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Supercharge Online Note-Taking

How I read and take notes online using Instapaper and Roam Research

I used to read a lot more books than online articles partly because I think most blog posts are fluff. As someone who writes and manages multiple blogs, it might be strange for you to hear that from me.

But lately, I found that I was wrong. Instead, it was because I didn’t actively seek out good articles and I have never had a system to take notes online and implement what I learned.

Finding great online articles isn’t difficult. All you need to do is to go deeper — forget about the obvious posts you find on social media and try subscribing to a great newsletter that curates interesting stories and articles.

It’s also important to understand what you love reading. Another thing I noticed is that good content takes multiple formats — aside from blog posts, I also enjoy long Twitter threads (known as tweetstorms) the most.

The next step is to have a system to read and manage information (and hopefully, implement them). I’ve been experimenting and optimizing my process in the past three months, and now I’m ready to share it.

Collect great articles using a read-later app

One of the key reasons I didn’t read online articles before this was they just didn’t come at the right time. Sometimes you stumble across them early in the morning when you were checking your emails but there were important tasks to get done; other times while you were having lunch or ready to go to bed.

Even when most of the online articles I read come from newsletters I’m subscribed to, and I get them every morning when I process my emails, I don’t have the time to read them immediately. More often than not, they are left in the emails without me checking them out ever again.

This is where a read-later app comes into play. Here’s how the process looks like for me: Every morning, I process my emails and open every online article that catches my attention. I’ll spend a quick one to two minutes glancing over the article to decide if it's worth my time. If yes, they go into my read-later app.

Personally, I’m using Instapaper for this.

One thing to note is that I’ll add an article into Instapaper even if it takes less than two minutes to read. I do that because even if it's quick to read, the retention of information would be low when I can’t give my 100% attention. Besides, adding them to Instapaper makes it easier for me to take notes later.

You can copy and paste the URL into Instapaper (shown below) or you can add articles directly to the app if you’re using a mobile device.

Add links into Instapaper

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about which article I should add to Instapaper. The goal is to curate a list of read-later articles quickly so you don’t context-switch from a task at hand to reading online articles. You can remove the articles later when you’re ready to read them.

Make time to read (and take notes)

The next step is straightforward: read the article you have in your read-later app. Personally, I have a set schedule — usually on Fridays or during the weekends — to read the articles I’ve added to Instapaper.

Besides a set schedule, I use articles as an outlet when I feel like procrastinating. Instead of playing mobile games or watching random YouTube videos, I think reading articles I found helpful and interesting is a better way to spend the downtime.

Here are more ideas on when you can read these online articles:

  • When you’re commuting to work by public transport.
  • Before you go to bed.
  • Anytime you feel like reading about a particular topic/article.

One benefit online articles have over books is that they are usually short. I don’t need to invest as much time and effort as I need to read an article compared to reading a book. And that makes it a good routine to kill idle time when  you’ll usually do nothing.

But because of that, reading an article doesn’t always come to the mind easily and stay there — and when it does, it’s almost impossible to find a great article immediately. That’s where the read-later app becomes helpful. It bridges the gap between you and great articles when you’re motivated to read one. Instead of looking for something to read when you feel like it, you have a lengthy list of great articles waiting for you across all of your devices.

Taking notes is the best way to increase knowledge retention. Highlight the parts that make the most sense to you or the parts you think are most helpful and inspiring. That’s also another reason for using a read-later app in the first place because most of them have note-taking features.

Take notes online using Instapaper highlights

Extract your notes

Most people stop there and forget about what they read after a few days or even just a few hours. To maximize learning, you should revisit what you read regularly. However, you don’t need to read the entire article again and again. That’s where extracting your notes comes into play.

There are several ways to export notes from Instapaper or from your choice of read-later app. I’ve seen Nat Eliason export his Instapaper highlights to Evernote using automation. Personally I do it manually because I don’t use Evernote. I’m still looking for ways to automatically export my highlights/notes to either Notion or Roam Research.

For the time being, I simply copy the highlights I have on Instapaper and paste them into Roam Research (where I manage and process all kinds of information).

Copy and paste notes into Roam Research

I create a Roam page for every article I read, add the metadata (learned this from Nat’s Roam course), and copy and paste the notes. Lots of what happens here highly depends on Roam's features. The metadata allows me to link different topics together, so they are interconnected —  which mimics how our brain works.

Add metadata to notes on Roam

I used to use Notion as my go-to digital productivity hub until I discovered Roam. You can read more about Nat’s post about Roam here.

Summarize your notes

After having all the highlights on my Roam account, I’ll go through a round of progressive summarization (by Tiago Forte) if needed. I basically just bold the part that I think is the most important. Often you don’t need to further summarize the notes because online articles are usually short.

Bold parts of my notes on Roam

One thing I do with Roam is I add links to the notes. This way, I connect the notes with different topics that are related to each other. The double square brackets are how you create and link to a Roam page.

Add bidirectional link to my notes

For example, “Silicon Valley,” “Survivorship Bias,” and “Startup” are now a Roam page. When I click “Silicon Valley,” Roam will bring me to the page. I can see the notes for that topic (in this case, I don’t have any notes for Silicon Valley) and where I mentioned Silicon Valley in the past.

How bidirectional link works on Roam

You can add your own words and lines to record your thoughts about a particular line of notes. This simple step makes the reading and revising process more engaging.

Insert note to self in my notes

How taking notes of articles helps

Note-taking improves knowledge management and increases information retention. We all read and consume more information than we could even remember and implement. As more and more information is fighting for our attention, it’s crucial to have a system to manage and filter them.

Personally, the entire process of collecting, reading, and summarizing online articles opens up a whole new world of information to me. I used to ignore most online articles altogether because I don’t have a way to read them without feeling overwhelmed by them.

Online articles have their value: they’re short and easy to read. When you know how to take notes online, you get to focus a lot more on just-in-time information (knowledge you need right now or soon) rather than just-in-case information (things you want to know for just-in-case situations).

Footnotes

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