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 (this is it)
3. You Have To Engage With Information If You Want Results
4. Put Your Research To Work
The first research report I ever wrote was in 5th grade. My teacher led the class upstairs to the library with a block of notecards and some pens in-hand. I chose the Egyptian Book of the Dead for my topic1, and the task was to find pertinent information in the library so we could write the paper. We were taught a simple method for organizing our research: we captured any relevant facts and quotes on notecards. Each notecard was home to one fact or quote, and on the back of the notecard was the citation.
Over the course of a few library sessions, we ended up with a pile of notecards which could now be moved around and organized into a paper. The idea capture stage was almost the entirety of the process as I remember; I’m not sure there was enough information on the Egyptian Book of the Dead in my middle school library for me to come up with an interesting thesis.2 But the goal of the exercise was to introduce research and attribution by giving us a tool to capture the information we were encountering and properly cite it when we used it.
The desire to capture information for future use is hardly new, and certainly did not emerge in a fifth grade classroom. Wikipedia tells me that the first writing was used largely to document agricultural output and write contracts, both things that people would want to save for later access.
More recently, complicated systems like Zettelkasten have had a popular resurgence, while other folks have committed to a kind of everything notebook where one physical place holds all ideas and information. There are so many methods to organizing your research, and at least as many opinions. But you’re here, so you get mine.
Why Bother Capturing Information?
I’m a less of a purist and a more of a pragmatist when it comes to information capture. I just want it captured. I don’t really care if it’s a super cool storied method that some famous writer used and now a million creators on YouTube have made videos about. Does it work? Then it works.
Capturing information is a challenging part of the research workflow for me. I read very quickly, and will often only realize later that a piece of information is pertinent to a project.3 I imagine this has always been an issue for writers and thinkers and makers, but at one point that information was limited to physical books that likely lived in your house or a single library, and now that information could be just about anywhere, proliferating at terrifying speeds. It’s very easy to lose, and once lost it becomes impossible to properly attribute ideas and trace one’s own thought back to an external source when appropriate.
Proper attribution is critical in a world that easily appropriates ideas and incentivizes us to present as individualized experts who have surreptitiously discovered something meaningful from first principles all by ourselves. Expertise in an extractive economy prioritizes the illusion of innovation over the rather boring but truly meaningful work of furthering and developing existing concepts. No one is producing ideas in a vacuum, and properly crediting sources is a small yet potent resistance to the myth of individualism.
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So, how can you capture information in an attempt to stave off attribution attrition?
Easy: save stuff. Save things that you’re interested in. Save things that you’re reading. Save what you want to read. Technology has made it beyond simple to save information, close to free for the quantity of data that you can have at your fingertips, and we should make ample use of it. Whether you’re taking a picture with your phone or using an app, there’s no reason to not just save stuff.
Productivity trends have moved towards a kind of anti-capture stance, saying that the tendency to over-save is getting in the way and creating noise. Sure.4 But saving is not the same as processing. Just because something has been saved doesn’t mean that it will ever be accessed or used. Think of saving as creating your library: you may never read the book, but it’s there, and if you need it, you can find it.
Tech Won’t Save You But Maybe These Apps Will
I have a few saving mechanisms. For articles on the internet, I have long used the Instapaper app. I have paid the very low monthly fee for premium so I can highlight key points in articles, and generally anything that I want the opportunity to process lives there. It’s also a pleasant reading experience on all devices. I use it for non-research purposes, too. If I want to come back to something, it lives in Instapaper.
I also generally do not read articles related to my research interests when I encounter them. If you read the article and don’t save it then you’ll lose it. So I save first, and then use Instapaper for my processing and general reading later. It’s a great little app to go to as well if you find yourself sucked into social media; you are essentially creating your own feed of depth and curiosity that you can use it scratch the itch for a flood of information but at a slower, more curated pace.
Recently I have been testing Reader by Readwise, which is a software that factors heavily into later steps of my research workflow. I’m writing about that and the new wave of save later apps more deeply so I’ll, um, save my thoughts on Reader for later. But it’s nice if somewhat overbuilt, and handles newsletters and RSS feeds better than Instapaper.
If you are an avid social media consumer, bookmarks and likes can be a good way to track sources as well. When I was quite active on Instagram, I would use saves for that purpose, and know that if I had an inkling that an idea came from somewhere but can’t find it, I could go back to the saves and it might be there. However, on Twitter I usually do put threads into Instapaper. I like having my text in one place.
I also use PDF Expert. I’ll go in greater depth on this tool when we get to the next step of our tech stack journey, but I sync PDF Expert across devices using iCloud and have a cloud folder just for PDFs. Every time I come across a source or study or something in PDF form, it goes into the folder. Do I read them all? Nope. Maybe someday! But it keeps the documents in one place, easy to find, and readily synced with a very useable software. I use the free version. Reader does have PDF support but so far does not meet my needs, so I’m keeping PDF Expert
Finally, I use Libby, which is an app that uses your library card to reserve and access library ebooks. I have an active hold list, and also use a tagging system in Libby to keep track of books I want to read. When I come across a book that I want, I either add it to the holds or tag it in the app. If my library does not have it, then I revert to Instapaper and save a webpage of the book in a “books to read” folder.
Libby also makes it very easy to see your reading history, which can reduce the source loss risk I mentioned above. Sometimes just looking at that list helps me remember where an idea came from. Libby has a built-in reader that can take highlights and notes, but it also lets you access books on Kindle, which is my preference. Also, if you’re an audiobook kind of person, you can easily checkout books in that format as well. Libraries are great, you should use yours. And who doesn’t love free books!
Personal Agency Still Exists, Use It
Whatever tools you use, the capture step is all about winnowing the wilds of the Internet down to a usable fraction of sources that you may process in the future. This is your chance to make your own feed using the original algorithm: your mind. Over time, you’ll have amassed a library that can guide you through curiosities and your research all while giving you a way to stimulate ideas without hopping on social media for the dopamine hit. There is something powerful in taking action to sift through the unending data, to take responsibility for curating your experience of the world around you, to actively choose to engage more deeply by setting aside articles and books and other media that you want to be able to consciously explore instead of just swipe through while you’re waiting for the next moment of your life to arrive.
But capturing is only the first step. We have to actually use the information in order for it to be actionable. Next week: processing.
Rules Of Capture5
- If you feel the impetus to save it, save it.
- Don’t worry about saving too much. You won’t.
- Be happy that you saved it because now your brain can relax knowing it’s there if and when you need it! Take it out of the active box and put it in the brain’s trash bin because you literally don’t need to think about it anymore.
- Keep your system simple. Three apps like I use is a bit too much, but the best solution I have so far. I am hopeful that Reader’s PDF situation will improve, at which point I can ditch PDFExpert. But don’t get stuck down a system where you have some stuff on Notion (even though their web clipper is sweet) and some stuff on Instapaper and then your RSS on Reader and…you see? That’s productivity pr0n, not an actually effective capture system.
- The system is not the work.6 It’s tempting to believe that the right system or the right tool will transform you into a brilliant creator. We copy morning routines and tech stacks and hacks from those we admire as if we can consume their productivity and bring it into our body, the wisdom becoming our own. The best system is the one you will actually use. That’s all that matters.
Online 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.
hoping vainly to learn some real magic!↩
also, I was 11↩
Projects have a tendency to emerge after information is taken in as well, acting as inspiration rather than research fodder. This means you can be far down the rabbit hole by the time the idea coalesces and never find your way back to the starting point.↩
Though I’m not entirely clear on how we discern the signal without engaging with the noise↩
Rules being things I want to say not actual rules because be your own rule maker and rules were made to be broken↩