How computers fail the brain

I’ve stumbled upon a thingy that seems to be a fundamental communication problem between humans and computers. I haven’t found a way of taking notes, making reading lists, coming back to content I found interesting but had no time to focus on, keeping TODO lists, even writing down simple ideas that pop into my mind, in the computer. It’s frustrating. I have tried tens of applications and always fallen back to pen and paper.

Saved web content you never read

Scientific and popular articles, game guides, unfinished Google Drive document, the two Wikipedia pages you had to read for the next lab session, etc. These are only a fraction of the unending stack of web content that always piles up my Chrome tabs before I press OneTab button and forgot them forever. I am maintaining a reading list (see image below) that simply requires me to press a button to save web content. Although being super easy, I never come back to the contents I’ve dumped there. It’s hidden away. I could even make quotes out of this phenomena:

“What I cannot see, does not exist.”

(Note that this is a global psychological phenomena: Things that are hidden have no rules anymore. That’s the reason why legs cross under the table, lovers forgot themself in the public pool, or even why life happens in the darkness during night!)

So when do I process web content at all?

  • The first thing I’ve noticed is that not postponing reading i.e. reading it right away always works. Instead of saving contents later, take 5–20 minutes and read it through. I also helps you to filter relevant and not interesting content and therefore further reduce the pile of content that you never come back to.
  • Downloading materials and printing them or putting to my Kindle also helps. I always prefer reading books from e-reader rather than a PDF file. E-reader is mechanical thingy in your hand that opens as a book with one click right from where you finished — no surfing, loading, remembering the bookmark.
  • Third, subscribe to weekly digests and read them immediately. Alternatively, take a special time during week to read digests from the past 6–7 days. Although this also applies to any digitalised content, digests reduce the time and frustration to search for saved content and present material in a packed way. For example, Medium itself has digestable well-organised weekly newsletters.

TODO lists that you never do

Todays hectic world requires most people to have a list of things that have to be done. It would be convenient to have the list always with you, in front of your nose, screaming at and motivating you to do things. Yes, you could say, we have Google Keep, Evernote, and various other cloud based always-synchronised apps you could open from web, desktop, or mobile. Google Store has tens of TODO list apps that you could even open from your desktop. But they all lack something.

The old goodie, plain text

I still find plain text to be the most flexible way of storing ideas. You can open the .txt file in almost any environment in one click (actually, two), use keyboard shortcuts to save (ctrl+s), close(ctrl+w), or switch on(alt+tab), and write however long texts in whatever textual form. In addition, Windows users can always access the files from phone or web through OneDrive. Text files are local, so pressing backspace will not go to the previous page as in web browers. For writing online, I’m often using writer by BigHugeLabs (image below) that saves your work automatically and has a eye-friendly interface. Write lets you to forget managing the environment and focus on writing, the same way plain texts allow.

Nevertheless

Pen and paper still rocks

I often find myself falling back to paper. Moreover, although handwriting is slower, research has shown that taking notes on paper rather than laptop is better for learning. I also use whiteboard (image of my huge one below) when generating ideas, planning, or trying to understand mathematical concepts. Whiteboards are ingenious for organising thoughts and drawing connections in a way plain text (or literally all of the computer applications) hardly manage.

Computers have changed the way we communicate and share knowledge — e.g. you could have a Hangouts call with 7 people around the world riding your longboard by a river, while seeing other’s computer screens from your phone — but they lack something intrinsic about the way we express ourselves. Digital environment still fails to match the way our brains are working.

How do you organise web content, take notes, and maintain TODO and reading lists?