Better Notes, Better You with Josh Duffney (1/2)

Welcome to episode 156 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 1 of an interview with Josh Duffney (a return guest) to discuss his adoption of the smart notes methodology, how it helped in both work and personal projects, how Josh reads intentionally, and Josh’s new book on smart notes.

Original Recording Date: 12-14-2021

Topics – Josh Duffney Returns, Motivation for Adopting a New Approach, Smart Notes Basics, A Critical Eye for Relevance, Changing Directions, Intentional Reading, How to Take Smart Notes in Obsidian

3:56 – Josh Duffney Returns!

  • Josh Duffney is a Senior Content Developer for Microsoft and has just hit his 1 year anniversary in that role as of January 4, 2022. You can also find him on GitHub.
  • Josh Duffney was with us in 2 previous episodes:
    • Episode 123 – Just Add Value with Josh Duffney (1/2)
    • Episode 124 – Focus, Create, and Iterate with Josh Duffney (2/2)
  • Can you name the only other repeat guest on Nerd Journey?
  • Josh has written a new book, but he wrote it on his way to write a different book.

5:12 – Motivation for Adopting a New Approach

  • Josh was drowning in information. He wanted to write his first nonfiction book after writing his first technical book.
    • He has done a lot of work on productivity, digital minimalism, and wellbeing and wanted that to crystalize into a book.
    • Unfortunately Josh bit off more than he could chew at the beginning.
    • Josh has spent the last year trying to learn how to write the caliber of book he wants to write. This required a lot of information, and Josh could not keep it all in his head. He stumbled upon smart notes to help develop an external system that would help.
  • There are many schools of thought on productivity such as Getting Things Done and others.
  • Josh heard about the smart notes system through repeated word of mouth. He tends to be a late adopter, letting others filter out the noise.
    • A few years ago his manager mentioned Josh’s interest in productivity and suggested he read the book How to Take Smart Notes.
    • This kept resurfacing on Twitter by others, eventually getting promoted by someone whose newsletter Josh followed. At that point Josh decided to give it a shot.
  • After reading the book, he felt it was exactly what he needed.
    • It gave Josh a way to reverse engineer the process of writing.
  • As a content developer, Josh writes all the time in his day job.
    • The fear of the blank page has always bothered Josh. He has spent the last year learning how to write fast and how to de-compartmentalize phases of writing.
    • Right after reading comes note taking. If you have a pile of notes and a way to go back and find them, you always have an idea to write about.
    • This also allows a way to organize thoughts that were swirling in Josh’s head and causing anxiety.
    • Once you read a certain scale, you need somewhere to externalize the knowledge to reference at a later time. There is no way to keep so many mental models in your head.
  • The book How to Take Smart Notes is really the American publisher’s title. It was originally titled Zettelkasten, and the original translation of that is slip box (somewhat akin to a 1980s card catalog at a library). Originally the system was a pile of cards with index numbers on them and ideas.
    • How to think and write more productively is kind of the point of the book.
    • True Zettelkasten practitioners will make the same distinction on smart notes.
  • Josh says it is easy to get hung up on smart notes and the permanent note. It puts so much pressure on the permanent note, but really note taking should improve with iteration over time as you learn to take over time.
    • There’s no specific format of a smart note. It’s more about using them to think better and organize your knowledge.

11:37 – Smart Notes Basics

  • The basic notion is that there are several notes, each with a different purpose.
    • Fleeting notes – sort of like a journal or short / brief notes to capture an idea, task, or insight
      • Josh keeps a notebook with him at all times and uses it for fleeting notes.
      • These are meant to be processed within a couple of days and might generate things like reminders.
    • Literature notes – taking notes while you read and turning reading from a passive activity into an active activity.
      • This was the one Josh was least familiar with. The primary purpose of this kind of note is to get more familiar with and understand the literature itself.
      • The inventor of Zettelkasten would take notes on index cards as he read. Think of it like a brief summary with a page number on the index card to go back and reference / take in depth notes later.
      • Check out How to Read a Book, which provides a framework for marking up books (underline, write in margins, etc.).
      • SQ3R is a another reading comprehension method referenced as is SQ5R. The number of Rs depends on how much review you do.
      • Josh uses literature notes heavily when reading technical books, most recently in his learning of the Go Programming Language.
    • Permanent notes – notes you want to keep forever but malleable in the sense that you can rework them
      • These are the types of notes that go into your Zettelkasten / slip box. In Obsidian, this would be called a vault (where your knowledge base is built).
        • There is an entire process around connecting the notes.
  • John found the goal of extracting knowledge as you ingest it and predigesting it into the knowledge base as extremely interesting.
    • You can see all the things of interest in one place and understand these are the things you should write about.
    • Josh says the promise is once you have built the knowledge base you can look into it for ideas and that the majority of the work will have been done for you as you get ready to write a blog post or book.
      • Listen to John’s example of how putting a few permanent notes together to form a blog post might work.
    • Josh says you will find the truth that there is no writing. There is only rewriting. As you take the notes and bring into different texts they will need transitions, some will need more clarity, and you’ll find you can move around.
    • Once you get the knowledge out of your head you can externalize and move it around in a way you just can’t do when it’s in your head.
  • Josh’s preference – whatever medium you have consumed the information in should be the medium you use to make notes. For example, if Josh read a physical book, he would use physical note cards to start and transfer to Obsidian later.
    • Usually this is reserved for difficult books (200-300 page books get marked up and translated to physical notes).
    • For going through a tutorial or a blog post, Josh would put literature notes directly into Obsidian as he went. The literature note would then get converted later into a permanent note.
      • Listen to Josh’s example about doing this for the knowledge base he is building for Go lang.
  • Do you copy things down word for word as you come across them (literature notes) or put into your own words?
    • It is advised if you want to understand the material better that you put it into your own words.
    • Josh uses quote blocks in Obsidian if he’s taking something word for word. But the note likely would include more than just the quote to further his understanding.

20:42 – A Critical Eye for Relevance

  • Relevance has been the number 1 skill sharpened from note taking. Since we last spoke, Josh has taken 370 physical notes and over 400 digital notes.
    • He’s getting a lot better in the process of what is relevant. At first he was reluctant to rely on his brain for remembering anything.
    • Josh recently re-read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Our minds can always expand.
    • When Josh first began, he was treating himself like a computer (read / write operations, needing to consume everything into a note). His ability to determine what is relevant and important has improved over time as has ability to trust in his own intellect.
      • Just like any skill, this became easier to do over time.
  • You start to develop a critical eye for what’s worth keeping and what is not worth keeping.
    • For example, when Josh was learning Go programming the definition of a Go package and the Go init command seemed really important, but with repetition they turned out to be fundamental concepts. It would have made a good literature note but not a good permanent note unless Josh wanted to teach someone Go fundamentals. Over time you develop the critical pieces that need capturing instead of everything.
  • You also get better at paraphrasing and summarizing other peoples’ work to make your own note.
  • While the logical side of smart notes can make sense to people, what is it that triggers the emotional side?
    • Josh mentioned the smart notes approach is a great way to hedge against information overload.
    • One of the realizations you have as you start to take notes will be that you cannot consume everything and the rate at which you are consuming information right now is somewhat wasteful as it is going right through your head.
    • It forces you to slow down and take a more deliberate approach, helping you weed out the irrelevant information and better digest the information that is relevant for you.
    • It helps alleviate the anxiety of information overload by allowing you to better break down and digest the relevant information into something that is usable while improving your own understanding.
    • There’s more benefit for the time you do put in and less anxiety by focusing on what’s relevant to you.
  • John echoes the career benefits of this process and practice:
    • Quickly consuming technical information and pointing out what is different from what you already know.
    • Storing the information in such a way that it is retrievable when needed
    • Eventually generate some type of published work
  • "Note taking is the deliberate practice of writing." – Josh Duffney
    • Every time you take a note you are practicing the effective communication of ideas.
  • Writing a blog post is no small thing. It can have tremendous impact. In Josh’s case, the blog led to a self-published book that got him into the door at Microsoft.

27:40 – Changing Directions

  • Josh was working on a book called Reclaim when he wrote and published his book on smart notes in Obsidian.
  • Josh says he spent months re-reading the original smart notes book and implementing several different iterations of the notes system.
    • There was a lot of sunk cost in implementation. He kept re-designing and re-implementing the vault.
    • He also received good feedback from others that the smart notes topic was worthwhile.
    • With Josh’s career shift from being an engineer to being a writer, he saw note taking as a critical foundation for this new role.
    • It seemed more beneficial to pause the writing of Reclaim in lieu of honing skills with smart notes.
    • Josh is often single threaded while working on a project. If he realizes he is missing a skillset he will pause and take time to learn the new skill.
      • For example, Josh is currently reading The Craft of Research because he believes there is a gap in his non-fiction arguments.
      • He used writing to help him better understand the note taking philosophy / methodology.
    • John mentioned the idea of connected notes (i.e. notes as nodes on a graph) and the potential for these connections to lead to something publishable.
    • It took around 20 hours for Josh to write his first blog post (about 3000 words).
    • He received a lot of questions and some criticisms of the article which spurred a rewrite.
    • Once he made it to 5000 or 6000 words Josh realized it was no longer a blog post but was more like a book.
    • Josh imported about 74 notes that were written on note cards (after reading the smart notes book for the 4th time) into digital form as part of the smart notes methodology, which allows the connections mentioned earlier to surface.

31:42 – Intentional Reading

  • In a talk given at AmpNavigator 2021 (called "The Learner’s Rule"), Josh mentioned part of his daily routine is spending time reading.
    • Right now Josh reads for about 1 hour per day.
    • Usually he will dedicate a 40 minute block in the morning to reading, but he tries to read as much as he can.
    • Josh does not own a smart phone (only a light phone). A replacement for all the scrolling has been reading.
    • When with his family or on the weekends, Josh carries his current book with him, making marks / notes as needed when time allows.
    • Normally Josh would read a little of his current book after lunch each day. This has progressed into reading articles / blogs that he’s pushed to Kindle.
    • The smart notes methodology encourages writing 3 permanent notes per day to practice, but Josh felt that was a lot of pressure.
      • Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene suggest a different approach. They mark up literature notes in the book, throw it on a bookshelf, and let it sit for a time.
      • Josh just finished reading The Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday and plans to let it sit for a week before taking down some permanent notes from it for the first couple hours of one morning. This may take several days, but Josh prefers batching in this way.
      • Josh keeps a Kanban board of all the books he is interested in reading.
      • Blog posts Josh reads get processed in real-time and equate to a few smart notes, but books get batched.
    • Josh likes to read 1 book at a time. Sometimes he will jump back and forth, but usually it is one at a time and takes about 10 days for Josh to read a book.
  • This process reminds John of Deep Work by Cal Newport.
    • The act of carrying a physical book around is interesting to John. Josh’s process is sort of like the fusion of deep work with smart notes and reading.
    • We take a second to speak to audio book format (which Nick loves). John mentions it is challenging to take notes on an audio book. Josh says the audio format is great for skimming.
      • Josh used the audio book format for reading Think Again by Adam Grant.
    • Josh says it is super useful to use deep work to batch note taking. Good books produce 20-30 notes that Josh writes down on a notecard and then transfers into Obsidian. The process works for him (since he is trying to write a book that crystalizes good advice), but he would not recommend it for everyone.
      • For example, there is no such rigorous process in place for his Go Lang work.
  • Josh’s notes are pretty short now but were very long when he began.
    • He tries to focus on what can fit on a notecard because that is how much you can hold in your brain and works well when dumping into Obsidian.
    • Listen to how Josh determined the max number of words he could fit on a 4" x 6" index card (around 144).
    • John had trouble with notes being too long when he started using the smart notes methodology as well.
  • Josh references a post he wrote for his Knowledge Worker newsletter called Note-taking became a full-time job, so I stopped. It surfaces a number of failures and learnings around the smart notes methodologies.
  • Be sure to grab a copy of Josh’s book How to Take Smart Notes in Obsidian.
    • The link above is a special discount for Nerd Journey listeners, so take advantage!

40:01 – How to Take Smart Notes in Obsidian

  • With Josh being a technical writer by trade, the focus of his book (in contrast to the How to Take Smart Notes book) is implementation of the smart notes methodology with Obsidian.
  • The book is an implementation guide to adopting the smart notes methodology.
    • Obsidian is a knowledge management tool based on markdown that allows you to link notes together very much like web pages.
      • Obsidian is free for personal use but also has commercial offerings. There is a mobile client you can utilize as well (which is relatively new).
      • Josh chooses not to use the mobile client because he has no smart phone. He utilizes layers of friction like the physical act of writing in a notebook and transcribing digitally as ways to filter what gets stored as a digital note to ensure quality.
  • John makes the point that taking more notes isn’t better. Taking better notes is better. It seems obvious only after someone shares that advice with you.
    • The goal isn’t to record everything I ever know in a knowledge management system but to keep track of things I need to be reminded of an maybe reveal connections to other things I know.
    • Josh references a video by Jordan Peterson on the purpose of memory. The purpose of memory is really to forget. Keep that in mind as you take notes because you’re not looking for a photographic memory.
    • Josh has two main drivers for his current notes:
      • One is the book he is working on, Reclaim, and trying to crystalize arguments that form a narrative.
      • The other is for learning.
        • A couple of months after joining Microsoft the opportunity came up for Josh to switch from the DevOps space he had known well to go into GoLang (only loosely connected). Josh would be writing documents for an unfamiliar discipline and get exposure to a new community.
        • The purpose of smart notes for Josh’s work is to help him learn faster.
    • Think about why you’re taking the notes in the first place. What is it you plan to do with them afterward?
      • It’s important to keep the why in mind when you pursue something. What is the goal?
    • Not everyone would consume information at the same rate as Josh does. Perhaps we should let the goals we have (i.e. publish a blog post every so often) determine the rate of consuming other people’s content and writing notes.
    • "Writing is thinking. Allow that to slow you down to understand what you are consuming much better." – Josh Duffney
  • Literature notes are a great way to experience this (writing is thinking). Read a page, pause, and try to write a sentence about the page trying to summarize to see how many gaps you might have. This allows you to see the gaps you may have about the argument but think more clearly about it at the same time.
  • Josh recently reorganized a vault he has in Obsidian with over 200 notes for his next book. Rewriting the notes and rearranging them has helped him gain clarity.
  • Something so complex requires that you stand back from it enough (through writing it) to further your understanding.
  • It’s easy to fool yourself when you’re in your head. Josh gives a great example realizing he didn’t know enough about service principals to write a specific article on GoLang. The writing helped identify the gaps Josh needed to fill by learning more.
    • Teaching is understanding. And Don Jones told us in Episode 137 that teaching is repackaging.

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