A system for making the most of what I read
Regular readers will know that I’ve been focused a lot this past year on a couple of ideas. Namely, the Zettelkasten method and the idea of having a digital “second brain”.
Those are names other people have given the concept, but it’s simply about making the most from what we read and the information that comes our way. And these concepts are all about creating a trusted system that is used routinely, all for the express purpose of producing quality output.
I’ve shared most of these items in the past, but here’s recap of the various resources available on this topic.
- the Zettelkasten Method
- Tiago Forte’s Building a Second brain
- Maggie Appleton’s lovely sketch notes of the BaSB course
- How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens
- A Knowledge Processing System for Marketers, Creators, and Knowledge Workers
- Keeping a commonplace book
What I’ve been missing
I’ve long had a fascination with how I and others work, the tools we use, and the processes that we put in place to do our work. Reading GTD way back in the early or mid-2000’s was the start. But while the processes I’ve honed since then worked great for focusing my attention and doing work, I would often have the problem of losing track of information.
“Where did I read that great line?” This is the type of question I’d find myself asking every couple of weeks. While I had tools in place for reading, or even taking notes, the usage was not consistent, nor was it all encompassing. I might highlight passages in a paper book, but then forget all about it. I could do the same in Instapaper, which is then added automatically to Day One, but completely forget where I read the specific idea or phrase months down the road.
The last article in the resources above well captures the problem:
The inefficiencies of a system (or lack of a system) don’t become apparent until we need to retrieve the information we’ve previously been exposed to; information we’ve already deemed important.
… and then can’t find the info or recall where you saw it.
This is an issue I very much wanted to solve this year.
Where I am now
After a lot of reading and thinking about this, I now have a far better set up in place. And the best part of it all is that I can make a great improvement in recalling information using the tools I already own and use every day. The less pieces of software I have to learn, the better. And I’m always happiest when I learn to do more with the tools I already have.
Here’s a sketch of how my toolset looks now.
This reminds me of Christian Tietze’s sketch of how he pictures the Zettelkasten method.
The main items I’m concerned about are:
- Bible Study
- Reading on the Kindle
- Reading paper books
- Reading in Instapaper
- Reading on the web or other iOS apps
When it comes to being consistent with saving information that interests me, collection was a problem. So when I wanted to improve my set up, the focus was on setting up the tools I use and then making my usage regular.
Some of these items are easy, no-brainers. When I’m doing my devotions, I can simply add a note to Ulysses or highlight a passage that resonates with me. When reading a book on my Kindle, I can use the share option when creating a note or highlighting text. But the last three items needed a little more work.
The most important aspects of the system is that everything I want to save comes into my system via the Things inbox and everything is stored in Ulysses (with references pointed to saved items in Pinboard). What helps with this is I only have to look in one place to retrieve items.
Here's how I put all the pieces in my system together.
- As I do my devotional time, I write down questions or thoughts that come to mind in my paper journal. When I want to make those a permanent thought to review in the future, I simply open Ulysses on my phone, open the passage in question, and create a note (using the annotation feature of the app). I add relevant tags in the annotation itself (depicted with a # before the word)
- When I’m reading a book on my Kindle and find a passage I like, I highlight it. From there, I use the share feature to send an email to Things. In the same vein, if I want to add a thought of my own, I create a note on the Kindle and share that in the same manner. The key with this is that I have work left to do — but that work comes later when I’m at my desk, not during my reading time.
- When I’m reading articles in Instapaper, highlighted passages and liked articles are automatically sent to Pinboard via IFTTT.
- When reading a paper book, if there’s a passage I want to highlight or comment on, I’ll do one of two things: mark it in the book on one of the last pages, or grab my phone and capture the text with Scanner Pro. If I choose not the capture it immediately, I just do the same process with Scanner Pro at a later time. But when ready, I scan the page, save the item and then use Scanner Pro’s OCR functionality to view the image as text. I then copy it to the clipboard, switch over to Things, and create a new task in the inbox.
- When reading an article online, but not in Instapaper, I can use the Pinboard bookmarklet to highlight a passage I want to refer to or comment on. It’s very similar to using Instapaper: both activities result in a new saved link in Pinboard. And every item in Pinboard results in a new task in Things (using the Pinboard and email to Things functionality in IFTTT).
The key with all of the items (apart from my Bible study/reading where action happens immediately) is that I have only taken the first step of collection. The critical work of a useful personal knowledge base is processing that content and adding my own thoughts.
That all happens at some point when I’m at my desk. I’ve slowly improved my shutdown ritual over the past couple of years to include cleaning out my Things inbox. This process will often include adding several new notes to Ulysses that include quotes from the various sources I’ve mentioned here, along with a reference link to Pinboard, then my own thoughts.
As far as internet services go, Pinboard is not the nicest to look at. But in terms of doing the job you hire it for, it excels. And I prefer to spend my money on businesses that are going to be around for a while, where I know the money is going directly to the people who create the product.
Pinboard is accessible. I can use it via different apps (Pushpin on iOS, Readkit on macOS) when reading in a browser (via its bookmarklet), or automate actions with other internet services (IFTTT or Zapier).
It’s fast. And it allows me to back up content so that if a site or article is lost to the passage of time, I can refer back to it in Pinboard itself. Again, this is a service that never fails to deliver on the job I want it to do. While we’re all used to internet services simply being unavailable at some point, Pinboard (and the one man behind it) is the opposite.
It’s a reliable backup service for internet content.
A lot of people have used Evernote in the past for this type of thing. I’ve never liked the product much myself. The new kid on the block is Notion, but I’m not crazy about tools that try to be everything for everybody. And I took a long look at Ulysses a while back and chose it as the place to store all my Bible Study notes, so it was already a leading candidate for my Zettelkasten-type of usage.
There are a few factors that make Ulysses a good choice. First, it feels and looks good to use. As a writing environment, it’s at the top of the list of good macOS apps. Second, it seems to handle a lot of content quite well. I have 2,016 notes containing hundreds of thousands of words, and it only rarely slows down for me.
Another great feature of Ulysses is the inclusion of callback URLs. These allow me to link between different notes and make use of the relations between different thoughts. And, of course, the tags in Ulysses also make searching for items and finding related content much easier.
Manual versus automated
You’ll note that a lot of the work of getting content into my system it manual. And while there are some instances where that is due to limitations, I’m not too concerned about it.
The most important aspect of the Zettelkasten method is taking the time to summarize what you read into your own words when you save a note (a settle). The manual aspect makes that more likely to happen.
However, I am happy to make use of automation where I can — and where it makes sense. Items like Instapaper highlights going straight to my Things inbox is far nicer than having to make a highlight on my Kindle and then remembering to share it via email (going to my Things email address).
There is always room for improvement. For example, with notes from paper books, it would be great if Scanner Pro added a way to share the text. As it is, you can share the scan as an image or PDF, but that doesn’t help much (and you can’t even use Things as one of the shareable apps). When you view the scan as text, all you can do is copy it to the clipboard.
Overall, this isn’t a huge problem as the number of times I do this is minimal. I’ve been reading most non-fiction digitally of late, so it’s infrequent. But this is a piece of my system that I will always look to improve.
Getting Kindle notes & highlights to your Mac
One specific piece of all this deserves a little more focus. Namely, getting highlights and notes you take on your Kindle is one of the touchier pieces of this whole practice. While it’s nice that Amazon integrated your Kindle activity with Good Reads and allows you to see your saved items, it would be far better if this were an open system.
Getting my Kindle notes and highlights is one of the more manual processes and it’s largely due to being a closed environment. I have to remember to send items as I create them. There are other ways to accomplish this. I could create a recurring task to review the page Amazon provides and manually copy things over. Or I could use a service like Readwise.
But it’s yet another subscription to pay for (and doesn’t look appealing enough to justify the cost). And I’ve found it’s easier to develop the habit of sharing the note/highlight at the moment of creation rather than doing multiple items later on.
Again, the real work happens when I process the notes. So while I’d like to see this improve, I can live with the additional friction at the point of collection.
My note template
I have a snippet saved in Launchbar that I use for creating a new note in Ulysses. It looks like this:
Using some of the automatic options (such as dates) in the Launchbar snippets, I can populate a unique ID based on the date and time. Note that this is separate from the title of the note, but it’s the unique ID that I use to create a link using the callback URLs in Ulysses. Using this, I can link to notes from within other notes. And the comments (indicated by the plus characters) remind me what to add to the note.
Here's how a full note looks.
Tags are included in the note and copied and pasted to the Ulysses attachments pane.
And that’s my system. Again, the purpose here is twofold. To reduce those moments of uncertainty trying to remember where I saw a piece of writing. And to make publishing content easier.&