My Favorite Tools

August 20, 2013

Today I wrote a long email to someone listing my favorite tools. It turned out to be a long email with a lot of detail, so I thought it would be useful to post the list here. These tools are mostly used to support me as a knowledge worker. Here goes:

  1. Sketch book: Spiral-bound Mead Academie sketch book with 8 1/2″ x 11″ pages. The pages are perforated so you can tear them out neatly. This is useful for me because I do almost all of my outlining, note-taking and planning using Mind Mapping (aka idea mapping), a visual form of writing. Unlined paper is essential for this way of working. The 8 1/2 x 11 size is important so sheets will fit in standard file folders and cabinets — most sketch book paper sizes are too big.
  2. SAMSUNGPocket notebook: Custom-made spiral notebook made with unlined paper and sized to fit in a shirt pocket. Especially critical for jotting down ideas anywhere I go — as you know, ideas can come to you at any time and you need a medium to capture them right away. Again, the unlined paper is important, as I often make these notes in visual format. I have these custom-made at an office supply store such as Office Max or Staples.
  3. Shirt pocket pouch: This was custom-made by a designer who works with my wife at Trader Joe’s. Kim originally made it as kind of a joke because I told Virginia I needed a pocket protector to hold all of my writing instruments (I am mercilessly ridiculed by everyone I know for carrying all this stuff in my shirt pocket). The first thing I did when I received the pouch was cut off the front flap, the part that is supposed to protect your pocket. That doesn’t matter much to me. What does matter is having all of my writing instruments in one container that I can quickly and easily take in and out of my shirt pocket. The pouch is made of suede, so it doesn’t fall out of my pocket easily.
  4. Pens: I carry three pens in my shirt pocket, plus a small highlighter and a stylus that I can use on my smartphone or tablet for special text-entry tasks. The pens are all very specialized and could be considered individual tools in themselves. The most important is a Coleto five-color gel pen I bought from JetPens. It’s a great piece of technology for someone who likes to take multi-color visual notes. It’s not disposable like the cheap multi-color pens you can buy in office supply stores. When a color runs out, you install a refill, and the refill process is not too difficult. Another pen I carry is a useful Zebra combination mechanical pencil and ballpoint pen with both red and black cartridges. It also has an eraser, which you don’t always get with multipens that have pencil cartridges. The third pen is an 005 extra-fine marker pen. I alternate between the Pigma Micron and the Prismacolor Premier, both of which I like. I use these markers principally for making marginal notes in books and journals — plus any time I need to write something in a very small space. These pens are very legible and don’t bleed.
  5. Cargo pants: Just gotta say it. If God hadn’t wanted us to carry a lot of stuff, he wouldn’t have given us cargo pants.
  6. Digital audio content: I read a lot, but digital audio (and books on tape before that) has made it possible for me to consume a lot more content, both fiction and non-fiction. Right now, I use an iPod Nano just because it is a reasonably robust and rugged technology. My most important content comes via a monthly subscription to, which allows me two audio books a month for a set fee. Over the past year or two, podcasts have become more important to me as content sources. Because I use the iPod, I synch with iTunes, but Audible has its own Audible Manager application, which has improved over the years and synchs with many brands of digital audio players. I listen to audio content when I am driving any significant distance, and this format for content is a tremendous incentive for me to exercise every day.

ARB — 20 August 2013

Some Great Books About Intelligence

November 3, 2012

Thought I would share comments on a variety of books that speak to the questions, What is intelligence, and how can you develop more of it?

The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential, by Tony Buzan

Tony Buzan has written many books, but this is one I have actually read. Buzan is known as a memory guru. Mind mapping (similar to a method sometimes called idea mapping) is an extremely useful tool for planning, outlining, and note-taking. It is also inherently a memory aid. I use mind mapping constantly in my work as a teacher, student, writer, and consultant. It is probably the most useful tool I know.

On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins is the creator of the PalmPilot. The interesting thing is that he was cross-trained as both a computer scientist and a neuroscientist. He merges those two disciplines in this book about how the brain works. He also discusses artificial intelligence and puts forth some useful ideas about what a truly intelligent machine might be like.

Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman

Goleman introduces here the important concept of emotional intelligence and how it translates into productivity in the workplace. Emotionally intelligent people are those who exhibit such qualities as empathy, a collaborative spirit, and ambition.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshue Foer

A delightful exploration of memory — what it is and how it can be developed. This book has helped me to understand more clearly the concept of the “memory palace” and how to use it as a memory tool. Foer describes his year-long effort to train himself to be a “mental athlete.”

ARB — 2 Nov. 2012

Great Idea-Mapping Tool — Giant Stickies

March 14, 2012

This video from Daniel Pink provides a great demo for how to use giant stickies. Pink has started using these instead of whiteboards. One important benefit is that you don’t have to erase your previous work — you have an archive of the thinking process that led you to where you are now.

The product he demonstrates here looks like the Staples Stickies restickable tabletop easel pad.

My Favorite Tools, Episode 1: Ginormous Stickies from Daniel Pink on Vimeo.

AB — 14 March 2012

Avoiding High-Risk Practices With Keys

January 15, 2012

I’ve noticed that people often increase the risk in their lives by the way they deal with their keys. Here are some of the practices that I think are high-risk and some comments about them:

1. Loaning your keys to other people

I worked for several years in a residential treatment program for psychiatric patients. The person who conducted my orientation gave me some advice I’ll never forget: “Your keys are your authority. Never loan your keys to a resident [patient].” In that program, we trusted our residents and allowed them a lot of freedom. But this was good advice.

I view any lock as an important responsibility. I do keep a spare house key on my key chain, in case I need to loan one to a family member or friend for some important purpose.

2. Having your keys out of your pocket anywhere near a storm sewer or grate.

Obvious what the risk is here.

3. Setting your keys down when you come into any house

This especially applies to someone else’s house. This is a recipe for losing your keys. However, it also applies to your own house. Suppose you have to run outside briefly? It would be very easy to forget to bring your keys with you, shut the door, and lock yourself out. Even in my own house, I don’t take my keys out of my pocket unless I am almost 100 percent certain I’m not going outside.

4. Carrying your keys outside your clothing

I see guys walking around with their keys hanging on a chain outside of their pockets. This looks very risky to me.

5. Buying clothes without pockets

This is one of my pet peeves about women’s clothing. What’s wrong with having at least one small, discreet pocket in a dress or skirt? Having no pockets decreases your power, in my opinion.

6. Not making spare keys

As soon as I become the owner of a lock (on a house or car), I have spare keys made — at least one for each person who will be responsible for that lock, and at least two extras. In spite of precautions, keys get lost; when that happens, the person responsible needs a replacement immediately.

Best practice is to never use the only original key that comes with a lock. Keep at least one original in storage so you can make more copies when they are needed. That brings me to another high-risk practice:

7. Keeping your original keys just any old place

I store all my original keys in a box kept only for that purpose. When I purchase a new lock, the original key and any extra copies go in that box and the key gets labeled. Best practice is to designate one place where all keys will be kept.

AB — 15 January 2012

Why You Really Need to Carry a Pocket Notebook

August 26, 2010

One of my all-time best practices as a thinker is to carry a pocket notebook. This allows you to capture ideas at the moment they occur to you. Recording an idea at the moment of inspiration is crucial, as you will lose most ideas if you wait to write them down later.

A great article on this topic appears on Brett and Kate McKay’s Art of Manliness web site — see “The Manly Tradition of the Pocket Notebook.” The McKays found some great historical quotes about pocket notebooks, such as this one from a doctor, written in 1918:

When I started in practice, I got in the habit of putting many of my spare moments (had plenty of them!) into studying up some of the rarer diseases that we had to deal with. I would read up all I could find on one subject, then I would take some time in thinking it over, then I would formulate a plan of treatment and write it out in a pocket-notebook. In after years, that old notebook helped me out of a good many difficult situations; and some of the best work I have ever done has come from those notes.

From Toothpaste for Dinner comes this great cartoon:

Why you need to write down your ideas

AB — 26 August 2010

Release Creativity by Exposing Yourself to Contrary Views

January 22, 2010

I find that exposing myself to a wide variety of viewpoints is a great practice as a creative person. The way the world is now, many people tend to seek out information resources that reinforce their own ideas.

Usually, sticking with the familiar just results in everyday closed-mindedness. But at its worst, it can result in extremism and hatred.

Even though my world-view is very different from that of author Barbara Ehrenreich, I like to read her books, as she is very good at zeroing in on things that are wrong with the world. I recently finished her book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America — a highly-recommended expose.

Recently I also read in immediate succession two writers with very different politics and found that their views converged in one very surprising way — see “Social Critics on Social Darwinism: How Rushkoff and Wiker Converge” for a dual review of Life Inc. — How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, by media critic Douglas Rushkoff and 10 Books That Screwed Up the World — and 5 Others That Didn’t Help, by theologian Benjamin Wiker.

I also think documentary films are a fruitful area for encountering contrarian views — see my post “Some documentaries that make you think.

AB — 22 January 2010

Best bookmarking tools (for actual books)

September 18, 2009

My favorite bookmarking tool has become the 3M Post-It Arrow Flag, rather than the traditional bookmark.

Nowadays, I only use a traditional bookmark for the book I keep by my bedside, which always stays there and never gets rough duty.

For all other uses, the Arrow Flag can’t be beat, as it stays in place and can be used to mark the exact sentence or paragraph where you left off. And it is more versatile. For example, it can be used on a stapled printout, whereas a regular bookmark would be useless in such a situation.

Arrow flag - best bookmark at workThe Arrow Flags don’t last forever, as they eventually lose their stickiness — but they do last a good long while, and you get 96 of them in a package.

If you’re looking for a little more style, you might try the copper Page Dart. At about $5.00 for 12 of them, they’re more expensive than the sticky-arrows, but they’re quite elegant and stay in place on the page as well.

AB — 18 Sept. 2009

Carrying your stuff

September 12, 2009

One vital aspect of being organized as a thinker and knowledge-worker is to make sure you have what you need with you at the moment you need it. That means you have to be prepared to carry stuff.

This is not always easy to do, especially if you live a varied life in which you fulfill multiple roles — for example, parent, worker, student, teacher, exerciser (as in going out for a run or walk or to the gym), shopper, errand-runner, and so on.

So it is vital to think out ahead of time which things you need to carry for each role or task and be prepared to take those things with you when the time comes.

For me, where to start on this topic is a toss-up: pockets versus wallet/purse. These two topics really go together, but I will start with wallet/purse.

Part of me wants to say that it’s a tragedy to have to mention purses here. I think it is crazy that so many women’s clothes don’t include pockets, forcing women to occupy a whole hand or shoulder to carry a purse. This hampers mobility and makes the user more vulnerable to theft.

However, I also recognize that not being burdened with pockets and the stuff that goes into them is a style issue for many women, so I hate to be too critical.

Here is a picture of my wallet.

Al's wallet

This wallet is an Eagle Creek travel-style wallet. It is made from synthetic materials and has a velcro close. It is very large, which I like — it can carry everything I need — credit and debit cards, IDs and membership cards, retail loyalty cards, money, checks to deposit, store coupons, and extra house and car keys in case I lose my regular set or get locked out of the car.

Unfortunately, I am not able to find this wallet online to link to — perhaps Eagle Creek no longer makes it. It is a very durable wallet — I’ve had mine for about five years now.

A wallet is a very personal thing, so it’s hard to recommend purchasing one online. Better to be able to hold it in your hand and root through it, making sure it has the compartments and other features you need.

When it comes to purses, it’s hard for a guy to know what to recommend. However, this organizer from Buxton shown here looks great and seems really useful.

A few years ago I bought my wife an AmeriBag, which she loves. She doesn’t use it as a purse so much, but she takes it to work with her as a carryall for daily “rough use.”

Here’s a picture of an AmeriBag:

The attraction of the AmeriBag and the Buxton organizer is that they provide numerous compartments and features that allow the user to organize her materials, rather than just throwing them all into an open bag.

Al's shirt pocket with writing toolsNow to pockets. To me, clothes without pockets are almost criminal. I no longer buy shirts without pockets, as I need a shirt pocket to carry my writing tools without damaging them. Many years ago, I tried carrying pens in my pants pockets, but found that they would get broken when I sat down.

Cargo pants are one of the greatest inventions for thinkers who also care about being comfortable. In the leg pockets of my cargo pants, I can carry my smart phone on one side and my bulky wallet on the other.

Cargo pants pocket with wallet

Unfortunately, leg pockets have not yet appeared on dress slacks or men’s suits, so when I need to look professional, I have to just bite the bullet and put my wallet in my back pocket.

Stuff that can’t be carried on your person has to be carried in some kind of external bag. The two obvious choices are rucksacks (backpacks) and briefbags (briefcases).

I use a rucksack when I go out for a task that will require extended walking — if the setting of the meeting permits the informality of a rucksack.

For more formal situations such as business meetings — or when the walking will not be extensive, I use a small flexible briefbag (with a strap, so it can be slung over a shoulder. Here are my current rucksack and briefbag:

Al's rucksack and briefbag

Both the rucksack and the briefbag have laptop compartments, and important feature to me, as I usually bring a computer when I travel out of town.

For crucial activities with specific equipment requirements — certain books, notebooks, papers, files, etc. — I set aside a briefcase or bag specifically equipped for that purpose. For the most part, the briefcase is the permanent repository for the required items. That way, I don’t have to worry about loading up the briefcase every week before I head out to that meeting — and there’s less risk of forgetting something.

Al's Meeting CaseFor example, as a voluntary religious teacher, I attend meetings for worship twice a week, at which I have extensive teaching and pastoral responsibilities. The meeting case show here is the one I use for those meetings.

This is a Goodhope Computer Catalogue Case. It looks great and is very rugged and well-made. My main complaint is that the middle section is somewhat hard to get your hand into to retrieve a book. To be fair to the makers, though, that middle compartment was originally meant to hold a laptop rather than books. Below is a photo of the case when it is closed.

Meeting case closed and ready to goIn the past, I have used a meeting case that was completely open at the top. I think that was a better design, as it allows the user to reach in quickly to grab a book or other item. With the Goodhope case, I often find myself groping for an item placed in that middle compartment. So I think next time I have to buy a meeting case, I will go back to the open design.

Most knowledge-workers these days have to be mobile at times. Give advance thought to the equipment you will need for the various situations you confront — and how you’re going to carry the stuff you need.

AB — 11 Sept. 2009

Spine labels for spiral notebooks — Somebody please invent them!

August 23, 2009

I’ve never seen a solution to this problem: When you’ve used spiral notebooks for many years, how do you tell them apart on the shelf? Here’s what I mean:


Kind of a mess, huh? How can I find all of the treasures no doubt concealed in these notebooks?

I guess you might be able to slip a label down inside the spiral of a notebook, but if you opened it a lot, the label would probably get mauled.

Anyway, this seems like a niche need for which someone might be able to invent a marketable solution!

AB — 23 August 2009

My thinker’s shirt-pocket gear

August 23, 2009

My family is ashamed to be seen in public with me, but I am prepared for most situations that thinkers encounter away from home, because I always have my custom gear in my shirt-pocket:


Here’s the exploded view with specs below:


From left to right:

1. Spiral-bound note pad, 3″ x 4″, blank (not lined!) paper — I get these custom-made cheap at the print shop of any big-box office-supply store like Staples. They can be made from an off-the-shelf package of note pads.

2. Four-color ballpoint pen — The only one I’ve been able to find is the one made by Bic. Includes colors blue, black, red, and green.

3. Pen-size highlighter — The one shown is a Sharpie.

4. Three-way pen — includes ballpoint (blue or black), mechanical pencil, and PDA stylus — This one is the PhD Multi by Papermate, the most dependable of its type and price range.

5. .005/.20 mm fine-line marker for very fine notations and interlinear notes — The one shown is the Micron pen, but Prismacolor also makes a pen of this type.

AB — 23 August 2009