If your goal is a true understanding of a particular topic or area of interest, you will need to process the information you consume. For this, you will need an external system to help you along. Deep thinking cannot be accomplished without one.
In "How to Take Smart Notes," author Sönke Ahrens discusses a methodology for processing what you read for better understanding. I have adopted this methodology for my own purposes and expanded it to include text, video, and audio material. This article will be part 1 of an ongoing series that details the tools and methods that I use for digital smart notes capture and processing. You cannot process without first capturing. That is what I will discuss in part 1.
Assembling a Capture Toolkit
Consuming information in 2021 means that we are gathering from many different sources. Though not exhaustive, this may include books, articles, pdfs, tweets, video, and audio. Over the years of utilizing digital tools, I have learned that stand-alone tools can be useful. However, integration is the key to building a truly robust system.
In building a system for information consumption and processing, I have focused on one goal above all else. I want to avoid context switching or switching my focus to many different apps as I process information. Context switching is a form of time confetti. Ashley Whillans discusses this phenomenon in more detail in her article "Time Confetti and the Broken Promise of Leisure."
Each event in itself is mundane and takes only seconds. But collectively, they create two negative effects. The first is the sheer volume of time they take away from your hour ... The second, more invasive effect of time confetti is the way it fragments the hour of leisure. It's most likely that these interruptions are randomly distributed throughout the hour.- Ashley Whillans
With this goal in mind, I use a service called Readwise as the central hub for all of my capture activities. All of my notes, highlights, transcripts, snippets, etc., are captured into Readwise for later processing in Roam Research. Think of Readwise as the information funnel that fills my knowledge base, Roam Research.
The Capture Tools and Their Usage
I'll briefly go over each tool in the capture toolkit in this article. If there is interest, I will create more in-depth guides for each tool in the future.
Most of what I capture is still written material in books, articles, and pdfs. Let's take a look at the tools I use for each.
I read most of my non-fiction books on a Kindle device or by using the Kindle app on my phone or laptop. Kindle offers me several advantages over physical books.
- I can highlight the text while I read.
- I can take digital notes on highlighted passages while I read.
- Readwise can import highlights and notes right from my Kindle highlights and notes so that I can avoid transcribing anything later.
For longer-form articles that I find while browsing the web, Facebook, Twitter, or otherwise, I use a read later service called Instapaper. Instapaper allows me to save articles to read later in the Instapaper app or on the web at the Instapaper site. Similar to Kindle, Instapaper enables me to do the following:
- Highlight the text in an article while I read.
- Take digital notes on highlighted passages while I read.
- Readwise can import highlights and notes from Instapaper as well so that I can process them later.
You can sign up for Instapaper here: https://instapaper.com. Instapaper has apps for both Android and iOS. You can also access it via a web browser.
PDFs and Other Web
Sometimes, I will still need to read a pdf or something on the web that is not exactly an article. For PDFs and other web material, I use a service called Hypothesis. Hypothesis allows me to:
- Highlight the text in a pdf or other website.
- Take digital notes on highlighted passages while I read.
- Readwise import highlights and notes from Hypothesis so that I can process them later.
You can sign up for Hypothesis at https://web.hypothes.is/. Also, make sure you grab the Chrome Hypothesis Extension if you are using Chrome. There are bookmarklets for other browsers.
A Note About Using Locally-saved PDFs with Hypothesis
To use locally saved PDFs with Hypothesis, you need to open the PDF with your browser first. If you are using the Chrome Hypothesis Extension, you will need to permit it to access local file URLs first by following the steps here: https://web.hypothes.is/help/annotating-locally-saved-pdfs/.
Bonus: Capturing While You Browse on Your iOS Device
Sometimes, I will start reading an article before saving it to Instapaper. I have recently started using the Command Browser while on my iPhone to capture something quickly while I read. Command Browser
The Command Browser allows me to:
- Highlight the text of the website I am reading.
- Take digital notes on the highlighted passages while I read.
- Readwise can import highlights and notes from the Command Browser so that I can process them later.
You can find Command Browser in the Apple app store for iOS.
Occasionally, I will come across a tweet or tweet thread that is worth saving and processing later. Twitter is full of fleeting moments of wisdom or insight if you are following the right people. For capturing tweets, I use the Readwise Twitter integration.
Audio and Video
I'm starting to branch out into more audio and video material. As I have added more of this content to my workflow, I have needed to find tools to capture notes for these media types.
For capturing relevant passages in a podcast, I use a podcast app called Airr. Airr allows me to:
- Take snippets that are transcribed into text while I listen to a podcast.
- Take notes to go along with the snippets that I capture.
- Readwise can import these snippets and transcripts for later processing.
Airr is currently iOS only, but they do have an Android waiting list sign-up.
To take notes while watching a video on YouTube or Vimeo, I use a Chrome extension and service called ReClipped. ReClipped allows me to:
- Take notes along with video timestamps while I'm watching a video.
- Upload offline video files for use with the service as well.
- Readwise can import the snippets and notes for later processing.
- The ReClipped chrome extension also enables an overlay to videos that I watch on YouTube to view and take notes without ever having to leave the video. After you have created the snippets, the overlay lets you view those snippet points and notes when you revisit the same video.
You can sign up for ReClipped at: https://reclipped.com.
Bringing It All Together With Readwise
Even the best tools won't make much of a difference if they are used in isolation. Only if they are embedded in a well-conceived working process can the tools play out their strengths. There is no point in having great tools if they don't fit together. - Sönke Ahrens, "How to Take Smart Notes."
Context switching kills productivity. It also makes it more difficult to connect ideas and themes from the various sources we consume. Before Readwise, I might have browsed through each of the apps in my capture toolkit, trying to remember what I have captured to make connections.
With Readwise, I can store the highlights and notes from these different apps in one location. From there, I have several options to export them in a standard format. I happen to use Roam Research for processing my highlights and notes. I think of Readwise as a repository for my fleeting notes and highlights.
You can sign up for Readwise at https://readwise.io.
- Once you have signed up, you can add each of the services that I have mentioned in this article by clicking on "Connect and Sync -> Import."
- From this page, you can click on any of the services listed to connect them to Readwise and start importing. Just follow the directions for each service. Soon, you will see highlights and notes populating for the categories that Readwise offers.
Bonus: Syncing Digital Highlights from Physical Books and Articles
If you install the Readwise iOS app, you can use it to capture highlights from physical reading material. It has OCR scanning functionality built right into the app.
In summary, I use the following tools for digital highlight and notes capturing:
- Books: Kindle Highlights and Notes
- Articles: Instapaper
- PDF and Web: Hypothesis
- Mobile Browsing: Command Browser
- Videos: ReClipped
- Podcasts: Airr
Finally, I bring it all together in a single repository with Readwise.
Over the past few months, I have expanded the smart notes methodology that I learned in Sönke Ahrens' book to include different media types that I consume. Readwise has become an invaluable piece of my smart notes toolkit. Readwise allows me to collect, browse, and recall my various notes and highlights all in a single location. Should I choose, I can export the content from Readwise into various other note-taking apps. The next article in this series will discuss my workflow's processing portion by showing how I integrate Readwise with my note-taking/processing service of choice, Roam Research.