Dan Pink Has a Folder for That Idea

The bestselling author of ‘When’ on the daily rhythm of creative work, his love for writing book proposals, and the enduring power of analog tools

Steven Johnson
Jan 31, 2018 · 8 min read

Daniel H. Pink

Occupation: Author, most recently When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing; public speaker.
Preferred tools: Microsoft Word, Dropbox, Evernote, Brother P-Touch label printer.
Creative hours: 8:30 a.m. until he’s written his 700 words.
Writing space: Home office in a converted garage.

Let’s start with the basics. What tools do you use to write your books?

Dan Pink: For writing the actual book, I am very old-fashioned. I am not one of the cool kids like you and everybody else who is imploring me to use Scrivener. I have advanced beyond WordPerfect [laughs], but I now use Word. I’m very comfortable using Word.

For research and note taking, I’ve become a devout user of Dropbox. For my last book, I have a giant Dropbox file called “When research,” and within that are subfolders by chapter, by ideas, by people I’m working with, etc. When I see something interesting, like an article, or when I do an interview with someone, I’ll drag it into one of those folders. Then, when I start writing, I set up separate folders for the text of each chapter.

I’m not going to be a Scrivener asshole evangelist here, but you know, to me, the big breakthrough with Scrivener was in those nested folders, where you could store things and drag things and put everything you were working on — instead of having it separate from the writing environment, it’s built into the writing environment. That’s the beauty of the whole left sidebar of Scrivener.

You know, I guess I’m the kind of person who would still rather drive around in a car where the fender is duct-taped on than get a new car. I’m so comfortable with that duct-taped fender that I’m freaked out about changing. I also use a lot of paper. Bountiful paper files. I’m a devout filer. I use — again, because I know people love these gory details — I use legal-size manila file folders and redwelds—and so for each chapter for a book, I have at least one, often two or three redwelds. Inside a redweld will be multiple manila folders that contain paper information I have collected or printed out or whatever. And then I also have — and again, this just shows the full depth of my analog anal retentiveness — I use a labeler. I don’t write on the file folders; that’s sacrilege to me! I have a little dedicated labeler that prints out labels that identify all of my files.

I think I understood like 3 percent of the words you just said. [Laughs.] Wait, what is a “red well”?

Oh, sorry about that. I don’t know the level of your familiarity with ancient office supplies. Can you see this? [Holds up a redweld.] That’s a redweld.

Oh yeah, I used to have those things back in grad school.

Right. Twenty-five years ago. Well, I still have them! [Laughs.] I guess if there’s a theory behind it — and there probably is not — it’s that I’m willing to forgo efficiency for familiarity.

To me, it’s a bit like print books: There are things I find familiar and things I like about those analog experiences aesthetically, but the thing I ultimately come up against is that they’re not searchable. And once you’ve tasted having all your information searchable, to me, I just can’t — it just seems like a giant bug.

Listen, I understand. I’m probably leaving something on the table. But some of it relies on me knowing my own filing system. My brain is probably being taxed more than it should be. But for me, the switching costs are higher than the efficiency gains would be.

Hey, it seems to be working for you! And the other thing is you seem to be an organized person, which I’m not. I’ve always loved the idea that I can just throw all my research into a disorganized pile and not think about the structure yet still know I can find what I need and not waste any of that time doing the organizational stuff that I hate doing.

I hear you, but part of it is we’re all sort of like ducklings: You’re imprinted by what you first see when you hatch. When I first started working for myself, which was 20 years ago, I was influenced by David Allen and Getting Things Done. I’m a GTD person. I’m not an orthodox GTD person, but I’m not reform, either. I’m conservative. And one of the big things early on in the GTD days was filing. So here I am with a machine whose only function is to make labels for my paper folders.

Can you give us a sense of the genesis of a book idea? How do those come about?

I have a Dropbox folder of ideas with folders for different kinds of ideas: book ideas, article ideas, other media ideas. When I have an idea or see something that might be the germ of an idea, I’ll throw it in there, or I might throw it into Evernote. Periodically, maybe every six months, I’ll go through these folders just out of curiosity. What I’ll notice is that more than half the article ideas will absolutely suck. They’re terrible. They’re ridiculous. I wouldn’t want anyone to ever see them. So I’ll go through and prune them — take away the ones that suck and keep the ones that endure. I’ve noticed that if you do this every six months over the course of a few years, certain ideas end up being very persistent. They stick around longer than the other ones — and that suggests to me that there’s a book there. So when I’m at a juncture where I’m thinking about writing a new book, I’ll take those ideas and start going deeper: reading more deeply into those files, making notes, trying to write stuff.

What happened with this last book was this: I like to write book proposals. Even though I’ve been with Riverhead for a long time, and you and I might not need to write a huge book proposal, I like writing proposals. So, I’ll write a 30- or 40-page book proposal. The reason I do that is really for myself; it’s a test of concept, and it’s a test of whether I’m actually interested in the idea. For this last project, I started writing a book proposal for an idea that had persisted for a long time, and I got about two-thirds of the way and said, “This is not a book.” So I put it aside, and then I did another one for an idea I thought was fantastic, got most of the way through, and said, “This is not a book either.”


Then I turned to this other idea — the idea that became this new book, When — and it was like butter. I was like, “Oh my God, this thing is much better than I even realized. This is a book, and I’m pumped to spend a couple years working on it.”

Your books contain so many interesting mini-narratives from different fields: scientific research, business anecdotes, etc. How do you find the stories?

Some people believe writing is social, and some people believe it’s solitary. In my view, it’s somewhere in the middle. I like talking to people, and I’ll just say, “Hey, here’s what I’m working on. Anything ring a bell?” I’ll just talk to a lot of people that way, and you’ll be surprised how many people will come up with something and say, “Yeah, that reminds me of X.” The other thing is when you’re working on something, you see everything differently. It’s like when we bought a Prius, and suddenly I’m realizing that everyone in Washington, D.C., is driving a Prius. Of course, they were there all along; I just didn’t notice them until I had one myself.

That’s why I like to have at least three defined projects going at any given moment — one that I’m finishing, one that I’m doing early research on, etc.—because once you define them, you’re able to see those connections more clearly. You stumble across something and you’re like, “Oh, I know exactly where this goes.” Last question: In terms of the science and research in ‘When,’ has anything shaped your own writing rituals?

The timing stuff is crazy. You have research showing that time of day explains something like 20 percent of the variance in human performance. It’s not everything, but it’s a freaking big thing. So I am fairly deliberate about when I do certain kinds of work. When I’m working on a book or a long article or any project that requires writing, I have a very bricklayer, blue-collar approach. I’ll come to my office around 8:30 a.m., and I will give myself a word count for the day. I have to hit X words based on where I am in a project. I’m a very slow writer, too, so I don’t give myself massive word counts. It’s usually about 700 words. I will sit here in my office and crank out those 700 words, and I will not allow myself to do anything else until I hit that number. I will put away my phone; I will not open my email. Once I hit those 700 words, I’m liberated to do other kinds of things. And then I do it the next day and the next day and the next day.

Right — you do that for three months, and you have a book! I do the exact same thing, only not that many words. I try to write just 500 words in the morning.

I feel better about that, because I often do 500 words. I’m just a very slow person in general. I’m a slow reader. I’m a slow writer. But I feel like if you just show up, things really accumulate. [In terms of the schedule], in the trough of the early afternoon, I will often do email and things like that. In the afternoon and early evening, I try to exercise and do interviews.

That’s what I find: The afternoon trough is perfect for the dumb logistical stuff. Just don’t do any of that in the creative morning time.

Exactly. Believe me, as much as I as much as I relish the task of filing, I do not do it during the morning.

Steven Johnson

Written by

Writer. 11 books. (The latest: Farsighted: How We Make The Decisions That Matter The Most.) Host, How We Got To Now. Three kids, one wife. Marin/Brooklyn.


About this Collection


An interview series about the tools, techniques, and habits behind the creative mind. Hosted by Steven Johnson, featuring conversations with Liz Phair, Rebecca Skloot, Kevin Kelly, and more. Produced in partnership with shift.newco.co.

An interview series about the tools, techniques, and habits behind the creative mind. Hosted by Steven Johnson, featuring conversations with Liz Phair, Rebecca Skloot, Kevin Kelly, and more. Produced in partnership with shift.newco.co.

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