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"

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.

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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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