Book Review: Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko

copy of Thinktoys book coverOur Library has a professional development book club, and Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko was our latest  reading.  While not a new book  (the 2nd edition came out in 2006), it was new to me, and worth sharing with my academicpkm audience.

Michael Michalko developed many of his innovative thinking methods while leading a NATO team to solve international problems during his service in the US Army.  He also organized CIA thinktanks and is an established expert in creative thinking techniques who is in high demand consultant and keynote speaker for many Fortune 500 companies.  His best-selling book, Thinkertoys, is regarded as one of the 100 Best Business Books of All Time by CEO-READ.   I’m surprised I have never run across the book until recently, but I’m glad I did!

This book explores a number of different methods for looking at problems in new and unconventional ways, opening our minds to see options and alternatives we might not have otherwise considered. It is organized to be a working handbook that can be turned to when a new approach is desired for breaking through problem blocks or to stimulate new ideas or thoughts.  The exercises are categorized into Linear Thinkertoys (more of an analytical, left-brain approaches), Intuitive Thinkertoys (focusing more on right-brain approaches) and even some group-based exercises. Michael explains that “The worth of the ideas you create will depend in large part upon the way you define your problems… Nothing is more harmful to a positive creative attitude than fears, uncertainties and doubts.”

How do his exercises work?  By providing a plethora of different ways to approach thinking.  Stymied on solving a particular problem?  Maybe his False Facts techniques would help.  This exercise has you search for new ideas by challenging and reversing what you believe to be the conventional assumptions about the problem.  Or maybe dividing the problem into its components and then reassembling it in a different way would help.  That is the technique that Michael describes as Cherry Split.  Another technique that might be more familiar to readers of this blog is mind mapping. We’ve discussed this technique and several tools for mind mapping here in the past.  Michael lists mindmapping (his chapter called Think Bubbles) as one of his Linear Thinkertoys.

The Intuitive section of Thinkertoys contains many exercises that are based on the belief that your subconscious already knows the answer which you are seeking. Once you make that assumption, the question becomes where and how do you look for the answer?  How do you release it from your subconscious mind? The techniques in this section of the book are designed to help the reader obtain that “flash of brilliance” that will provide solutions they need.  Michael’s exercise “Blue Roses” focuses on ways to develop one’s sense of intuition and “Dreamscape” describes how to capture ideas that are released in your dreams.

With thirty-nine chapters of ideas, I’ve only scratched the surface of this handbook’s offerings. Check it out!


I found this interesting videocast by Miriam Knight from a few years ago where she interviewed Michael for another of his books (Creative Thinkering).  It is almost 30 minutes long, but he is fascinating to listen to.  I hope you enjoy it as well.

Summertime is made for Decluttering Projects

photo of a messy officeNow that many academics have their summer schedules with lighter instruction loads, it seems like a popular time to think about organizational projects.

Organization and decluttering has been on my mind in particular the past several months for a couple of reasons. I began doing a major rehaul of my work office last December in preparation for a move sometime in 2016 to off-site offices while the library went through renovation. With 10 years in the same office, the clutter and backlog of files, papers and journals was daunting to say the least.

More recently, my focus on organization reached a new high as I accepted a new job as the Graduate Engineering Librarian at Kennesaw State University and had to totally empty and move all my stored knowledge and academic output off my university servers and out of my work office. Suffice it to say that work organization has now led to a heightened focus on organization/decluttering challenges within my home as well. I’ll begin with a few of my discoveries and foibles and end with some helpful resources and tips that might inspire some of you to tackle decluttering projects of your own.

Discovery Number One:   While a convenient way to have all my project work and ongoing research conversations organized, detailed foldering within a work email account is a disaster when your library decides to change email providers OR when you leave jobs and want to be sure your research knowledge is not lost.

Yes, I know. We have spent a lot of time here talking about GTD, Inbox Zero, etc… regardless, old habits die hard and I had quite the history of knowledge in my work email/online calendar.

My solution:   I used two different methods to rehome my email knowledge. First, where I already had similar topic notebooks in Evernote, I emailed items directly to the proper Evernote notebook via my Evernote email account. (The Evernote Knowledge base has all the details for this!)

For items that I didn’t want to lose access to, but were not ready to dedicate a whole Evernote notebook to, I created a new Outlook email account, and then, using Thunderbird as a transferring interface, I loaded both my Outlook accounts into Thunderbird and then it was a process of drag and drop emails from similar folders in one account to the other.

What I learned: While I found work around methods to preserve my knowledge base, what I already knew and was re-iterated to me throughout this process is the importance of NOT using email as your knowledge base, no matter how tempting it is!

Discovery Number Two:   Big Organizing Projects can be a great way to take a mind break from thought-intensive or stress-inducing work days. During those times (especially early afternoon, post lunch slumps), taking just a 20 minute block to time to tackle one small part of my office was a great way to get my blood flowing, and my mind clearing. And those organizing tasks that involved throwing items away (which many did!) could be really great for stress reduction… gleefully ripping paper or tossing stacks of outdated materials was really energizing.  It was also very satisfying to look at that single shelf, desk corner, drawer that has been organized or even emptied and see the task accomplished.

Discovery Number Three:  All those carefully saved files which you think has so much helpful information for your successor?  Chances are they aren’t interested in sorting through your piles of information or files.  You can try meeting with them, if that is an option, but chances are, they are just going to throw everything away that you leave… so you might want to save them the trouble and leave your next office occupant a clean slate to work from.

Discovery Number Four:  Starting with your own clean slate, whether it be a new job/office/email account or just a newly cleaned one, can be a wonderful opportunity to put better organizational procedures into place for yourself.  For me, I’m doing much better so far at keeping my inbox to a mimimum level.  Decluttering Projects are a great way to make a fresh start!



Here are some practical suggestions for Summer-time reorganization/decluttering projects you might wish to tackle:

  1. Invest some time into learning a nice notebook software like Microsoft OneNote or Evernote. Get key knowledge bases set up in these tools and use scanning, emailing, online clipping or manual input of your existing knowledge into these new online tools.
  2. Password Review: Go through all your various devices and online tools and make a list of all (yes ALL) your passwords. Explore some of the online password managers. PCMag did a nice review of the best ones.  Review the strength of your passwords, strengthen those which need it, then either use one of the password manager tools, or retool your passwords to be both strong and memorable for you.
  3. Combine a positive activity with a chore. Listen to music or an audio book when doing your mindless online sorting of emails or organizing your databases. Relieve stressful days with paper-ripping, trash tossing organization task breaks.
  4. As you go through your re-org, start two master lists: What is working? What Isn’t Working?   These insights can be very helpful as you develop and adopt new procedures and tools to improve your organizational habits for the long haul.


Some Additional Organizing Sites to Further Inspire You:

The 5 Best Organizing Websites To Help The Perpetually Messy

Organizing Home Life’s 31 Days of Home Management (with printable forms)

Home Storage Solutions 101: Do’s and Don’ts Guide to Donating and Decluttering

Lifehacker: Top 10 Office Decluttering Tricks

Be More With Less: Declutter Your World in 10 Days Challenge

Links Roundup #29

saddle and rope

Free Technology for Teachers recently spotlighted the app Stay Focused for Chrome.  This tool allows the user to determine a maximum amount of time during the course of a day that can be spent on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. After the maximum time is exceeded, those sites can not be accessed on Chrome for 24 hours.

Julio Peironcely at shares 7 Smart Ways to Use Evernote For Research as a PhD.  Julio has written about Evernote several times in the past and this latest post does a nice job of organizing all those previous posts together in order to show how Evernote can be a student’s one central go-to tool.  Nice job!

Since we are talking about Evernote, LifeHacker also had an interesting little post back in January describing a tagging system to use when organizing notes.  I always find it interesting to read about how others organize their tools.

While MIT Technology Review published this article last October, I just ran across the following:  Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?” Noteworthy reading in and of itself, this never before published essay by the great Asimov discusses the roots of creativity and is a great source for creativity “sound bytes” for future blog posts or other academic writing.

If you haven’t been keeping up with the GTD series of posts by Robert Talbert in his Chronicle column Casting Out Nines, here is the first of the series.  So far he has published on March 9th and March 18th.  Hopefully more entries will be coming soon.  His second post on The Importance of Review delves more into how he is implementing GTD as a tool for organizing his responsibilities as a professor.  In particular, he focuses on the daily, weekly and quarterly review process.

I am, admittedly, somewhat behind on my own reading. Here’s another great post by my friend Bonnie Stachowiak at her Teaching in Higher Ed site.  She brings us a great list of 44 Social Media sharing tools for spreading our own PKM insights to our community.  It is only by sharing our insights with others that we can all continue to grow, and Bonnie always has some great guests and ideas to share.

Also in March, our friends at Office Blogs announced a new, more powerful Clipper Tool for OneNote. Check it out!  The new add-on helps weed out extraneous webpage clutter from the main article being clipped and expanded options for saving the clips to various notebooks and pages makes organization faster.  While I’m talking about Microsoft OneNote, if you haven’t checked out their new tools for educators, be sure to take a second look.  Microsoft is trying hard to capture this market.  OneNote for Teachers is a site with many tips for educators that continues to grow.


Book Review: Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out by David Gelles

Mindful_Work_bookI was recently approached to read a galley of David Gelles’ new book on mindful work.  As this seemed a timely follow-up to the Happiness MOOC that I had completed late last year (and posted about here), I was happy to agree.  If Gelles’ name sounds familiar, it might be because he was a journalist for the Financial Times and continues his journalistic career today as a business writer for the New York Times.  A long-time practitioner of meditation himself, when Gelles’ began hearing stories of businesses incorporating mindfulness, meditation and/or yoga as a part of employee wellness and leadership effectiveness initiatives, he was intrigued enough to begin a quest which would stretch over a year to interview individuals participating in workplace meditation from as many corporations  as possible.  What results is an interesting narrative about the current state of mindfulness and meditation in the American workplace today.

More than just a treatise on the benefits of mindfulness both on an individual level (which he also discusses at some length), and for workplace effectiveness as a whole, Gelles explores the programs and innovative individuals at a number of different American corporations, providing an inside view of corporate mindfulness today. Corporations discussed include Apple, General Mills, Newman’s Own Organics, LinkedIn, Google, and Green Mountain Coffee to name a few.  Gelles also discusses the teachings of a number of the key influencers in the development of the mindfulness movement as well as exploring some of the newer research concerning the apparent influence of mindfulness practice on the neuroscience of the brain and its effects on supporting the body’s immune system and counteracting the symptoms of burnout.

At General Mills, we are given a peek into an executive mindfulness session led by Janice Marturano.  It is interesting to note that Maturano just published her first book last year entitled Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership;  while I have not yet had an opportunity to read her book, early reviews are extremely positive, including having her title named as a 2014 Nautilus Award Winner. Marturano is also the founder of a non-profit organization, the Institute for Mindful Leadership, offering retreats and workshops on the topic.

Gelles provides a very short set of instructions for individuals new to meditation on pages 258-259 (right after the Acknowledgements section of the book).  He also provides a number of resources for further exploration on the topic.  In addition to the Greater Good site from Berkeley and the Mindful Magazine, both of which I listed in my resources for the Happiness MOOC article, he lists a new (to me) site for academics wishing to follow the latest research in mindfulness: Mindfulness Research Monthly, a publication of the American Mindfulness Research Association. While much of the site is restricted to members, the Mindfulness Research Monthly journal is open access with issues back to 2010.  This is a valuable index for scholars in mindfulness topics.

I have been much more aware of mindfulness, meditation and positive psychology since completing the Happiness MOOC in December.  Like this author, I have been surprised by the frequency of topics of this ilk showing up in academic and business settings as well as in mainstream magazines and talk shows.  While I lack the formal training and intensive saturation retreats that Gelles has experienced, I have long been aware of the positive stress-busting benefits of contemplative music and yoga relaxation exercises. Participating in such exercises, I have felt the calming of inner chaos and the slowing of my heart beats as I focused on the yoga movement or music being played.  When I lived in the Eastern United States, I had a beachfront retreat center that I would visit for a day or weekend whenever I could.  Spending a day of quiet contemplation, I would become once again more fully aware of the immense power of the God of the universe, and how my troubles were just a small, incidental cog that would resolve themselves naturally when it was time.  The sound of the surf, the distant chimes from the meditation walk area, and the absence of the chaotic noise in my daily world all worked together in a unique healing way that I have missed since moving to a different part of the U.S.  This book was a good reminder of how I can bring moments from this experience into my workday even now, helping me to re-center and focus more clearly on the tasks before me.


Gelles, David. Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2015.

Profound sadness and changes to the blog

It is with profound sadness that I must announce the death of my dear friend, coworker and co-blogger, Mary Axford.  Mary died unexpectedly and suddenly in her sleep on January 26th. In addition to her well-researched blog posts, Mary was the driving force behind our Links Roundup feature here on the blog.  In fact, Links Roundup # 28, published just last week on February 2nd, had already been prepared by Mary and was published exactly as she had prepared it.

Mary worked at the Georgia Tech Library for over 27 years and was one of the first people to collaborate with me by co-teaching a Freshman Experience class.  We have co-authored several articles – one of which is still forthcoming – and co-presented at a number of conferences including Computers in Libraries 2014.  We worked side-by-side over the past three years writing and researching for this blog that we created and were so passionate about.  Mary’s enthusiasm for emerging technology and serving the students and faculty of Georgia Tech inspired me almost daily.

While I have not yet made firm plans for this website, I do intend to continue exploring alternatives for Personal Knowledge Management with all our readers after a short hiatus for grief, adjustment and re-planning. I appreciate your patience and positive thoughts during this difficult transition.

Crystal Renfro


Links Roundup #28

saddle and ropeCitation/Reference Managers

Find the Right Reference Manager is a post by Bonni Stachowiak on her Teaching in Higher Ed blog.  She gives the pros and cons of Google Docs Reference Tool, the RefMe app, and Zotero.Content Curation

Qiqqa (pronounced quicker) is a citation management tool that I’ve been intrigued about for years, since it has a LOT of features, some of them unique.  Have not had as much of a chance to use it as I’d like, and would really like it if I knew a grad student or faculty member that use it and can give a good review of it.  Anyway, they have just come out with a major upgrade.  It was developed by people associated with Cambridge University. They also have a blog.

You have probably heard now about the merger between MacMillan and Springer.  One interesting point made in the linked article is that the two have competing reference managers, Papers and Readcube, and it is unknown what merger means for their future.

Boost Your Productivity with Saved Searches in Zotero is another excellent post by Catherine Pope in her The Digital Researcher blog.  She talks about the search syntax in Zotero (sounds similar to that in Evernote in robustness), and how to save searches.

Content Curation

Introducing the New Suggestion Engine is an article with details on how this content curation search engine has improved.  I like!  Don’t get me started on search engines, though…I see so many lousy ones.


Evernote’s New ‘Scannable’ App Makes Scanning Automatic is a post by Robert Ambrogi on his Law Sites blog.  The post discusses the pros and cons of the new scanning app from Evernote (iOS only for now).

Make a Table of Contents in Evernote for Easy Access to Everything is a Lifehacker post by Tori Reid.  The article is short and simple, but illustrates one of Evernote’s great features.  Let’s say you are buying a sofa and have saved a lot of info from the web on different sofas you like from different stores.  Select all the notes on sofas and then click on “create a table of contents” – it is that easy, and you wind up with one note to rule them all!  ;-).  That is, one note that has links to all the other notes.

IFTTT/Task Automation

Will IFTTT, Workflow, Zapier Teach Us All to Connect Apps? is a post on diginomica by Phil Wainewright, who talks about these three apps and whether they are adequate in providing task automation and how they might reach wider audiences.  Had not heard of Workflow before, probably because it is iOS only.

Legal Technology

10 Most Important Legal Technology Developments of 2014 is from Robert Ambrogi‘s Law Sites blog.  The post is a roundup of those developments with Ambrogi’s comments on each.  Very informative and a provides an update to my post on productivity tools for law.

Microsoft Office/Office Software

Review of 40 Features of Microsoft Office 2013 is another articles by Cindy Grigg,‘s expert on office software.


Goodnight.  Sleep Clean is an article in the NYT Sunday Review by Maria Konnikova on new findings on brain functioning and why sleep is vital – essentially the waste products from the brain are cleared out during sleep.  Poor sleep may lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s.


20 Apps and Services that Made Me More Productive in 2014 is a post by Jamie Todd Rubin on his blog.

Timeful is an app that puts your events, to-dos, and good habits onto your calendar.  After learning about your habits, it makes suggestions of things to put on your calendar.  For iOS.

Procrastinating? (well, not at the moment, am writing this) is a Gradhacker post by Erin Bedford on how to get over procrastinating on projects.

Your Extra-Somatic Brain, a Gradhacker post by Hanna Peacock, discusses to-do lists and their usefulness in grad school.  She mentions the apps OmniFocus, Microsoft Outlook’s Tasks, Things, Todo7, Toodledo, 2Do, and Asana.

Are Those Files Final? is a Profhacker post by Natalie Houston that makes two really good points – putting final in a file name is almost a guarantee that it isn’t, and that one should find a naming convention for your files (especially those on which you collaborate) that works and stick with it.

Using Project Management Approaches to Tame Your Dissertation is a Gradhacker post by Katie Shives that discusses five phases of project planning that can apply to researching and writing a dissertation as well as any major project (including writing articles).  The phases are:  conception and initiation; definition and planning; execution; project performance/control; and project close.


How to Better Retain Information from Books, Articles, and More is a Lifehacker post by Herbert Lui which discusses 3 techniques for improving recall.


Virtru Makes Email Encryption Easy, in Either Outlook or Webmail is an article by Robert Ambrogi of the Law Sites blog.  He reviews Virtru, which encrypts email, is easy to use, and has several options.  He also links to his other posts reviewing more email encryption programs.

Thesis/Dissertation Research

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Researchers is another great post by Catherine Pope of the Digital Researcher blog.  In it she discusses her tips for anyone starting on this kind of intensive research, and has good advice on taking notes, citation management, task management, setting writing goals, organizing research material, backing up your work, and learning new skills.  She discusses tools she has used for each.  Useful for academic researchers, and something librarians can point out to their graduate students… and by the way, Crystal’s Productivity Tools for Graduate Students guide is another great tool to show them.


Twitter Tools Sampler is an article by Leslie Walker, the Social Media Expert.  Tools mentioned are TweetDeck, HootSuite, Twhirl, Twitterific, Tweriod, Buffer, Twilert, Twiriod, TwitSprout, TwentyFeet, and ManageFlitter.


4 Quick Tips for Writing in Any Discipline is a Gradhacker post by Shira Lurie discussing common grammer mistakes and how to fix them.  In it she links to another Gradhacker post by Kelly Hanson, A Tentative Taxonomy of Writing (in Grad School), which gives writing advice on drafting, rewriting 1, 2, and 3, and professional correspondence.

Google Docs vs. Scrivener for Writing is a post by Jamie Todd Rubin talking about when each one is the more useful tool, and for which kind of writer.  In his opinion, for writing that needs to be highly structured (written from an outline, for example), Scrivener can’t be beat.  His more recent writing, however, tends to be more unstructured, and Google Docs with its streamlined functioning suits when he just wants to write without the software getting in his way.  He makes the most important point we’ve mentioned before – the best tool is the one you find works for you.