Sometimes I feel like I have a multiple pursuit disorder, which, in my mind, is similar to multiple personality disorder, except I’m one personality with multiple research passions going on at the same time. I love to read about writing, but also spirituality, personal development, business and marketing, parenting, nutrition, biographies of inspiring people, and anything related to WWII and Nazi Germany. Then, there are my fiction guilty pleasures – poetry (Whitman is a favorite), classic literature (Shakespeare, Wilde, Austen, Tolstoy, you name it), pop fiction (Harry Potter and proud of it), and science fiction/fantasy (if you haven’t read Robin Hobb, your life is incomplete).
I struggle to prioritize my reading and research time, with all of these multiple pursuits vying for my attention. Often, I feel guilty reading off my primary topic (writing) because it feels like I’m wasting precious time and energy.
Even more so because I’m somewhat of a compulsive highlighter. My husband was watching me read a book on my kindle once, and after I’d highlighted three paragraphs in a row, he said, “What’s the point? You might as well highlight the whole book and be done with it.” I bristled a bit and said, “Well, sometimes I browse through the highlighted sections on my kindle so that I don’t have to scroll through the whole book to find the part that interested me.” Sort of true. But, honestly, I might also never revisit a highlighted passage. Still, I definitely was not going to admit that right then.
Yet, his criticism hit on a contradiction I often feel within myself. How am I to focus on one, primary area of inquiry, when I’m so easily diverted toward other pursuits and feel the need to gather notes/information/excerpts on those “random” pursuits?
The other night, I was reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which is her 12-month experimental journey of finding small ways to increase happiness in her life. She struggles with a similar compulsion, although hers manifests itself more in note taking than highlighting. She says,
As I read, I love to take notes – often for no apparent reason. I’m always marking up books, making odd lists, gathering examples in strange categories, copying passages…
Note taking takes a lot of time and energy, and I used to discourage this impulse in myself. It seemed pointless and self-indulgent. But following this month’s resolutions and my First Commandment to ‘Be Gretchen,’ I allowed myself to “Forget about the results” and take notes guilt-free…
Perversely, it was only once I said to myself, ‘Okay, Gretchen, take all the notes you want, it doesn’t matter why,’ that it occurred to me how useful these notes had been. My first book, Power Money Fame Sex, grew out of a huge body of notes. When I had a chance to write my book Profane Waste… I was able to pack the book with startling, apt examples because I’d been taking notes (for no discernible reason) for years. Because note taking didn’t look like ‘real work’ to me, it didn’t register as valuable – even though it was.
This passage resonated so deeply within me. I tend to think of “real work” as anything related to writing, business, and productivity. Anything else is, at best, an innocent detour or, at worst, a distracting obsession.
But what if I’m too quick to separate “real work” from my other pursuits? Gretchen Rubin had two books grow out of her “other pursuits.” What projects am I squashing because I haphazardly judge their potential?
One thing my recently-acquired free writing habit has shown me is that there is a lot going on in my subconscious. Perhaps more that I should pay attention to. I think I’ll take a page from Gretchen Rubin and allow myself more freedom with my reading list and my highlighter and just see what happens.
Of course, the main issue is what to do with all of those notes, highlightings, etc. I’m fairly good at organizing notes and such for one main project at a time, but multiple pursuits simultaneously?
I’m experimenting with a couple of organization techniques, which I’ll write about soon. In the meantime, any advice from you?
How do you organize your notes, highlightings, and excerpts so that you can review them later? Do you review them later? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below!