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:

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:

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: