Non-linear books and flow states

Friday Brainstorm S2 E2 🧠

Hi friends,

Happy Friday! Welcome back for Edition 2 of Friday Brainstorm’s second season (or #16 for anyone counting).

This issue will primarily focus on flow states. You can expect:

  • the future of non-fiction is non-linear 📖

  • personal experience with flow states 🧠

  • an upcoming podcast about designing work for flow 👩‍💻

Let’s get into it!


Why the future of non-fiction is non-linear 📖

Books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.

This bold claim comes from Andy Matuschak’s thought-provoking essay Why Books Don’t Work. When it comes to non-fiction books specifically, there’s an implicit assumption that people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. People often think like they absorb knowledge when they read, but in reality, they usually only have a vague idea of the main arguments or concepts presented in the book.

Why is that? Genuine understanding relies on readers actively engaging with the ideas, which can be really challenging.

Apart from the content of the book, there’s a lot of additional overhead involved that can be mentally taxing. For example, you constantly have to be assessing whether you understood the passage you just read, and if not, whether you should re-read it or consult another text.

How might we reimagine the medium of a book such that its design lightens the burden of absorbing knowledge?

One possibility is to reduce the overhead of memorizing low-level facts. By testing your memory about what you just read at regular intervals, more complex topics like quantum theory might be more accessible. If you’re curious, I’ve previously written about Andy Matuschak’s interactive book based on these principles.

Another possibility is to overcome the constraints of traditional books by reimagining the reading experience as a choose-your-own-adventure. In other words, what advantages are afforded by presenting the ideas in a book in a non-linear fashion rather than a linear narrative?

Luca Dellanna, a seasoned author and consultant, recently published Ergodicity — one of the first books available to read in a non-linear format.

The book was published in Roam Research, a note-taking tool that is structured as a graph of interconnected nodes (or ideas) behind the scenes (more on Roam Research). This is what the book looks like from a graphical perspective:

After reading Ergodicity, I wanted to reflect on the format and reading experience. There are three main features of non-linear books that aid comprehension:

1. Non-linear exploration

While reading, I could sporadically fall into a rabbit hole around a certain topic and end up in a completely different part of the book. This makes the reading experience more like browsing the internet, allowing you to easily navigate at your own pace and to dive more deeply into parts of the book you’re more interested in.

At the same time, the content was poorly suited for this type of exploration because the book only focused on one concept and elaborated on it in different ways. The author included a table of contents to add some optional structure, and I ended up not straying too far from the intended linear flow.

It’s hard to say what kind of books can exploit non-linearity better, but a topic area with more interconnected nodes, like history or science, might feel more rewarding.

2. Contextual information

Ergodicity, the concept explored in the book, is fairly complex and takes some building up to. That being said, it is helpful to have definitions easily accessible. Roam provides many ways for earlier passages to be embedded in-line to avoid duplicate information.

In addition to references, you could instantly look up all instances of the law of large numbers if you wanted to explore all the contexts in which it’s mentioned in the book. This helps you find connections between ideas and see how a concept is applied in different settings, thereby improving your understanding of the book.

That being said, the book could go farther in structuring the arguments and linked references. If you’re curious and familiar with Roam, see Robert Haisfield’s criticism.

3. Naturally extensible

The most exciting aspect of this format is that it can be downloaded and integrated directly into your own graph database on Roam Research. This is the closest thing we have to the common sci-fi trope of downloading information into your (digital) brain.

This is particularly effective because it allows you to make connections to pre-existing knowledge you have stored in Roam Research. This heavily reduces the friction of taking notes and referencing related ideas while you’re reading. This process of making connections is really important for effective understanding (for more on this, see my summary of the book How to Take Smart Notes).

All in all, Luca Dellanna’s attempt at a non-linear book was a fantastic effort and sets up the stage for further innovation down the line. I firmly believe that this will be the future of non-fiction books.


Personal experience with flow states 🧠

I usually don’t read books that are so popular that their ideas have become ubiquitous in our culture. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is one of those books — I had come across so many articles and videos rehashing the books’ main ideas, that it didn’t feel necessary to actually read it.

I finally came around to reading the book recently and I really wish that I had found this book earlier in my life.

After graduating from university some 18 months ago, I felt really lost without the external structure of classes and assignments. I didn’t have much experience in structuring my time and goals as an adult, which made life feel really unfulfilling.

The turning point came when I picked up the guitar again. I used to play as a kid, but I never really found it very enjoyable. It hadn’t occurred to me that when external goals (e.g. performances) weren’t involved, getting better at music for its own sake was fun.

I was shocked at how much better I felt when I spent weekends picking up a new song instead of watching Netflix. Practicing guitar was the only leisurely activity that made me feel more energized afterwards. Since then, I’ve experimented with many different activities in search of that feeling, ultimately landing on writing and (most recently) digital art.

Csikszentmihalyi’s book gave me the framework to understand the common thread connecting music, writing, and making art — these are all activities that are known to be deeply fulfilling because they consistently produce flow. To briefly define flow,

Flow is a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. — Wikipedia

Simply put, it’s the feeling of being “in the zone”. Think about the feeling of being immersed in a book, playing a sport, or performing a musical piece.

Activities that are conducive to flow states share a couple of common characteristics:

  • need an investment of attention

  • need to be just challenging enough

  • need clear goals and immediate feedback

  • need to be intrinsically rewarding

These elements lead to personal growth, novelty, and accomplishment — culminating in a sense of deep enjoyment that feels really rewarding. 

Csikszentmihalyi argues life can be made more enjoyable by recognizing the conditions that are favorable to flow states and working to actively cultivate them.

Importantly, all activities that lead to flow require an unusual investment of attention. When we passively perform our jobs or mindlessly consume entertainment, these activities sap our attention and leave us more exhausted and disheartened than before.

Attention is our most valuable resource and anything worthwhile in life requires an investment of attention. 

Making the space to deliberately fill my free time with hobbies that energized me was a long journey, especially with how easy it is to find low-effort forms of entertainment these days (e.g. Netflix, social media). With many flow-conducive activities, you have to reach a certain level of skill before it begins to be rewarding — there’s no shortcut, which is why many people never consistently stick with these habits.

Being able to structure my free time in a way that energizes me dramatically changed the quality of my life. Csikszentmihalyi’s book helped me understand why certain activities feel so rewarding and gave me a framework for cultivating flow.


Podcast teaser: designing work for flow 👩‍💻

In the last newsletter, I announced that I’m launching a podcast that will overlap heavily with the themes of this newsletter.

To give a brief sneak peak, the first episode will focus on cultivating flow at work. So far, I’ve only discussed flow in the context of leisurely activities, but people spend a significant amount of their lives at work.

To improve the quality of life through work, we’ll discuss how to design the day-to-day at your job so that it resembles other flow inducing activities — with appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback.

There are multiple philosophies about how to best structure your work to cultivate flow states, from thinkers including Cal Newport and Tiago Forte.

Stay tuned for all this and more in the upcoming podcast!


I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of Friday Brainstorm! What got you thinking? Anything to add? Let me know by replying to this email.

—Shamay