2a4 - The compound effects of note-taking
In response to the Information Age, we have a choice:
- Try to collect Every. Single. Thing. That means collecting anything “just in case” it might be helpful in the future. This mentality—which the majority of drowning knowledge workers have—is ==driven by FOMO.== It’s a one-way ticket to failure and self-blame because you cannot keep up with the infinite universe of available knowledge.
- This builds a festering PKM of Noise.
- Develop a sustainable relationship to knowledge. This is where you ==exercise your own sense of “curation” to focus on your “signal” and not the “noise”.== This is driven by your specific PKM use cases (and hopefully an undercurrent of Joy and Enthusiasm).
- This develops a growing PKM of Signal.
**You have a choice..
**Everything in this workshop is about WAKING US UP TO RECOGNIZE WE HAVE A CHOICE.
So, how do we fully disentangle from the first path, so we can fully habitualize the second path? By continuing to ask probing questions:
- How do you spend your time thinking?
- What habits are you unconsciously forming?
- What is the quality of the long-term value you are creating?
In the following two lessons, we will explore these questions through the lens of two different methods of “managing knowledge”:
- Passive thinking activities (chronic note-taking)
- Active thinking activities (note-making)
The first method builds a noisy, unsustainable PKM system. Let’s explore that method first…
This first lesson will make the argument that spending time practicing the most common thinking methods actually creates little value. Even worse, it produces harmful side effects and takes away time that could be spent in far better ways.
# The Compound Effects of Note-Taking
- Rereading, highlighting, underlining…Sound familiar?
- Since a young age, we have been trained to study this way. Naturally, our study habits have become our learning habits; and our learning habits have become our thinking habits.
- But finally, science is exposing what many of us felt on some unconscious level: there has to be a better way!
- Research is showing that rereading, highlighting, and underlining is only a quick fix. It’s a Faustian Bargain: ==in the short-term we can successfully regurgitate answers and we can pass the test; but in the long-term we lose the chance to build lasting value as that knowledge slips away from our grasp.==
# What does the research say?
On your first reading of something, you extract a lot of understanding. But when you do the second reading, you read with a sense of “I know this, I know this.”…and it’s insidious, because this gives you the illusion that you know the material very well, when in fact there are gaps. — Mark McDaniel, co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning¹
- This is further backed by a 2012 study that showed ==familiarity and recall are processed in two different parts of the brain==.²
- That’s how rereading, highlighting, and underlining create the illusion of progress: ==We mistake familiarity with a concept with ability to actually work with it.== And there is an ocean of difference between the two.
- Rereading and re-highlighting are ==only worth doing when the material is dense and you need to reread just to understand it.==
It may help…when texts are difficult, but it may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making.
- ==Inference making basically means sensemaking.== That means these multi-step highlighting techniques actually get in the way of making leaps of insight.
- So multi-step highlighting techniques don’t just waste time; and they don’t just create a false sense of confidence in the material; they actually get in the way of sensemaking. (Now that’s when I get angry!)
- And yet, multi-step note-taking techniques have been brought into the digital world. ==These techniques are the digital continuation of the poor study habits we were indoctrinated into as kids by the “industrial education system”.== #education
- How can you identify these misguided techniques?
- They encourage capturing large amounts of information, even if you never “process” the majority of it.
- They encourage multiple steps of basic note-taking: bolding, highlighting, highlighting the highlights, and then—maybe eventually (which really means: never)—taking those highlights and regurgitating them into a lifeless output.
- In the digital world, multi-step highlighting techniques hasten the development of the following dangerous habits:
- Under-thinking by over-highlighting
- Reduced quality thinking and unique output
- Over time your PKM system will become a digital library dominated with piles of barely summarized articles and snippets. In other words, all the “noise” drowns the “signal”.
- Many of us want to build a “second brain” that becomes a joyful conversation partner, but after several years of these habits, you may find you don’t like the digital library staring back at you.
- It’ll look less like Richard Feynman and more like Frankenstein’s Monster.
# Multi-step techniques
- Multi-step highlighting techniques encourage the habit of ==“collecting without processing”.== In practice, this means saving many articles, while fully processing few.
- It’s said that this is a benefit so you don’t waste time over-processing less valuable information—but why capture it in the first place?
- Just like you shouldn’t allow exploitative TV shows into your media diet, you shouldn’t allow low-quality content into your PKM diet. A little filtering at the start on your part is a dead simple solution to the problem.
- Let’s dive a little deeper into this…
- Multi-step highlighting techniques are actually much more insidious in the digital world because they quickly train people to habitualize a reckless form of over-collecting.
- Capturing something with the click of a mouse gives us the illusion that we are effectively “managing knowledge”, but the truth is ==we are just trying to manage our own Knowledge FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”).== So we impulsively feel compelled to “panic-save” yet another article.
- What these techniques are really trying to solve is the problem that comes from having a fearful relationship with Knowledge.
- The simple solution is to ==not save so much “noise” in the first place!== But before we can recognize the “noise”, but have to recognize the problem.
It’s not about how to drink from the firehose 1% better; it’s about putting the damn hose down, taking a breath, and developing a healthy relationship to Knowledge.
- That’s why we spend so much time thinking about the question: “What is my relationship to Knowledge?” because then ==we can have a clearer understanding of what is “signal” and what is “noise”. ==
- A healthy relationship to Knowledge is not based on fear. It’s based on your ==intrinsic motivations== and having a ==dialogue with the ideas you encounter.==
- When we start to do that, we start building better knowledge management habits and spending more time in “The Land of the Note Makers”.
- But before we get there in the next lesson, let’s continue to look at the corrosive long-term effects of multi-step highlighting techniques used by chronic Note Takers.
# Under-thinking by over-summarizing
- In terms of improving your memory or thinking ability bolding and highlighting creates a false sense of learning³
- So if you want to improve your memory and recall, or if you want to think better—multi-step highlighting techniques won’t help much.
- Staying in “Highlighting Mode” takes time away from more “generative” ways of thinking (see the next lesson).
- Staying in “Highlighting Mode” prevents us from developing our own nuanced perspective to the ideas we are encountering.
- Staying in “Highlighting Mode” reduces our ability to think laterally—connecting new ideas with other ideas we’ve already encountered.
- Staying in “Highlighting Mode” limits the amount of personally meaningful value we are creating.
- Let’s look more closely at how this impacts the quality and uniqueness of our thoughts.
# Reduced quality thinking and unique output
- Some multi-step note-taking techniques—both digital and analog—suggest variations on the following steps: read and underline, then reread and highlight, then highlight the highlights, and then finally (if you’re diligent), rewrite the highlights.
- This is just repeating low-value note-taking. It’s not note-making.
- It doesn’t encourage fresh, insightful thinking. Sure, you will be familiar with the material, but you won’t be effective at applying it.
- This process—even if you skip some of the steps—vastly reduces the actual time you devote to your best thinking.
- The less time you spend in engaged, connective thinking = ==the fewer unique perspectives you have to offer others (and yourself).==
Your best thinking is when you are engaged in the material you encounter, relating it to other things, and finding your unique perspective amongst it all.
# Considering time value
- Of course, there is value to highlighting things; we do it all the time, every day, in many ways. Something grabs our attention and we “highlight” it. It’s foundational to how we make sense of the world. Please continue these normal ways of highlighting.
- But then there are multi-step highlighting techniques that are so focused on bolding and highlight, they seem to forget about ever getting on with the thinking part!
- Sure, there is some value to rereading and re-highlighting—but please keep these questions handy:
Instead of re-highlighting this material, why not start developing something with it?
Instead of deferring my best thinking, why not start doing my best thinking?
- Since these multi-step note-taking techniques require such low levels of engagement, ==the returns on your investment of time are also exceedingly low. ==
- Spending too much time note-taking is kneecapping your best thinking and harming the long-term health of your digital library.
- This is because it’s taking time away from note-making. And note-making is where the most value is created… See Sources/LYT/2a5 - The compound effects of note-making