Why you need a Personal Content Strategy

Mathew Lowry
Sep 1, 2017 · 8 min read

Whether you read, curate or create, you need to manage the content that matters to you if you want to extract maximum benefit from it.

I was having a beer with someone recently who wanted to know how much ‘impact’ I was getting from blogging. Was it generating work? Policy influence? Internet fame? My answer surprised him.

“I blog for an audience of one — myself”

This isn’t narcissism — I don’t polish a post to admire my own reflection in it. As I said many years ago, I blog to figure stuff out, because the best way to absorb knowledge and explore problems is to write about them.

the best way to absorb knowledge and explore difficult problems is to write about them

People probably absorb less than half of what they read. But if you return to the material you read and then write about it — reflect on what it means to you, apply it to your context, combine it with something else you’ve read — you will absorb more of it.


When reading, brains can wander, particularly in today’s world of continuous partial attention. If you’ve ever looked down at a page or screen and realised that you’ve read two paragraphs without realising it, you’ll know what I mean.

But I bet you’ve never looked at a screen and realised that you’ve written two paragraphs without realising it. Writing engages your entire brain for the entire time. It demands concentration.

Writing engages your entire brain for the entire time

Here’s the good news: you don’t need to blog to benefit. But you do need a personal content strategy.

What is a personal content strategy?

Your personal content strategy is your way of managing the content that matters to you. Most people’s content strategy looks like this:

Image: Nicolas Bombourg,

Your Information Overload is Your Choice. You chose to subscribe to 200 enewsletters, to follow 5000 people on Twitter and LinkedIn and to have 1000 Facebook ‘friends’. You created your personal Firehose, and it’s drowning you.

Your Information Overload is your Choice

Without a content strategy you’ll try and read it all… and end up skimming. You won’t truly absorb a quarter of it, and you’ll apply even less of it to your life and work. Instead of using the content you read, the FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out — constantly gnawing at the back of your mind will make you skim some more. Because there’s always more. The Firehose never runs dry.

My personal content strategy is a funnel

I absorb more and more value from fewer, higher-quality content as it proceeds through my process (left to right)

While a lot goes in at the left, only the best and most relevant pieces of content make it to the middle, with me extracting more and more value out of each piece as it progresses left to right.

At the far end of the funnel I’m applying the very best of this content to create my own — still the best way I have to apply what I learn to my work and life.

Here it is, step by step:

1–3: Manage what reaches your brain

Curate your Inboxes: Like everyone, I subscribe to too many sources, so I identify a High Priority subset on each platform (Gmail filters, Twitter Lists, etc.). I also regularly change those Priorities (i.e., edit those Filters and Lists): in early 2016, for example, my focus was media innovation, which evolved to fake news and then psychology, as set out in the example later.

Update: @maccymacx points out the real risk of reinforcing your personal filter bubble at this stage, so make a real effort to include diverse sources.

Scan & Queue: I have a daily ToDo to Scan those High Priority sources. Scanning is not reading — it’s spotting what deserves to be read. It doesn’t take as much brainpower, but it does neuter FOMO.

Anything deserving a proper read therefore gets Queued (I use Pocket).

4–5: Start adding value

Read: Another daily ToDo then ensures my Queued content gets Read properly, when I can give it the concentration it deserves.

Store: Anything truly useful — something I’ll want to look at again — gets Stored in my Personal Library (I use Diigo). Storing entails:

  • Annotating it: this forces me to read it carefully and identify exactly what makes it useful to me. As an active process — as opposed to passive reading — Storing embeds the knowledge deeper into my mind
  • Tagging it: this gives me CIFIL (Confidence I’ll Find It Later), thanks to Diigo’s faceted search.

Storing embeds the knowledge deeper into my mind

Curate: this is where stuff starts appearing online, but mainly automatically. I’ll tag some of those items ‘like’ on Diigo, which

I’ll also manually share a few pieces socially, as automating tweets et al is inauthentic.

6–7: Reflect, Think, Write

The final stages of the funnel operate on longer timescales, as this is where I combine different pieces of content together, reflect them into my interests and explore issues further.

Top3ics: this is my personal newsletter (browse, subscribe). Every month I’ll look at the scores of items I’ve Curated over the past few weeks and revisit 5–10 of them to write an edition.

This forces me to reread not just the latest resources on a Topic, but to dig back into my Library for older gems, search for connections between them, reflect on how I can apply this knowledge to my own life and work, etc. In the process, of course, I embed this knowledge even deeper into my own mind, and start developing my own ideas.

I embed this knowledge even deeper … and start developing my own ideas

I’ll also publish the best three resources via my CuratorBot (ask him for ‘High3lights).

Longform blog posts: Finally, much less frequently, I’ll develop some of those ideas further into a full blog post. These are deep dives — not only do they embed other people’s knowledge even further into my own mind, they the best way I know to create some knowledge of my own. (For what it’s worth, many are curated on my Hub under Stuff I Think.)

An Example: From Fake News to the Backfire Effect

Take my current focus on psychology. Where did it come from?

In mid 2016 I finished an assignment helping an online media with its media innovation programme, and shifted focus to fake news. This lead to an entire edition of Top3ics devoted to fake news in December:

If you read to the end, you’ll see that I concluded that I should look to psychology for answers. I Curated my Inbox accordingly, which inevitably lead to me think more about psychology.

I Curated my Inbox … which inevitably lead to me think more about psychology

That, in turn, led to two more editions in February and May:

The May edition focused on the backfire effect cognitive bias, and served as my initial notes for a longform post in June:

I now know more about cognitive biases - and how they affect online media, behaviour and democracy - than if I’d merely skimmed through a few articles and shared them on social media.

How to get one?

A personal content strategy is only as good as your personal productivity.

I haven’t got room here to also explain my productivity systems in detail, but you can track the development of these ideas via the following posts.

Getting Productive in 2015

In 2015 I knew I needed to get my act together to go solo, so I developed three interrelated productivity techniques:

  • A Daily Routine to organise time, so I work in synch with my brain’s ability to focus
  • the above Scan — Queue — Store — Share process
  • Getting Things Done (GTD) to help manage ToDos and time

Refining it in 2016

The full post is an 11-minute read, however, so I recommend Stop drowning in your Inbox, which I posted after realising that I’d fallen into the trap of cramming too much into the funnel, leaving no time to act on any of it.

So I added Inbox Curation to improve what goes in the funnel, and updated my understanding of how the two post-Share steps (Top3ics, longform blogging) help at the other end of the funnel:

Constantly evolving

My approach is constantly evolving. Earlier this year I added a CuratorBot to my content strategy, covered in Chatbots Magazine in three articles:

And right now I’m figuring out how to better absorb podcasts (update: Listen & Learn: how to absorb podcast knowledge).

Your needs and approach will be different so let’s compare notes: Respond here or Connect with me somewhere else (below).

I can help you be more productive. You’ll find loads of resources tagged #GTD, #productivity, #content strategy and #curation and more on my Hub. Subscribe to get the best of the stuff I curate in your Inbox, or get just the High3lights from my CuratorBot. He can also get us in touch, or we can connect here.

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