Managing Pocket highlights with Zettelkasten

I've been using Pocket to manage my reading list for about a year now. There are a couple of features that I really like:

  • Articles can be saved directly from Firefox and then picked up later on a different device.
  • Articles can be tagged with one (or more) categories.
  • Highlights can be added and saved in the reader view.

I frequently highlight articles, but I realized I don't actually do anything with them. It doesn't really matter how vigilant I am about highlighting interesting ideas if I don't make use of them.

As part of my goal this year to improve my processes, I wanted to get these highlights out of Pocket and into my zettelkasten system.

The current process I'm using looks like this:

  • Step 1 - Create a single note for the article which contains all of its highlights.
  • Step 2 - Read through each highlight and decide if it's something I want to keep or convert.
  • Step 3 - Rewrite the book highlight in my own words as a new note.

It follows a similar thought process to my GTD setup: notes come in, I decide what to do with them, and then I convert them to something else or discard them entirely.

Step 1: Fleeting notes

A zettelkasten system contains different types of notes: fleeting, literature, permanent, and index.

I treat all book highlights as fleeting notes. These function a lot like items in GTD's inbox; they may end up being converted into a different type of note, or they may be trashed if they're not as interesting as I originally thought.

All highlights from an article go into the same note, with the article url at the bottom so I can go back to it if needed. Keeping things simple is key.

This is meant to be a pretty quick step; I copy and paste each highlight as an org-mode quote and don't make any decisions until step 2.

Step 2: Processing

I re-read each highlight and choose the next step:

  • If it's not actually that interesting, I'll delete it.
  • If it's something I want to take direct action on, I'll move it to my GTD inbox.
  • If it's interesting and non-actionable, I'll move on to step 3.

During the copying process I usually have a good idea about what I'm going to do with the highlight, but I don't actually do anything until this step. Having distinct stages prevents me from getting distracted with re-organizing my notes.

Step 3: Rewriting

My high school physics teacher often told me to "make the material your own" by rewriting it, rather than copying it directly. I wasn't very good at physics, but I still remember the things that I took the time to make personal.

Step 3 is about making the information my own.

It's worth spending the time to really think about what was highlighted - and why - so that the information is absorbed. Without this step I'm just hording other people's words without integrating it into my own knowledge.

I'll then split my rewritten note - sometimes with the quoted highlight - into a separate note. I link to this new note from the original one, and then delete the saved link from Pocket.

An example note

This is a note from the article "How to Improve Your Productivity as a Working Programmer" before processing:

A complete note before processing

And this is what it looks like after processing and editing:

A fully-processed note

The finished note has no content of its own, but acts as an index to all of its related notes. Sometimes I'll add a little excerpt or summary to the top if the title is non-obvious.

An extracted note looks like this:

An extracted sub-note

By the end of the process the note has been turned from a few chunks of copy-pasted text into a page that links to my personal thoughts about an article. It's a fairly quick process once I'm in the groove, although I need to get better about scheduling it as frequently as my weekly GTD reviews.

One important part of this system is to be comfortable with rearranging things. When I first started keeping notes I wanted everything to be perfectly organized on the first try, but it often takes multiple passes before I'm completely happy.

Further reading:

Getting started with plaintext accounting

For a long time I used Microsoft Money to manage my accounts, but that was eventually retired and stopped working. I had to find other options so I picked the easiest option - nothing.

A couple of years ago I started looking into setting up an actual system. I had a few requirements:

  • I didn't want an online-only solution.
  • It had to work on all platforms I use (GNU/Linux, MacOS, and Windows).
  • I didn't want a third-party storing my bank details.

In the end I settled on using ledger. It runs locally, stores everything using plain text, and doesn't require any remote service to work. And as a bonus there is ledger-mode which adds ledger integration to Emacs.

My system at the moment is pretty basic: I split each of my accounts into separate directories, and then use one file for each year. I also have a primary file that links to all of these files; this allows me to run reports across all of my money.

There are some pretty big things I want to improve on in my setup: importing entries takes time, I'd like to learn how to run better reports, and I want to set up a YNAB-style budget system.

By far the biggest pain-point right now is importing entries. Currently I have to manually download CSV files from my bank, convert them with a script, and then go through each item to remove duplicates and categorize the data. Ideally I'd like to be able to automate the entire process, but I'll be happy if I can simplify the conversion and importing process.

Resources to learn more:
Provides a complete overview of the different applications available, along with instructions on getting started.
A community for discussing the ins-and-outs of plain text accounting.

New section for deliberate practice

One of my goals in 2021 is to spend more time on "deliberate practice". This is something I've written about before, and after reading Mastering Software Technique I decided to put some effort into improving my skills.

I'm treating this section like an online notebook. It's also a way to keep me focused on deliberately learning things instead of aimlessly messing around. A lot of these projects will be small - ideally only a few hours in length - but I wanted to keep track of them somewhere.

2021's section is a little barren right now, but I'll be adding more projects as the year progresses.

Groundhog Day Resolutions 2021 - Major Goals

I fell a bit short of where I wanted to be last year, so I've been stewing on how many goals to try this time around. Right now I have a list of 11 primary goals, although I will probably add one more goal to make it an even 12.

Here's what I'm thinking of so far:

Publish 100 blog posts
My 30 day blog trial was challenging but enjoyable. I'd like to increase my output this year and publish 100 posts on this site. It will be the same mix of reflective posts (like this one) and more useful, tutorial-style articles.
Release a small game for the Atari ST
Revisiting my nineties development setup brought back some really fond memories for me. A couple of my really old games got picked up by AtariMania, so I'd love to release something that's actually worth playing.
Improve my marathon time
Last year was my first time running a full marathon, but I was a little disappointed with my time. I'm training to improve on it this year.
Enter Ludum Dare
It's been 7 years since my last Ludum Dare entry. It's a great way to get feedback - and to actually release something - so I want to try against this year.
Release Craft Roulette 3.0
I started rewriting Craft Roulette in Rails in 2019, but I stopped short of actually releasing it. Since then I've upgraded it to Rails 6, made it mobile-friendly(ish), and come up with a long list of features I want to add. I want to release it this year.
Release a demo of The Game
I tried this last year and failed, but I made some pretty good progress. There's still a lot to do, but I think I have enough pieces to started building the finished article on.
Release version 1.0 of Writing PHP with Emacs
I published version 0.6 at the end of 2019, and I'm getting close to finishing version 0.7. All of the major content I originally planned is now in the book, but I want to add the "Recipes" section and get the whole thing edited and tidied up. My plan is to have it all finished and released in the first quarter of 2021.
Deliberately practice
This one is a little hard to quantify. My plan is to pick small projects to work on, and then write about the experience once they're complete.
Complete a maniac week
This is another 2020 goal that never was. I still like the idea of shutting myself away to work on a project for a week, although that might change depending on how the year progresses
Release a game and earn at least $1 from it
I've wanted to make games since I was a kid, but I've never sold a game I've created. I'd like to change that.
Release a side project and earn at least $1 from it
Nearly all of my income comes from freelance work. Given how things went last year, I'd like to diversify where my money comes from.

My list of secondary goals has around 20 items, but I'll be adding more to it as the year progresses.

My areas of focus for 2021

I'm currently figuring out the goals I want to work on this year. I'm going to try and focus on a few specific areas instead of throwing out a bunch of goals and seeing what sticks.

Here are the areas I'm looking at so far:

I like to make things. In 2020 I reduced the amount of goals that involved making software, but I think that was a mistake. Even though I've been doing it for a long time I still enjoy creating games, tools, libraries, or little code snippets. I also found my 30 days of blogging experiment really helpful, so I want to write more this year.
Last year I submitted a couple of minor fixes to other projects - mostly typo fixes - but I'd like to do more. I'd also like to spend more time and energy helping others.
Finishing things
I am really bad at this. I want to get better.
Deliberately practicing
This is something I wrote about last year and I really want to use it more often. I've been doing the same job for over a decade now and I feel like I've let my skills stagnate.
Improving my processes
This is somewhat related to deliberate practice, but is more about refining my existing approach to things. I recently read "95%-ile isn't that good" and it gave me a couple of ideas about how to improve the things I do.

Looking over this list shows that there are two main things I want to concentrate this year: making more things (either for myself or other people), and getting better at how I make those things.