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 (this is it)
4. Put Your Research To Work
You’ve scoured the wilds of the internet.
You’ve captured the articles, essays, and books that provoke your curiosity.
It’s time to engage with the material you’ve collected.
If saving is creating your research library, then processing is doing the actual research.
It’s only in processing that the information becomes accessed and accessible to us and our work. And it’s important to recognize this distinction: capture is not the same as process.
Process is also not the same as read, or consume. You can read something without engaging with it beyond pleasure. You can certainly consume content without even reading it or listening to it, just letting it waft through your consciousness like a scent. You can be moved by it, but will be left only with impressions rather than tools for the work.
Those are all fine to some degree, but for research we have to actively engage, which is why I like to use the word process rather than read or any other possible term. Process implies a desired outcome, some kind of change or effect. You can read an article or listen to a podcast without a desired outcome, the passage of time or the experience of entertainment being enough. But for research, we are processing with a goal: to secure information and develop new ideas towards some future production.
In this digital space, processing means yes, consuming the content, and then engaging with it by highlighting and taking notes, perhaps even summarizing and doing more active learning forms if you want. Just like you did with your history textbook in school, but hopefully more fun because you’ve curated the topics.
Process With Purpose
For processing, having that goal in mind is key. Otherwise we do tend to fall into the consumption role, a kind of rote enjoyment that tickles the mind but creates no lasting impact. This only creates anxiety and regret: you’ve taken actin but it’s the wrong action!
There are two primary goals for the processing endeavor:
- Save information and quotes. This is really at the core of it: does something create a strong reaction in you? A sense of resonance or dissonance? Making something “click” about a given topic?
- Turn on the ol’ ideation machine. Does it make you think of something new? Create a connection you haven’t seen before? Remind you of something else?
Some things that you process will do neither of these, and that’s fine. All roads don’t lead to your destination. Some will become full of highlights and notations, generally considered bad form but hard to resist when you find the words you’ve been so desperately seeking.
If you tend towards highlighting nothing or taking no notes, you may be viewing this stage of the research process as too precious. Highlighting is not a major commitment any more than saving the article or whatever was in the first place. One of the advantages of doing this work digitally is that you can remove highlights, delete notes, and generally change your mind.1
If you tend towards over-highlighting, the only thing to realize is that this just makes your job harder when it comes to actually using the material in the future. The more you have to wade through, the more difficult it will be to pull the most useful and critical quotes and ideas. Highlights should be high-value, that is not something you can easily Google or find in a dictionary. But really, whatever. You’ll get a sense for the things you need with practice. At this point, for example, I have a good intuitive sense of the kinds of quotes I tend to use in essays. I have an ear for the bangers, and avoid highlighting anything that doesn’t either illuminate or potentially change an opinion or fact2, or isn’t something I know I would be likely to quote directly.
Enjoying this essay? Subscribe to Think Piece for more deep thinks direct to your inbox 👆
I primarily use an iPad mini for processing. It’s an indulgence, but the size is just slightly larger than a book, it’s light, but it’s large enough to properly read and notate while still being portable. I’ve used other device configurations, but the mini works for me. At the risk of being a Goldilocks baby about it, I do find that environment impacts my capacity for engaging with material, and my laptop or a larger iPad is too big and heavy and unpleasant, my phone is too small, and the iPad mini is just right. Paired with the Apple Pencil for making the highlights and jotting down notes, it’s just so easy.
On the iPad, I use Reader and PDFExpert to process. My method is simple: I highlight to keep track of key quotes that are impacting my thought process and seem like they may be potentially valuable as sources in the future. I will sometimes jot a quick note if there is a mental link that I want to maintain, but none of these are note tools, and it’s a little awkward for more than a few words.
I also use a Kindle. I love a physical book, but when it comes to research, I have found a Kindle to be far more effective. My primary use case is connecting it to Libby, the library app I shared in the previous essay. It’s easy to highlight and make quick notes on Kindle, and I find the size and resolution really ideal for me to read a lot of text quickly. As with the iPad, this is a bit of an indulgence, but I read many, many more books with it than when relying on physical books, especially if it would be something I would need to go to the actual in person library to get. I feel like this is a great place to make it easy for yourself if you can, especially if you have a hard time motivating to read books.
Don’t Lose Your Shit
We’re not quite done yet, though, because processing is only as good as your storage. If you make a bunch of highlights but never access them, then you’ve wasted your time.
If you set everything up properly, storing becomes easy. The star of this show is Readwise, an app that syncs highlights and notes from a variety of programs, maintains them, and then also can sync them out again. Before I used Readwise, I was still losing track of the information I wanted to be able to reference. Readwise is a little like the Zapier of digital research for me, duct taping together my other tools into a seamless and mostly automated system.
Readwise syncs automatically with Reader, which is their own read-later app, as well as with other programs like Instapaper or Pocket, and with Kindle. I can also send marked up PDFs from PDFExpert via email, and Readwise will pull out the highlights and notes. This means that all of my processed information is now in one place! Readwise is not just an information repository, however: it can also push those highlights and notes out into a notetaking app like Notion, Roam, and my personal favorite Obsidian. This places your highlights and notes into the writing ecosystem so you can easily access them as you’re actually making something.
So next week, we’ll bring it all together and discuss how to actually use the information you’ve put all of this time into gathering.
Online Research Processing 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.
There may be some argument to be made that this encourages sloppy research behavior, but I tend to disagree. It still takes effort to highlight something, just enough friction to make you pause long enough and consider if you really want to. The hate highlighting gets is generally for studying to pass tests, and that’s not our goal anyway. Maybe when we all have Neuralink I’ll reassess my stance 🙃↩
This IS important, especially things that are counter to your opinion or prior experience; we tend to more quickly forget the counterfactuals and the are great to save.↩