Writers are exposed to a flurry of information. There's value in capturing things you come across so you can build off them later. But I think all of us are familiar with the feeling of having an Inbox with 999+ things to process.
Instead of having an Inbox of all things unread, it could be more useful to have essay-specific Inboxes. Only when you commit to working on an essay with an urgency to publish is it worth dipping into your backlog to read, re-read, highlight, or summarize notes. In other words:
There are few ways you can approach filtering. You can choose to be more selective about what you capture (5%) and filter everything (100%). But you could also do the opposite: capture everything that's potentially valuable (100%), but only filter things related to essays you are working on (5%).
I've tried several approaches where I had a series of gates that filtered and refined EVERY note that I captured. The goal was to have clean and compressed information to work with. But it always ended up being a lot to upkeep, and it didn't lead to me publish more or write better.
My recent approach has been to capture anything that would be:
potentially useful to my future self, and
hard for my future self to find
I've embraced a chaotic notes database. Instead of focusing on clean notes, I'm focusing on having access to notes while I'm writing. Instead of sifting through an "Inbox" of everything I've captured (200+ notes), I've found it more useful to have an Inbox per each future essay (5-10 notes).
Here's how it works:
It helps to not have the intention to push every note through a standardized pipeline. Instead, I quickly associate a note to either a Tag or Essay database in Notion. Tags and Essay are the same thing as David Perell's "Cold and Hot Notebooks."
A tag is a non-actionable group of notes, like "Bitcoin." There are probably 70+ notes in this Tag, and there is a wide range of essays that could come from here.
An essay is an actionable and specific scope that I want to work on in the future, like "Algorithmic Money Supply." There might only be 5-10 notes in here, but they all revolve around a very specific idea.
My system has no intrinsic way to differentiate between:
- Status: If something is read, unread, or half-read
- Length: If something is a highlight or an entire book
- Originality: If something is a quote or a shower thought
I've found it useful to abandon the urge to classify. Instead, I've found this one question to be extremely powerful in guiding how I capture information.
"In what context would this information be useful to my future self?"
This means that when I show up to write, I have a list of different source types, in different states, but all related to my essay.
Instead of one massive "to process" inbox, I have dozens of essay-specific inboxes. Instead of pushing articles from the beginning through a common pipeline, I use the end-product (the essay), as a way to decide which material is worth highlighting, summarizing, and developing further.
Think of the essay as a magnet. Without an output centric north-star, it's easy to get lost in the sea of information abundance. Use "active" and "on-deck" essays to prioritize which information is worth revisiting and refining.
By focusing on quick associations instead of a generalized sequence, you can capture double the information, and have all of your ambient research available at your fingertips.
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