When we first started working on Readwise in 2017, the idea of applying “spaced repetition” to your reading highlights was — shall we say — met with skepticism. Few had heard the term spaced repetition back then, and even fewer believed we could build a consumer software product around it.
Fortunately, the practice of consistently reviewing a few highlights per day really resonated with our beloved niche of nonfiction power readers and now we have folks who have maintained their Daily Review habit for almost 1,000 days straight!
Over time, we’ve even added all kinds of techniques to “dial in” your Daily Review to your bespoke preferences. For example, you can up or down-weight the probability that specific books or articles are resurfaced. Or you can bias the algorithm towards newer or older highlights.
But this still wasn’t enough. Our users need a way to create their own custom reviews based on specific topics, projects, and workflows.
Today we’re excited to unveil a long awaited feature which we call Themed Reviews. As the name implies, a Themed Review is like your Daily Review, but generated from a custom subset of your overall highlight collection. These subsets can be created using highlight tags, document tags, a selection of books, articles, tweets, podcasts, or even your own notes.
The most obvious application of Themed Reviews is creating stacks of topically related highlights such as “Strategy” or “Spirituality.” But the possibilities go far beyond. For example, I wrote the bulk of this article using a writing workflow made possible by Themed Reviews.
This article will show you how to get started with Themed Reviews. It will also help you see how flexible theming can be hopefully enabling you to create personalized workflows to all sorts of ends. You can use Themed Reviews to master new skills described in practical books; to integrate new concepts described in theoretical books; to fuel a writing practice; to spark creativity & connections across domains; and to think through hard problems in your life & work.
Let’s walk through each of these use cases in more detail. Read on, or if you're a visual learner, check out this video walkthrough:
Basic Themes: Topics
Single book themes are one of the most straightforward applications of Themed Reviews. I find them particularly useful with either challenging theoretical books I want to integrate or practical books I wish to master. For example, I’ve created Themed Reviews around The Beginning of Infinity to help me integrate such theoretical concepts as “problems” and “explanations” and Nonviolent Communication to help me master such practical techniques as, well, nonviolent communication (observations, feelings, needs, requests). Single book themes can be implemented both while you’re reading the book (Infinity took me months to get through) or after you’re done.
As mentioned in the introduction, you can also create stacks of topically related highlights. For example, one of the most highlighted books on Readwise is A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine. Good Life explains how the ancient philosophy of stoicism can be applied to modern life. One such stoic practice is called negative visualization in which you attempt to imagine — to feel — all the bad things that could happen in life so that you don’t otherwise take them for granted. A Negative Visualization deck is a great opportunity for a Themed Review.
If negative visualization is too gruesome for you, and perhaps The Secret is more your thing, you might make an Affirmations theme instead.
If you haven’t used tagging before but want to harness topic-based Themed Reviews, our advice for getting started with tags is to (1) take it slow and (2) start using inline tagging. We also recently added tagging at the Document-level so you can quickly tag books, articles, podcasts, and tweets with certain themes.
Intermediate Themed: Workflows
As you begin to grok Themed Reviews, you’ll recognize that you can use them not only for themes but also for workflows. One of my favorite workflows is an Inbox within Readwise. Whenever I read a passage or see a tweet that’s immediately actionable in my life, or I have a clever idea I don’t want to forget, I push it to my Inbox Themed Review, confident I’ll see it tomorrow or the next day.
If it’s an original thought, I’ll jot it down in a Freeform Book in Readwise titled something like “Inbox”. If it’s a passage in a book or article or a tweet, I’ll simply add the inline tag .inbox. I then set my Inbox themed review to pull from both of these sources. As I perform my Inbox themed review, I transfer any actionable items to my to do list, discard any that I no longer need to see, and leave the rest as constant reminders.
In the same vein as an Inbox theme, I personally find Themed Reviews centered around active projects in my life to be the most impactful of all. For example, I have a themed review for Readwise (the company — the main “project” in my life) which is a lovely, soupy mess of excerpts from books, articles, saved tweets, and random ideas that I quickly jotted down as notes that I find relevant to our work.
In Japanese martial art tradition, there is a concept known as Shu Ha Ri. As explained on Wikipedia:
"It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws."
If a themed review around a specific book or topic is Shu, a themed review around a specific workflow or project is Ha, then what is Ri?
When most people think of spaced repetition, they immediately think of memorization – like mastering 10,000 French vocabulary words in 12 months or some lifehacker-y thing like that. But as we at Readwise and other “tools for thought” pioneers are discovering, there are innovative applications that go far beyond memorization.
For example, you can use spaced repetition to augment creativity by priming your awareness with inchoate thoughts, slow hunches, and unanswered questions. Or you can use spaced repetition to write an article, as I did with this very article you’re reading (made possible by Themed Reviews), by quickly jotting down nonlinear thoughts and progressively editing standalone paragraphs for clarity.
These advanced applications of spaced repetition go beyond the scope of this introductory article, but allow me to briefly elaborate on the writing Themed Review in the hopes that it might spur some ideas for Themed Reviews in your life.
Writing through my Themed Review workflow solves the two fundamental challenges of everyday writing. First, a final piece of writing is linear and coherent in structure, but the writing process itself is anything but a straight line. Second, writing requires wearing several different hats at different times. One day you’re the developmental editor, devising something people will actually want to read. The next you’re the drafter putting words on the page. Next you’re the editor. Finally, the proofreader. The key to successful writing is keeping these split personalities separate.
Personally, I’m a perfectionist who tends to begin editing too early in the drafting process. This has always been my greatest weakness as a writer. My Themed Review writing workflow addresses this tendency by enabling me to jot down quickly worded paragraphs in a nonlinear fashion with no interference from my inner critic. These paragraphs are then resurfaced as highlights in an article-oriented Themed Review during which I progressively edit them to be clearer and clearer. At a certain point, I know it’s time to assemble the real article. All I have to do is export to Markdown, import into my writing editor of choice, order everything into a coherent sequence, and make sure I have proper connectives between ideas. This really is the dream of How to Take Smart Notes and for some of us, a Themed Review habit might be more practical than an overly ambitious slip-box discipline.
(^ Well this became meta).
Most people associate spaced repetition with flashcards, memorization, and hardcore study. But spaced repetition has applications far beyond rote schooling. Our hope is that Themed Reviews will begin to unlock new, more focused ways for you to engage with your highlights that unlock new workflows and unanticipated creativity.
Even if the examples of intermediate and advanced Themed Reviews in this article – such as the Inbox and writing workflows – do not fit into your exact situation, hopefully those made clear the flexible potential of this powerful feature. Maybe now you’ll devise your own creative application of Themed Reviews. If you do, we’d love to hear about it!
Ready to play with Themed Reviews? Head here to get started.
Critics of tagging often complain that tags are kind of useless in the world of full-text search. Why bother? Well, now we have one excellent reason: Themed Reviews! ↩︎