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Home » How I Journal and Take Notes: Tim Ferriss (Transcript)

How I Journal and Take Notes: Tim Ferriss (Transcript)

Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss’s journaling and note-taking strategies for brainstorming, gratitude, reducing anxiety, and more.


Hey guys, Tim Ferriss here. Wanted to talk about note-taking. I have what you might call hypergraphia – which means I write all the time. So I have hundreds of notebooks.

So I feel like I’m in a pretty good position to talk about what the hell to do with lots of notes. You need a systematic way of filtering the best stuff to the top of your attention, at least in some fashion.

So I’ll show you a few ways that I do that. It’s pretty straightforward but the key to all of it is multiple passes. For almost all types of note-taking and I’ll describe a few different types of note-taking that I do regularly.

The key is multiple passes and constantly asking, in effect, ‘What did I think was important and cool that isn’t that important or cool?’ And then only selecting the absolute and distilling the absolute best.

So let’s take a look at something really small. This is the type of notebook that I would put in a pocket, a back pocket and this is from an event. It was actually a very good event which was a Vanity Fair event in San Francisco, many years ago, I want to say around 2013.

And I’ll show you one of the exercises that I like to do when I’m feeling overwhelmed or feeling like I need a reset – which I do certainly around New Years, and there are certain seasonal times and I like to reflect!

So I made a list and the top is very simple – ‘Craziest things I could do or eliminate’!

So I wrote this very quickly and part of the point of the exercise was to write quickly and come up with all of the craziest things, I could do, that might alleviate stress.

  • Shut down blog
  • Stop all social media scheduled for three months (question mark)
  • Sell all homes
  • Stop using money
  • Stop eating for 30 days
  • Cut off feet [turn out not to be something I want to do. So I didn’t cut off my feet]
  • Give away all money
  • Buy one house with all money
  • Live penniless for one year
  • Volunteer in a retirement home [I thought that it would be invigorating and karmically wonderful to do that particularly with ideally, a dog, like my current dog Molly.]

Nonetheless I did not cut off my feet. I did not stop eating for thirty days, However, later I did multiple ten-day fasts!

[read more]

The point of this whole list is to come up with lots of crazy ideas. They can be bad. They should be absurd. They should seem absurd. And then perhaps out of all those terrible ideas you’ll find one that will productively stretch your mind enough that you find a solution that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

And in this case – ‘Stop all social media/ Schedule it out for three months’ – was the one of the entire list that I ended up choosing. And it completely changed how I related to using social media.

And now that is a regular component of taking off-grid time to recharge and scheduling things in advance. Using many different tools – whether that’s Buffer, Edgar or Zapier. For automating, a lot of this is also very helpful from Instagram to other platforms and so on.

In any case that is one example of note-taking and then reviewing. So the boxing and circling was a second pass, say a week later, after the event.

Then the highlighting was yet another pass, say a quarter later. I don’t know the exact timing on this because I did act on it quite quickly. But there is a schedule for reviewing. So you’re not just spewing onto the page and then forgetting it, with the exception of the next thing that I’m going to show you.

So this is the expedient in the pocket – brainstorm type of notebook. I’ll show you one more. I’m going to cover it up a little bit just to protect names. You can see here, I’ve got the Vanity Fair event. I have a couple of names at the top that were interesting to me: Walter Isaacson, who I much later ended up interviewing on the podcast – who is a brilliant guy, incredible writer.

And then a bunch of quotes.

“Playing the ratings game, prevents you from taking risks!” It’s Ted Sarandos from Netflix.

“Seinfeld took four years to find an audience.”

“Mad Men was turned down sixty-six times by buyers.”

I highlighted these, when they made three passes… because I felt like these were incredibly inspiring reminders – that overnight successes rarely are overnight successes!

And then the bottom right is the action steps that I’ve listed. And I create these boxes in the bottom right-hand corner… I’m right-handed might be easier on the left for lefties, I don’t know… But I create a box in the bottom right hand corner of all these pages, so that I can put down potential action steps.

The other thing that I’ll do is I will number these pages. But suffice to say if you see that you see page 39, I will number the right-hand pages. So 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… and then I create an index later. I’ll create an index in the beginning of a notebook much like the index that I would use in books that I’m reading, so that I can find highlights later.

And you might ask, ‘Well! What about the pages that don’t have numbers?’ That’s easy. That’s 0.5, all right! So if the number on the right hand side is say ‘page 2’ if I flip it over on the back of that page in the index it would just be 2.5. So, that’s how I keep track of something like this.

The next type of writing that I’ll describe is Morning Pages, popularized by Julia Cameron, introduced to me by a fantastic writer and friend Brian Koppelman of ‘Rounders!’ fame, ‘The Illusionist’, co-creator of ‘Billions’! Really, fantastic guy who’s given me a lot of feedback on my writing! Helpful feedback on my writing! Introduced me to morning pages as a superpower, of sorts, for many of his high achieving creative friends who are professional writers, producers, etc.

The purpose of morning pages is not to write down a bunch of stuff that you will then vet 17 times. The purpose of morning pages is very different. As Julia Cameron, who wrote ‘The Artist’s Way’ might put it – they are acting, these pages, as spiritual windshield wipers!

So you’re taking the anxiety that you might feel, the distraction, your monkey mind and trapping it on paper, so that you can get on with your day. Sometimes there are gems that pop out, but very often it’s really taking a nebulous fear, or a nebulous discomfort, or fidgety-ness, whatever it might be, and putting it on paper first thing in the morning. Hence the name of ‘morning pages’. She recommends three long hand pages. And I’ll just give you an example.

So this is from July of last year and I’ll put the location and so on. And there is a morning pages workbook that I really like, but I just did it in a notebook I happened to have. Here’s what I said:

‘I’m worried and anxious about the notebook! The irony. Why? Well I have 4-6 weeks, maybe a bit more, based on the agreement. What’s the worst that can happen really?’

And then I made a bunch of bullets…

  • ‘Spend the summer working on it and dot dot… I have to push the deadline (hyphen) Fine. Cancel the book and return the advance, fine. I could still put it on the blog
  • Next bullet… Make it super short and only great stuff. Meaning only include great stuff. Say it straight, then say it great.

That means getting the facts down almost like a computer, or like an iPad instruction manual, and then trying to improve the prose. And say it more cleverly, put it more cleanly, later.

‘Next I’m feeling uncertain about what to do next or first each day….’

And then a bunch of bullets just get it all in one or fewer places. So gathering from notebooks from digital from Evernote all into one place.

‘Order the main chapters, write an intro, and conclusion question mark. Remember the humor can include ridiculous stories such as ABCDE etc.’

You can see and you can hear. This is not good writing and it’s not intended to be good writing. It’s intended to be brain vomit and that’s the whole point.

So morning pages – I’ve found them incredibly helpful for stress reduction, not principally for insight, or structured thinking. It is unstructured trapping of your neuroses and anxieties in the amber, that is the written page. So those are morning pages!

And last but not least we got this guy – Five Minute Journal and I will actually read an example. Because the format is very straightforward and I can show you what it looks like. This is what the format looks like. And I’ll get you a quote. Let’s find a good quote. So here’s the basic format:

  • You got the date at the top of the page
  • You get a quote sometimes good sometimes not – doesn’t really matter but some of them are fantastic,
  • Then the prompts – so for the ‘am’, when I am doing this, say in the morning…
    • I’m grateful for…. one two three
    • What would make today great…. one two three
    • Daily affirmations: I am….. blank blank
  • Then after it is complete, say before dinner, before bed….
    • Three amazing things that happen today… one two three
    • How could I’ve made today better… one two

Now, this might seem simplistic, it might seem hokey! But it is first and foremost simple, and complexity fails. If I’ve learned anything that is certainly one of the things that I’ve learned.

And I’ve used the five-minute journal for years in different capacities and I am trying to find one that I can share with you. I’ll give you an example. And there are many, many, many, that I could pull out, alright.

So I’m going to read, and there are some guidelines that I’ve been given. And for many of these I put prompts at the top that I want to remind myself of, so one of the prompts that I’ve used is ‘State→ Story → Strategy.’ That is a heuristic bard from Tony Robbins, meaning you want to improve your physical state, your energy level, you a state of arousal so to speak… Like doing a cold plunge, doing some jumping rope, whatever, before you create your story which will be enabling or disabling or somewhere in between and before you then create your strategy for achieving a goal or problem-solving.

Because if you’re in a depressed state and this is something I’ve struggled with you’re going to create a disabling or a victim-based story. And then your strategy is really going to be very narrow. It’s not going to be particularly oblique or useful in an unusual way.

If you have a heightened state and then you can translate that into an enabling optimistic story. Your strategy will be better.

So I wrote that at the top of many of these particular entries, blank entries, before then getting to them in any case. So, the first morning back in Montreal was the day before this is in 2017! ‘I am grateful for… ‘

And again this might seem cheesy but for me, if I use a certain type of note-taking for digesting information, or brainstorming, finding insight, that is one type of notetaking. I use morning pages for reducing nebulous anxiety, or worry. And I use the five-minute journal for focus, improving focus, and execution and appreciation which you’ll see.

So… ‘I’m grateful for…

  1. Birdsong outside beautiful
  2. Fireflies and stars last night
  3. Great sauna times two before bed and rain outside to lull to sleep’

So I will write down any number of things. What has been a practice for me is choosing simple, basic things. In other words you could say my family, my loving family and that’s great but that is a big item.

And I have tried to cultivate an appreciation of the smaller things which could be this notebook, the convenience of this notebook, and the quality of the leather. It could be one of my favorite coffee mugs, which is this yellow coffee mug, which has made many appearances in my five minute journal.

And that trains you, I think, to notice the little things which ultimately translates to, of course, noticing the big things but not vice versa.

Alright… ‘What would make today great….

  • Create B.o.B forms. Alright, so B.o.B later became T.O.T which was ‘Tools of Titans’
  • Look at TFS answers Chef honor. That refers to chef Gordon. So this is the second bullet
  • Also ToT spreadsheet. I created and my team helped me create different forms and spreadsheets for digesting the hundreds of hours of audio and transcripts that we have from the Tim Ferriss show podcast
  • Then number three was: Email twenty new people to test the form – and these would be forms that are either Google forms or Wufoo forms, or something like that.

That’s it – what would make today great? That is it.

I’m very prone to overestimating what I can do in the day and underestimating what I can do, say a year. And the benefit of the five minutes journal, with very little space and very few bulleted options, is that you really need to be concise, you need to be succinct, and that helps me to overcome some of my lesser tendencies.

Next: daily affirmations: I am…..

  • Forever forward. No hurry no pause

‘No hurry, no pause!’ is an expression that was taught to me by a friend, former Navy SEAL, and also quite common in Buddhist circles that I became very fond of. I think that made it into ‘Tools of Titans’ and maybe into ‘Tribes of Mentors’.

Daily affirmations… I am alright second bullet…

  • Good at this four times before. So just reassuring myself that I can actually complete books. Because whether you realize it or not I find writing extremely difficult and with great concerns of insufficiency, every time, I tried to write a book. So that makes anyone feel better.

In the ‘pm’ review three amazing things that happened today. I also always try to include at least one thing that is small….

  • Molly, that’s my dog, heeling, while walking around a few different retail stores. Very basic. Molly used to have a tendency to pull on the leash. Sometimes still doesn’t; she healed really well. Great, that’s bullet number one.
  • Next bullet: Naval Ravikant, bit of an Oracle, an incredibly gifted and very smart investor. He predicted that Crypto was gonna drop 30 to 40 percent. And lo and behold, it did drop 30 to 40 percent. And he called it exactly
  • Number three great Late-night call with a dear friend of mine.

That’s it. Three amazing things that happened today. Boom! Those are three, so I guess, late-night calls probably the night before. That’s okay. Sometimes I may catch up.

And then last but not least… ‘How could I have made today, better?’

So this was late June 2017 and it’s good for me to see this. Because I need the reminder even though I’ve been quite good at Thai trading back.

  • Number one: Don’t use Keto as an excuse to drink 15 liters of coffee. That’s the ketogenic diet and if I’m using a low calorie keto diet to transition into fasting. Sometimes I compensate for that during the very awkward kind of grey transition period of keto flu to drink copious amounts of coffee – which always backfires and has negative side effects. So don’t use keto as an excuse to drink 15 liters of coffee. I wasn’t literally drinking 15 liters.
  • Next: Drink less coffee comma, use caffeine pills if needed. So coffee’s a really interesting substance and has effects on the ability to conceive pregnancy and so on. That seems to apply even if it’s decaf, as an example. So this was a period when I was very, very tightly wound on high dose caffeine and wanted to make an effort to decrease my coffee consumption.

And when you use the five-minute journal consistently, what I will do then is, say every quarter, go back and look for patterns. And two of the patterns that I noticed were: what could I do to make tomorrow, better…. The two most common answers were: drink less coffee and wake up earlier. Those were the two.

So I have made a concerted effort with accountability to do both of those things. And that is the five minutes journal.

  • So we have a brainstorm/ insight note-taking – review, write for answers, problem solving, interesting goals and so on.
  • We’ve got the morning pages, which I can do here, or in the morning pages workbook for reducing anxiety, or worries, neurosis, whatever it might be.
  • And then the 5-minute journal which is very helpful for focus, keep anything simple and appreciation!

So you don’t have to do all three of these every day. I certainly don’t. I use them as needed but when I do, even one of these consistently, I see a dramatic difference… And not just my quality of life, but focus and ability to execute consistently.

So hopefully that helps! And thanks for watching!


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