Peter Stuifzand

Apply TOC to highlighting, note-taking and knowledge gaps

The last few weeks I have been looking at Theory of Constrains (TOC). Today I noticed that with note-taking there is this conflict between just taking notes and taking notes to solve problems.

TOC is a management philosophy that emphasizes the identification and management of constraints that hinder an organization’s ability to achieve its goals. Instead of organizations you can also look at yourself and your systems and problems.

The Process of Ongoing Improvement in TOC involves five focusing steps:

  1. Identify the system’s constraint.
  2. Exploit the system’s constraint (make the best use of it).
  3. Subordinate everything else to the above decision (align the entire system or processes to support the constraint).
  4. Elevate the system’s constraint (increase its capacity if required).
  5. If the constraint has shifted, go back to step 1 and repeat. With step 5 comes a warning, with a new constraint there come new rules.

When you take this process and apply it to reading and note-taking it also makes a lot of sense.

  1. Specify the goal: To find a gap in performance you need to have a goal. Your goal is your 100%.
  2. Identify: Recognize your current knowledge gaps or areas of improvement. Which gap will have the most impact when solved?
  3. Exploit: Prioritize the sources that directly address these gaps. Instead of reading broadly, dive deep into the areas that matter most to your goals or problems.
  4. Subordinate: Organize your note-taking, summarization, and reflection activities around this priority. Ensure that other activities don’t distract from this focus.
  5. Elevate: If you find that your reading method or sources aren’t sufficient, seek out more advanced materials, courses, or experts.
  6. Loop back to reassess your knowledge gaps and adjust as necessary.

Step 1 says that we should first identify part of a subject where you have a gap in knowledge. This gap can be a question or problem that you want to solve.

One way to do this to draw a bar from 0% to 100% and divide this in three parts. The first part is the green part this contains all the problems you can already solve or have information about. Next you draw a red part the contains the problems that you don’t have information about. This part contains all the gaps in knowledge. And last a smaller gray part that contains the gaps and problems that we will never know enough about and that you can’t have any influence on.

   | green               | red                      | --- |
   0%                    actual                           100% (potential)

Step 2 and 3 show that you first need to increase results, before trying to increase potential. When you have this distinction clear in your mind it can help provide some structure to your process. So first make use of the notes and sources that you already have to solve your problems.

The idea is that when you increase your potential that you will increase above the 100% mark and not increase your actual ability to solve more of your actual problems.

One approach that could help is to have a list of current problems that you are working on. When you read something that helps with one of these problems you should highlight and take notes about it.

Increase ResultsIncrease Potential
Summarizing a paragraph in your own wordsBuying a new note-taking app
Reviewing notes before a meeting or testWatching a course on effective highlighting
Applying concepts from notes to a real-world scenarioCollecting fancy highlighters and notebooks
Organizing notes by themes or projectsReading articles on note-taking techniques
Discussing notes with peers for deeper understandingSubscribing to a monthly note-taking journal
Cross-referencing notes with other relevant notesJoining a workshop on sketchnoting
Creating action items from meeting notesBrowsing stationery websites for note accessories
Teaching someone using your notesStudying different note-taking methodologies
Condensing notes into flashcards for reviewGetting a new app solely for color-coding notes
Translating highlighted information into a reportFollowing note-taking influencers for tips
© 2023 Peter Stuifzand