One of the most common sources of confusion I see in the world of productivity and self-improvement is a failure to distinguish between beginner-level advice and advanced-level advice.

In any given pursuit – tennis, chess, jiu-jitsu, painting – there is a hierarchy of skills that you have to acquire one by one to progress. More fundamental skills lie at the bottom, like the base of a pyramid, and serve as a foundation for more advanced skills to be gained later on.

I’ve noticed that people often want to skip the beginner stages and go directly to the advanced ones. That’s an understandable desire – why spend more time as a novice than you have to? But if you don’t have a strong foundation and try to build too high, your efforts will inevitably crumble.

That’s obvious when we think of sports, games, or martial arts. Not many people would be foolish enough to try a 360-degree backward flip before they’ve learned to ride a bike. 

But less intuitively, the same is true for cognitive skills like productivity, notetaking, reading, writing, and personal effectiveness in general. You have to walk before you run, and you have to succeed with small challenges before you take on big ones.

If you are currently a beginner but insist on trying advanced techniques, you’ll constantly get bogged down in the complexity and uncertainty of the discipline you’re trying to master. As a beginner, you don’t know what’s important and what’s not, so are almost guaranteed to waste tons of effort on the latter.

The reverse is also true: if you are ready for advanced knowledge but keep studying the beginner stuff, your efforts will lack power and precision and never proceed past a certain level.

Using beginner techniques for advanced tasks is like trying to perform delicate surgery with a hacksaw when what is needed is a fine scalpel. But trying to use advanced techniques when you haven’t yet mastered the basic ones is like a medical student trying to perform brain surgery on their first day of residency.

Why we need beginner advice

Let’s take the skill of productivity – how to do your best work consistently – as an example. 

The strategy known as “MIT” (“Most Important Task”) is a classic piece of beginner advice. It advises us to keep our approach to productivity extremely simple: at the start of each day, write down your Most Important Task of the day on a Post-It note, stick it to the side of your computer monitor, and focus on completing it before turning to anything else.

To be clear, this is an excellent piece of advice…for beginners. Granted, the majority of professionals don’t even do this much, and would benefit quite a bit from adopting this approach. But like all beginner advice, this technique is also an oversimplification. Sooner or later, as you get more proficient at executing your one task for the day, you’ll start to run into its limitations.

On some days, there isn’t just one top priority. There might be three that are all closely related and dependent on each other. On other days, a new piece of information coming in might change the top priority, requiring you to adapt. Or maybe you’re in charge of a team and need to remain available to them, which means you cannot remain myopically fixated only on your own personal tasks during certain times.

As you can see in this example, beginner advice tends to take the form of an extremely simple, impossible to misunderstand, black-and-white rule. Don’t do this. Always do that. This is what beginners need – a direct commandment they can follow blindly, trusting that the advice will lead them somewhere good even if they don’t understand how or why.

But beginner advice is also inherently limited. It’s a deliberate oversimplification, hiding or ignoring a lot of the complexity of the real world in order to make it easier for beginners to take action. It may not be true (as in, describing the full reality), but it is often useful (providing a clear next step).

Graduating from beginner advice

Eventually, the elegant simplicity of beginner advice becomes a constraint. Our situation changes, a new kind of problem arises, and suddenly the simple rule that served us so well before fails to work.

The time has come to “graduate” to a more sophisticated approach. That could be as simple as identifying 3 MITs instead of just one, so you have something else to turn to if you get blocked on one. Or maybe you start keeping a longer running list of all open tasks, which you can choose from each morning instead of having to decide your MIT from scratch. Or you might decide to make your to-do list digital, so you can capture related links to emails, websites, or other online resources and access them from any device.

When you graduate from beginner productivity advice, it isn’t necessarily obvious which advice you should follow next. The progression of skills isn’t a ladder — it’s a branching tree. At the advanced level, the right strategy depends on your personal needs, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. 

This highlights a key difference between beginner and advanced advice: the more advanced you become, the more options and pathways become available to you, each one tailored to a specific scenario. In other words, you have to choose which advanced strategy is right for you. This can be a double-edged sword: while you have more freedom to craft your own personalized solution, it’s also challenging because you have to make consequential choices.

Beginner advice tends to be one-size-fits-all, painting in broad strokes. It’s like a blunt instrument that makes few assumptions about its user. Which means it applies to a wider range of people, but also that it’s not specialized for any particular task. A hammer can be used for a wide variety of different construction tasks, but that doesn’t mean it’s the ideal tool for most of them.

Advanced advice, on the other hand, is like a highly specialized, precision-crafted tool. It only works in very particular situations. But when those situations arise, it can produce outsized results. Like a special screwdriver perfectly shaped for one kind of exotically shaped screw: the fit between the problem and solution is unmistakable. And it produces a tremendous amount of leverage with relatively little effort.

Here are some other examples of the distinction between beginner and advanced advice in various domains:

  • Maintaining perfectly consistent habits is beginner, whereas the ability to adapt and change one’s habits while still keeping them consistent is advanced.
  • The Eat the Frog productivity technique (in which you start each day by doing your most difficult, undesirable task) is beginner, whereas Getting Things Done (in which you choose what to work on based on your energy levels and context) is advanced.
  • Having a highly structured creative process is beginner, whereas moving fluidly between creative styles is advanced.
  • Following a strict diet banning certain foods is beginner, whereas understanding macronutrients and flexing your diet to make sure you always get them is advanced.

As with specialized tools, advanced advice takes time and effort to master. It often deals with a problem’s subtleties, nuances, edge cases, and exceptions, which you might not even notice until you’ve been dutifully applying the beginner advice for quite a while. 

Specialized tools require far more self-awareness and discernment as well because you have to understand your internal state and external environment deeply enough to choose the right one. Such self-awareness is hard to come by for anyone, and I see a tremendous amount of frustration and confusion from people who don’t know which stage they are currently at. 

Beginner vs. advanced advice in personal knowledge management

Now let’s apply these ideas to my area of expertise – personal knowledge management, also known as “building a Second Brain.”

Most people should start with the most fundamental building block skills:

  • Deciding which content to read or consume more intentionally
  • Reading more efficiently and with a critical perspective
  • Taking notes or highlighting excerpts from what they read
  • Identifying their currently active projects to inform what they consume

These aren’t even PKM skills – they are life skills that everyone could benefit from to some degree. They form the solid foundation on which more sophisticated moves depend. It won’t help to go beyond them until you’ve mastered the fundamentals; in fact, it may even hurt.

Once you’ve learned these beginner skills, you can start to optimize, systematize, automate, and leverage them. You can set up Readwise (affiliate link) to automatically import your ebook highlights to your digital notes app, saving you time and effort. You can use Progressive Summarization to structure your notes visually for easy retrieval. You can use ChatGPT to mimic your writing style and scale your writing output.

But you need to be very clear that these are all advanced tactics. They are fine-tuned optimizations of deeper underlying capabilities. As such, they can produce impressive results, but they have significant pitfalls and risks of their own:

  • They are prone to break when conditions change (such as an integration between apps breaking down when one of them changes their API)
  • They require specialized training and time to master (time that could be better spent elsewhere)
  • They are effective in a very narrow range of situations but don’t adapt well to change (such as when writing elaborate book summaries suddenly becomes obsolete due to the emergence of generative AI tools)
  • They tend to draw you into “the weeds” of tweaking and fiddling with software, which can blind you to bigger opportunities (or risks) in other parts of your life

The two most common reactions to my work are “This is way too complicated and overengineered” and “This is all so basic and obvious.” In other words, the beginners find it too complex, and the experts find it too oversimplified.

Now we can understand why they’re both right, at least from their own point of view: the beginner hasn’t yet encountered the kinds of problems that these advanced techniques are designed to solve, while the expert learned the basic skills so long ago that they now seem trite and obvious.

What it takes to become advanced

It isn’t easy to become advanced in any given skill or domain. That’s why so few people ever do it.

The vast majority of instructional content found online is designed for beginners because that’s what the vast majority of people are. Most books are written for beginners, as well as most how-to guides, articles and essays, and podcasts and YouTube videos. Most courses are designed for beginners since those are the people who take courses in the first place; experts are far more likely to pursue self-directed learning.

Beginner advice is what’s popular, mainstream, and “viral,” because it’s easy to understand and consume without much thought. There’s no problem with that, as we’ve already seen, because “easy” is what beginners need.

But if and when you find yourself at the precipice of true expertise, a different approach will be needed. You’ll need to consciously ignore most mainstream advice, turn away the most popular books, and filter out the sources of information that other people rave about. You have to go deep, to intentionally seek out the more nuanced, hidden sources of knowledge designed for the already adept.

For me, this often means seeking out books that never sold well and are hard to find – when I’m trying to go deep on a topic, the “best-selling” label on a book is a major disqualifier. 

It means seeking out sources of online content that aren’t boosted by social media algorithms or reshared by thousands of people (such as the Obscure PDFs subreddit I created).

It means talking to people, in person if possible, because the best knowledge tends to be trapped in people’s heads. It means immersing yourself in communities of practice, where the tacit knowledge that governs how things truly work, and can never fully be written down, is kept alive.

In other words, advanced knowledge won’t find you; you have to seek it out like a treasure hunter scouring the oceans for hidden gems. You have to be willing to go underground, to the less visited corners of the internet, to develop your own taste and opinion about what is good instead of relying on status markers and social approval. And most of all, you have to be willing to do some hard thinking, because advanced knowledge only rewards those who work to understand it.

One final observation: often, but not always, the journey from beginner to advanced knowledge will unexpectedly loop back around, such that you find yourself back where you started. After wading through the nuance and complexity of the advanced realm, you may realize that a lot of the complexity is unneeded, and return to simpler ways more reminiscent of beginners. 

The master chef might go back to their trusted chef’s knife. The master athlete returns to simple kettlebell exercises. The writer falls back on pen and paper for their notes. This doesn’t mean that the journey was wasted – far from it. The simplicity on the other side of complexity is so much more rewarding, so much more meaningful, and so much more effective than remaining simple in the first place. 

It’s a simplicity that comes from knowing what truly matters and ignoring everything else, from knowing all the options but choosing only the best for your purposes, from imposing constraints on oneself willingly for the sake of a higher purpose that the beginner cannot even begin to fathom.

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