me take you on a walk along a street in Battambang, a city in tropical Cambodia. But this is no ordinary walk. We are preparing a memory filing system for the Journey Method. The Journey Method is another name for the Method of Loci, a memory technique devised more than 2000 years ago in ancient Greece. Please read my post Memory Palaces and the Method of Loci for background information.

Before we start, here are some bits about this intriguing city: Battambang is located in northwestern Cambodia, about 100 kilometers east of the border with Thailand. The town of 200000 is the capital of Battambang province, the rice bowl of Cambodia. I first came to this fascinating place in 1999 during an extended trip through South East Asia.

The name Battambang literally means “Lost Stick.” As the story goes, a peasant came into the possession of a wooden stick, which turned out to have magic powers. The farmhand could control the cows by just throwing his stick. Bored of tending to the cows, he decided to use his magic stick to overthrow the king. His reign didn’t last for long though: After seven years, he was overthrown by the former king’s son. In the process, the magic stick was lost and Battambang got its name. (Bat = lost, Tambang = stick) The people of Battambang are still looking for the stick. A statue was since built for the stick-wielding farmer, and today people come to pray for good luck to Ta Tambang (Grandfather stick).

Back to the Journey Method: My objective was to design a journey along a familiar route that can be used as a memory filing system. Continue reading

Uncage your ideas with Brutethink, a Highly Effective Creativity Technique

Uncage Your Ideas with BrutethinkWhy should you read this?

Brutethink can help you to overcome a blank mind and unleash a river of ideas for any challenge or question you may have.

In a previous post, we introduced classical brainstorming as a technique to come up with new ideas. We posed a specific question, problem, or challenge and tried to list as many ideas as possible on how to solve this challenge. Usually this technique leads to more ideas than we can possibly implement.

Sometimes, however, our mind goes blank when faced with a question. At other times, even after having brainstormed on a challenge for quite some time, we are still not happy with our ideas. Somehow, we need some fresh sparks.

Brutethink in a Nutshell

In this post, I would like to introduce you to a simple yet highly effective creativity technique to overcome a blank mind and an empty sheet of paper. “They” call it Brutethink. In a nutshell, this is how Brutethink works:

As in brainstorming, start with a specific problem, question, or challenge.

  1. Choose a random word or any other random stimulus (e.g., a photo) and think about its attributes. Write these attributes on a sheet of paper.
  2. Concentrate on the random word and your challenge. Your mind will automatically create connections between the word and your challenge.
  3. List all ideas that come to mind.

Support step 2 by going through the attributes one by one and asking yourself how they can help you to solve your problem.

A friend recently asked me, “How can I get more customers for my café restaurant?” This makes for a perfect example for Brutethink.

  • The challenge: How can I get more customers for my cafe?
  • We found “choirboy” as a random word.

So we have a choirboy and “How do I get more customers?”

Here is the list of attributes plus some of the ideas we came up with for our choirboy when focusing on his attributes and the challenge:

  1. Choirboy
    • More visibility
    • Ad in the local Expat forum
    • Engage with fans on my Facebook page
    • Distribute flyers with vouchers in town
    • Loyalty cards
    • Ten stamps, get one cappuccino free
  2. Sings in a choir among peers
    • Cannot sing alone, needs other choir boys
    • Cooperate with other businesses
    • Flyer or name card exchange
    • Joint discount program
    • Link exchange with hotels
  3. Beautiful voice
    • Music events, jam sessions
    • Karaoke
  4. Cute boy
    • Post beautiful pictures
    • Present the food in more appealing ways
    • Cappuccino art
    • Create a menu with photos of dishes
  5. Young
  6. Nicely dressed
  7. Has a choir master, a leader
  8. Choir sings every Sunday at church
    • Advertise outside the church
    • Daily special
    • Weekly movie night
  9. Reaches the hearts of many elderly people
  10. Organ to amplify the sound

We diverted a bit from the order given above; that is, we thought about an attribute and right away asked ourselves, “How can this help us to get more customers?”

Depending on your mood and personal preference, you could first list all attributes and then start brainstorming or dive right into brainstorming after each attribute.

Questions to help you list attributes for a random word or other random stimulus

  • What are its characteristics?
  • What does it do?
  • What can we do with it?
  • Where is it used?

Where can you find a random word or other stimulus?

  • Take a dictionary and open it at an arbitrary page. Point your finger anywhere on the page (without looking).
  • Look around you. Pick whatever first catches your eye.
  • Draw a random photo out of a shoebox filled with photos.
  • Use a random word generator, such as http://creativitygames.net/random-word-generator/randomwords/3.

Random words that can be visualized work better than words describing abstract concepts.
In his book Thinkertoys, Michael Michalko offers a list of words, which he describes as “simple, visual, and connection-rich.”

Who invented Brutehink?

I learned about Brutethink in Michael Michalko’s excellent book Thinkertoys. According to his biography, Michael, as a U.S. Army officer, headed a team of NATO personnel and academics that was responsible for researching, collecting, and categorizing all known creativity techniques. Thinkertoys is a book full of creativity techniques, tricks, and small, entertaining puzzles.

Last but not least: Read “How Do You Decide which Ideas to Implement?” for strategies to evaluate and rank your ideas.

To your success,

Helmut Sachs

Today’s Cappuccino is different – They must have changed the coffee mixture

The waiter in my favorite coffee shop just brought me this nice Cappuccino – with two Attention: Today's Cappuccino is differentChinese characters written on it. She is learning Chinese and – knowing that I know some – she wanted to practice. She certainly did get my attention.

I was immediately pulled out of my train of thought – mentally, I had been mulling over yesterday – and admired my Cappuccino. I erased the characters by stirring them with a spoon and started savoring it. It tasted a lot richer than usual. It certainly tasted a lot better than yesterday’s coffee. For a moment, I wondered whether they had changed the coffee mixture, but then it dawned on me: This coffee wasn’t any different from the one yesterday. It wasn’t any different from the many I had had in this café before. I was different today: This coffee had gotten my full attention.

Reflecting on it for a moment, I couldn’t even recreate the taste of yesterday’s coffee. I could not remember what it tasted like. It must have tasted like most of the “Cappus.” So of course, it couldn’t have been a match for today’s Cappuccino.

What can this little experience teach us? Think about it for a moment… If you don’t pay attention to the Cappuccino you are drinking now, what are you losing out on?

Well, you might be depriving yourself of a wonderful experience. It becomes part of a dull past: tomorrow it will have become one of the thousands of coffees you have had before.

Now substitute something else for the Cappuccino. Take the person in front of you. Are you working with your smartphone, instead of really paying attention to what the person is saying? What did he/she just say? If you want “here, right now” to become a memorable experience, you have to be right here. Not on Twitter, and not in the past I was.

Now on TwitterYou might say, “He is also working is phone.” And that might well be what he is doing. It has become so common to escape to somewhere in Cyberspace rather than remain where our physical body is located. Unfortunately, then the consequence is likely going to be that both of you will remember the current encounter as one of the many dull ones you have had before. In all likelihood, in a few weeks you will not remember the encounter at all. No rich, memorable experience there – and – not much fun either. You might have had some fun by tweeting with your online friends. But if that is what you wanted to do, why not stay at home, save yourself the expensive dinner, and focus on tweeting instead?

My suggestion is different: Stay where you are now, and look for something The Secret of Paying Attentionunusual. Enjoy this moment “right here, right now.”

Do you remember what the Chinese characters on the Cappucino meant?

Oh, I haven’t told you yet. 平安 (ping an) means safe and sound, or at peace.

As Randy Pausch used to ask, “Have you figured out the head fake?” I wasn’t lecturing you; I was lecturing myself.

Have a great day!

Helmut