A better process for reading, writing, and thinking: zettelkasten

I read a lot. Maybe too much… I am not a particularly fast reader, and I only do about 48 books a year (about 70% of those books in audio).

Chart showing number of books read per year.
Stats from Goodreads

So why do I say that I read “too much”? It is because I can barely remember anything I have read in the past. To date, since 2010, I have ticked off over 500 books. But like most people, I have forgotten pretty much all of it. Is it because I am consuming too much too quickly? Of course not. It because I am not retaining knowledge in an effective manner.

A few months ago my buddy asked me an intriguing question: “What note taking system do you use?” He said he was reading a new book on taking better notes… I thought he meant what app do I use. I have about 15 note taking apps on my devices, so I launched into a (yet again, unnecessary) comparative analysis lecture. What we was really asking was about my methodology. It was pretty simple: I annotate books like crazy in my Kindle, using different colours for certain things, then export the notes to plaintext and store them in one of my many note-taking apps. Generally I write only short articles or book reviews, so during writing I usually pull up my highlights in a window on the left, and a bit of an outline on the right, and piece together my draft that way. When I do a book reviews I might read four or five books from the author to get a sense of their ouvre. It is not too difficult to keep all the salient points in my head.

Screencap of book notes. Most are just exports of the annotations from Kindle.
Screencap of book notes. Most are just exports of the annotations from Kindle.

But for writing that relies on more sources, especially longer writing, this approach is impossible. The big thing my approach lacks is connecting what I am reading with other knowledge. I am relying solely on my memory to hold all the relevant points in order to generate insight. And since the human brain is fallible (well, mine at least), the raw materials used to generate insight are constantly receding into the murky past. This results in me being a victim of the “feature-positive” effect, which is when one puts more emphasis on information that they have recently encountered, even if it is not the most relevant (ie. Recency > Relevancy).

My master’s thesis was over a hundred pages, with dozens of references. My current book will be much larger. I needed a better approach. So I asked my friend about that book he was reading…

The Getting Things Done for academics

There are lots of “productivity gurus” out there selling you bunk. I am a guilty sucker ✋, I’ve tried a bunch. The only two I have stuck with, and evangelize still today, are the Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done methodologies (note, Inbox Zero is heavily based on GTD, so it is really just one methodology). GTD saved my life back in 2005 when I was running my first web design company, had too many competing priorities, and was dropping the ball all over the place. The GTD book by David Allen is super popular — because it works. I even mentioned it in my post of Your life-changing books.

So when it came to having a methodology for taking notes so that I could retain more of what I read, and thereby come up with better insights, I started looking at the book recommendation of my friend: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

cover of the book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens

I am not going to write about the how here. It is one of those things that is deceptively simple, and if you read the book you will see its many impacts on learning, thinking, and creativity. However, to sum up the “simple technique” from the subtitle: it is about reading with a pen in hand and recapping the ideas you are reading in your own words in full sentences, then connecting the ideas in those notes to ideas in other notes to build a web of knowledge, and finally putting notes from various sources together to produce writing products like articles, papers, or books.

From a productivity standpoint, it is similar to GTD in that it breaks projects down into discrete, manageable tasks so you won’t freeze up due to your lack of productivity. You focus on the process and not the outcome, which is much more motivating. If each day you are faced the monolithic task of “writing a book,” it is understandable why you can’t leave dirty dishes in the sink and cannot log out of Twitter. But if you set your goal to be simply writing a handful of well-constructed notes each day, that is a much easier task to tackle.

Each day you add notes and make connections, then make notes about the connections. This is where “thinking” happens. This is the work: the productivity that you can easily measure every day. This is the zettelkasten methodology, or what some people call building a “second brain.”

Cartoon with two boxes: the left box is labelled "INFORMATION" and contains a number of randomly distributed dots. The right box is labelled "KNOWLEDGE" and has the same random distribution of dots, but this time each of the dots is connected to at least one other forming a "web of knowledge"
Source

The zettelkasten is the field where you harvest your ideas, your daily productivity is seeding that field with a critical mass of useful notes.

I have been working with this methodology for the past couple of weeks and it has been pretty freeing. Like when you do your first GTD brain dump and feel your stress dissolve because you trust the system, I have been recording all the ideas/facts/data I have been coming across in my system, freeing my brain up for thinking, which is the most enjoyable creative act to me. After reading the book How to Take Smart Notes I see there are many more benefits to using a zettelkasten other than productivity. I feel like it has been life-changing, and it certainly has already impacted the approach I am taking with my new book.

If you want to learn more, in this video the author gives a nice introduction to the concept and its history (at about the 30 minute mark he discusses productivity). That is highly recommended viewing, but I would also recommend the book. It is short, and packed with ideas (it generated 3,300 words of notes in my zettelkasten!).

The Bridges of Nagasaki

In northwest Kyushu, on a peninsula of a peninsula of a peninsula, like a fractal made from prehistoric solidified lava, lies the vibrant city of Nagasaki.

Satellite image of peninsulas, with Nagasaki location labelled
Nagasaki City lies on a branch of three interconnected peninsulas. Two volcanoes can be seen, Unzen to the east, and Taradake to the northeast.

Nestled amongst rugged volcanic hills, Nagasaki is one of the most important ports in all of Japanese history. The narrow bay quickly gives way to steep mountains, carpeted with thick, sub-tropical jungle fauna thanks to the rich soil and humid weather. Here and there buildings cling tenuously to the hillside, almost stacked upon one another.

Street in front of a building, with hill behind and many houses and buildings on a steep hill
The Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. The hill behind gives you a sense of the steepness of the city.

Below are narrow gullies where rivers flow into the bay. The rivers are interconnected by a series of canals, crisscrossed with bridges supporting the movement of people and goods. Higher up, the mountains are connected by bridges and tunnels. Driving into the city from the airport your view constantly alternates between smooth concrete lit by drab fluorescent lights, and soaring vistas of cities, rivers, and farmland below. Just entering the city one sees how Nagasaki has conquered its rocky landscape with feats of infrastructure.

The ruggedness also has its boons too, beyond natural beauty. That craggy geography protected much of the city from history’s second atomic bomb in August 9, 1945. Fat Man was a bigger bomb too. Little Boy, the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan, flattened about 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings, leaving another 6-7% severely damaged. An old teacher of mine was a child living in the suburbs when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. He described to me his memory of coming over the hill to see a total wasteland. He could see all the way to where Hiroshima station used to stand, an unimaginable sight for a 6 year old. It was now a plain of rubble, the only things standing were the occasional telephone pole. A few days later, Nagasaki’s furrowed topography frustrated the Fat Man who could destroy only (!) 40% of its buildings.

That was 75 years ago. Since then the city has built itself back up. Nagasaki has long been a city of industry. A 150 years ago Nagasaki was at the center of Japan’s industrial revolution. Scholars from all over the country would come to Nagasaki to engage in 蘭学 rangaku or “Dutch Studies.” Engineering, medicine, technology — much of the transfer of knowledge from the West happened here in Nagasaki. Specifically on one little island. You just had to get over the bridge.

Continue reading “The Bridges of Nagasaki”

First month at Japanese Elementary school

My feet are soooo sunburnt. It looks like I am wearing crabs for slippers.

It has been one month of Japanese elementary school. My kids have done surprisingly well considering that Japanese is not really their mother tongue. There have been a couple of rough days, but overall they are maintaining a very high level of curiosity and drive.

This is my first time experiencing Japanese elementary school too. Not only am I experiencing through my kids, I am participating more in the school community. Certainly not having a regular job gives me the freedom to volunteer at the school, but Japanese elementary schools drag the parents into all sorts of activities. That is how I got terribly sunburned (more on that later).

Below I thought I would outline our experiences so far, what the kids do each day, what they learn, and then round up with a special event where I helped out at the school. This post is admittedly long — sorry about that! Hopefully I can keep you entertained. Keep in mind of course that whatever I say here can only be representative of our experience: even though the Japanese education system is centralized, there are many small localized variations.

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What are Japan’s Remote Islands (ritō)?

Before coming to Iki on the Remote Islands Exchange program, I didn’t know “remote islands” were. I mean, all of Japan is islands right? In English there is lots of content on “Japanese islands that are remote” but not much on “remote islands”, or ritō, as a singular concept. Now that I live on one of those remote islands, I started to dig in.

How many islands?

Quick quiz! Name the islands that make up Japan!

🤔 Well, there is the main island Honshu which has most of the population and the big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Kyoto. Hokkaido is the big one in the north famous for potatoes and the Ainu indigenous peoples. Tucked under Honshu is Shikoku connected by that really long bridge and the 88 temple, 1200km walking pilgrimage. Then, in the southwest there is Kyushu, from which it is a short ferry ride to Korea. That’s the major four islands. Then of course there is Okinawa, the old Ryukyu Kingdom which was only returned to Japan by the American military in 1973. Those are all the major islands, but there are obviously many more. Like the Senkaku Islands that Japan and China are fighting over, or Takeshima, which the Koreans dispute as Dokdo. The Russians have some claims on the Kuril islands in the north. Then there is that bunny/poison gas island and like 11 cat islands.

Being a “stratovolcanic archipelago” Japan has a lot more islands than you can likely name. In fact, there are 6,852 at the last official count. The vast majority of these are uninhabited, but there are 257 islands[1] where human beings (and cats probably) reside. But they are all important for Japan. I will go into that in a future post, but today I would just like to introduce you to the concept and the geographic context of the ritō.

Continue reading “What are Japan’s Remote Islands (ritō)?”

A successful move to Ikijima, the Lucky Island

In the last post I described moving to Japan during a pandemic. After all that drama we followed up with an inter-prefectural move within Japan under a State of Emergency! The drama never ends around here…

Golden Week is around the beginning of May when a series of holidays fall in place almost almost one after another (a couple of Emperor’s birthdays, Constitution Day, Children’s Day etc.). Many people take the whole week off and travel around the country — either to visit relatives or for tourism — in the beautiful May weather before the rainy season brings the oppressive heat of summer. Since everyone has the same week off, everywhere is packed. But not in the year of coronovirus: the government asked everyone to stay home on their holidays.

The State of Emergency called on April 7th was to go to the end of Golden Week on May 6th. We considered waiting until the SOE had lifted before moving, but feared another outbreak as the country started up again. Travelling while everyone stayed home seemed like the best way to mitigate the risk. We paid attention to the news, and when the numbers came out that the Bullet Train only had about 6% ridership, we decided to head to the island.

It was a good move. We took the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka and there were only a handful of people waiting to get on the train. At most there were 10 people in our car, which had a capacity of 100. Everyone was wearing masks and we disinfected our seating area. It was the plane flight to Japan all over again. By the time we disembarked in Hakata there were only two people other than the four of us in the car.

Shinkansen scenery — shot and edited entirely on my iPhone

The jetfoil to Iki was a similar story. We were the only passengers on the upper deck, which holds about 90 people. Downstairs, I saw maybe another handful of people. Thus, we were able to traverse the 700 kilometers through 7 prefectures safely.

Jetfoil to Iki was pretty empty
All aboard…? An empty jetfoil to Iki.

Staying at Wasabi

We still didn’t have a home to go to though. So we stayed in a local guesthouse we found online called Wasabi. This cool little backpacker’s hostel is situated high up a hill overlooking Ashibe Fishing Port. I took a few photos around the guesthouse and made a little tour video:

[That whole video was shot and edited on my iPad Pro. I was really surprised at the capability!]

We stayed here for a couple of days while we met with the school district to secure our house and finalize the selection of our school. But we took the day after we arrived off to recover from the trip, and the master of Wasabi took us on a quick tour around the island (photos). We only drove around the outer rim of the island and visited a series of white sand beaches, some historical sites, climbed the biggest mountain (212 meters) to take a 360 video, and of course saw the famous Monkey Rock. I plan on going to each of these sites again and taking lots of pics and video, but this was a quick taste test since the weather was really nice (but windy!).

Moving into the house and first day of school

On our second day in Iki, a Thursday, we decided on a house and a school. After two and a half months of basically being homeless, we finally secured a place of our own! Friday was fridge and washing machine shopping, as well as other home stuff, and we picked up the 19 boxes we had sent from Kyoto. On the Saturday we began the move. We were going to take a little more time, but the school district wanted the kids in school for Monday, since school here just started up again after Golden Week and a bit of a hiatus during the State of Emergency (they only had 4 school days during the month of April).

Monday came soon enough as we spent all weekend unpacking boxes and cleaning. During the weekend some neighbourhood kids came over and offered to walk to school with my girls. On Monday morning they came over at 7:05. My kids were up and changed before the alarm went off at 6, and were out the door with big smiles on their faces. A couple of hours later, while cleaning, I came across this note:

To: Mom and Dad. I hope you will have a nice day by yourself. Mom and Dad thank you for letting us go to school.

Since Monday was an auspicious day (金剛峯日) we decided to make that our official move-in day. Thus we waited until then to set up Baba in the butsudan, enshrine the Sun Goddess ofuda we got while in Ise a few months ago, spread some Ise sand around the four corners of our house for purification, then we walked up a nearby hill (which reminded me a lot of that scene from Totoro!) to pay our respects to the local kami who oversees this area.

After planning this for nearly six months, we are finally here, and our island life can finally begin.

On May 4th the Japanese government extended the State of Emergency to the end of May, but already they are letting up restrictions in rural areas where the impact has been limited. Ikijima has not had any infections since the original six people back in early March, and is taking passenger temperatures before they board any ships or planes before heading to the island. There are still many restaurant and hotel closures on the island, and everyone is still wearing masks, but it seems to be pretty much a return to normal life here. We’ve been here for just 1 week and have settled into a house, saw some sites, made some friends, and enjoyed some beautiful weather. So far so good! Now I just need to get my internet and desk sorted, and then I can get down to some serious work.

iMac sitting in empty tokonoma
Current (temporary) workstation

Moving to Japan during a pandemic

We have now spent 1 month in Japan. This post is a bit of a personal update, for friends and family wondering how things are going on the other side of the world, and also to document my experience during the early days of the pandemic in Japan. This is obviously a snapshot, written during the 10th and 11th of April. The situation is constantly changing, so I refrain from adding too many official details.

The first time I moved to Japan, as an exchange student to Ritsumeikan University, it was Y2K. My friend and I had a plan to escape to the small neighnbbourhood grocery store. It was packed full of food, and had a shutter that could be pulled down in a siege. Seemed like a logical place to go…

The second time I moved to Japan was just after 9/11. During the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, I happened to be in Japan for a week visiting my girlfriend (now spouse) before my final semester at university. When all planes were grounded I was stuck here in Kyoto and started looking for a job. I interviewed at my old alma mater, and secured a position in the PR department. The ban on flights lifted, and my new employers let me go back to Canada to finish my degree. I returned on January 2nd, 2002. It was a different world.

The third time I moved to Japan full time was in the aftershock of the financial crisis in 2008. I was just out of grad school, and having a tough time interviewing for jobs in Canada. Luckily, the company I worked for part time in Nagoya (Apple) was willing to give me a full time position.

This is the fourth time I have moved to Japan to stay for an extended period of time. We arrived on March 11th, the 9th anniversary of the Tōhoku Earthquake Triple Disaster. Again, there is a global crisis happening in the background.

Continue reading “Moving to Japan during a pandemic”

The next chapter

Some personal news:

After more than 3 years at eDynamic Learning, I have chosen to leave to pursue some personal projects. My family and I will be spending a year on a small island off the southern coast of Japan (see previous post) “on exchange” while I research and write a book about Kyushu’s “Asia strategy.” (I will go into more details in future posts, so please sign up for updates via RSS or the Newsletter!)

This decision has been a while in the making. Regrettably I have not been able to be very open about it, so it may come as a shock to some people. Furthermore the timing has not been great what with the pandemic and with my mother-in-law passing away a couple of weeks ago. We were lucky to leave Canada when we did considering all the travel restrictions. Right now I am still in Kyoto, and will be for the next few weeks before making the move to Ikijima (which hopefully doesn’t get further postponed due to the looming lockdown here in Japan).

Despite all the challenges I am so excited to finally pursue my long-held dream of writing a book! I will be recording that journey, as well as our experiences living on the “Lucky Island” in Japan, on this site once things get settled down in the coming weeks. Watch out for it!

2020NYinJapan Part 4: Iki

That narrow corridor of water between Japan and continental Asia, the confluence of three seas — East China, Yellow, and the Sea of Japan — is called the Korea Strait. It is about 200km wide, and is bisected by the long and narrow Tsushima Island. From Tsushima, on a clear day, it is said one can see Korea across the Western Channel. In the opposite direction, across the Tsushima Strait, it is a mere 65km jaunt to Kyushu, one of the four major islands of Japan.

The Tsushima Straight bears a heavy historical significance for Japan. It is over Tsushima Strait that a metaphorical “bridge” stretched from Japan to Continental Asia through the ages. The Jōmon Peoples crossed the Straight 14,000 years ago, one of the first settler groups to the Japanese archipelago. Thousands of years later Buddhism and all sorts of Chinese culture crossed over. The straight was plied by wakō pirates for centuries, and the Mongols crossed it a couple times in their attempts to invade. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the “great unifier” of Japan struck out across the Strait on his failed attempts to invade Korea. At the turn of the 20th century, the Straight was the site of a decisive battle between Japan and Russia — the first time an Asian power defeated a Western power in the modern era.

There has been more than just pirate ships, Mongols, and gunboats floating in these waters. In legendary times there was a magical island that roamed around called Iki Island (or Ikijima). The gods decided that was inconvenient and pinned the island within eight pillars (one in the shape of a giant monkey).

In the final foray of our New Year’s trip around Japan, we headed for the “Lucky Island” of Ikijima.

Continue reading “2020NYinJapan Part 4: Iki”

2020NYinJapan Part 3: Ise

In a time before time, the sibling deities Izanagi and Izanami (who were married, but that is a different tale) stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven. They had a jewelled spear which they dipped into the ocean below. After pulling it out, the drops from the spear formed the islands we know today as Japan.

Later, Izanagi was washing his face. When he washed out his left eye he “begat” Amaterasu — the goddess of the sun. Amaterasu’s brother, the god of the wind named Susano-o was begat when Izanagi was washing his nose.

Susano-o was a bit of a bully, and did some really mean things to his older sister. Once, when Amaterasu couldn’t handle things anymore, she hid herself in a cave. This was problematic as she was the sun goddess, so the other gods got together in the dark with a plan and tricked her into coming out using a mirror. There is obviously lots more to the story, but the mirror is important: it becomes one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan.

Amaterasu comes out of the cave
Amaterasu comes out of the cave (Source)

Much later, about 2000 years ago in our history, the daughter of the emperor of Japan at the time set out to find a permanent location for the worship of the Sun Goddess. She settled on Ise, in Mie prefecture, a beautiful area with spectacular sunrises. Two millennia later Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingū) is the most important of Japanese Shinto holy sites, considered the “home” of Amaterasu, and houses the mirror from the myth. It is a primary pilgrimage destination for people all over Japan. Ise Jingū is actually two complexes consisting of 125 shrines to various deities.

We travelled to Ise on the Shimakaze, a very fancy sightseeing train. The weather was fairly chilly, but we warmed ourselves multiple times a day in the hot springs of our hotel, the Kashikojima Hojoen. We ate very well (lots of Japanese spiny lobster — or “Ise Shrimp”) and I took a ton of photos of sunrises.

Continue reading “2020NYinJapan Part 3: Ise”

2020NYinJapan Part 2: Kyoto

Kyoto was a short stop during this trip. We did all of our regular traditions when visiting home: met with family for our own New Year’s, went for hatsumōde at Yasaka Jinja, visited the family grave.

Sun rays on Kyoto tower as we visit the grave
Sun rays on Kyoto tower as we visit the grave

One day I had a couple of hours alone time so I decided to take a little walking tour of a couple of spots that I had recently read about, but had never visited. The first stop was Otafuku, a cafe I have walked by countless times, featured in Merry White’s excellent book Coffee Life in Japan. I had a little jam-toast and a cup of coffee and live-tweeted my observations.

Once fortified with magical java juice, I walked westward down Shijo all the way to Omiya, checking out what was new (Kyoto Apple Store!) and listening to the familiar street sounds of Kyoto. While travelling and walking I never put in my headphones to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. I want the full sensory experience.

From Omiya I turned north and headed towards Nijo Castle, famous for its Nightingale Floor (mentioned in another post). This time I stopped at Shinsen-en, the oldest existing garden in Kyoto. This was the private garden of the Emperor built in 794. But that is not the reason I wanted to visit.

A couple of years ago, during New Years 2017-18, I travelled alone to Mount Kōya, one of the holiest mountains in Japan. (Unfortunately I never wrote a travel log of this amazing experience, but you can see the obligatory Koya-san photoset here). Koya-san is a sprawling temple complex of the Shingon tradition of Buddhism. It was masterminded by the tradition’s founder Kūkai in 819. Kūkai was an amazing person with many legends surrounding him. In fact, his body is still sitting in meditation on Mt Koya right now, 1185 years after his “death.” I spent a lot of time researching him before visiting Koya, and that’s when I learned about one such event in Kyoto.

Kūkai was very famous in his time, and was tipped to run Toji, a very important temple in Kyoto. In 824 there was a long drought in Kyoto, causing all sorts of fear about crop failure and famine. The emperor called on Kūkai for help. It was here, at Shinsen-en, where Kūkai performed the rain-making rite, calling upon the Dragon King who lived in this pond. The temple area of this garden is small, but there is quite a bit to see in the details since it is a curious mix of Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist symbolism and architecture.

After leaving Shinsen-en I walked down Oike, a street I used to live on, and stopped by a very crowded “Money” shrine to pay my respects for the previous year (when I finally became debt free) and the future (who knows!). The crowd was insane, so I just gave a quick bow and word of thanks across the street from the gold torii. From there I walked to Teramachi, swung by Honno-ji to see Nobunaga’s mausoleum and this really creepy statue before heading home.

So much to see in a mere 5km jaunt! I really love Kyoto.

See all photos of Kyoto on Flickr →