Lessons learned from processing Team of Rivals
My research area is machine learning. My first zettel was 02/23/2020 and most of them focus on my research area or research in general. Throughout my life I have read many books, but I remember little about them. For instance, I say books like "The Double Helix" or "The Art of Learning" made a big impact on me, but outside of a few anecdotes, I remember nothing. More than that, I have no notes to go back and refer to. My plan this year was to change this and systematically process any book I read.
The first book happened to be "Team of Rivals". My first zettel was on 02/06/2021. At the time I had approximately 430 zettels.
I know little about Lincoln or the Civil War outside of what I remember from high school. Everything was new and everything seemed notable. As I read the book, I kept a notebook of fleeting notes. These were just page numbers with brief descriptions of what I found interesting. Later I went through the notebook and turned each fleeting note into a zettel.
I eventually became overwhelmed by the amount of information I was processing. Since this was just a hobby, something I did on top of my research, job, and family, the whole process took a protracted amount of time. Nearly six months passed between the time I read the first page and I processed the final note. From the time I entered the first note (02/06/2021), I added 252 notes to my Zettelkasten, 138 from this book.
If reading is searching, I had no idea what I was searching for when I started. In hindsight I was interested in things like, examples of leadership, causes of the Civil War, history of racism, and great stories. If I had started with those things in mind, reading and processing would have been more productive.
Started Processing Too Early
Halfway through the book, I started processing fleeting notes. I think it was a mistake to start this early, especially given my lack of knowledge of the subject. I probably skipped over information that was related to later parts of the text. I likely missed relationships between information from the first half and the second half. Splitting my time between reading and processing meant I never had the whole text in mind before taking notes.
No Triage of Fleeting Notes
During processing, I went through my fleeting notes sequentially. For each note, I immediately started transforming it into a zettel. I never questioned whether it was worth translating. Towards the end I realized a fleeting note should just be treated as something potentially of interest. There is no obligation to keep it.
No Organization of Fleeting Notes
Since I processed the notes sequentially, I never took the step to look at them as a whole. I missed the opportunity to group notes and develop initial connections. It also made it difficult to synthesize information by relating several notes from different parts of the text into a new insight.
My Tags are a Mess
I tagged every single note with '#history'. Doubt that tag is going to be of much use. I chose not to tag notes specifically about Lincoln with a tag '#lincoln' because I thought I could just search for his name. Every single note contains a citation to the book with Lincoln in the title, so that doesn't work.
I am nearly finished reading a biography of George Washington and ready to start processing the fleeting notes. I'm hoping that I have learned something from this first attempt and the process will be smoother and more productive.