Luc P. Beaudoin has a mission: to make technology better at helping us learn. An expert on cognitive science and the creator of Hook for macOS, an app that helps you “find without searching,” Luc uses a personal productivity system and tools such as PDFpenPro and Hook to be more effective at work and in life.
A bunch of us at Smile are currently reading his book ”Cognitive Productivity” and thinking a lot about how the software we build can be used as a cognitive productivity solution. We thought it’d be interesting to chat with him to get his perspective on productivity and learn more about his exciting field of expertise.
Can you explain what cognitive productivity is?
Cognitive productivity is the efficiency and effectiveness with which we use knowledge to solve problems, create new products, and improve ourselves.
How does cognitive productivity differ from the type of productivity we read about in blogs?
Influencers make us feel that productivity is important, and yet they rarely define the term, let alone helpfully. For example, David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) book, which became very popular in software circles, uses the term productivity very loosely. Many of the core examples in the GTD method relate to general activities such as cleaning one’s garage as opposed to working with knowledge. And the GTD principles have no reference to cognitive science, even though cognitive science is the modern interdisciplinary science of understanding the information processing we do in our brains, with or without the aid of technology.
Tell us how you sought to change that.
Being a cognitive scientist interested in productivity, I saw a huge need for personal productivity systems to be based not merely on personal experience, but on cognitive science. I also felt a need for something more than a disparate collection of productivity hacks, which, as Lila MacLellan points out in Quartz, are typically created by and for men.
So I developed a personal productivity framework to help people use knowledge with technology. This framework is inscribed in integrative cognitive science. Integrative means that it does not merely leverage narrow findings of dry cognitive functions, but integrates research on motivation, emotions, and self-regulation.
So it’s not about just doing more.
Correct. It is not merely about getting things done or producing external things. It’s also about creating in ourselves the “mindware”—the skills, knowledge, motivation, attitudes – to be the persons we wish to become.
How do we produce the mindware? How can we expand our knowledge?
The first thing to note is that research on the most cognitively productive people suggests that top performers read broadly and deeply. For example, Darwin got his big insight into the struggle for existence from reading a book on political economics by Malthus. Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and Bill Gates are other notable examples. So I try to read broadly and deeply.
Also, I look at information as knowledge resources. Every resource has processing costs. In my cognitive productivity books, I propose principles for assessing knowledge resources in terms of their caliber, usefulness, potency, and appeal. I try to focus on useful, high-caliber resources, and to engage deeply with potent information — attempting to master it with productive practice, which is another principle.
We like to think of PDFpen/PDFpenPro as tools for engaging with information in PDFs. Can you tell us how PDFs come into your day-to-day and how you use PDFpenPro?
PDFs are extremely important. Most of the best knowledge resources, such as academic papers, are published in PDF format. If a web article is worth reading in-depth, I convert it to PDF. That way, I have a personal archived copy should the article go away. And I edit PDFs. For example, I often use PDFPenPro to create a table of contents. I also highlight text and take notes.
You created an app called Hook. What does it do and how do you use it?
Hook allows you to copy links to all kinds of resources, including PDF files. You just bring up Hook with a keyboard shortcut and then do ⌘C. You can then paste the link wherever you want. That means you can paste links to local PDFs in your todo lists or notes, regardless of the app you use for managing tasks or taking notes. This allows you to integrate your readings with your task management and note-taking—two of the most important contributors to your cognitive productivity. And unlike regular links, even if you move the PDF file, the link still works.
Hook also allows you to create bidirectional links between resources, which we call “hooks”. For example, if you hook a PDF together with your notes about it (in almost any note-taking app), then while you are in PDFPenPro on that PDF, Hook will show you a link to the note, and vice-versa.
Hook is informed by cognitive science. Research shows that the brain’s working memory is extremely limited. Searching for your notes or PDF files can wipe out your working memory, replacing it with irrelevant information. That takes you out of the zone. With Hook, you can navigate between related resources by clicking links.