In June 2021, I started the process of habituating myself to effectively read from digital sources. Specifically, I’m working on encoding and referencing the information. I read a lot on a screen, but I don’t retain it and I don’t have a good process for finding my references compared to how I do this with the information I print out or read from physical books.
I have nearly four decades of habits, practices, and biases around reading physical books; it’s not a stretch to say I’m optimized for it, given that I read 5–15 books a month depending on what’s going on. And that doesn’t count all the articles and emails I print out. (Yes, print out.)
Because slowly integrating digital reading is mostly having me return to what’s more familiar, I’ve decided to invert my processes so that I default to digital reading. I suspect it’ll take me at least a year to habituate myself to digital-primary reading.
My 3 biggest obstacles to digital-primary reading can be summarized as Where, When, and How:
1. Where – I don’t carry a digital reading device on me everywhere. Yes, including my phone. When I want to read, I have to go find it, and then turn the device to the book I want to read. That introduces a lot of friction and, like most things, the more friction in a process, the less likely it is to happen.
With physical reading, I unconsciously but strategically place physical books and printouts where I’m most likely to want to read them. Wisdom books go on the nightstand; technical business books go in the library; pop-in non-fiction books go downstairs so I can read in 10-15 minute slices when I’m waiting on something else. No matter where I am, the right book is in reach when I want to read.
2. When – I intentionally avoid devices in the time slots I’m most primed to read. I’m careful not to engage with devices in the morning because it’s so easy to get distracted and, per the above, I’m not carrying a device with me for the liminal reading that happens with books. Wisdom reading still happens, albeit slowly, because Kindle Paperwhites are allowed in our bedroom (where all other devices aren’t).
With physical reading, I don’t have to compromise the location-based choice architecture that removes digital devices to make deep thinking, writing, and reading the defaults.
3. How – It’s hard to read multiple books in different phases with digital books. My hypothesis is that my encoding challenges from digital reading partly come from the fact that I don’t have the structural and holistic view of the work as I’m reading any part of it, so my brain’s trying to figure out how a paragraph or sentence relates to the whole.
With physical reading, I read multiple books at a time, with each book going through different phases. The first phase is a structural skim, reading chapter summaries, and flipping through to find interesting parts I want to come back to. During the second phase, I’m still skimming, but a bit slower, and I’m covering the parts that are interesting. If it’s a really interesting book, I’ll then read more slowly and front to back.
At this point, my intentional digital minimalism and choice architecture are at odds with digital-primary reading. I’ll give an update next month on how it’s going.
If you’ve overcome these obstacles, I’d love to know how. 🙂
Hi Charlie! Excited that I get to *give back* to someone whose team and collective efforts have given me the peace of mind that I’ve been chasing this past year.
I hear you on the frustration of having to completely change your mindset and process for how to read at opportune moments of quiet rest. Adapting to digital reading styles to intentionally create long-lasting snippets of knowledge for your future self to stumble upon *requires* you to be upright, focused, in a place where you can take (MAKE) notes. Difficult but oh so worth it.
Have you heard of the Zettelkasten method that has been picking up steam within the Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) “movement” around taking smart notes?
Here is Tiago Forte’s blog about the importance of taking notes and collecting knowledge gained from digital sources to maintain knowledge for your future self: https://fortelabs.co/blog/how-to-take-smart-notes/
I could geek out for another dozen paragraphs on that book on knowledge making, note taking. you just say the word.
Andy Matuschak explains note-making using his own “Evergreen” system:
“Evergreen notes are written and organized to evolve, contribute, and accumulate over time, across projects.”
here’s a fascinating discussion on different ways academics process digital text to turn into future publications. you might have to register on the obsidian forum – worth it for exposure to knowledge-making processes!! https://forum.obsidian.md/t/research-phd-academics/1446
anyway – the process could be changed slightly for analog/digital consumption, but basically
1. take notes as you read. (quick things like dots+dashes in margins for claims+evidence, making highlights in pdf while noting your impressions, how it relates to your existing ideas).
2. make a habit of processing those quick highlights into larger notes that explain the entire concept. some people say it’s better to do it in your own words, some people like to keep the direct quote along with their brief summary.
3. *crucially* for knowledge creation, link that new concept/evergreen/zettel to other related notes on the idea.
– like how you would travel through Wikipedia, or following Andy’s links within his “digital garden” above.
4. when you have a sizable collection of concept notes on similar ideas, plop them all down into one note – an index for that topic/theme.
5. when you are ready to create content, you can just do a quick search in your preferred note-taking app (I recommend obsidian.md because it’s community is most wholesome and helpful.)
re: having trouble remembering what you’re consuming, basically flashcards are the best way to go. what I’m doing with your book is reading the .pdf, then copying the concept into flashcard tool Anki, which uses spaced repetition to build stronger memory by bringing up cards for you to actively recall at the best time. time consuming but once you know it, you know it!
“Knowledge structuring and representation in learning based on active recall”
I uh don’t usually say much on the internet. I swear!
feel a lil embarrassed that I’m geeking out about taking NOTES! but it has made the reading on screen process feel less icky because now it’s a part of this greater process of longterm knowledge formation. also i’ve been waiting for 100+ pages of your free daily/weekly/monthly planners to print out, so… please let me contribute something ????
you’re basically like the fairy godparent sprinkling magic validation, digging paths of guidance wisdom, easing shame of ADHD/emotional dysregulation, poor organization… thank you so much for all of your work.
thank you for being kind when Angela was brave and asked for a break!!!! it was inspirational. helped me practice courage and boundaries to ask for social space to focus on my best work.
…which includes taking notes on all things that i consume ;D