Shreeharsh Kelkar has emailed with some questions that I thought it might be interesting to answer here. Here are the first two:

1) Just briefly, how do you decide if something is worthwhile (“clippable”) while browsing the web? Obviously, the easiest is when it relates to a particular project you’re doing. But what about the others which you think may be useful some day but can’t really say? How often do you end up going back to them? Or even better, using them in a project?2) Finally, do you “clip” anything that you think will be relevant at some point in the future or are you more discriminating?

Over the last couple of years I have developed, gradually and not altogether intentionally, a three-stage method of organizing and responding to what I read online. It works like this:1) If I see something long enough and complex enough that I need to read it with care, but don’t have time to read at the moment, I send it to Instapaper. And by the way, Instapaper’s “mobilizer” — its built-in tool for extracting the text from a webpage — provides the ideal way to read anything on the iPhone. It’s now built in to Tweetie — um, Twitter for iPhone, so clicking on links in tweets takes me to the mobilized version rather than the original web page, which means that it loads fast and is easy to read. Brilliant.2) If, having read something, I think I might want to come back to it later, I clip an excerpt and send it to Pinboard. I used to use Delicious for this, and Delicious is still a fine tool, and free, but Pinboard is more elegant. I then use Pinboard’s tag cloud to browse the relevant clippings when I’m working on a particular project.3) But if I know (or think I know) that a particular article or story or blog post is going to be important for something I’m doing, and I can’t take the chance on it disappearing behind a paywall or just plain disappearing, then I convert it to a PDF and send it to my preferred Everything Bucket, Together.By the way, it has become clear to me that I save too much, both to Pinboard and to Together. I go through and purge from time to time, but I would like to develop habits that make me more thoughtfully selective at the point of reading.Here’s a funny thing: in general, I dislike having more apps open at once than absolutely necessary — I like to streamline my workflow, and will even at times use a second-best tool in order to keep things simple. And yet, even though I could bypass Pinboard and keep all my clippings in Together, I don’t. Similarly, I could gather everything in Zotero, but I can’t stand the way Firefox looks. I’m weird that way.Similarly, I could keep all my notes and jottings in Together, but I don’t: I use the brilliant Notational Velocity instead. I am not sure why I violate my own principles here, but I think it’s because I’m keeping tasks that make different cognitive demands on me in different environments: note-jotting in one place, articles that need skimming in another, articles that require serious attention in a third.Here is Shreeharsh’s third question:

3) I use Evernote to make notes while I browse the web and one of the things I find is that while I do clip extracts from web-pages there, when the time comes for me to go back to the article, I often just google the article rather than searching for it on Endnote (I usually remember some keywords from the article). Does this happen to you too?

It does! — and that’s interesting, no? It’s often faster to Google something that to look through the materials I have so painstakingly filed (especially when I’m not sure whether I’ve put something in Pinboard or Together). “Search, don’t sort” is the Gmail motto, and it seems to work here too. But I don’t always remember what I need to remember to do a good Google search; and the sorting and filing itself is cognitively useful, I think — it helps me to organize my thoughts and keep them in good marching order, even when I don’t go back to the materials I’ve collected later.


  1. Hi Alan, thank you for responding. This is very interesting.

    Your workflow is similar to mine (and many others, probably, although different in specifics and why is it that Mac users get the benefit of so many good note-taking applications?)

    I tried using Zotero to take all kinds of random notes and while I don't mind how it makes Firefox look, it makes Firefox really slow! So now I only use it if I'm sure I'm going to cite something, otherwise I use Evernote (which I like). Have you tried Mendelev – another free Endnote/Zotero like tool? It's pretty good as well but these tools have performance issues.

    One of my personal workflow problems is that I use Leechblock to limit my web-surfing to only 10 minutes every hour at work and because this means I have very little time to decide whether an article is worth reading in full (before Leechblock shuts it down!), I tend to be very undiscriminating while bookmarking articles as "toread." I find my Instapaper bookmarks getting far too cluttered.

    I wonder how someone (say, a researcher, before the days of the web) would answer the first and second questions. I think one of the things the web has enabled is that we can clip articles even without reading them. That could be a good or bad thing, of course but it seems to me that this wasn't possible before the web.

  2. Very interesting! I think I would die with a web blocker. . . . though who knows, maybe I'd be finished with my book now.

    I have a friend who still reads almost exclusively on paper, and who relentlessly clips articles and stows them in folders to read later, so he follows this practice of clipping first and reading later.

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