Anxiety-Driven Research Series
1. How To Manage Research When Your Brain Is Terrified That You’re Going To Make A Stupid Mistake
2. Saving Information as Curatorial Praxis
3. You Have To Engage With Information If You Want Results
4. Put Your Research To Work (this is it)
It took us forever to get here 1, but we’re ready for the real reason we’ve done all of this preparation and exploration: using the research you’ve so carefully captured and processed!
Now, the magic happens: Readwise syncs all of these gleaned and gathered highlights and notes into my knowledge management and note-taking software, Obsidian.
This is my favorite tool. I’m writing in it right now! Obsidian is a local-first software that sits on top of markdown files2 for a fully composable note-taking system. That means if I decide I don’t want to use Obsidian anymore, all of my notes are in a format that can be accessed by many other softwares, including the humble Apple TextEdit.
Obsidian has a bit of a steep learning curve; a lot of decisions that are hidden and pre-made in other apps are out in the open here, which can result in a longer onboarding process. However, this also means that Obsidian is very customizable, and it’s worth the time to get it exactly how you want it. Obsidian uses markdown syntax, which allows you to do light formatting like headers, bolding, and italics with simple keystrokes so you don’t get distracted when writing, but you can also use Obsidian’s “what you see is what you get” mode for a more classic word processing experience.
Obsidian is where I do all of my writing until the final draft, when it may need to be in another format if there is an editor. It’s also where I keep all of my digital notes3, especially ideas and scraps of writing that I hope may someday become something.
But most importantly, Obsidian holds my carefully curated research highlights and notes! This means that when I’m writing an essay, I don’t have to go find my research. It’s already here, in a folder that Readwise updates, easily searchable, and in the same app.
Due to the note linking features of Obsidian, I can also play around and find unlinked mentions of other notes4, link directly to the sources that Readwise has deposited in the app, and more inside a single document. This helps me to create new connections, but also is just a different way to approach the information that is somewhat less linear than other research formats.
Obsidian is not the only game in town. A lot of folks like Notion5, Roam has been popular though may be falling to the wayside, and the much-memed Apple Notes is loved for its simplicity and easy syncing. It doesn’t really matter what you use to write in as long as it works for you, but the fact that I can have all of research as plain text files in Obsidian makes it easy.
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What’s really key to understand here is that by the time a highlight or note attached to a research asset makes it to Obsidian, it has been processed. I read the thing. I engaged with the thing. Now only the key element of the thing is here in my note-taking app. I’m taking a minute to look at my Readwise folder in Obsidian now. Scanning over the articles, I see an interview with Byung-Chul Han that I forgot about, but as soon as I see it I remember that I adored it. Han, a Korean philosopher working in Germany, writes a lot about alienation and modern life. I have this highlighted from the article:
“Digitalisation dematerialises, disembodies and eventually strips away the substantiality of our world. It also eliminates memories. Rather than keeping track of memories, we amass data and information. We have all become infomaniacs. This infomania makes objects disappear. What happens to objects when they are permeated by information? The informatisation of our world turns objects into ‘infomat’, namely information-processing actors. The smartphone is not an object but an infomat, or even an informant, monitoring and influencing us.”
A fitting conclusion, perhaps, to this exploration of anxiety-driven research methods. When all is said and done, collecting information is a disembodied act because collection alone is without context. It is only when the information is put into conversation, when it does draw on our memory, when it activate aliveness, that it can be rematerialized again. I’m not sure Han would approve of my research method, but the sieving process has a quality of engagement that helps to prevent the disembodiment. If every saved article ended up in my Obsidian, then all I would have done is amassed information. At least this way, my anxiety is soothed, and I can only hope that I am creating something, an object perhaps with these words.
But can a digital form ever create permanence? That’s why I use Obsidian: the closest thing to permanence in the digital age is a widely read file format, one that stands a chance at remaining accessible over time, where ideas can be captured, engaged with, and ultimately put to use in new creations. It’s a nod to longevity, a small push back against the rush and the hyperactive creation cycle of our time. What are notes but memories, anyway?
Use Your Research Tech Stack
None of these are affiliate links I assure you no money made in the production of this post all I got out of this was the chance to be a nerd thx.
I’m bored with myself but glad you’re reading this↩
a form of plaintext↩
I do also use a paper notebook and planner↩
for example, Obsidian is showing me that this essay series includes references to knowledge work, which is a separate note that may have information I want to draw on here!↩
Though it takes far longer for me to get Notion properly set-up than it does for me to get writing in Obsidian. But I know many of you love it! Go forth!↩