Zettelkasten

Note-Taking when Reading the Web and RSS

In the last post, I detailed that collecting texts may become a tempting replacement for obtaining real knowledge, but also that collecting in itself doesn’t get us anywhere. I called this the “Collector’s Fallacy”. I think we need to conquer this lazy, stuff-hoarding part of ourselves with good knowledge management habits.

Meanwhile, the internet confronts us with so much information that we have to find new ways to deal with it – or get overwhelmed. How do we efficiently read online? How do we keep up to date? And how can we conserve information we find on the web? I want to share my approach with you.

  • Links get delivered to my devices via RSS, Twitter, and Facebook. How am I supposed to deal with these streams when only a fraction of the links are of real value to me?
  • I read web pages or RSS feed subscriptions1 on my mobile device. But how do I take lasting notes?

Flow of Information

Inbox Flowchart
The path we focus on.

Let’s say the world is full of stuff. To work with the stuff, we need to find a way to get to the gems. That’s information we want to keep.

I based the captions of the flow chart above on Getting Things Done® and its famous decision making chart, so you can plug it right in. Since we’re not talking about task management here, we focus on the path from “inbox” to “reference material”.

Now the web puts stuff in our lives in different ways. There’s social networks on the one hand, and website articles or blog posts on the other. The key question is: how do you deal with various input streams of information efficiently so you don’t waste time juggling them?

Action steps to get from stuff to reference material

In a nutshell, to deal with information on the web is similar to taking notes from a book:

  1. Filter interesting information to clear your streams. To filter means to collect the useful pieces only. But don’t stop just there, or your growing collection will hinder you. Instead, create a reading list you’re going to review and work off routinely.
  2. Reading on the web should be like reading books: after you found what’s useful, take note of it. Taking note ensures you expand your knowledge. Everything else is either wasted time or reading for fun.
  3. Process the notes you took, integrate them into your knowledge system. This is the biggest lever of change.

That’s was the process. Now come the parts to apply the process to:

  • Stuff is made up of posts and links from Twitter and Facebook, it’s made up of news in our RSS feed readers, and it contains the pages we stumble upon when we do casual web browsing.
  • The Inbox is the place to hold the items we either want to or need to pay attention to. A lot of stuff will never reach our inbox; we can shut off the noise outside. Of course, there’s inboxes other people have access to, like e-mail or postal inboxes, but we deliberately invite web pages into our lives ourselves. In this case, we have full control over what comes in and what is kept out. Web pages we want to keeps will make up the reading list.
  • Since we don’t deal with actionable tasks here, let’s see what’s left: Reference items may be web pages you want to archive for later, a recommended app you want to look into later, or recipes for your dinner party next week. Some things that found their way onto the reading lists turn out to be useless. Toss them. Putting items on the reading list is a tiny commitment only: we commit to pay attention to them later, but we don’t need to hold on to them if they don’t withstand a critical look.

RSS subscriptions are no part of your inbox

I don’t consider my RSS feed subscriptions to be an inbox. Instead, they are a fraction of the whole web, outside of my knowledge system. I have to work with the items to find what’s useful and what isn’t. Lots of articles are irrelevant to me. Also, the items are many – and none of them die if I don’t act on them. In short, they behave like anything else on the web.

The web is full of noise, and so is this fraction of the web I subscribed to. It’s up to me to find some signal. That means I have to decide what I want to have knowledge about, and what is dismissible.

I use the reading list like an inbox when I pick useful stuff to read later: I decide to invite items into my system, and into my world. The reading list can’t be placed anywhere else in the flow: it can’t be part of a permanent reference file, for example, because a list of web pages has zero long-term value. As I said in my post on the Collector’s Fallacy, collections can only ease access to texts. They don’t add anything to our knowledge.

To make it easier to grok why a reading list is an inbox, let me detail how I read online and how I take note on the web.

How to Consume RSS Subscriptions Everywhere

Cat Reading
Photo Credit Alfred Hermida on flickr, cc

First, the problem with RSS is that it’s so convenient to subscribe to websites that you will eventually end up with more items in your feed queue each day than you can read. Second, you may also want to consume your RSS feeds from your tablet or smartphone. Then you’ll need a different set of tools, and you’ll have to read differently to stay ahead of the news.

Here’s my suggestion to dealing with a stream of input like RSS feeds or Twitter, summarized:

  • Skim the material, look at web pages and articles briefly. Decide quickly what you want to do with it. Skimming can be done on multiple devices if you use online feed reading services.
  • Then decide: If it’s information you want to keep, you need to work on it. Add it to a reading list at first. Make it a habit to process the reading list like you would process a stack of books: read, annotate, and store in your notes archive. On your smartphone, this process may be different from the process on your computer. There are tools to overcome the gap between devices.
  • If it’s a collectible, like a recipe, or like a recommendation of cool products, then put it on a reference list. This process can be partially automated. Patrick Welker detailed how he shovels items into various lists. In one of the next posts, I’m going to talk about how to pre-process stuff in the cloud.

In the following three sections, I’ll go into detail.

Skim RSS feeds only

The more subscriptions I collect, the faster I have to sieve the subscriptions manually to stay ahead. Reading the articles is the bottleneck, thus “feed reading” becomes “feed skimming.” When I read an item in my RSS reader in full, I do so only for entertainment. Doing the actual reading in my RSS reader slows me down so much, I won’t be able to reach the end of my list of items in a reasonable time.

Limit yourself to skim articles in your RSS reader: get an overview quickly, then decide if you want to keep it. Skimming is especially useful to get ahead of hundreds or thousands of new feed items. You have to get the interesting pieces out of the feed reader and into a collection you’re going to process later, or else you’ll likely never see the end of your surprisingly long, intimidating “unread items” queue.

When your list of unread items is longer than you’d like, the objective is to empty it as quick as possible. Only then will you be prepared to receive additional news and stay up to date.

Next, consider the tools to consume your feeds. The impact of a change of tools grows with the size of your list of subscriptions.

Manage RSS subscriptions online

There is free software on the market to subscribe to RSS feeds. NetNewsWire is a popular application for the Mac, for example.

But there’s online feed reading services, too. With services like FeedWrangler or Minimal Reader, you can manage your subscriptions independent from your device.

In contrast to managing subscriptions in an application on your computer, this enables you to read your news feeds on your smartphone, too. There are apps for iPhone and Android I know of which you can utilize to synchronize your online feed reading service to your smartphone. There, the articles will be downloaded for you so you don’t need an internet connection all the time while you sieve your unread items list.

Popular apps are Mr. Reader or Reeder for iOS, and Pocket for iOS and Mac. Feedly runs on both iOS and Android, and it has a web interface suitable for your computer. Check out Gabe’s comparison of RSS feed reader services to find out which web service fits your needs if you haven’t decided, yet.

Smartphones are great for filtering – not so much for processing stuff

I consume my RSS subscriptions on my iPhone. I can’t write notes for my Zettelkasten note archive from my iPhone, though. The note-taking software available just don’t do what I need. Only from my Mac do I have direct access to the full Zettelkasten note archive at the moment. This creates a gap between the inflow of interesting articles and the outflow of useful notes.

On the Mac, it’s straightforward to create a note: I just fire up nvALT, my note-taking software of choice. When I read on my iPhone, I have to shovel interesting stuff from my feed reader to my Mac over the air, through the Cloud, where nvALT awaits. Consequently, I can only prepare interesting posts on my iPhone to process them later.

If I want to add information to my knowledge, it doesn’t pay off to immerse into an article and read it in whole on a mobile device: once I’m at home and on my Mac, I will have to read the article again anyhow to create useful notes – especially since I tend to be quite forgetful.

Reading a whole article on the iPhone is a welcome pastime, but it’s not an efficient way to expand my knowledge. Thus I ask myself: do I want to read something just to “edu-tain” myself, or do I need to work with it later? The answer to this question determines whether I will read the article or just skim and file it.

Thus, reading the articles in my RSS reader is both inefficient and ineffective. It’s inefficient because I don’t reach the end of my subscription queue and because I may have to read it twice – once on the iPhone and once on the Mac. It’s ineffective because I don’t expand my knowledge permanently when I have no tool to take notes at hand.

Mobile devices are great for filtering stuff, though. Recall the flow of information:

Inbox Flowchart
Flow from stuff to reference material.

On my phone, I prepare stuff – that’s web pages and news feed items – to become an actual thing in terms of my knowledge management system. That’s what a reading list is for. Although I can’t write notes for my archive in a reasonable way, I can still decide which articles I want to take note of. In this respect is my iPhone a device to filter the web and my feeds.2

My RSS feed reader is not an inbox in the flow chart because I consider my subscriptions to be outside of my system, just like the whole web itself is outside of it. Unread items in my feed reader have to become a thing in my system first. I deliberately pick the articles I want to cover when I put them into my reading list. They’re still not processed, but I commit to take care of them. I make them become a thing which I can handle.

Therefore, I use my list of RSS feed items mainly as a source of information which I skim and from which I select useful pieces. The work takes place on my Mac.

Summing up

Here’s a quick sketch of how filtering and preparation look in my case:

  • Since it’s impractical to create reference notes on the iPhone, I only skim articles to select interesting pieces.
  • To prepare items for later processing is practical on the iPhone. From my mobile feed reader, I can send articles to read-later services like Instapaper or bookmark them in Pinboard to get them out.
  • On my Mac, I have access to these cloud-based services. I read the articles and take notes. Also, I create reference items, create local copies of web pages if I need to, and archive the source information.

A smartphone, I argue, is a suitable filter from “stuff” to “inbox.” The rest of the action usually takes place elsewhere, though.

To answer the questions from the beginning of this post:

  • How am I supposed to deal with these streams when only a fraction of the links are of real value to me? I deal with the inflow of information by forcing myself to select quickly which items deserve my attention and which don’t. I can’t pay attention to everything, and I can’t read every article from start to finish. I need to decide: do I browse the web for fun or to expand my knowledge? This determines my mode of reading.
  • How do I take lasting notes? I read web pages or RSS feed subscriptions on my mobile device. I take lasting notes on my Mac only. Mobile devices can be useful to filter the load of unread feed items because services like Instapaper exist.

Soon, I’ll explore how to get stuff from the reading list into the note-taking system.

  1. If you haven’t heard of RSS before, check out Brent Simmons’ explanation of RSS in plain english. If you’re not familiar with the technology, you should give it a try. Seriously. Go and subscribe to some feeds in the free NetNewsWire, for example, to get a feeling for it. 

  2. Anders Thoresson wrote how to highlight the web like you highlight books, using technology like Pinboard, Paperback, and IFTTT.