Diary 02

I realize now how suspenseful it may have been to end a diary entry with, “I just tested positive for COVID-19,” and not follow it up with any kind of reassurance later. For that, I apologize. COVID hit the Hayes household and although it was disruptive and unpleasant, no one suffered any serious symptoms, and we’ve all made full recoveries.

A month has gone by—a month in which my son spent two full weeks home from daycare, a month in which I celebrated my thirty-seventh birthday (and first full year nicotine-free since 2004,) and a month in which I struggled valiantly against my self-imposed obstacles to reading. Let me tell you about what I was trying to do and what I ended up doing instead.

The Goal

A book I meant to start reading back when I was still visiting my family in Alabama was The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik. It’s not a parenting book in the vein of The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers or How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen; instead, it’s more of an updated overview of developmental psychology. Since my son is four years old at the time of this writing and the book covers childhood brain development from birth until about age six, I thought this was the relevant window of time in which to try to understand his worldview better.

The thing is, my reading process is somewhat slower than just picking up a book and turning pages. To better retain and retrieve meaningful information from what I read, I’ve been trying to take Cornell Notes for my nonfiction reading. Simply put, the format involves dividing a sheet of paper into unequal thirds—a narrow left column, a wider right column, and a space at the bottom of the page—to stay engaged with the material. The left column is for retrieval cues and questions, the right for key points (ideally stated in my own words, but sometimes the author says it best and I quote directly,) and the bottom serves as a space to summarize the page’s contents.

When I read, I keep my notebook open next to me and my pen in hand to write down in the right column whatever I deem important. When I get to the bottom of the page, I stop and summarize the contents of my page of notes (not necessarily the book itself) before moving on, then I’ll add the page numbers for the section of the book that note covers.

It’s not just a slower process, mechanically speaking, it also takes more dedicated focus to read this way. My ADHD medication helps with that—on a good day, I can do about a hundred pages—but external circumstances can limit my opportunities for such close reading. Circumstances like, for instance, having a young child in the house who is too sick to go to daycare and who requires near-constant engagement. Parenting is a labor of love, but it is work nonetheless, and when I have to choose between the work of parenting and the work of reading, I always choose the former.

And my “reading” doesn’t stop with the notebook, either. As you may recall from my series on writing and reflecting in Obsidian, I’m hell-bent on putting all of my important thoughts (and most of the unimportant ones) in a highly-customizable plaintext personal database, accessed and managed via Obsidian. Once I’ve finished a book—notes and all—I sit down with my notebook and my computer to type up those bottom-of-the-page summaries along with any important points from the aforementioned columns I want to remember.

Obsidian has extensive built-in support for effortless cross-linking between different files and notes, so this is the step of the process where all that note-taking really pays off. When I type up my summaries of the books I’m reading, I can connect them directly to other ideas I’ve head and start to flesh them out over time. For instance, the earliest reference in my notes to The Philosophical Baby is actually in my notes on a different book, How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. He was describing an aspect of psilocybin that suppressed default mode network activity in the brain, analogous to the way Gopnik describes young children’s brains operating most of the time—with a sort of “lantern consciousness”.1 This typing process isn’t rote transcription, it’s the moment of synthesis for connecting what I’m reading with why I’m reading it and how it connects to the other things I’ve read.

All of this is to say that when I talk about struggling to read The Philosophical Baby, I don’t just mean turning the pages and grazing their contents—it’s a whole thing. And while COVID and daycare absences were certainly complicating factors, they weren’t the biggest roadblock I faced in making time to work through the book. The biggest obstacle wasn’t external, but internal.

The Obstacle

I’ve mentioned it a couple of times, but I’m going to reiterate it once more: I’ve lived most of my adult life with untreated and undiagnosed ADHD. Ever since I started journaling regularly in 2014, I’ve noticed a trend in my long-term behaviors: I’ll set a goal for myself, break it down into a series of steps necessary to achieve it, and design a structure to ensure I complete those steps on a regular basis to make consistent progress toward that goal. Sounds simple, right? And yet, like clockwork, my journal is full of enthusiastic starts followed, about two weeks later, by a fizzling out.

Usually, I would blame my system. Whether I was using David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach to task management or the misattributed “Seinfeld method” for keeping a streak alive, I invariably failed to maintain it, got discouraged, stopped trying to do things for a while, then picked it back up again when I chanced upon a new app or method I thought would help me out of it.

As it turns out, the problem was not with the method, just me. Insufficient dopamine was preventing me from feeling the satisfaction I needed to stick with it, no matter how hard I tried, and the effort of trying to maintain discipline without that essential neurotransmitter was routinely burning me out.

So imagine, if you will, that you’ve been starting and stopping various projects for the better part of a decade and keeping notes throughout the entire process. Those notes are shoved into different folders and named with different conventions according to whatever productivity app or method you were using at the time, accumulating clutter without ever achieving clarity. And now, you want to embark on a new project with a new method, only this time, you have your neurochemistry in order to actually stick with something long enough to see it through.

That was me at the end of September. Adapting to this new medication has put me in a position to actually do the things I set out to do, and what I seem to want to do most at the moment is read and write. But my notes database is a Roman archaeological site full of layers upon layers of incomplete and haphazardly organized notes—the accumulated detritus of nearly ten years’ worth of trying to get things done. There’s good and meaningful information in there, don’t get me wrong—it’s just all over the place.

If I was going to add to this mountain of notes (3,481 at the time of this writing, if you don’t include my journal entries,) I needed to know what I had, know where it should go, and establish conventions for adding to the pile that is sustainable and scalable. So that’s what I did. It took me a little more than two weeks, but I have finally cleared out the clutter of my digital workspace, and I’m ready to engage with the work I set out to do.

Success Conditions and Next Steps

Yesterday, I finished typing up my reading notes for A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit, about two days after I finished reading The Philosophical Baby. With my Obsidian database in order (which I’ll describe in another post for those of you who are curious,) I can now order my projects and their tasks in a way that enables me to actually get them done, so I feel confident about laying out a roadmap and sticking to it.

My next project involves explaining Everything is Obvious and why it so profoundly changed the way I think about the world at large and my own experience of it in particular. I expect that essay to take a week or so, barring unforeseeable external complications. I still need to type up my notes about The Philosophical Baby, and the next book on my stack of things to read is On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler. That ought to be a faster read, as self-help style books often contain a lot of anecdotes that I don’t bother to write down.

Before I withdraw into my writing cave to work on rewriting my zombie novel, I’ll probably want to share my reading of A Paradise Built in Hell—it was as revolutionary for my thoughts about post-apocalyptic society as Everything is Obvious was for my thoughts about modern society—so look forward to that as well.

And I promise: no more cliff-hangers. I don’t know if anyone was seriously concerned for my health and well-being over the past month, but if you were, I apologize. That stress was entirely avoidable if I had been more thoughtful in updating this weblog.

  1. By the way, my corresponding note about the default mode network defines it as a feature of the adult brain that exerts an inhibitory influence on older, lower-level processes such as emotion, memory, and impulses, while being active in higher-level metacognitive processes such as self-reflection, temporal abstractions, moral reasoning, and “theory of mind,” or trying to model the behavior of self or others. In case you were curious. ↩︎