Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash
In the sixth or seventh grade, I wrote my first research paper.
We were taught how to choose our topics, identify books at the public library, research the information, capture quotes to index cards, and organize our bibliographies using index cards.
I embraced the work, the process, the system, and the learning.
Since books, note cards, and colored pens were my jam, writing research papers was one of my favorite assignments.
In the years since, I’ve been fascinated by how others use tools and systems to accelerate learning, teaching, and writing.
I’ve studied how some writers use hardback books as their own personal note-taking system and reference library, by how they mark up their books while reading, and how they use the page ends and the last pages of the books they’ve read to indicate relevant topics for easy access later.
Some people swear by digital readers as a means for quickly capturing learning and rearranging ideas that create new perspectives on existing ideas.
Ryan Holiday writes extensively about how he uses a notecard system to capture and organize quotes as he reads - as taught to him by Robert Greene.
I’ve gone “all in” on the process more than once the past four years or so - spending time and treasure collecting the “right” index cards and matching boxes.
Inevitably, intention blocks my progress - and not the good kind of “being present” intention, but the “I mean to do this but it’s complicated” kind of intention.
The idea of sitting down to capture new ideas from what I’m reading seems much less enjoyable than simply picking up a book for ten minutes and absorbing a new idea.
The end result, then, has been that I haven’t read much and the tools of my system collect dust.
Let’s be blunt here.
The system isn’t really a system, is it?
It’s a distraction.
It’s also an excuse to beat myself up for not reading “enough” and for not doing the things necessary to grow, learn, and to teach.
The past several weeks have been different.
I’ve been listening to a lot of nonfiction - without putting any pressure on myself for how much I capture, or even actually absorb.
So far this year, I’ve finished five books, with another five books scattered across the house in various stages of completion.
When I come across an idea that resonates with me, I have a number of options for capturing the information.
I can grab a device, hit the dictation option, and read the quote into my favorite app - Drafts for iOS - or I can simply capture an image of what I'm reading, at which point I stow it directly into a Ulysses app “inbox” - which is where I do all my writing.
The good stuff that collects in Drafts - as in ideas I’m interested in writing about - ends up in Ulysses anyway.
Here’s the thing, though.
I haven’t shared the secret sauce.
You see, I’ve been keeping a digital commonplace book for years and, for too long, that commonplace folder has been where good ideas go to die.
What’s different about my 2020 read-research-learn-capture-share system is that I make a point to write about what I’ve captured - within a 7 to 10 day period.
If something sits in my Ulysses inbox for a week or so and I still haven’t written about it, I move it out of the way.
This allows me to clearly see a handful of things in the inbox as I’m thinking about what I’ll write about on any given day.
What resonates gets written about.
The byproduct of this system is pretty wondrous, too.
When you and other readers comment about the variety and selection of the books I'm reading, it’s much more difficult for me to lie to myself about not “reading enough.”
It matters less that I’m finishing books.
It matters less that I'm taking notes using the index card Ryan Holiday - or anybody else - uses.
What matters is that I’m doing the work.
I think what makes the system work is that I'm surrendering to the work, and not the process.
What is it that you desperately want to be doing and yet you can’t seem to get out of your own way?
Interested in more ideas like this?
I typically post a few times a week.
Thanks for reading.