Note taking is overrated. Underlining key passages, scribbling insightful observations in the margin of library books to amuse a future stranger—we get it, you read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince—the colour-coded set of highlighters, etc. This kind of thing is very cute, and at the risk of offending my favourite productivity pornographers, almost certainly misses the point.
Like most people, my note taking practice began in the formal education system. I dutifully filled exercise books with chicken scratch, which formed the basis of such gems as ‘Abjection and the monstrous feminine in James Cameron’s Aliens’ or ‘The growth of corporate mergers, takeovers and collapses within New Zealand during the 1980s’. As soon as I handed in the essay or took the exam, I promptly forgot everything I’d learned.
Anyone with a similar experience would be justified in feeling skeptical about the wave of hype surrounding note-taking tools and techniques. If you think taking notes is a waste of time, that’s because it usually is.
And yet…if you asked me ‘what single item would you save from a fire?’, I don’t even have to think about it.1 My database of several thousand notes, which I’ve been building since 2014, is my single most valuable possession. It’s a big old heaving mess of interconnected ideas and confusions and open questions, and much more than the sum of its parts. Once it reached critical mass, it took on a life of its own. I am happy to anthromorphise it, and I guess I would pay low six figures to save it from oblivion; in the same range as a beloved pet.
A Brief Personal History
Note taking is part of the broader problem of ‘knowledge management’, which is one of the most interesting side-projects I’ve worked on in recent years. In 2017, I went to a retreat in India run by a wild-eyed prophet named Conor. He had spent years out in the wilderness, developing strange ideas about nodal networks and hypertext and collaborative problem-solving. Conor got me hooked on his vision, I helped out in various ways, and now Roam Research has sprung up into a thriving cult movement.
I’ve never written about knowledge management on the blog, because it’s kind of inside baseball. But everyone is a student at one time or another; everyone is a researcher; everyone is building something. A few people have asked specifically about my practice, so here we are. At the very least, if you enjoy my writing, you might be curious to know my One Weird Trick:
- Part I: How to Read a Book (synoptic reading)
- Part II: Getting Compound Interest on Your Ideas (Zettelkasten)
- Part III: Remember Important Stuff Forever (spaced repetition)
Our credential-obsessed educational system forces us to cram a bunch of crap we don’t care about, and will never use again. Sometimes we have no choice but to jump through these kind of hoops, in which case, happy highlighting! I don’t know what the best practice is for this kind of thing, and I don’t really care. I’m interested in building knowledge that compounds over a lifetime.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen automatically. Before I had a system, I dedicated large chunks of my life to reading books that I can now barely remember. I might be able to give you the main idea, and maybe even dredge up an example, but almost everything is gone. I won’t say that time was wasted, but it was certainly an enormous missed opportunity: hours of effort in exchange for a couple of vague recollections. This is because no-one ever taught me how to actually read a book.
How to Read a Book (Or Blog, or Paper, or…)
Do you have eyes? Do you like reading? Yes? Here’s the algorithm:
- Read the book
- (there is no second step)
For fiction, some biographies, lots of online content, my process is: read the thing. It’s important not to crush the activities we love with a fixation on extracting ‘value’ from them. But sometimes I also want to learn stuff, in which case, the process gets a little more involved.
It also requires me to walk something back. My project to read 100 books a year had the right spirit—a book is one of the cheapest and most asymmetric options anyone could possibly take out—but the actual goal was kind of dumb, insofar as it incentivised quantity over quality. It’s much better to read a handful of books deeply than a lot of books shallowly.
When I’m not busy Goodharting myself with arbitrary targets, here’s the process I follow:
Making highlights, marginalia, and other notes.
Deciding what is worthy of being entered into the system as a permanent note.
Bouncing ideas against existing knowledge, and seeing if they combine into something new.
Looking for dissonance and inconsistencies between new ideas and existing ones.
Using the ideas in real life, or incorporating them into an original work.
I’m sure I’ve unconsciously stolen this from someone, since the ‘five Cs’ seems suspiciously catchy. A cursory googling didn’t help; if you know the originator I will credit them.
As for the underlying ideas, the seminal text is appropriately titled How to Read a Book. Conor is a big fan, and while I found it deathly boring, I’m totally on board with the argument, which I’m loosely paraphrasing here.
Librarians, cover your ears. Unless the book you’re reading is a rare volume, you should crack its spine and extract the marrow by any means necessary: dog-ear the pages, scribble all over it, feed it crumbs and coffee stains, sleep with it under your pillow. Reading is an interactive process, not a one-way street. Whenever you find something interesting, mark it up.
(Use post-it notes if the book doesn’t belong to you, but if you find yourself taking a lot of notes, you should just buy your own copy.)
You can’t manhandle an ebook, but at least you can still take highlights and notes. I use a browser extension to send longform articles to my Kindle, and if I’m on my phone or browsing the web, snap a screenshot. I don’t take notes from podcasts or audiobooks, because there’s too much friction.2
The collection stage should be as effortless as possible: I try not to interrupt the flow of reading, or second-guess whether the notes I’m taking are really that interesting—that’s what the next step is for.
At any given point in time I have a stack of dog-eared books, a clippings file on my Kindle, and folders of screenshots on my phone and laptop. These are my ‘dump’ buckets. Instead of rushing to mine the new material, I deliberately let it breathe for at least a month.
Then I come back with a fresh set of eyes, and start processing. Sometimes an idea that seemed fascinating at 3am turns out to be banal, so it never leaves the dump. Other times I have a new idea, or find something else interesting that didn’t make the cut originally.
Some people feel that highlighting and note taking is too promiscuous—it’s too easy, it devalues the good stuff. That’s because they’re missing this second step. If it’s not worthy to enter your permanent collection, it won’t make it past this round.
As far as storage systems go, I think Roam is an order of magnitude better than other tools, for reasons that will become clear in the next post. But I’m biased, and there are plenty of other options: Ryan Holiday uses paper index cards; I previously used a combination of Evernote and Google Docs.
Reading a book is a conversation between you and the author, and by extension, every other author already living in your head. So the next step is to take their ideas and smash them up against your model of the world.
This process is important enough that it’s going to get a dedicated post, but briefly, you want to cross-pollinate as much as possible: What does this idea rhyme with? Where does it hang in your existing framework? How does it fit with current or future projects? What happens if it has sex with this other idea?
Sometimes you put a couple of ideas in a jam jar, and prod them with a stick, and then they get busy having a brand new baby idea! This is really exciting.
Other times, they fight. Maybe one of them will kill the other. As any eight-year-old boy will tell you, this is also very exciting.
Writers, including scientists and other experts, talk a lot of shit. Very occasionally they’re outright lying, but more often they’re just wrong: consider that any pop psychology book you read prior to 2016—the kind of thing that flies off airport shelves and tops the New York Times bestseller list—has almost certainly fed you a bunch of convincing-sounding crapola based on studies that failed to replicate.
The more interesting conflicts happen when authors are prodding at different aspects of some central underlying truth. So you have to explore the dissonance: how does this idea clash with your existing framework? Can it sit alongside another belief in peace, or does one have to destroy the other? Bounce it off your lived experience, try to sniff out the bullshit, and think about how competing models might be reconciled.
Unless you already know a lot about the subject, authors can bullshit you pretty easily. So you also have to proactively read criticisms by people who are well-informed. You don’t have to come to a firm resolution as to who’s right, or dive down every rabbithole: just take note of the dissonance, and try not to swallow anything uncritically.
The final step is to implement whatever you’ve learned. Ideally, it will shape some aspect of your real-life behaviour: your work, your relationships, your habits, your philosophy. If it suggests a cheap experiment, always run it.
Other useful practices: write a review/essay/article riffing on the ideas, tell a friend about it in your own words, host a book club discussion.
If you’re not doing any of this—if you’re not applying what you’ve learned in real life—something has gone wrong. See e.g. formal education: most people have no intention of using what they’re learning, except on a very short time horizon to pass some arbitrary test. It’s hard to get excited when you’re not playing for keeps.
Three Out of Five Ain’t Bad
That’s the ideal model. Real life is messy, and some books just don’t generate many notes—in which case, we’re only talking an extra 10 minutes. But if I’ve invested five or six hours of my life into reading a book for some reason other than pure entertainment, you better believe I’m going to spend another hour making sure I can actually leverage what I learned years or decades down the track.
I always follow steps one and two. I usually follow steps three and four. I try to follow step five as much as possible. If you can manage three out of five, that’s a good starting point.
The first phase—collection and curation—is pretty straightforward. Plenty of people have opinions as to how you should annotate and highlight text, but as I mentioned up top, this is mostly just aesthetic preference.
The final phase—creation—is a monstrous subject in its own right, which I’ll leave to people who are much better qualified than me.
But the parts in the middle seem to be unusually neglected. This also happens to be where I think I have some novel insights to share.
In the next post, we’ll zoom in on this section: how to build associative frameworks of knowledge? What the heck is this ‘Zettelkasten’ thing? And how can we get compound interest on our ideas?
- At least, metaphorically—all my notes are stored digitally with various layers of redundancy; I think Ryan Holiday keeps his paper index cards in fireproof safes.
- I very occasionally make the effort to write it down, but I usually treat audio as ephemeral background noise: it’s literally in one ear, and out the other. I’m not happy about this because some of these sources are book-quality—literally, in the case of audiobooks—and I know I’m missing out. If anyone has a solution for effortlessly marking snippets of audio and converting it to text, please let me know.