Separation of reading and note-taking

Have recently been wondering how you are supposed to separate the process of reading from the process of taking down notes of what you’re reading.

My idea of this separation followed Jordan Peterson’s description: generally involves reading then closing the book to think about what I’ve read before taking notes. I read a few sentences or a paragraph, then write down what I’m thinking in my own words. With this workflow, I have to be intentional with when and where I do this as I would need to have my computer with me while I read.

About a week ago, @AlexanderSavenkov introduced me to a different kind of separation (a Twitter thread from Tiago Forte). Upon my initial understanding of the workflow, I started highlighting text while reading, and I would take notes about those highlights later instead. This workflow gave me more freedom and less pressure when reading which allowed me to do so while eating and also worry less when I don’t take in all of the information immediately. This, I thought, was a better way of separating reading from note-taking.

Unfortunately, when I revisit my highlights to write notes, I sometimes forget why certain passages struck me in the first place, making it harder for me to write. And so for me, this workflow reduces the friction for reading but adds more to the note-taking process.

In either of these workflows, I’m very slow at making progress with the book I’m reading. Currently reading Sonke Ahren’s How to Take Smart Notes, it’s been a month since I started and still less than halfway through it. Not sure if this is a problem with the separation (it’s the first book I’ve read where I took notes seriously, so perhaps it’s the lack of practice), but the second workflow gave me the impression that I could get through the book faster. And upon my second look at Tiago Forte’s Twitter thread, I read that he first read the book cover to cover before actually doing his note-taking, which seems to allow me to get through the book faster but also adding even more friction to note-taking.

Would love to hear your thoughts on how to go about separating these two processes.

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Also, my highlighting process involves using a different color for the book’s main points and a different one for its supporting ideas, which at least segregates the more important highlights from the less important ones, or so I thought. Unfortunately, I end up highlighting a lot of the supporting ideas while the main point is not enough to explain itself, so I’d have to reread a lot of the text.


Since I’m read with e-books, I have the option to add notes to these highlights, but I only do so when a note-worthy thought is triggered from what I read but not in the book itself. Perhaps using this feature more can reduce the friction from note-taking.

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I am currently using the first strategy that you mentioned. Yes, it is slow, because reading a page or so and then think about what it’s really saying and taking notes on that is inherently a slow process.

This is because sometimes the mental picture that you’ve built so far (into the book) isn’t sufficient to understand the current thing that you’re trying to understand. To overcome this, I employ a strategy to hold back my natural tendency to dive into things that I don’t find convincing, and instead keep on reading until either the authors explain a missing key, or my brain works something out in the background.

Of course, this shouldn’t be abused, otherwise you’re just shallowly reading the whole thing, but when you’re stuck, it’s likely to be a rational choice to proceed in faith that you will understand it once more information are made available.

One similar concept to this is Simulated Annealing. The global maximum is the point where both information and brain’s processing power are best utilized and understanding (or insight, or knowledge) is obtained. Getting stuck at a spot where you don’t understand something is like getting stuck at a local maximum, the strategy used in Simulated Annealing is to make large jumps (initially) that would get you out of that local maximum, where you have a better chance to approach the global maximum. This large jump is analogous to the leap of faith you take when you keep on reading despite not having understood something.

As time progress, you make smaller jumps. Towards the end of the book, you may want to slow down. because information at this stage tend to be more packed and built upon preceding introduced information, so slowing down and unpacking all of that seems like a rational strategy.

Hope that helps !

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Unfortunately, when I revisit my highlights to write notes, I sometimes forget why certain passages struck me in the first place, making it harder for me to write. And so for me, this workflow reduces the friction for reading but adds more to the note-taking process.

I kinda do progressive summarization (also a concept by Tiago Forte) to get around that.

  1. Write down detailed notes.
  2. Revisit them a couple of days later, and rewrite them to be a bit more concise.
  3. Repeat step two again after a few days.

That way each note starts with just a couple of main points (mostly 3-5) that I feel like I want to get as a result when I’m opening the note, allowing me to quickly capture the essence. If I feel like I need more than that, I just scroll a bit down, allowing me to see the context that surrounds it.

As for the reading part, I kind of do both. Basically read a chapter or two highlighting the text, then re-visit the highlights and try to capture the essence of a chapter in my notes. Sometimes a chapter is insignificant enough for me that I won’t write down a single note, but I’d say on average it doesn’t take me more than 10 min to reflect on a chapter and write down notes related to it.

I also make sure to always paraphrase things differently instead of writing down quotes, unless the quote really sticks to me and I feel like I might want to re-use it (for example, quote it somewhere in an article).

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Few books are worthy of many notes.

Highlighting can be an easy way of increasing the information density, but they’re still part of a source not a note.
You can tag with little effort.
Only make a proper note when you have a thought you know is worth it. You can link it to a highlight and/or the original text.

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@3mbry0, I’m sorry for causing the confusion. You’ve mentioned a few points in your post:

  1. Separating reading from note-taking.
  2. Petersen vs. Forte.
  3. Having your computer with you while reading.
  4. Taking information immediately vs. taking information later.
  5. Forgetting what your notes were about when you come back to them.
  6. Less effort for reading vs. more effort for note-taking.
  7. Progressing slowly through your books.
  8. Highlighting for main points and for supporting points.

I took the liberty to recombine them into How We Read and Why We Read to to reflect on the issues that you faced. I came up with the following text that builds on other people’s stuff in this thread and tries to advance the thinking behind reading and note-taking a little bit.


How We Read

Separating Reading from Note-taking

Petersen vs. Forte

Honestly, I don’t see a fundamental contradiction between the systems of Forte and Peterson. Ultimately, as a lot of people point out, it’s us and our workflow that matters, these guys only offer the options that work for them and don’t necessarily work for us. And, by coincidence, what they are suggesting are mainly techniques, whereas what we need is an understanding of the underlying principles to consciously apply them to our own workflow.

E.g., while trying to make his point stronger in the video that you shared, professor Peterson says that we shouldn’t be taking any notes while he’s lecturing (while seeing a movie, while reading a text etc.). Instead, he claims, we have to wait for him to finish and then take the notes. This could be harmful if taken literally: what if we have an interesting thought while he’s speaking? What if we see a connection to other ideas while reading a text or seeing a video? Of course we should immediately grab a pen and write down our note about this exact piece, otherwise there’s a good chance it’s lost forever.

On the other hand, Mr. Forte suggests (see extended description) that we have to go through five stages of summarization for certain pieces of information and do a lot of highlighting while reading. Again, taken to the extreme, this quickly becomes an overkill. There are plenty of books out there that are not worth the time to read, let alone highlight. If the book is easy to grasp, I, for one, will just jump to level 4 or 5 directly. If the book is complex, I might go through two or three stages of summarization, but never five. It’s not uncommon that a book is so poorly written, that we shouldn’t be summarizing it at all and stop wasting time reading it ASAP.

Taking Information Immediately vs. Taking Information Later

I don’t remember what are the exact scientific terms for that, but what we actually do is not merely reading or note-taking. These are only instances for information consuming (along with listening, watching a video, taking a webinar etc.) and information processing aka converting information into knowledge (along with discussing something with a friend, writing a forum or a blog post about something, doing something we discovered with own hands etc.).

These processes require different states of mind and thus our workflow should be designed to separate them. The way we separate them should be adaptable to the situation however. That’s the underlying principle of both methods and that’s how we can come up with a unified method.

So, as per Peterson:

  1. Listen / read (consuming).
    2.1. Write in our own words after finishing a certain chunk (processing).
    2.2. Simultaneously hook with memory with context questions (processing and linking).
    Aim: remember as much as possible.

Then, according to Forte:

  1. Listen / read (consuming).
  2. Take notes and highlights while listening / reading (a bit of processing).
  3. Progressively summarize our notes in several attempts (further processing).
    Aim: to understand as much as possible and to be able to find (discover) the notes later.

Finally, best from both worlds with a pinch of Zettelkasten:

  1. Listen / read (consuming).
  2. Initial processing:
  • When we feel like deep reading and when we can relatively easily grasp the content and when we have good working environment, we read a certain chunk, then summarize with hooks according to Petersen and we don’t forget to cleverly link our notes to other notes according to Zettelkasten (processing and linking).
  • When we feel like shallow reading, or or when the text seems really complex, or when we don’t have good means for deep work (during taxi ride, didn’t sleep well etc.), we highlight for later analysis according to Forte (a bit of processing). We then summarize and link as per Zettelkasten when we’re in more productive mood and conditions (further processing).
  1. We come back to our notes from time to time to improve them and to further interlink them (even further processing).
    Aim: understand and remember the core ideas, take notes to find details later if ever required, develop our own “model of the world”.

Having Your Computer With You While Reading

Switching between different mediums is likely to kill our productivity and our flow.
Reading a paper book? Highlight with a pen or pencil, create our own system of icons, do quick notes on a sheet of paper (referencing the page number) or in the book itself. I once read about a guy who prepared to read a book and take notes by altering book pages with blank sheets he would cut beforehand. Besides, there’s probably an additional perk of having our initial notes in handwriting. You only need your computer when you further process your notes, i.e. rework them, interlink them and prepare for discoverability.

Reading on an e-book reader? Not being a fan of them, I can only assume that switching between a reader and a computer can also be tiresome and laborious. I’d try e-book + paper. Or do e-book-only highlights and notes, then process within Obsidian or other tool of choice. In fact, we’re all hostages of today’s half-baked and mind-unfriendly tools. Notice how Tiago has to go thru the pain of getting his notes over from Kindle to Evernote, hence probably is why he only does summarization after reading a complete book. It doesn’t necessarily has to be this way.

Highlighting for Main Points And for Supporting Points

Having said all this, I’m not sure how to comment your point on different highlighting for main and for supporting points. For me, it only becomes apparent if the point is main or supporting after some initial processing. I’m not sure I immediately grasp this when reading or highlighting.

If your highlights give you nothing, why bother highlighting? Also note, sometimes it’s the case that the author doesn’t get the difference him or herself, e.g. makes some minor point and “dances” around it extensively, at the same time barely mentioning a huge point or an underlying principle.

Why We Read

Despite what we’re often told, it’s really hard to describe the end goal in the first place. We usually have a very vague understanding in the beginning, then slowly shape this “thought cloud” into more and more substantial matter. However, if we don’t reflect about the goal, we never come up with anything meaningful.

So what is the purpose of our reading? Do we want to be world-class experts on anything? Do we want to employ some of the techniques for our own studies or job? Do we want to get some insights from completely different field to merge into our field of work? We probably don’t get a clear answer right away, but the process of goal-setting is valuable by itself, it will shape our reading and note-taking style gradually.

Progressing Slowly Through Your Books

If I’m starting a completely new research area for myself, every piece of information will be tough to consume for me and will take a lot of time. On the contrary, if I’m reading a book on a subject that I’ve read a hundred articles / dozens of books about already, I will definitely have very few highlights unless a book is a real masterpiece and will progress much faster through any piece of content.

Also, I’m not sure that “being slow at reading” applies here. In my view, it’s perfectly fine to slowly read a few curated sources than to jump through hundreds of social media posts or rubbish articles.

I will only jump through the articles if I need to have a general understanding of the topic in a short amount of time. Even then, I’ll try to find one or two well-written pieces and stick to them reading slowly. Later, I can expand my knowledge building on the links from those well-written sources.

Less Effort for Reading vs. More Effort for Note-taking

This one should read “less effort consuming, more effort thinking and creating”. I think you’re learning a lot, if you have some much to document from a book. However, make sure your ways of reading and note-taking align with your learning goals as described above. If they do, let it take as much time as necessary. If they don’t, cut them right away.

Forgetting What Your Notes Were About When You Come Back to Them

To me, that’s a signal that something is wrong with the notes. If that only applies to highlights, chance are you’re highlighting too much. Again, it’s fine for a book from a completely new area. For familiar stuff, I always try to remember that I’m not documenting the world, I’m trying to distill information into my own knowledge to build my own “model of the world”. I also try to write those notes as if I was explaining something to a different person, in fact that person is my future self.

For me it also applied to notes sometimes. I ended up adding a piece of metadata to each note with some internal context which helps to remember why at all I bothered to write something. Note how Petersen adds a lot of context to his notes with questions like “how does this idea relate to other ideas I know”, “what is its significance for this idea”, “do I believe it ”, “how might I criticize it”. He then explains that he’s “attaching little memory hooks to it in in five different ways”.

P. S.

Reading after a certain age diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking…
— Albert Einstein, “What Life Means to Einstein: An Interview by George Sylvester Viereck” The Saturday Evening Post (26 October 1929), p. 17.

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What a great post! You clarify all the process variables for us. Thank you so much.

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What a great thread,

Tbh I am still not sure about the answer.
I think maybe just speed-reading the book once before taking-notes is a reasonable advice, it’s a advice that I found in How to Read a Book (which btw is a good source that I noticed @AlexanderSavenkov mentioned too). I think at the end of the day all of this methods and standards needs a thorough personal testing because ultimately It depends on personal goals and conditions.

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