On Learning

If what you are about to read interests you in the slightest, and I hope it does, I need you to repeat and remind yourself over and over again, there is no such thing as a perfect system. I have been working on this piece for a while now, and I am sharing this process because it will help me learn and synthesize my understanding of the matter and I also want to help people that may also be in the same situation I am, hungry to do more with the thoughts and information echoing in our brains. There hasn’t been a moment in our world’s history where we have had access to as much information as we do today. This access is undoubtedly going to increase over the rest of our lifetimes. This post is about distilling the most important information to us, but in a way that allows us to learn and change because of what we are learning. Now let’s begin.

Introduction

Every once in a while a new tool will come along and change the way we do things. Around the end of December, I came across a new app called Craft. The discovery of this app was transformative and came to me at the perfect time. Around the middle of 2020 I discovered a new wave of software tools that are commonly referred to as “PKM” or Personal Knowledge Management. The two more commonly discussed applications in this world are Obsidian and Roam Research. These tools are meant to be a database or personal wiki for all the things you learn, do, and plan to do. Some people use them as a hybrid of both a productivity system (To-Do, meeting notes, etc.) and collection of personal notes (books, articles, journals, papers, etc.) Sometime in the fall I started to give Obsidian a try, but ran into a few hurdles. It only had a desktop application (there is now a mobile app in beta) and you had to use some workarounds to get it to sync properly with other devices, to name just a couple. Craft launched in November with an app on Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Their 1.0 release was so impressive that I immediately ditched Obsidian and went all in on Craft. The level of excitement I had for this app was frankly embarrassing because I lost sleep at night for weeks staying up thinking about all the different ways I could connect my learning. That is what this is all about.

After a month of playing around with the tool I quickly recognized some personal queues that I had learned from when I started to get into stationery (one of my hobbies) and frankly other things as well. I have a tendency to obsess over new and exciting things that I know will make me happy and help me accomplish the things I want to do. This obsession takes over into hours of research, forum questions, videos, and thinking, which then leads to what I call ‘new system anxiety’. This is where I worry so much about doing something the “wrong” way that I waste time and don’t even end up using the thing I sought to use in the first place. This happened when I started to get excited about the discovery of new stationery tools. I have learned the hard way (having lost time using great tools) that there is no perfect system and the only way to learn how a system will work best for you, is to just get after it and experiment. Learn to be okay with changing, daily if need be, and doing what is best for you. There is no right or wrong way.

Zettelkasten

If you begin the journey of learning about how to better understand what you read or consume, the chances are very high that you will come across the ‘Zettelkasten Method’. Every video or article you find will undoubtedly take a few minutes to introduce you to a German sociologist named, Niklas Luhmann. He was a thinker that was very productive, creating over 70 books and 400 scholarly articles, all because of his highly productive ‘Zettelkasten’ system (German-to-English translation: Slip-Box). Lastly, the other resource that is unanimously connected with the Zettelkasten system is the book from 2017 titled, “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 read this book a couple of months ago as part of my journey in learning how to be a better notetaker and knowledge worker. But, now is the time to remind you again, there is no such thing as a perfect system. I am saying this again because I too need to be reminded of that truth. One of the disappointing facts about reading how to do something “better” is that writers can make it feel like their way is the only “right” way to do something. When reading this book I found myself feeling guilty for not taking notes in the exact way Ahrens suggests. But, I’ve come to a healthy acceptance with knowing that it is perfectly okay for me to adapt these ideas and practices to my own way of thinking and processing information.

In summary, the Zettelkasten method is used to help you be a better writer and producer of your synthesized notes because you are constantly writing for your future self. You can pull together a rough draft almost instantly and never approach an essay or paper with a blank page. It is brilliant enough of an idea that when you learn about it, you have to ask yourself why you haven’t always been engaging with your notes this way.

In Ahrens’ book he teaches you about the effectiveness of each type of note used for this system: fleeting notes, literature notes, and permanent notes. The follow is a hyper-condensed summary of each note, as I understand them:

Fleeting Notes — Quick, small, and meant to capture those thoughts and ideas that come and go faster than you can even process them

Literature Notes — Meant to be short, in your own words, expands upon the details of what you are reading, and contain a record of the source mediums bibliographic information (i.e., book information, page number, etc.)

Permanent Notes — the most important part of the process, you build upon your fleeting & literature notes, connect these ideas to other ideas and topics in your knowledge base, and written in complete sentences.

These different notes represent different stages of the note-taking process. It is incredible to think that when Luhmann created his Zettelkasten system he didn’t have access to the software tools that we have today. All of his notes were done on paper notecards and stored in boxes.

Another pioneer in this field of work is Andy Matushak who actively shares their process with this note-taking method and thankfully, is an example of breaking away from tradition and doing it slightly differently. For example, he calls permanent notes: ‘evergreen notes’. Matushak is a fantastic writer, and you can get lost in his clever website. If you are interested why he believes in calling them evergreen notes, read here.

Okay, let’s keep going, I promise to explain why learning about the Zettelkasten method has helped me on my journey to being a better knowledge worker.

Craft

Craft is a notes/documents app based out of Budapest, Hungary 🇭🇺

I was first introduced to it from this blog post by Chiara Cokieng. It is a small post but ended up having a profound impact on my life because I was introduced to exactly the type of tool I was looking for. I was on the search for a note-taking app that allowed me to take notes on all of my devices while also connecting to other documents with the use of backlinks, easily share and collaborate with others (if needed), and I wanted it to be simple and elegant (unlike the Obsidian I was trying to learn during my discovery).

Backlinks are the hot new feature being included in almost every new note-taking app. For those that are not familiar with the phrase, it simply is a software tool that allows you to connect a piece of text to another document or text in another document. Think of how Wikipedia works and how links take you to other pages or section of a page. This feature allows you to easily do the same with your own notes. It also helps you create new documents on the go as you think of new things to write about.

As I write this, Craft is now on version 1.5.5 and each update has packed a load of new features and improvements. They add a detailed list of what changes come to their “What’s new” guide every time there is a new update (which is usually on a two-week cadence). It is also a fantastic way to showcase their app because that entire webpage is created in Craft. The developers are extremely responsive to feedback and there is already a supportive community in the company’s Slack channel. So many of my questions regarding this new frame of thinking have been answered by others in the Craft community.

Craft is only available on iOS/macOS for now, but they did just create a waitlist for those that want to beta test a ‘Web Editor’, meaning that you could use Craft in a browser on a different platform. For me, the app has met all my needs and much more. Remember, this system is what works for me. What I am trying to do, is introduce you to a set of “principles over prescriptions” as Tiago Forte teaches in his course “Building a Second Brain”.

Principles

One of the most influential mentors in my journey has been the just mentioned Tiago Forte. He is a great teacher in that he emphasizes ‘the why’ rather than just ‘the how’ when it comes to learning. I have not had the privilege of taking the course he leads twice a year, but he also gives out the majority of his work for free in blog posts and YouTube videos. I have been self-teaching and practicing this work for a few months now and learning bit by bit. Dozens of others have taken a lot of the philosophies that Tiago teaches and have shared it in their own words too. Ali Abdaal has plenty of videos showcasing his spin on collecting, organizing, distilling, and expressing (CODE, one of Forte’s methods). I would recommend watching his videos on The Second Brain and How I Remember Everything I Read. I am curious what stage some of you would align yourselves within the latter video?

The following are some of the principles I have been learning across the field of Zettelkasten, PKM, Taking Smart-Notes, and Second-Brain methods:

The Collector’s Fallacy

If one is to start building a second brain or become a knowledge worker, they will consistently be caught with the dilemma and question of, WHAT DO I SAVE AND WHERE? Too often we will find ourselves collecting and collecting and collecting, of course with good intentions to spend a weekend going through everything we collected. Of course this never happens. We file browser-tab-bankruptcy, save all the links we intended to read in another location and burn out. When we just collect things it makes us think that we also know about a topic when in reality we are just aware of something not fully understood to us.

“Just knowing about a thing is less than superficial since knowing about is merely to be certain of its existence, nothing more. Ultimately, this fake-knowledge is hindering us on our road to true excellence. Until we merge the contents, the information, ideas, and thoughts of other people into our knowledge, we haven’t really learned a thing. We don’t change ourselves if we don’t learn, so merely filing things away doesn’t lead us anywhere.” (The Collector’s Fallacy)

When a system like this is used correctly it can be a place for synthesizing and connecting the things that matter rather than a place of digital clutter.

At the start of my journey I wanted to web-clip, bookmark, and store everything I came across in the hopes that I would “use it someday”. The same phrase is spoken by hoarders who collect every little thing they find with the hopes of it having utility someday. There needs to be a balance. The habit of collecting everything you find on the Internet will also burn you out and cause you to think that it is possible to learn everything there possibly is to learn in this life. As much as I wish that was true, it is not. Collect what matters. Doing so will prevent the every other month digital bankruptcy I mentioned before. Whatever tool you settle on for using as your second brain, it should be a place for storing the things you are learning and wrestling with.

Lastly, Andy Matushak says it so well, “Accumulating tabs, saving PDFs, and making bookmarks feels like progress, but we systematically overrate its value. Understanding requires effortful engagement; you are not likely to draw much understanding from a folder of barely skimmed PDFs. We collect material because it’s easy, and because it quells the anxiety that we’ll never find what we’re looking at again. But really, we’re often just making things worse, burying important materials in tons of secondary matter we just “don’t want to lose.” This notion is in contrast to Knowledge work should accrete.”

Projects over Categories

Your work should lead to something sharable with the world. No matter how small or big. What is the purpose of deep learning if all you do is keep your knowledge for yourself? An unknown number of people in this world have spent their lives reading hundreds of book and articles. They highlight, underline, write in the margins, then put the books back on the shelf, never to engage with those ideas again. It helps no one. My heart hurts to think of the influence these silent knowledge workers could have in the world!

I’m not saying that you need to go on the Internet and share all of your thoughts/learns. I’m not even saying that you need to publish anything at all. But how much better would the world be if you talked about what you learn with others? This can be done in whatever fashion is best suited for you and your circumstances. But think about how much more engaging your conversations with your friends could be? Dinner parties, family gatherings, street encounters, etc.

Stoics, Junius Rusticus and Arrian of Nicomedia, were pulled away from their books by other Stoics for fear of them becoming “mere pen-and-ink philosophers”. We cannot simply consume, organize, and distill and go about our life not sharing our learns with others.

This is why it is important you organize your work into projects instead of just categories. Siloing your notes in different blanket categories will not help you connect them to ideas and prevent you from connecting them to notes that may loosely correlate. It creates a lot of friction when it comes to actually working with your knowledge and improving the world because of it. Of course, this is easier said than done and in some small intenseness a category here and there is necessary. Yes, this method is a prescription. But the principle is more important because what I share may not work for you.

Habits & Routines are Vital

“Even the best tool will not improve your productivity considerably if you don’t change your daily routines the tool is embedded in, just as the fastest car won’t help you much if you don’t have proper roads to drive it on.” — Sönke Ahrens

Our lives are busy and with the blurring of work/home life it can be extremely hard to focus on the river of content coming in and out of our lives. For me, the only way I can survive and not feel overburdened by the abundance of life is through routines and habits that change with my circumstances.

I have found that the only way I can be productive in my personal endeavors (learning, family, relationships, health, hobbies, and more) and my knowledge work is to constantly evaluate my morning routine, nightly routine, weekly review/preview, and yearly theme. These routines include steps like clearing my inboxes of fleeting notes so that the good ones are kept, and the bad ones are thrown away. The ideas that are kept are then connected to other ideas and so forth.

There is no ‘magic pill’

I keep repeating that there is no perfect system. There are two reasons why I keep reminding you of this:

  1. Your system needs to match the way you think and work, meaning that the way someone does something will and should differ from the way you process and distill information
  2. Expecting a single application to be a magic pill and contain every single thing you need to be a productive knowledge worker is a fallacy. Humans naturally want a one-size-fits-all-quick-fix solution to every problem they encounter. Our brains are wired to try to take the fastest and easiest route possible. Just look at how popular health culture diets and fads become (and quickly fall). For me to be productive at capturing what I consume and then what I think requires the use of pen and paper, multiple apps, and routines. The faster you learn that utilizing a spread of tools is much better than trying to find one tool that does it all, the better off you will be.

Yes, Craft was monumental for me in being able to connect my notes and to be a better note-taker. But, all of this can be done on paper or with other digital tools. The possibilities for being a smarter note-taker are infinite. My workflow section (seen below) will showcase the tools I use to be a better learner.

Summarization is Key

The Zettelkasten method is brilliant because it forces you to write your processing in your own words. Yes, the thing you were told repeatedly throughout grade school. The book I mentioned before, ‘How to Take Smart Notes’, reiterates over and over again the importance of storing what you learned and not what something says. The author repeatedly emphasized to avoid the allure of saving and storing quotes. Technically, a true Zettelkasten system has references to where to find quotes but does not store them. I disagree with this, as I like to store my highlights and quotes for later, but I also try to add notes to them, adding my understanding and context. I am creating a mixture of a digital commonplace book and second brain.

There is no better way to learn than to summarize what concepts you learn from a book, story, article, video, etc. Nat Eliason and Derek Sivers both offer grate examples of how to effectively summarize books (those links don’t tell you how but are their very own book notes, shared with everyone.)

Remember, one of the reasons for this way of working is to help your future self. Our brains are not meant to remember everything. If what you write is too vague or too compressed it will not make sense to your future self. Tiago Forte teaches a practice called, progressive summarization. This principle involves the routine of engaging with different topics and projects over a long period of time and having multiple layers of highlighting. I am in the process of still learning what works best for me in this arena because his end-to-end approach does not work for me.

Another learn for me has been going back through my highlights weeks and months after I read something. Things that end up being truly meaningful float to the top and are then ready for safekeeping and connecting. One example, after I am done reading a book and I have collected all of my highlights, I will come back to them at a later time and then highlight those highlights and even remove ones that I don’t think are really necessary. This helps weed out highlights about things I already know well and focus on topics I am still learning or know nothing about.

Nothing is Set in Stone

One process that has helped me with building my second brain has been the PARA method for organization. This system is taught by Tiago Forte and transformed the way I organize multiple apps in my life and both my professional and personal digital workspaces.

PARA:

  • A project is “a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline.”
  • An area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.”
  • A resource is “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.”
  • Archives include “inactive items from the other three categories.”

The principle of this method is that nothing digital should be set in stone. With PARA, the location of your notes are changing and evolving with their use-case. Nothing digital has to be permeant. Erica Albright, a character in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) says, “The Internet’s not written in pencil… It’s written in ink.” This may be true for things published online, but this is not true for your personal digital library. The Dewey Decimal System should not and does not apply here. A detailed explanation of how to use this system can be found, here.

One of the hardest parts of this new way of thinking has been learning to be okay with changing the folders, names, and location of my files/notes… For whatever reason, my experience with computers has always been that when I set up a system for organization it has needed to stay that way, of course with some exceptions. Files stay in the folders they are put in and are moved if only necessary. I now think of things as they are in the real world. With physical projects and analog artifacts, they are moved into different drawers and folders and brought to the desk and upper-shelves when needed. Titles are erased or scratched out and changed to something better. PARA helps you prioritize and access the projects you are currently working on, the areas that you are currently devoted to, the resources you need for later, and an archive of your notes that won’t be needed anymore. All of this is moveable. Your areas of focus can become projects, projects can change focus, things can be brought out of the archive, you get it. Change is necessary. This is not a marriage. Apps do not last forever. Your notes and file structure are written in pencil, not ink.

Conclusion

One thought that I have had repeatedly throughout this new journey is, I wish so badly that I started to learn this is middle school. I can think of no better way to prepare a student to become a better critical thinker and lifelong knowledge worker. Imagine if all of us started taking notes when we were 15 on the books we read, the conversations we had, the lines of a film that inspired us and why it resonated with us, the wins we had at our first job, and the “wow moments” we had in class?

Recently, I’ve been in search for a game that would curb an itch I’ve had to build some massive creative project that will bring a sense of accomplishment. Something to look forward to when I am not working, reading, building relationships. The last few months I’ve been building my second brain and the more I’ve realized that this is the project I’ve been looking for. It has required deep thought, creativity, looking for and asking for help, and patience. I find myself getting excited to go and get lost in my second brain where I can read and write about the things I’ve been processing. What you are building with this is almost like a personal OS. Over years, you should be able to see how your thinking has changed. What did you used to believe? What do you believe now? The possibilities are endless.

Now more than ever is the time to build something outside yourself. The “build” in “Build a Second Brain” isn’t the best word because this system is grown rather than built. It becomes messy at times, like a garden. It takes patience, pruning, moving, and then you repeat the same cycle. I can think of no better way for your future-self to thank you, than to take the time (little by little) and figure how to build these knowledge principles and use our digital tools to outsource the mental labor you collect every day.


My Workflow

What does an average day for you look like when consuming new information? For me, it typically involves multiple podcasts, a couple YouTube videos, my daily mornings reads, various books, an article or two, etc. All of this information is floating along a fast-moving river and as my brain processes them, I am thinking of new ideas, connecting concepts, succumbing to groupthink, and applying confirmation bias.

Depending on the medium, most of it is worth enjoying and moving on. But every day there are little nuggets of revelation. Moments where I am learning another human’s perspective of how to navigate this world. Learning moments where I find the answer to questions I have had for months, even years. Someone tells me something they love, and years from now I want to remember they told me that. With time this process becomes a habit, and you quickly discover how to distill the information worth keeping. The river becomes easier to navigate, and you can float along choosing to put things in your boat that are worth storing for your future self.

One of the coolest features of Craft is the ability to click a button and have your note sharable via a weblink:

I created this note to show this feature and my workflow.

Clicking on the toggles will allow you to see the different components of my note taxonomy and workflow.