Live an examined life

If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to watch. Think about that for a moment. The capacity of the human brain to store data would take almost four lifetimes to view if it were a film. With all that data, how does anyone organize it?

Note-taking is a practice. Maybe an art form. Possibly a lost art form. Here are some handwritten scrawls I found in my notebooks:

  • abiding by one’s principles is getting more important
  • a marketers job is to manufacture consent
  • to be a successful business guru: use faux scientific terms, command attention and speak with confidence
  • “Your head is a crappy office. . .”

Some of these are quotes, paraphrases and scribblings in the fashion, or after the manner, of a commonplace book.


From time to time I review these notes and weigh their merit. How does the old expression go? Eat the meat and spit out the bone and gristle. Or, as I suggested earlier, thistles and wild flowers. Some ideas are rubbish. A couple of these notes I have considered off and on during the last couple years. One of these big ideas is productivity and time management. Another concept that captivates my thoughts is guiding principles.

Many business books explore the topics of productivity, time management and purpose. A lot of business books seem full of great ideas. Some are useful. But after a few critical passes a lot of these business and marketing books melt away like cotton candy. Nothing left but a stale after taste.

Weeds & thistles.

One such business book offers the thesis that leaders should ask why their company does what they do. This starts out well. Purpose is offered. But not principles. Is a purpose-driven company wrong? No. Everything has a purpose. But what about a plan? Is it Benjamin Franklin who wrote: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail? Many business leaders implement ideas suggested in books without considering the consequences. Is purpose and plan interchangeable? What about a triumvirate of purpose, plan and principles? Plans change. Marketplace adaptation and other factors. Purpose is shifted due to internal and external needs. Principles. Principles are value statements. They are core business doctrines.

Wild flowers.

Many years ago, possibly fifteen years, I read that an international news magazine avoided presenting their news on their web site because the editorial leadership found no reason for it. (Keep in mind this was before the disruption of mobile phones and social media.) The subscriber-based magazine found no need to compete with itself on two platforms: print and digital. When the global market crashed in 2008, a lot of magazines and newspapers ended publication. Permanently. But this international news magazine increased its circulation during that time period. Their guiding principles were not compromised in spite of competition rushing to publish content online free of charge. To paraphrase their mission: you’ve seen the news, now read the story. The editors did not ask, why aren’t we on the internet like everyone else? When the time was right, when the method fit their mission, then they provided content online, in audio and video, on a mobile app as well as their legacy product — a weekly printed magazine.

One of those handwritten notes mentioned earlier was a quote from David Allen. He pioneered a system called getting things done (or GTD). The method offers a plan of how to get stuff out of your head and in to action. The goal is productivity. Each task should have three general responses: do, delegate or defer. Decisions are based on variables like time, energy, resource and others. While listening to one of his GTD audio podcasts I noted: “Your head is a crappy office. . .” A cluttered mind is a cluttered life. One of the practices of the GTD system is to unclutter your mind by capturing data outside the head. Whether you write notes or lists on paper with pencil or pen or email or text message yourself, the goal is to clear the mind. A clear mind provides space for planning, examining purpose and establishing principles.

Closing thoughts.

In the first draft of this piece (which was crafted nearly two months ago), I wrote: “A clear mind provides space for meaningful purposeful actions.” In the margin I noted: “What does this mean? Define the term meaningful. Define purposeful. Rewrite this line. Be clear, direct and to the point. No room for squishy platitudes.”

This is an example of why it is essential to re-examine the notes and ideas presented. A noble task is to live an examined life. The amount of data in a human brain is expansive. If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to view. Ultimately, how does an individual bring order to the chaos from the stream of cerebral activity?

An acquaintance, many years ago, mentioned that keeping a diary or journal was useless if you did not review it periodically. In other words, it is a good discipline to glance at the rearview mirror of commonplace books, diaries and journals before returning your focus to the front windshield and the task at hand.

Where did April go?

April - It's been a blue

Where did April go? It’s a blur to me. In truth, most of this year has been a blur. If you journal or keep a diary, you understand the benefit of review. If you blog you know that you should be able to write a blog post in 70 minutes or less[1] and should have five main components including:

  • Lead Paragraph.
  • Relevant Image.
  • Personal Experience.
  • Main Body.
  • Discussion Question.[2]

Make sure you publish your post between 8 AM and 11 AM on a Monday morning[3] and include bullet points. A blog post without images and bullet points is highly ineffective. Yes, I’m a bit sarcastic. But don’t you feel that blog posts seem dehumanized by formulas for effectiveness and templates for success?

I look at my journal pages and see business cards and receipts stuffed between pages. On one page there’s a list of numbers (after deciphering them, I realized they are the CMYK break down of a turquoise color for a book project). Another page has an appointment date and time crossed out. My favorite is an unfinished note at the bottom of one page that simply ends mid-sentence. No conclusion. Random, incomplete entry. Even productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done David Allen tweeted a few months ago:

“Life is messy; that’s why it’s so dynamic.”[4]

May is almost here. Glancing in the rearview mirror of analog and digital review helps me set goals for the horizon seen through the windshield. If this were a highly effective blog post, I would include a discussion question like: “How does journaling help you create dynamic goals for the next 30 to 90 days?” But this is not a successful blog post even though it has bullet points and an image.

[1] Michael Hyatt, “How to Write a Blog Post in 70 Minutes or Less,”, September 15, 2011 accessed April 29, 2013
[2] Michael Hyatt, “Anatomy of an Effective Blog Post,”, January 31, 2011 accessed April 29, 2013
[3] Daniel Zeevi, “STUDY: When is the Best Time to Publish a Blog Post?,”, February 4, 2013 accessed April 23, 2013
[4] David Allen, Twitter post, September 27, 2012, 3:11 AM accessed April 29, 2013