Tools for Thought — Remembering everything you consume ‘on the go’

Wouldn’t it be great if you could remember all the content you consume while you’re on the go? Podcasts, articles, audiobooks?

Augmenting memory, learning and thought has been a technological goal since the 60s. The idea was large: being able to remember everything you learn and consume, and linking those pieces of disparate information together to form new thoughts, material and insights.

Yet despite massive amounts of technological progress in other fields, this one has been left behind.

Imagine the problem this way: It’s a sunny day and you’re walking your dog.

You’re listening to a podcast or an audiobook. Right after your dog chases a cat, the voices in your ears spout an idea you like. A pearl of wisdom worth saving.

But by the time you’ve finished your podcast that idea has slipped away. You no longer remember what the hell you wanted to remember. Unfortunately, podcasts aren’t built for memory retention. To remember it, you’ll have to jot it down in your note taking app or maybe pause and create a voice memo.

Whew! It’s saved.

But now you have another problem. When will you review what you saved? How will you even remember that you wrote it down. Most notes taken like this are never looked at again. They live happily ever after in your note taking app (until you switch a phone).

The sad truth is that we forget most of what we consume and never apply it in practice. But a change of direction is happening in the field right now. Let’s understand the problem more in depth before offering a solution.

Alan Kay, Tools for Thought
Alan Kay, an OG Tools for Thought thinker

Tools for Thought

The promise of using computers to empower humans was such a powerful idea that it was even granted its own field: ‘Tools for Thought’.

Tools for Thought deals with solutions for the three major areas: memory, learning and thought.

  1. 📝 Discovering, capturing & storing relevant information you want to remember.

  2. 🧠 Remembering information over time so that you can use it later.

  3. 💡 Enabling the creative process based on what you’ve learned and remember.

Cognitive science tells us that the three are deeply linked. For example, the more facts you remember, the easier acquiring new chunks of knowledge will be (i.e. learning). The more knowledge and concepts are firmly entrenched in mind, the easier it is to link topics, build arguments and ideas. Basically everything that leads to creative thought.

The Problem

Unfortunately, for years, tools for thought have been stuck in a rut, and it failed to live up to expectations. Much of recent work still relies and mimics the work done by Peter Wozniak, the founder of Supermemo, in the 80s. Reasons for this include difficulties with business models, competition and technological limitations (Michael Nielsen and Andy Matuschak explore this towards the end of this essay).

Despite advancements in technology we’re still stuck in the same place where we forget most of what we consume and never apply it in practice. Over the past few years this problem has become more acute. It used to be limited to books, but as technology has made the creation and distribution of content easier, the amount of quality content that we consume has exploded: podcasts, Youtube channels, newsletters. They’re all bombarding us with fabulous ideas. The only problem is: capturing the ideas is hard so we forget most of what we learn.

To leverage those eureka moments and what you learn every day so that you can apply it creatively, whether professionally or personally, you need to internalize that information and review it over time so that it doesn’t get lost.

Tools for Thought’s second coming

This has led to the ‘second coming’ of Tools for Thought. A renaissance in thought, products and companies tackling this field. From great practical research into the field by Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen (which you can support on Patreon) to tools like Pocket, Readwise, Notion, Roam Research and even courses on how to leverage technology to build a ‘second brain’.

These tools do a great job. But, they’re limited to desktop workflows. A major area is left underserved — on the go learning.

The average American Joe spends 20+ hours a week commuting, running errands, walking the dog or working out. That’s time that is spent consuming content — podcasts, audiobooks and videos. It’s time that the current new Tools for Thought don’t address. You’re not in front of your PC, often your hands aren’t free. Capturing and retaining knowledge doesn’t work.

The on-the-go Tools for Thought problem

The problem I described above can be boiled down to: What do you do with key learnings? Where do you store them? Where do you review them?

But there’s another part to it, and it’s that most of our on the go content consumption is audio based and isn’t actually built for learning and memory. Key pedagogical elements are missing from podcasts and audiobooks. Things like:

  • The ‘learning’ goal of the audio — what are the key takeaways?

  • Repetition of important concepts

  • Ensuring understanding before progressing

  • Structuring content for understanding

We take all of these elements for granted in visual material when we’re sitting in front of a desktop or reading a book and have the ability to pause and rewind at our leisure — actions most people don’t do while listening on the go. Based on our data someone ‘skip backwards’ 15 seconds only once every 13 minutes of playing time.

So even our learning moments are harder to find and crystalize when we’re on the go.

The 6 key elements for 'on the go' Tools for Thought

There is no doubt that building On the go Tools for Thought will deliver on much of the promise in the Tools for Thought domain. So much of our consumption is done on the go. But what would a mobile Tool for Thought look like? Here are the core competencies and features it would require:

  1. Creating learning moments. ‘Real’ meaning learning and aha moments that are built for understanding and memory retention. This requires the content we consume to be built for this purpose.

  2. Capturing Aha and learning moments in the wild. There are many quality learning moments and insights to be found in existing content formats like podcasts and audiobooks. The challenge is in recognizing them in the moment and capturing them for later curation and review.

  3. Curating the stored material. Once you’ve captured learnings or insights, curation is needed. Proper tagging, titling and editing is needed so that it can be found later.

  4. Reviewing what you’ve learned and captured. Most notes and voice memos never see the light of screen again. A reviewing prompting process is needed to resurface key learning ideas. Spaced Repetition Systems should be used to review material you’ve learned.

  5. Taking notes. Learning sparks creative thoughts, which is often the synthesis of different ideas we’ve consumed. Unless captured, those thoughts and ideas disappear. The note taking system should be integrated with the curation and review parts of the system, although is not necessary due to the many great note taking apps out there.

  6. Exporting. Any good mobile Tool for Thought will only be part of the overall system that is used, and therefore syncing with other work flows is necessary.

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