Working with Readwise's Reader

Every couple of months, some part of my knowledge management workflow (most of which I do in my Obsidian vault ) crosses a threshold. Something has grown to the point of not being manageable anymore; a new tool has proven to be really useful and its use has to become more codified; something has turned out to not work as expected and needs to be readjusted or removed.

I've been using Readwise's Reader for a month now (since it came out of closed beta), especially extensively in the last week. It made me pass one of those thresholds.

Readwise Reader

For those who don't know Readwise, it is a website that collects your highlights from many different sources (ebooks, articles, webpages, ...). It combines this highlight management functionality with a spaced repetition mode where it will replay a bunch of highlights to you every day. I've been doing it, and it's been fun, but I don't know how much value there is there for me (I've got bigger plans for spaced repetition in 2023).

Their Reader application is a central hub for all this highlighting. No need to annotate things in kindle and then import it to Readwise and then transfer that to Obsidian. I can now import PDFs, ebooks, webpages, and random snippets of text right there into a centralized hub. I can then highlight, annotate, tag these documents and import the resulting highlights into obsidian. The process is quite smooth!

Dealing with internet writings

I am an avid consumer of internet content, usually coming from a small variety of sources:
– links I find on hacker news, lobsters, RSS feeds...
– links I find on social media
– links I find while deep-diving into one topic

Often, these links are interesting to me but not relevant to what I am currently working on. I used to file them in my Evernote vault and never look at them again, and in late summer shifted to filing them into todoist so that I could go back through them properly. This “file and forget” action is very healthy, as it allows me to feel OK with moving on, despite my curiosity.

As my note-taking evolved, I realized the value of processing these resources and making the nuggets of information they contain discoverable. This is a lot of work, it requires you to read the article, and take notes extracting “reusable value” that can be crosslinked into the vault. It is also work that I find extremely pleasurable and inspiring, too inspiring in fact...

The problem with extracting value

What I would do is go to a coffee shop on the weekends, open my Todoist inbox, go through the links and read and process articles while writing them up, either on paper index cards or in my Obsidian vault. Creating reusable value out of them for me involves:
– creating Wiki entries with “hard facts”
– creating Zettelkasten entries with “atomic ideas”
– writing about it (blog posts, book chapters, even just diary entries)

There are two problems with this approach:
– the friction to getting into “information processing” mode is quite high. I need to get into work mode, I need to have 2 tools open, and I need to focus. But I do read a lot of content on half-flame, for relaxation. This means that I only do this on the weekends, in reasonably exhausting multi-hour sessions
– I get way too excited. Once I start digesting articles and coming up with Zettelkasten entries, and writing things on index cards or in my vault, hundreds of ideas come to me, and I will end up processing about 10 articles but added about 40 more to the list while doing so.

Getting way too excited doing knowledge work is a thing I love about my brain: I get a lot of value out of these sessions. I've been milking 3 sessions from August writing down notes about “prototyping in software.” But it really doesn't help boil down the knowledge I've encountered. I also end up bouncing the same 3 concepts around for way too long, when more perspectives on the subject would be more helpful.

Do I even want to “boil down articles?”

Now, why do I even want to process all these links? Am I not happy just processing 10, getting a lot of value out of them, and moving on?

One thing I find lacking in my knowledge management currently is the lack of quotes and references to other sources. In my current way of approaching external articles (taking notes, coming up with my own ideas, making Zettelkasten cards ), I have more of a “discussion” with the document than an “extraction” process.

The downside is that often, the actual meaning of the document is not preserved, and I just write down my own biased ideas. And the other is that I don't have good quotes, but good quotes are actually great in blog posts.

What I want is a way to expand my set of ideas, by clearly identifying where they came from, who said them, and in which context, and only then start adding my own notes.

Highlighting and extracting value

I didn't use to highlight things in books and articles, because I would have to put much effort into transporting them into my vault. This changes quite significantly with Readwise and its Obsidian import plugin, as well as the Reader application.

It's been nice to have a place with a queue of articles and know that at least the fact I read them is going to be preserved (and even synced into my vault). Because of the friction of my current process (link into todoist, read carefully and process on the weekend), I would rarely ever productively consume content during the week. Either I would read an article but not take notes and whatever I got from it would mostly be lost, or I would extract “too much” value and not increase the breadth of my knowledge.

With Reader I feel I can just mindlessly scroll through the stuff I saved, realize that I don't have that much interest in it after all, and still preserve the one or other nice sentence in there that I can later in Obsidian cross reference. I will often get through 20-30 articles per day that way!

Where to go from here?

I started devising a workflow to go through the imported snippets in Obsidian (since there are now more than 100 in there), and finding ways to crosslink and file them as they come in. This in a way is the “knowledge work” part of what I used to do on weekends, where ideas are extracted, and things are put in context.

Because it has now been broken off from the “consumption and highlight” part, it feels much more approachable, and also something that can be done on the side, because I only need to recall the snippets for the topic I am working on right now, and can immediately crosslink digested nuggets, instead of having to read original sources.