Zettelkasten

The Barbell Method of Reading

Our reading habit is one of the corner stones of our knowledge work habits. Reading is the most efficient way to create an influx of information that can transform into knowledge. Therefore, we should devote some thought and energy in the optimization of our reading habits.

One decision we have to make is whether to read fast or thorough. Yes, this is a decision. There are a couple of techniques that could enhance your reading speed and don’t decrease comprehension. But most of the so-called “speed reading” techniques either decrease comprehension for the sake of speed or even involve skipping large parts of the text.

Another problem of those attempts to increase reading speed is their emphasis on the sheer amount of text you ingest. An important and mostly neglected part of reading is the processing of what you have read. You should think about what you have read, draw connections to other readings, and truly make it your own.

Not all books are worth large efforts. Sometimes, a book is somewhat interesting but there is neither much relevant information nor is it inspiring and interesting. We don’t want to waste time and energy on these books. Rather, we want to concentrate our energy and attention on the really important and dense books that give us a lot.

This means that we have to serve two demands:

  1. We want to read a lot. We want to have a high influx of information.
  2. We want to direct our efforts at the best books (and articles) and invest only a necessary minimum of attention into the low quality content.

There are at least two traps we can fall for:

  1. We increase our reading speed. We read several books per week and have a great influx of information. But this means that we don’t process any book thoroughly. No book has any true value to us because none of the information is transformed into knowledge or skill.
  2. We read everything carefully and waste a lot of time and energy on bad books.

The Barbell Method of Reading

sketch of a barbell

The Barbell Method is a phrase coined by Nassim Taleb. It means that you make sure that the majority of your investment is safe while you make small but very risky bets. You combine safety with the possibility of high revenue. The trick is that you floor the possible loss while leaving the possible revenue unlimited.

Now let’s explore what loss and revenue means when we think about our reading habits:

  1. We invest time and effort. But most important is our time. We can always push harder. Effort mostly comes free of cost. I don’t consider being a bit more tired in the evening to be noteworthy. That leaves us with time invested as our main metric for cost of investment.
  2. We want to gain useful information. We want great insights, mind-blowing surprises, opportunities to develop our mental teeth when we chew on a difficult to understand piece of knowledge.

Information is just an opportunity. Information means nothing if you don’t use it.

  • If you are a fiction writer, reading a striking paper on false memory means nothing if you don’t exploit it, think about it, and make a thrilling story out of it.
  • If you are an athlete and read about the Art of Learning and don’t re-engineer your training routine, there is nothing gained.
  • If you are a journalist and read the story of Martin Strel and don’t connect it to research on meditation, other extreme athletes, or post-traumatic growth, you’ll only write a shallow story about him.

This reveals the problem we face if we just apply speed reading techniques. We increase opportunities but fail to make use of them. Books fade by like people in the masses in a crowded city we walk by. The Barbell Method takes this into account by integrating your reading habit into your knowledge work with two steps:

  1. Read the book. Read swiftly but don’t skip any parts unless they make you vomit or put you to sleep. Mark all the passages that stand out and contain useful, interesting or inspiring information.
  2. Read the book a second time. But now you read the marked parts only. This time you make notes, connect them to past notes (Zettelkasten Method!) and think about what you’ve read. Make mindmaps, drawings, bullet points – everything that helps you to think more clearly.

The quality of the book will now determine how much time you invest in it. Sometimes, a book is not that important and only provides a few shallow pieces of information. The second step could only take a very short period of time. But a good book is dense. I remember that the second step for Antifragile by Nassim Taleb took me more that twelve full deep work days (spread over six weeks) to work my way through. Other books took only half an hour for processing, though.

Getting Deeper Into the Mechanics of the Barbell Method

The first step of the Barbell Method of Reading is just reading. That is a shallow kind of processing that suffices to understand what is easy to understand. You are probing the text and can later decide what you should do with it. You decide on a part-by-part basis.

A text consists of four different types of parts:

  1. Useful and difficult to understand. You want to process these parts heavily for understanding and exploitation. Mark these for later.
  2. Useful and easy to understand. You want to process these parts heavily for exploitation. Mark these for later.
  3. Not useful but difficult to understand. You actually don’t want to process these parts but you don’t know if they are useful. Sharpen your mental theeth with them and then ignore them after you found out that they are not useful.
  4. Not useful and difficult to understand. Ignore these.
Difficult to understand Easy to understand
Useful Read twice
Process heavily
Read once
Process heavily
Not useful Read twice
Don’t process or sparingly
Read once
Mostly ignore

The second time you read the book you concentrate on what you have marked as useful or difficult to understand. During this second step you already sorted out a lot that has no use to you. Now you can concentrate on the two most important habits of reading (good) texts:

First, get inspired by useful yet easy to understand texts. A very good example is Deep Work by Cal Newport. For me, it was not a book that gave me much new information. But Cal presented it in a inspiring way. This is the reason I recommend it. Not because of some arcane knowledge but because of its performative nature. I developed quite a few ideas in reference to this book. When something is useful yet easy to understand it is an opportunity to produce and go with the flow. Write a lot!

Second, sharpen you mental teeth on texts that are difficult to understand. This difficulty can stem from different sources.

I never rely on any author’s own interpretation of his work. For example, I am now processing 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. He wrote a bit on the role of serotonin in dominance hierarchies. I could just refer to his book. But this would be pretty shallow processing. Good processing is to go to the primary sources and read them. In this particular example, I constructed a continuity from the lobster to us humans in a more detailed manner than presented by Jordan Peterson. In the course of my processing I developed a theory of conflict, interlinked it with my previous work on depression, self development, history of nobility and more. This is a product of deep processing and never happens with shallow processing.

True reading is not a passive process in which you just create an influx of information. It consists of deep processing, thinking and writing on what you have read and interconnecting it with you already know.

Only the three parts combined, reading, thinking, and writing, produce a true change in your brain and make you a better thinker. To write about what you read is important even if you don’t aim to write books on something. Still, you have to write if you want to think properly. Still, you have to write to process information properly.

Some people are impressed if someone reads three or four books a week. They think “Wow, he surely knows a lot.” I don’t share this opinion. To me, it is just a testimony of their shallowness in processing. This is fine if you don’t care. If you read for fun, go ahead and do it. But don’t try to impress anyone with things you don’t have invested energy into.

At last, you are what you practice regularly. You are your habits. If your habits don’t include to really gnaw on ideas and concepts, you won’t sharpen your mental teeth. So if you want to be able to think deeply and properly, practice it. It is a sad misconception that you can procrastinate this mental work until you actually need it. But this only means that you practice procrastination and miss out the chance on train your brain.

The Zettelkasten Method is designed to serve several different purposes:

  1. Optimize the amount of information you process. You should read a lot.
  2. Produce an archive which consists of true knowledge, not just a collection of half-understood bits of random points.
  3. Learn to think deeply and thoroughly by making it a habit to practice it.

Luhmann didn’t only write a lot and developed the most complex of all theoretical bodies in the social sciences. He was known for his vast knowledge and deep thinking. He didn’t run to his Zettelkasten when you asked him something. This is because he practiced thinking through writing and processing in the context of the Zettelkasten.

Final Thoughts

If you set up your reading habit, the quality of the books dictate how much time you invest in them. Make good use of your time and digest your information to make it your own. Then you’ll have knowledge.

Don’t practice shallow processing. But process deeply and practice deep thinking.


Christian’s Comment: Oh boy, this hits home, and it hits hard: when I postponed my University degree, I transitioned from reading texts and producing text to writing code full-time. Most of the information I absorb are programming-related and come from articles on the web. Since I don’t have any non-programming related writing projects, reading stuff for knowledge becomes a mere past-time activity. Without chipping away some time to process what I read, my understanding will remain shallow until I’ll eventually forget what I read at all. What an outlook! I still have hope: establishing a weekly routine to further my study some is better than not working on knowledge acquisition at all. We’ll see how that’ll go.