ThoughtfulAtlas

Friction can be good

In a letter to Alex Barris in 1949, Raymond Chandler wrote: “When you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count.” (Chandler, 1997, p. 79)1

He was talking about authors who, rather than manually write a book themselves, would dictate it and have a scribe copy it out for them; in his opinion, they were prone to “logorrhea”.

I’m not sure I entirely agree on the dictating vs typing or writing front,2 but I agree with the principle that you make things count when you put energy in.

A lot of the time the conversation in PKM discourse is around reducing or eliminating friction. The idea is that you have a smooth system you unthinkingly flow through; you should automate as much as possible, and minimise double-keying.

My reluctance to accept that as a universal principle rests in the purpose of friction.

Friction, simply put, is where you are forced to slow down.

Without getting into a debate about the advantages and disadvantages of curated reading lists and ‘slow’ reading (that is for another post), slowing down when taking notes and growing your PKMS is a good thing. It has similarities to deliberate practice.

Deliberate Practice

‘Deliberate practice’ is a term coined by K. Anders Ericsson, whose work was the foundation for the 10,000 hours myth. It is, in essence, the principle of exerting effort in practice, doing things that are difficult in order to get better at them. The idea is that it is supervised by an experienced tutor who directs the student as to what they need to practice, providing them with immediate feedback and correction. (This is where the similarity to what I'm talking about begins to break down.)

The relevance of this to PKM is the principle that, well, sometimes you have to do things that take up a bit more effort in order to get better at them. When you have the right kind of friction in your system, it makes you pay more attention. You have to think about what to do next - where to put this note, what it connects to, what the implications are for other notes and ideas.

Feynman's 12 Problems

It’s similar in a way to the ever-quoted Richard Feynman idea of ’12 Favourite Problems’. If you haven’t heard it before, the quote goes as follows:

“You have to keep a dozen of your favourite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!‘“3

There’s friction here. You need to actively test it against each of your twelve problems. It requires paying attention and thinking hard. No slick workflow - or AI, as the conversation is headed - can do that for you.

Without that friction, you would skip straight through that stage of hard thought. You would quickly and efficiently add that idea into your PKMS, slap in some links, tags, metadata, whatever you use - and then go about your day, onto the next thought.

Contrastingly, some friction is bad

There are certainly some types of friction you don’t want in your system. Bottlenecks are the best example of this - you don’t want to build up a backlog at any point in the system that you end up drowning in it.

You also don’t want a system that introduces friction by way of trivial admin, such as typing in excessive amounts of metadata or other ‘administrative’ data - such as writing out a citation in full, when a generator can do that for you.

The issue with these types of friction is that they contribute nothing to the thoughts themselves. They are administrative red tape. They are irritations that will lead you to regard your PKMS with frustrated annoyance. They are what you should eliminate.

So, what is good friction?

Good friction is that which forces closer engagement with the content, not the trappings.

This sounds clear-cut, but don’t rush to that conclusion.

The perfect example I can think of is the question: What would you consider an alphanumeric ID to be? Content, or trappings?

This will come down to what you consider the role of an alphanumeric ID to be.

If you use the ‘timestamp’ method - typically YYYY-MM-DD-HHMM - then it’s meaningless: it’s trappings. There is no connection between the arbitrary ID and the note content.

If you use the method I can only refer to as ‘Luhmann-esque’4, where the ID is a string of numbers and letters referring to the note’s relation to other notes - topic, line of thought etc - then that ID is content itself.

The friction generated by having to stop, look through your existing notes, and decide where to put this note - and therefore what ID to give it - forces you to engage with the content. The act of doing so results in you reviewing the adjacent notes, and the flipping through entire swathes of your PKMS can spark off other connections and ideas.

This is good friction.

Conclusion

Have a look at your own PKMS and try to identify what is good friction vs bad friction. If you have a lot of bad friction, try to get rid of some of it. If you have little friction altogether, try to introduce some good friction. If you have lots of bad friction and no good friction, then I’m very sorry. If you have a lot of good friction but no bad friction, stop being a show-off!

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References

Chandler, R. (1997) Raymond Chandler Speaking. University of California Press.

Ericsson, K.A. and Harwell, K.W. (2019) ‘Deliberate Practice and Proposed Limits on the Effects of Practice on the Acquisition of Expert Performance: Why the Original Definition Matters and Recommendations for Future Research’, Frontiers in Psychology, 10. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02396 (Accessed: 12 September 2022).


Footnotes

  1. I note that Billy Oppenheimer, in the section 'Do Not Copy and Paste' of his blog post ‘The Notecard System: Capture, Organize, and Use Everything You Read, Watch, and Listen To’ includes another sentence at the start of this one, namely: “You have to have that mechanical resistance." Much as I like that phrase, I can't find it documented anywhere and it's certainly not in the copy of the full letter as per Chandler (1997).

  2. There are multiple authors who have successfully dictated their work either in part or in full, e.g. John Milton. More broadly than novel-writing, people have dictated letters and the like for centuries; off the top of my head, it was a common practice in antiquity and then for women in the Middle Ages. I can also think of many dyslexics who would find dictation more effective than writing.

  3. Can I find the original source for this? Nope. It’s a great quote, though.

  4. There’s a whole debate about this.

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