Nathan Laundry's Blog

Stop Trying to Remember Everything you Read.

Stop Trying to Remember Everything you Read.

The Having vs Being fallacy of digital second brains and remembering everything you read

I was seduced by the Capture Everything, Remember Everything you read, Digital Brain, trend for 2 years. You know what it got me? A Notion AND Roam Research so full I’m terrified of looking through them and a long list of books I’ve speed read but can barely recall.

Who could blame me for trying though? Imagine you really could permanently store and instantly access every single nugget of wisdom you’ve ever read at any time. What a game changer that would be; the best of the world’s wisdom on demand - all you have to do is skim.

With digital note-taking software like Notion and Obsidian, fuzzy searches, and Retrieval Augmented Generative AI, the dream of having just the relevant knowledge hand-delivered to you at the moment you need it feels attainable.
Nonetheless, after my 2 year experiment, what I learned is that humans were not designed to make use of that much data. Simply put, it’s overwhelming.

If you’ve read more than 5 books and highlighted “what resonates with you” - as many of the second brain advocates suggest - you’re left with a sea of data so vast it’s impossible to sail; An untappable gold-mine of information.
And that’s the crux of it all. What we do with our digital second brains is store an inactionable quantity of data. The practice of capturing information lulls us into a mindset that optimizes for hoarding digitally-bound facts, instead of developing skills, changing our behaviour, and using knowledge to foster change in us and the world around us.
But how did we get here?

Having Knowledge vs Learning, Growing, and Being

Having Knowledge != Using or Creating Knowledge

Having Read != Learning by Reading

Having Ideas != Executing on Ideas to create change

This is the seductive and insidious fallacy behind the Digital Second Brain. That having and storing knowledge is the same as learning and growing through reading. 

What makes this mindset so seductive is that having is so much quicker and easier than growing. I can speed read my books, articles, and papers in half or a quarter of the time than if I were to read them deeply and truly reflect. On the other hand, with this fallacy underfoot, I can bullshit myself (See Frankfurt on Bullshit) into thinking that as long as I’ve captured my highlights and dumped them into my second brain, I have the knowledge and have read the book and that this is the same as learning from reading. That means I’ve accomplished what others do in half the time. The rat race is mine!

Alas, it’s not so simple. When the process is laid bare, it smacks of fallacious conflation. The difference between having and being is palpable. 

When we slow our reading, engage with it by writing our thoughts as marginalia, ponder on the ideas our reading inspires, that’s when growth happens - that’s being. And it is fundamentally different from collecting knowledge - from having.

When we allow ourselves to be changed by our reading, when we incorporate new behaviours, new beliefs, develop new skills, that is when reading has benefited us. That’s being instead of having. Moreover, this kind of growth doesn’t even require remembering every fact or line in the book. It’s about opening yourself so you can internalize what matters to you.

Note-Taking for Learning, Growing, and Being

All this being said, I still use a mix of digital and analog notes. I’ve just become more intentional about how and why so that it supports learning, growing, and being, as opposed to storing, and having knowledge. 
To understand why and how I’m changing my processes, first let’s discuss the common “remember everything you read” procedure, its purpose, and how it falls short.

Knowledge Dumping and Non-Contextualized Knowledge Reviews

A common workflow may look like this: 
You’ve got a kindle you use to read books
as you read, probably faster than is optimal for learning, you highlight passages that resonate with you.
these highlights are automatically added to your second brain from Kindle, to readwise, to Notion/Obsidian
Your second brain now has a new page that is several thousand words long filled with highlights.

I call this part Knowledge Dumping. It’s a mostly automated and minimally thoughtful process that involves tossing every highlight into a text pile.

What follows is a Non-contextualized Knowledge Review and Retrieval process. Tiago Forte and other Second brain folks recommend an iterative review process whereby one, little by little, summarizes and links notes and highlights to other notes. This process is designed to remind you of things you’ve read, prompt you to connect it to other ideas, and help you crystalize that knowledge through summary.

So, I tried that. It didn’t work for me. 

First, reading dozens of highlights out of context is confusing because it dis-embeds the text from the meaning it was participating in constructing. When you highlight a passage of text while reading because it resonates with you, you’re implicitly using the surrounding context to find meaning in the highlighted passage. You may think at the time that this highlight captures the full meaning of what you’ve just read, but more often than not, while reviewing you’re sat there wondering “what the hell does this mean?”

In other words, the meaning of a passage of text is co-constructed by its surrounding passages; without context much of the meaning is lost.

Second, there are so many highlights and so much text dumped into your second brain, that wading through it becomes an impossible task. So often, I would sit down to write, remember a concept from a book that I wanted to cite, and could not find it due to the sheer quantity information in my files. And, let me add, I wasn’t naively scrolling through files. For the tech-heads out there, I was using grep and fzf to quickly scrub through data … still most of the time it was hard to find the right notes. 

You know what did work for me? Good ol’ fashioned pen, paperbacks, and mind-wandering.

Marginalia, Intentional Notes, Flip-Throughs, and Mind-Wandering 

So, the point of Knowledge Dumping is to store knowledge for easy retrieval, and the point of Non-Contextualized Knowledge Reviews is to synthesize and connect ideas via iterative and periodic review. Synthesis and idea connection are deeply ingrained with learning and growing. It’s no wonder then that in both regards, these processes have fallen short for me.

I’d argue that synthesis, idea connection, and knowledge retrieval are all better facilitated via more manual processes.
Let’s talk about knowledge retrieval first. Lately, I’ve taken to writing in my books and underlining with a pen. When I want to reference a specific passage later on, I just flip through the book. 

While this may sound slow, what I’ve found is that there are tons of little clues that cue me in to where the passage I’m looking for is AND what was important to me when I read it. As I flip through, I glimpse chapter titles, margin-notes, and highlights. All this reminds me my own thoughts at the time and the context surrounding the passage I’m looking for. It’s a built-in refresher.

Secondly the goals of crystallization, synthesis and connecting ideas are better served by mind-wandering and manual note-taking DURING reading.

The Non-Contextualized Knowledge Review process in conjunction with the Having Fallacy, encourage the reader to defer thinking about their reading until later - often, after context has faded. On the other hand, mind-wandering and note-taking during reading maintains the surrounding context. 

Mind-Wandering and following a train of thought while reading is a large part of how synthesis and knowledge connection happen naturally during the reading process. If we don’t fully understand a passage, the mind may wander and find an insight in a connection it makes. Similarly, if what we’re reading is applicable to our work or other aspect of life, mind-wandering often leads one to connect their reading to those domains.

With this in mind, I’ve chosen to slow my reading to create space to follow a train of thought when it comes up. I often explore an idea and jot notes in the margins for later flip-throughs. Doing this, I find I’m more creative, enjoy reading more, and have an easier time remembering what I’ve read.

Frankly, I find it a great tragedy of the Having mindset that we consider being inspired to think about what we read, a waste of time, when that ought to be the goal of reading.

So what is a Digital Brain for?

Organizing tasks, tracing our steps, and storing works-in-progress. 

I fully believe in the adage “The mind is for having ideas not storing them.” Although, I’d prefer the terms making or creating over having ideas.

I also think making someone store their todos and schedule in their head is an excellent form of mental warfare.
Externalizing thought is one of the most powerful things we can do to help develop our ideas, keep them safe from the forgetful and reconstructive brain. So, I use my Digital Second Brain for exactly that. I keep article/blog ideas and drafts in Obsidian, I let my calendar keep track of my schedule, and I keep my todos in TaskWarrior. I also keep notes on what I’ve read and what ideas a book or article sparked in Obsidian, I just do this manually so that I don’t end up with an inactionable amount of information as I would with Knowledge Dumping.

Still, there is a time and place for the Having Mindset. As an academic, I really do need to Have knowledge. It’s important for me to remember which findings come from which papers and researchers to acknowledge their contributions properly. It’s also valuable for me to have extensive knowledge of bodies of research that relate to my field. For these purposes, the Digital Second Brain is a fantastic tool.

The problem is not the Digital Second Brain itself, it’s in falling pray to the fallacy that having knowledge is learning. It’s in accumulating but not internalizing so much knowledge that it ceases to be useful. It’s the loss of context. It’s forgetting that Having is for the Digital Brain and Being is for us.