Highlighting too much? Try raising the standard.
After dragging my highlight to the fourth paragraph in a row, I knew that I was highlighting too much again.
Highlighting is supposed to be an exercise in spotlighting the most important text in a passage. I’ve come to learn the hard way that when everything’s important, nothing is.
Like many before me, I’ve set up an information capture system that transports highlights taken on my Kindle reader over to Roam Research through Readwise. Anything I highlight while reading will reliably end up in a Roam inbox for “further processing.”
The trouble is that when I over-highlight, processing my notes basically amounts to re-reading the book. This redundancy in effort makes me feel like I’m wasting my time. That I’m adding a needless step in my journey to select and retain the best ideas I come across.
“Just highlight what resonates” is bad advice for me. Everything resonates.
Repeating this pattern eventually led me to ask “Is there a way to capture more value by highlighting less? Perhaps adding friction to the process would keep my compulsion for highlighting in check. I’d wind up with less material, but it could potentially be of higher quality.
This led to an experiment I’m currently conducting.
Annotations as a gatekeeper
For the past few weeks, I’ve set a rule for myself where in order to highlight text, I must provide an annotation explaining why it’s worthy of highlighting in the first place. No rationale = no highlight.
How do I determine worthiness?
As explain in my prior essay, I’ve been thinking a lot about how academic researchers seek to answer their research questions by extracting claims and evidence from published scientific papers in their field. I refer to this framework of questions, claims, and evidence, as the knowledge architecture. I've also seen it refered to as the QCE framework.
What if I could adapt this approach to target questions I care about?
Twelve favorite questions
In Tiago Forte’s book Building a Second Brain, Forte describes how Richard Feynman, the 1965 nobel prize winning physicist, and notable genius, described his approach to information capture:
“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps.”
Forte suggests we develop our own list of twelve favorite questions and use them as a guide for selecting which information to seek and preserve.
My experiment effectively tests a highlight before it’s made. Does this potential highlight surface a claim that helps answer one of my questions? Does it provide evidence that supports or contradicts one of my existing claims? If so, I describe the connection in the highlight’s annotation.
Let’s review an example from James Clear’s Atomic Habits.
In deciding whether to make the highlight, I ask myself if it connects to any of my favorite questions. “How can I become more intentional about my actions and their consequences?” is one that I’ve been thinking about for a while. In fact, finding answers to this question is what led me to buy this book in the first place.
Next, I extract a possible or related answer to my question from a paragraph on the prior page (not visible). This partial answer is the claim: “Every behavior has a surface level craving and deeper, underlying motive.” This sentence becomes my annotation.
With that context, I can now see that I only need the top paragraph of the highlight on the left, since it’s providing evidence for the claim. I would also include the annotation “Evidence: Example showing how smoking is really about reducing stress.”
Everything below the dotted line can be left unhighlighted, since it’s not adding any more information to my claim or question.
Forcing myself to provide an annotation with each highlight results in clarity about whether the information I’m reading is actually furthering my understanding of the topics I care about.
By adding this proactive step, my highlighting has substantially reduced and resulted in a greater proportion of signal to noise.
Sure, I read more slowly these days, but I think the trade off is worth it. I’m more selective in what I choose to read, and I come away with better retention and understanding of whatever highlights make the cut.
If you’re a chronic over-highlighter like me, give this tactic a shot and see if it helps you get smarter about what you take in. So far, the results I’m seeing are showing promise.
This post is the second in a series focused on how the QCE framework can aid us in the non-academic contexts of business and life. Here are links to the related posts:
If you have any ideas, questions, or feedback, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to reach me at email@example.com.