Collecting material feels more useful than it usually is

Accumulating tabs, saving PDFs, and making bookmarks feels like progress, but we systematically overrate its value. Understanding requires effortful engagement; you are not likely to draw much understanding from a folder of barely-skimmed PDFs.

We collect material because it’s easy, and because it quells the anxiety that we’ll never find what we’re looking at again. But really, we’re often just making things worse, burying important materials in tons of secondary matter we just “don’t want to lose.” This notion is in contrast to Knowledge work should accrete.

Christian Tietze suggests:

This is a first step to conquer Collector’s Fallacy: to realize that having a text at hand does nothing to increase our knowledge.

Instead, we should Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply, because Evergreen note-writing helps reading efforts accumulate. And to help steer ourselves effectively (contra Note-writing practices provide weak feedback), we should process collected materials in short iteration cycles, rather than letting them pile up for long periods. But! Keep in mind that Most texts aren’t worth writing detailed notes about.

Often a good compromise is to use spaced repetition to cheaply internalize a few key details; you can come back and write real notes later if the material turns out to be valuable. See e.g. Deciding to remember something with a spaced repetition system is (aspirationally) a lightweight gesture


The Collector’s Fallacy • Zettelkasten Method

Because ‘to know about something’ isn’t the same as ‘knowing something’. Just knowing about a thing is less than superficial since knowing about is merely to be certain of its existence, nothing more. Ultimately, this fake-knowledge is hindering us on our road to true excellence. Until we merge the contents, the information, ideas, and thoughts of other people into our own knowledge, we haven’t really learned a thing. We don’t change ourselves if we don’t learn, so merely filing things away doesn’t lead us anywhere.

Just like photocopying is self-rewarding and addictive, I argue that we fall into the same trap of false comfort when we bookmark web pages and sort the bookmarks into folders or tagged categories. Bookmarking a web page is satisfying because we get rid of the fear of losing access to the information. I get into detail in another post .

This is a first step to conquer Collector’s Fallacy: to realize that having a text at hand does nothing to increase our knowledge. We have to work with it instead. Reading alone won’t suffice: we have to create notes, too, to create real, sustainable knowledge.

Especially when we start to research something new, Eco recommends we read and highlight texts right after we create copies. If we train ourselves to process photocopied texts soon, we get a feeling of how much we can really handle.

Shorter cycles of research, reading, and knowledge assimilation are better than long ones. With every full cycle from research to knowledge assimilation, we learn more about the topic. When we know more, our decisions are more informed, thus our research gets more efficient. If, on the other hand, we take home a big pile of material to read and process, some of it will turn out be useless once we finished parts of the pile.

Kidd, A. (1994). The marks are on the knowledge worker. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 186–191

The marks which can make a difference to their organisations are on the knowledge workers not on the pieces of paper. This is what it means to inform - to change the form of a person or a device such that they act differently (ideally more effectively) on their environment.

Last updated 2023-07-13.