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 best of 2019

It has been a couple years since I did a year-end roundup of books and film. This year was one of ups (finally travelled to India) and downs (lost my last living grandparent), of self-reflection (learning about leadership, going on retreat again), and of coming to decisions for closing out the decade and kicking off 2020 (more on that later). In between all those things, I was still able to watch and read some great media that I would like to share with you here.

51 Books

Since I wasn’t teaching this year, I thought I would try and hit a 50 book reading challenge this year. I made it, but just barely. Since I discovered some excellent podcasts my listening time for audiobooks was limited (73% of my books read were in audio). It was probably too frenetic of a pace since there are a few I don’t even remember.

However some had a lasting impact. In fiction, Sadie was the most engaging as an audiobook; I loved finally getting into the lore of the wuxia Condor Heroes; and Lincoln in the Bardo showed me that there is still new ground to break in novel-writing (tip: don’t listen to this one, read it in text it will make more sense).

In non-fic, Another Kyoto was a standout that inspired me to do some “walking and talking” while I am in Japan next year. The Culture Map was a useful business book (review forthcoming), and also in “business” I enjoyed Shoe Dog, which I think is best enjoyed in audio (and which I argue is not really a business book, but tells you a lot about the base mentality of some founders).

I just finished Ibram X. Kendi’s excellent How to Be An Anti-Racist, which I am processing and hope to write a little review of soon.

42 Films

Of the five I rated as 5-stars, only one film wasn’t a rewatch: Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story. In fact 16 of the 42 films I logged were rewatches (lots of Harry Potter and Ghibli films with my kids. I was even able to see Totoro in the theater this year! So brilliant! 😭).

This year I subscribed to the Criterion Channel for a couple of months and was able to see some brilliant films such as Le Cercle Rouge (I loved Le Samouraï), Chunking Express, The Hidden Fortress, and King Hu’s A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn. That is a really great service.

This was the last year of watching MCU movies in the theatre (I have been waiting to get off that train for a while, but I am a completionist). Also the Skywalker saga came to an end, but I will likely continue seeing Star Wars films in the theatre. It is part of my heritage. 🤷‍


See previous entries:

Walking and talking — a review of Another Kyoto

Another Kyoto by Alex Kerr and Kathy Arlyn Sokol

Alex Kerr’s latest book Another Kyoto is another take on an old city, but in an old sort of way. Those of us who read a lot of historical work are conditioned to diligently check each footnote and to closely examine the bibliography (silently judging the book, even before we read it). Non-scholars too expect sources even when doing the daily task of reading an article on Wikipedia! However, Another Kyoto is an oral history, a conversation with a tour guide of deep knowledge, and not beholden to your scholarly standards. He says it right in the Preface:

Much of what I saw may turn out not even to be true. Although it should have been.

That doesn’t fill one with much confidence so early in the book, but Kerr’s conversational tone and profusion of insights (mundane, holy, and profane) draws the reader in quickly. Another Kyoto is a pleasurable read, bursting with knowledge, and it is best to just go along for the ride.

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Trickle-down ethical leadership — a review of The Just King

cover of the book "The Just King"

The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham

Take a moment to think of the good leaders that you have had in your life and/or career. Think of the qualities they possess, the qualities that you admire and might even emulate. I am sure we could come up with a common list of attributes (good communicator, humble, fair, etc). One key attribute I have seen across a number of sources is self-awareness. This not only translates into a mindfulness of how a leader acts around her people (self control, humbleness), but is the basis on which a leader can improve her skills. Even if you have a map to good leadership, if you don’t know where your starting point is…

Self awareness requires self reflection. Taking time to self reflect is one of the valuable tenets of Buddhism, and it is thus why on this year’s meditation retreat I spent time reflecting on what makes a good leader. To facilitate this internal discussion, I thought I would turn to one of the great thinkers in Buddhist philosophy. During my free time between meditation sessions I read The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham.

Mipham was an illustrious polymath of 19th century Tibet who wrote on all sorts of topics, from art to science to religion. The politics of 19th century Tibet are fascinating and turbulent (I highly recommend Tibet by Sam Van Schaik to learn more), and when a new king took the throne in the high pressure region between Tibet and China, Mipham was requested to synthesize all best Buddhist teachings on being a good leader.

The breadth and depth of this book is vast. It covers a couple thousand years of writing on ethics, and puts it into a succinct form. A fairly quick read, it is full of pithy advice for people trying to be better leaders… and better people. At some points I felt that this book could be Mipham flattering his audience. This letter was directed at a king of course, so you cannot deny the power imbalance and potential for that to interfere in this enterprise. Like Machiavelli’s book The Prince, how much of this writing is putting “sweet words” into the mouths of those in power merely for ingratiation? I do not know. Still, there is value in reading The Prince despite its historical purpose. Mipham’s work should certainly not be written off either.

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Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time

cover of audio version of The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) contains two essays. The first, a letter to Baldwin’s teenaged nephew, served as inspiration for Between the World and Me which I extolled not only for the content, but for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ inspirational writing skill. It is like a finger pointing at the moon, and I am glad for Coates directing my attention to all that heavenly glory. “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” written in the early 1960s is still relevant, and not surprisingly, influencing many young Black people today.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”, is much longer, and an elegant rumination of the black politics at the time. I particularly enjoyed Baldwin’s visit to the home of Elijah Muhammad — the anxiety of the experience is palpable — and Baldwin’s analysis of the Nation of Islam’s approach to the Civil Rights Movement. The book is undeniably an American classic, and Baldwin’s skill as a novelist and playwright shines through.

Near the end of his argument, the following passage particularly stood out to me:

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Your life-changing books

Here is the concept: what books have changed your life? I am not talking about your favourite books, or comfort food books that you have re-read over and over again (ahem… Harry Potter series), or even books that you recognize are a masterwork (eg Invisible Man or The Handmaid’s Tale) and deserving of praise. I mean books that, looking back, you see the ingredients for who you are today; books that are waymarkers for your life, turning points that you can say there are distinct periods before and after the book.

Some caveats: self-help books (like Getting Things Done which was transformational for me) don’t count, even though they will motivate you to take action. That also goes for books that inspire you to do (more of) an activity in the short term, like write (eg. Stephen King’s On Writing or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler).

Lastly, I think we should skip over non-fiction books, like history, politics, and biographies. A person often reads these kinds of books with the intention of changing how they think about things, or at least further refining their thought. I think we should limit this to fictional works, which though may be written to affect the reader’s heart, due to the individual’s present life circumstances of which the author can never know, can often do so incommensurately.

So, if you will indulge me in my little game: which novels have changed your life?

Thinking about the various distinct phases of my 40 years in this existence, I trawled through the 600+ books on my Goodreads to see if I could determine the waypoints. However, the truth is, I already knew before even looking. There are only a handful (not sure if that is a good or a bad thing) that have left such an impression on my mind that I think of them often, even though many of them I have only read once. The candidates are below.
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Infliction of Self — a review of The Burnout Society

Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society is a collection of essays reviewing famous thinkers’ (Deleuze, Freud, Arendt, Ehrenberg, et alia) thinking about the ailments of society in an attempt to diagnose what ails now. Each essay builds towards an argument with a number of subtle nuances. At only 72 pages, this is the perfect book-club book as I am sure it would provoke much discussion despite the linguistic armour that so much German philosophy enshrouds its critical ideas in (an armour that I cannot claim to have pierced, but I still found this book to be very thought-provoking).

The argument centers around Han’s concept of the individual as a “late-modern achievement-subject” that is:

  1. self-deluded into thinking just because they are not dominated by a person or by duty, they are free;
  2. the highest expression of freedom is to produce which is exactly what the capitalist system wants,
  3. therefore people are self-exploiting themselves and thus burning out.

It is a damnation of the hyper-individualization/atomization of society. Some key quotes:

Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it.

The capitalist system is switching from allo-exploitation to auto-exploitation in order to accelerate.

and some zingers:

The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking” does not represent civilizational progress.

In social networks, the function of “friends” is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.

(ahem, follow me on Twitter…)

Most of the book serves to contextualize the factors that lead to such an ill society.

Why I liked this book

Even though this book can be glibly summed up as “late-stage capitalism is bad,” I found the discussion valuable, especially Han’s arguments for boredom and the vita contempliva. His whole discussion about humans being reduced to animal laborans and feeling that they need to “Just do something… anything!” hits me as I come out of a meditation retreat where we were encouraged to “do nothing … really good.” In fact, my years of “mastering” information overload, of being an “efficient” consumer (eg. listening to audiobooks/podcasts while doing other tasks), is a good example of the symptoms that ail burnout society. It is “deadly hyperactivity” as Han puts it. He reminds us that:

We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention.

and:

… deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available.

Furthermore, it does not lead to a good life. He uses an Aristotle quote to remind us that the capitalist society is not concerned with the Good Life, that it “absolutes survival” turning you into an animalistic machine, scratching out a mere existence of socially prescriptive productivity. Putting it bluntly he states:

In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside.

Well, I am off to meditate and try and turn that “work camp” into a garden of happiness.

Activist Buddhism — a review of A New Buddhist Path

Since the age of 3, I have been interested in other peoples. Apparently that was the age when I toddled up to the television, pointed to the evening news, and stated: “I am going to Tokyo.” All throughout my travels and my education I have pursued some understanding about “how the world works,” about human interactions, about how communities navigate a world filled with other communities.

With two people you have a conversation, with three you have a society.

I don’t know the origin of that saying, but it lies at the heart of how I try to understand our world: war, technology, economics… each boils down to politics — not the electoral kind, but the interpersonal kind.

So, in my study of Buddhism, it is natural that I should approach it from a political perspective, especially since so much of our common (Western) understanding of Buddhism seems apolitical: people shaving their heads, retiring to isolated mountain monasteries and renunciating the world. Surely Buddhist political thought cannot simply rely on “social transformation through personal transformation”? Surely they do not believe the way to bring about a more equitable world is for everyone to  become Buddhist?

Beliefs such as those have literally caused wars.

I became curious to find out the Buddha said on how society should be structured. The enlightened one had great advice for sickness, old age and death. What advice did he have for the social, economic, and political ills society suffers from?

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A hypercompetitive race — review of The History of White People

cover_history_of_white_people

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

By default, any book claiming to be a history of “white” people must necessarily be a history of “race science.” Surely one must clearly define the boundaries of your subject? It is Nell Irvin Painter’s careful historiography of those shifting boundaries that make up most of this book. She deftly describes the classification and reclassification of races depending on the background of the classifier, and the contemporary political environment, and relates many shocking facts that are typically glossed over in other types of social history.
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Best of 2016

2016 has been a tumultuous year, for both the entire world and for me personally. I have categorized some of the best hits and big changes below into three categories: Life, Posts and Media.

Life

Death and rebirth

This year we had a cancer scare in my family which made me put community activity on hold for a few months while we waited for test results (maybe I should write a post about how we were totally failed by the Canadian medical system, and had to get this sorted out in Japan?). I had to leave ORCA, which was sad because I think they do important work. I stopped playing D&D. There were many serious talks.

However, two good things came out of this: first, it doesn’t look to be cancer. Second, it made me rethink my life. What they say about near-death experiences is true.

New job

After 4 years in startupland, 3 of which dealing with adtech, I finally moved on to a new, more stable (and less morally hazardous) work environment. My new company is in a massive growth phase, so I get to use a lot of my startup skills. The nice thing is they have lots of customers and resources and experienced executives, making it a much easier to execute.

Vegetarianism

On December 28th 2015, I decided to stop eating meat. A year has passed and I am still not eating it, and am pretty happy about the decision. I wrote about why at the 6 months mark →

Travel

I had the opportunity to visit Texas for the first time, and learned a bit about that state’s history, and of America’s as a whole. My wife and I also took a getaway to the Sunshine Coast, where we could delve a little into BC’s aboriginal history.

This year we took two trips to Japan (I am still on one as I write this). Since we stay in Kyoto, the city of temples, I took both opportunities to explore Japanese Buddhism. Here are a couple of posts exploring the issue:

Public appearances

Early this year I did a couple of radio interviews: one on downsizing and one on Syrian refugees. I was on a public panel about transportation. Lastly, and totally randomly, I was on local TV news.

Posts

blog-posts-by-year-2009-2016

This year was a good one for blogging. I have 54 posts (including this one) for 2016, which is an uptick over recent years. Starting a newsletter to help people who do not use Twitter or RSS to help keep up gave me some more motivation to write, holding me accountable to a schedule. Also, I hit 500 posts this year since starting in early 2009. Lots of introspection about how my thinking has changed over the years here.

Standout posts for the year include:

Media

53 films

The Force Awakens (second viewing) was my first film of 2016. Rogue One (first viewing) was my last. Well, the first 45 mins of it anyways, since my (not quite) 5 year old got a little too scared and we had to leave. I am sure I will get another opportunity to see it.

In February and March I went on a tear and watched a bunch of Oscar-related films which was just about the deepest, non-Marvel non-superhero, non kids watching I did. Standout films include:

62 books

This year I set out to discover new podcasts and Great courses, so I originally set my Goodreads challenge low, to like 30 books. I was still reading a lot, so I kept having to up the challenge. But now when I look back, 20 of those 62 books were graphic novels (including the 8 volume series on the Buddha reviewed here), which means I actually didn’t hit my final goal of 45 books. Also, only 10 of those 42 books were in text form, making my audiobook ratio 76%, which is pretty high, even for me.

I read a lot on Syria, about Marxism and leftist politics, and a lot about Buddhism this year. It is a reflection of the ever-changing perspectives and interests of someone trying to live the examined life (or write the examined blog at least).

My standout books this year are as follows: