Early this year, Conor White-Sullivan introduced me to the Zettelkasten method of note-taking. I would say that this significantly increased my research productivity. I’ve been saying “at least 2x”. Naturally, this sort of thing is difficult to quantify. The truth is, I think it may be more like 3x, especially along the dimension of “producing ideas” and also “early-stage development of ideas”. (What I mean by this will become clearer as I describe how I think about research productivity more generally.) However, it is also very possible that the method produces serious biases in the types of ideas produced/developed, which should be considered. (This would be difficult to quantify at the best of times, but also, it should be noted that other factors have dramatically decreased my overall research productivity. So, unfortunately, someone looking in from outside would not see an overall boost. Still, my impression is that it’s been very useful.)
Zettelkasten is a note taking process and a personal knowledge management system rolled into one. It is spreading like wildfire in tech and academic circles. I promise it will supercharge your learning process.
Zettelkasten works as an external support system for your thinking process. The main point of Zettelkasten is not better notes - its better thinking. Some type of externalization improves your thinking greatly - be it paper and pen, mind-maps, text editor, anything - as long as it’s outside your brain. Unlike other note taking systems, the Zettelkasten process forces you to actually think while creating notes - this will let you better understand and remember the concepts that you learn.
I have a bit of a reputation of being a very techno-savvy person. People have had the assumption that I have some kind of superpowerful handcrafted task management system that rivals all other systems and fully integrates with everything on my desktop. I don’t. I use paper to keep track of my day to day tasks. Offline, handwritten paper. I have a big stack of little notebooks and I go through them one each month. Today I’m going to discuss the core ideas of my task management toolchain and walk you through how I use paper to help me get things done.
I have tried a lot of things before I got to this point. I’ve used nothing, Emacs’ Org mode, Jira, GitHub issues and a few reminder apps. They all haven’t quite cut it for me.
The natural place to start from is doing nothing to keep track of my tasks and goals. This can work in the short term. Usually the things that are important will come back to you and you will eventually get them done. However it can be hard for it to be a reliable system.
I have made notes when reporting news, interviewing people, or drafting outlines for most of my life. In the early days, it was shorthand. Later, it became a weird blend of English, symbols, and old shorthand. I eventually got a tape recorder and began recording my interviews, but mostly as a backup. More often than not, I’ve kept just a reporter’s notepad, a bunch of HB pencils, and a fountain pen on my writer’s desk.
My approach has been contrary to that of most of my peers, who by now almost all take notes by typing directly on the computer. Most of them draft their pieces on the computer as well. As a non-native English speaker, I always found (and still do) that writing things down by hand, and then bringing them into the digital realm, allowed me to create better drafts.
A small group of postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates inadvertently formed a longitudinal study contrasting expected productivity levels with actual productivity levels. Over the last nine months, our group self-reported 559 tasks, dates, and completion times – expected and actual. Here, I show which types of tasks we are the worst at completing in the originally planned amount of time (spoiler: coding and writing tasks), whether more senior researchers have more accurate expectations (spoiler: not much), and whether our expectations improve with time (spoiler: only a little).
If you can’t choose between a mechanical watch or a smartwatch, then don’t: try both! It isn’t all that weird if you take a minute (pun intended) to consider why you have this “problem” in the first place.
We’re creatures that attach emotional value to otherwise worthless things. Or did you think worshipping a 379x453cm piece of canvas with some old oil on it made sense? Of course not! But, that’s fine because being irrational is part of being human. Now wear your two watches and enjoy being crazy!
I’ve had an easy time being focused lately. I say no to obligations or opportunities that I would have easily accepted before. I have fewer things on my todo list, which means I get to spend more time on the few things that I’ve said yes to when I sit down to be creative. I also have a stronger sense of my values – what’s important to me, and what’s less important – and that’s helped me leave more room in my schedule for myself. I’ve been thinking about why it’s easier for me to focus now, and what might have changed.
The most significant change in my thinking has been that I have a lot of conviction now that the few things I’m spending my time on – university, writing, side projects – are right for me. If a stranger had come up to me last year, told me I was doing it all wrong, and suggested I make different choices in my education or my work, I would have been easily swayed. Today, I feel myself standing on much firmer ground. Because I’m sure that I’m spending my time on the right things, it’s easy for me to say no to things that’ll take that time away from me for something else.
The problem with advice, generally, is that it ignores context partially. And the problem with productivity advice, is that it ignores context completely. What you should be doing entirely depends on your career. An executive in a bureaucratic company would benefit greatly from Parkinson’s Law or “Make Decisions” but a musician, artist, entrepreneur, inventor, scientist, philosopher, novelist, architect, or historian, may not. And neither would someone thinking about their relationships with other people. In fact, neither would an executive in a bureaucratic company, if the commitment he has made to a plan or to Parkinson’s Law infringes on alternative, more satisfying career paths.
Throughout my life I’ve found that the simplest solutions are often the most powerful. So far I’ve found no simpler solution to start tackling any problem than to simply write it down, and then keep on writing.
The most valuable thing is to produce something and put it out in the world. All the planning, engineering, thinking exists just to support that. With no realization, no “getting started”, ultimately there’s no value to be generated at all.