Zettelkasten Forum


The Barbell Method of Reading

imageThe Barbell Method

The Zettelkasten note-taking method has made book writing and writing scientific papers easy for hundreds of years already.

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Post edited by ctietze on
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  • I s there any difference in how you would read and also take notes in reading a a hardback edition of a book and a digital version of that book. Do you prefer to read a hardback versus a digital version or does that matter in regards to the area of retention. There has been studies supporting the notion that reading e book are not as effective as hardback books in regard to retention. Your thoughts?

  • No. I don't make any differences. But I never read digital books. I spend a lot of time in front of the screen and reading. Yes, there is an efficiency thing you mentioned: Physical beats digital when it comes to retention.

    But there are many other factors to include: Counterbalance over-digitalisation for example. I don't want suboptimization in my life. I don't want blue light overload. etc.

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast I like paper books too. But AFAIK there's no blue light issue with Kindle.
    Also as I see it, it's not really a matter of "suboptimization"; it's a matter of compromises. With six physical books in your bag for summer reading, you are sub-optimizing for space and weight compared to a Kindle. You can quickly highlight text on a Kindle for later processing. And pages have entry ids so you have a reference when you write notes on paper. So it's a different workflow, but not much different.

  • @System when reading this article I had a hard time understanding WHY you call it a barbell strategy. Here is how Nassim explains it:

    "If you know that you are vulnerable to prediction errors, and … accept that most “risk measures” are flawed, then your strategy is to be as hyperconservative and hyperaggressive as you can be instead of being mildly aggressive or conservative."

    In other words, put your eggs in two baskets. One basket holds extremely safe investments, while the other holds nothing but leverage and speculation.

    But what's that have to do with reading a book twice? I'd call it a "two-phase" strategy, or a "dual-pass" or "fast-slow" approach. I think the references to investment strategy distract from the article more than it helps. You could just cut that out entirely and it would be greatly improved.

  • Sorry, but this article is pure garbage. It is just pointing out that there are other animals that behave differently. It doesn't address the approach Peterson is using (Consilience of Knowledge) or any of its arguments.

    @maxhodges said:
    @sfast I like paper books too. But AFAIK there's no blue light issue with Kindle.
    Also as I see it, it's not really a matter of "suboptimization"; it's a matter of compromises. With six physical books in your bag for summer reading, you are sub-optimizing for space and weight compared to a Kindle. You can quickly highlight text on a Kindle for later processing. And pages have entry ids so you have a reference when you write notes on paper. So it's a different workflow, but not much different.

    There is a blue light issue. :smile:

    I am not talking about using a kindle as a tool for vacation. If you travel for six weeks and want to read 10 books a kindle is great. But I could also argue that if you have a problem to carry six books you should work on your back strength. :smile:

    The difference comes into play when it comes to to processing depth. The haptics, the act of making notes with a pen etc. increase the processing depth in you brain. Numbers for example are partly processed in your motor cortex. It make a difference how you take notes. Making notes or drawing on paper is a very different from doing it digital from he brains perspective. The workflow should train your brain accordingly. Additionally, you behave differently when you work digitally. There are many factors to consider. The non-physicality, the light, the lack of optical change when you turn a page, the possibility of clicking links etc.

    I see your point but there are hidden costs of the digital world. You could do a simple experiment: Read for four weeks kindle only. Then switch to physical only four additional four weeks. I believe that you would be surprised how different you will feel. :smile:

    @maxhodges said:
    @System when reading this article I had a hard time understanding WHY you call it a barbell strategy. Here is how Nassim explains it:

    "If you know that you are vulnerable to prediction errors, and … accept that most “risk measures” are flawed, then your strategy is to be as hyperconservative and hyperaggressive as you can be instead of being mildly aggressive or conservative."

    In other words, put your eggs in two baskets. One basket holds extremely safe investments, while the other holds nothing but leverage and speculation.

    But what's that have to do with reading a book twice? I'd call it a "two-phase" strategy, or a "dual-pass" or "fast-slow" approach. I think the references to investment strategy distract from the article more than it helps. You could just cut that out entirely and it would be greatly improved.

    1. You are investing time when you read.
    2. Processing depth adds to risk and to reward. (In the form of reading very slow or twice)

    So you have to types of investment: Reading fast and gaining much of the knowledge (safe investment of time because you can process a lot per unit of time) and reading carefully and gaining (possibly) less information but occasionally get a big surprise. (Sometimes valuable knowledge is hard to digest).

    Reading all the time with the same "mode" means to not adapt to the circumstances. So you put your eggs in two baskets:

    1. Read new books fast and mark all the paragraphs with interesting or promising content. (safe investment of time)
    2. Read the marked paragraphs again. (risky investment of time with big surprises).

    Reading most of the time with a small risk of wasting time. Reading a small proportion of your reading time with a high risk of wasting time (but possibly big reward).

    Therefore: Barbell Method.

    I am a Zettler

  • Therefore: Barbell Method.

    Still makes no sense to name it this way IMHO. Just stick with slow/fast. Otherwise, great article.

  • @vvcorto said:

    Therefore: Barbell Method.

    Still makes no sense to name it this way IMHO. Just stick with slow/fast. Otherwise, great article.

    Please use arguments. I am open to them but you'll still have to make them.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited August 2019

    Interesting post. I am still struggling with how I like to read books and papers, and often go in too deep too quickly.

    I had not heard of the Barbell Method before. It comes close to the method from the book How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler (which is summarised nicely here ). The second part of his Inspectional Reading, which is superficial reading, corroborates the first step of the Barbell Method. I miss his first part, the Systematic Skimming, which should be the first selectional filter: check back, ToC, etc. to get an idea of the book and decide whether it is worth your time. But HTRAB does not suggest highlighting interesting parts. Rather, he suggests, if a book is deemed interesting after an Inspectional Read, to go into Analytical Reading, so to read thoroughly and make comments. But that would mean reading the whole thing again.

    I also had to think about Take Smarter Notes, whose author suggests to always read with pen in hand. That corroborates to some extent with the Barbell Method, but takes much more effort even if something is not interesting at the end. Another method (no ref atm) is to write a brief summary at the end of each chapter (I think Luhmann did that for papers he wrote). To me that goes somewhere in the middle.

    I will now make a Zettel of the Barbell Method linking to this post. That would be shallow reading/note-taking, because it is a cross-reference. I am under the impression that is fine as long as you know it is, and do the deep reading once you really need the material. I frequently find citations in books I read interesting so I makes notes of them as citations of citations. I frequently never come back to them, so I decide not to take too much time. If they come back in my mind, I look up the original reference.

  • Addendum: Ahrens, the author of Taking Smarter Notes, is very much against just highlighting text, for instance saying it removes context and does not lead to understanding. So I guess the highlighting as with the Barbell Method is about sections rather than single lines?

  • @vvcorto said:

    Therefore: Barbell Method.

    Still makes no sense to name it this way IMHO. Just stick with slow/fast. Otherwise, great article.

    I can chip in with my 2 cents: to me the name 'barbell' refers to the two equally 'weighty' methods being used in tandem, the slow and the fast reading methods are both necessary when balanced. It is like how in vipassana meditation you need both awareness and equanimity, or how like a bird's two wings enable it to fly. This concept is found in many places: both the width and the breadth of a rectangle contribute to its area, for example, or try putting up a tent without two forces pulling tension in two diametrically opposed areas.

    But yeah, otherwise just a snappy name and who cares

  • @Garwyx wrote:
    I had not heard of the Barbell Method before.

    I'd be suprised because I came up with this name.

    I think every appraoch has something in common: Repetition.

    And there is always a thing going on with setting the frame. I would not regard skimming the book or reviewing its chapter headings as part of reading but rather normal evaluating if you should read the book alltogether.

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast said:

    @Garwyx wrote:
    I had not heard of the Barbell Method before.

    I'd be suprised because I came up with this name.

    I think every appraoch has something in common: Repetition.

    And there is always a thing going on with setting the frame. I would not regard skimming the book or reviewing its chapter headings as part of reading but rather normal evaluating if you should read the book alltogether.

    Yeah I figured that on a second read. You threw me off guard with "The Barbell Method is a phrase coined by Nassim Taleb". I thought he coined it in regards to reading.
    Regarding considering skimming not to be part of reading, I can see where you are coming from, but I prefer to include it, the way Adler suggests. Just semantics more or less.

  • edited September 2019

    Jap. It is semantics. Nothing really important. Though, -- of course -- I think mine are correct. :smiley:

    I'll write a piece on how to evaluate books before you read (the Barbell Method).

    Post edited by sfast on

    I am a Zettler

  • I think it's a bit hilarious, @sfast, that you boast about your command of the nuanced meaning of words, and then, in the same post, you accidentally call @Garwyx either a (filthy) Japanese person or a spoiled Jewish girl. :smiley:

    If you like The Archive's "PrettyFunctional (Basic)" theme, consider upgrading to the "PrettyFunctional (Regular)" theme.

  • Lol. Busted. :smile:

    I am a Zettler

  • Thanks for the post, I find it very useful. I noticed you have useful but easy to understand parts in the 'read once' category, demanding heavy processing. In this case, do you feed your Zettelkasten during the first read?

    Regarding the barbell method, I am also a fan of Taleb (should really re-read Antifragile tbh) and understand your use of the term. Initially I thought you might be referring to the selection of what to read in the first place. One can imagine a sort of barbell investment strategy for source selection as well i.e. systematically skimming books and selecting either those that a) are definitely useful and related to your work/study/research 90% of the time b) seem completely out of left field/very hard to process/questionably applicable but which could potentially open completely new lines of thinking for you 10% of the time.

  • No. I never feed my Zettelkasten during the first read. It is always:

    1. Read the text with pen. Sometimes, I make notes in my physical note book. But even those get processed someday in the future.
    2. Let it settle for a while. (This should by highly individualised if you follow this process. Normally, I can remember most of the books content for a couple of months till it gets compressed and my recall gets bad. Sometimes, the second read benefits from longer waits and sometimes not)
    3. Then I put it next to my computer and re-read the marked passages and create Zettel during the process.

    Regarding the barbell method, I am also a fan of Taleb (should really re-read Antifragile tbh) and understand your use of the term. Initially I thought you might be referring to the selection of what to read in the first place. One can imagine a sort of barbell investment strategy for source selection as well i.e. systematically skimming books and selecting either those that a) are definitely useful and related to your work/study/research 90% of the time b) seem completely out of left field/very hard to process/questionably applicable but which could potentially open completely new lines of thinking for you 10% of the time.

    You got it. In the second edition of the book I expand this exact thought. The problem is that you cannot just do it. The selection must be mechanistically build into the method. The Barbell Reading method does the same put with higher resolution. Intead of selection whole books you invest minimally first (every part of the book get 10% effort in the form of just reading) and later on maximally a second time (the best parts get 90% effort). The selection mechanism per paragraph.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited March 8

    @sfast said:
    No. I never feed my Zettelkasten during the first read. It is always:

    1. Read the text with pen. Sometimes, I make notes in my physical note book. But even those get processed someday in the future.
    2. Let it settle for a while. (This should by highly individualised if you follow this process. Normally, I can remember most of the books content for a couple of months till it gets compressed and my recall gets bad. Sometimes, the second read benefits from longer waits and sometimes not)
    3. Then I put it next to my computer and re-read the marked passages and create Zettel during the process.

    Thanks, I think I get what you mean now: you re-read the difficult parts but also mark the easy but useful parts for processing later.

    Regarding the time to let things settle, do you wait until a book is processed before starting another or do you also start others during the period of letting things settle? Intuitively, I wouldn't want to start other books before the previous one has been worked through so that ideas don't get jumbled in my mind and eventually forgotten (this is what I've been doing my entire life before Zettelkasten after all :)) though I imagine there could be some kind of middle ground where you get the benefits of mulling things over while also maintaining a decent inflow of information.

    Edit: btw Taleb has an ongoing challenge on Twittee for people to find mistakes in Antifragile. Seeing as you actually worked through the references, you might take him up on it ;)

    Post edited by ptohver on
  • @ptohver said:

    @sfast said:
    No. I never feed my Zettelkasten during the first read. It is always:

    1. Read the text with pen. Sometimes, I make notes in my physical note book. But even those get processed someday in the future.
    2. Let it settle for a while. (This should by highly individualised if you follow this process. Normally, I can remember most of the books content for a couple of months till it gets compressed and my recall gets bad. Sometimes, the second read benefits from longer waits and sometimes not)
    3. Then I put it next to my computer and re-read the marked passages and create Zettel during the process.

    Thanks, I think I get what you mean now: you re-read the difficult parts but also mark the easy but useful parts for processing later.

    Technically, I am re-reading all marked parts. :smile: But the easy parts are not so time-consuming.

    Regarding the time to let things settle, do you wait until a book is processed before starting another or do you also start others during the period of letting things settle? Intuitively, I wouldn't want to start other books before the previous one has been worked through so that ideas don't get jumbled in my mind and eventually forgotten (this is what I've been doing my entire life before Zettelkasten after all :)) though I imagine there could be some kind of middle ground where you get the benefits of mulling things over while also maintaining a decent inflow of information.

    I have two books that I process. One that is heavy (mental) lifting. One that is quite easy. The former would be something like The Master and His Emissary by McGilchrist. The later would be Tools of Titan by Ferriss. If I am not fresh enough I process the later. But mostly it is one book only.

    Or: Do you mean start reading? Then yes. I read way faster than I process. And my pile of shame is growing.. :smiley:

    I think it is up to the individual. I do not have any issues when a book is rotting for months with my marginalia until I touch it again.

    Edit: btw Taleb has an ongoing challenge on Twittee for people to find mistakes in Antifragile. Seeing as you actually worked through the references, you might take him up on it ;)

    Oh, nice. Would be fun, if I could carve out some time. I don't have any Zettel on the mistake. I ignore what I deam wrong when I process books. I see no point in filling my Zettelkaste with fallacies.

    But even then: Twitter is a cursed place that eats up your soul. I stay away from that. :blush:

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast said: I read way faster than I process. And my pile of shame is growing.. :smiley: >

    I'm glad someone else has this problem :)

  • @Phil said:

    @sfast said: I read way faster than I process. And my pile of shame is growing.. :smiley: >

    I'm glad someone else has this problem :)

    Haha. Aren't we shame pilers not an awesome bunch of crabs in a bucket..

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast said:

    Technically, I am re-reading all marked parts. :smile: But the easy parts are not so time-consuming.

    Yup, that's the part that confused me at first. I read "read once" under easy but useful and thought that you are not revisiting them at all, because revisiting is still kind of like reading in my mind.

    I have two books that I process. One that is heavy (mental) lifting. One that is quite easy. The former would be something like The Master and His Emissary by McGilchrist. The later would be Tools of Titan by Ferriss. If I am not fresh enough I process the later. But mostly it is one book only.

    Or: Do you mean start reading? Then yes. I read way faster than I process. And my pile of shame is growing.. :smiley:

    I think it is up to the individual. I do not have any issues when a book is rotting for months with my marginalia until I touch it again.

    Yeah I meant the start part. Gotcha.

    But even then: Twitter is a cursed place that eats up your soul. I stay away from that. :blush:

    I don't mind the Twitter so much, as long as I utilize it as an information source rather than a social status platform i.e. not constantly checking for updates etc. I've customized my feed in a way that I actually get useful tidbits of information that occasionally send me down completely new alleyways of research (in stark contrast to something like Facebook, which never does that). I actually discovered Zettelkasten due to a a tweet from a productivity coach I follow! Odds are I would have discovered it at some point regardless in an upcoming reading but given how little time and effort I spend checking Twitter every now and then, I'm pretty happy with the odd nugget of gold I find there :)

  • @ptohver said: I've customized my feed in a way that I actually get useful tidbits of information that occasionally send me down completely new alleyways of research>

    Me too (sorry, this is OT). I'm a fan of 'targeted Twitter', whose utility expands in direct proportion to the care with which you curate those you follow. It can be a valuable tool for discipline specific researchers, especially so given the growth of Digital Humanities. I use Tweetdeck, which allows a user to view multiple Twitter feeds simultaneously (I know, I know...). But one of those feeds is devoted exclusively to corralling any Tweet with a #zettelkasten hash tag. Very useful!

  • @sfast said:
    Or: Do you mean start reading? Then yes. I read way faster than I process. And my pile of shame is growing.. :smiley:

    I see your smiley, of course, but really this is a serious issue that comes up again and again. I strongly believe that anyone involved in processing knowledge needs a category where inputs can be accessed again quickly if and when wanted, but that carries no more sense of "inbox zero" obligation than a social media feed or TV schedule. I've been using the expression "slushpile", from the term for a magazine editor's stack of unsolicited manuscripts. Avoiding Collector's Fallacy doesn't actually mean you have an obligation to either fully process or toss out everything that crosses your transom.

  • @Eurobubba What is the goal? Just to feel better?

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast
    Don't knock feeling better. But the real value is a) to be able to focus time and effort on our highest-value knowledge processing, to the best of our evolving judgment, while also b) retaining a pre-curated repository of potential inputs that are likely to be more valuable than the daily firehose of unfiltered new information. The opposite pole, in this context, of the Collector's Fallacy is the Sunk Costs Fallacy.

  • @Eurobubba If you have new arguments I am happily willing to discuss them.

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast said:
    @Eurobubba If you have new arguments I am happily willing to discuss them.

    Fine, go on clinging to your shame! :smiley:

  • Would you consider "storage is cheap" a new argument? (And "attention is expensive", but that's still part of the old argument.)

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