• Author: Sönke Ahrens
  • Full Title: How to Take Smart Notes
  • Category:


any improvement in the way we organise the everyday writing, how we take notes of what we encounter and what we do with them, will make all the difference for the moment we do face the blank page/screen – or rather not, as those who take smart notes will never have the problem of a blank screen again.

If we take notes unsystematically, inefficiently or simply wrong, we might not even realise it until we are in the midst of a deadline panic and wonder why there always seem to be a few who get a lot of good writing done and still have time for a coffee every time we ask them.

Just having it all in your head is not enough, as getting it down on paper is the hard bit. That is why good, productive writing is based on good note-taking. Getting something that is already written into another written piece is incomparably easier than assembling everything in your mind and then trying to retrieve it from there.

What does make a significant difference along the whole intelligence spectrum is something else: how much self-discipline or self-control one uses to approach the tasks at hand

It is not so important who you are, but what you do. Doing the work required and doing it in a smart way leads, somehow unsurprisingly, to success.

Self-discipline or self-control is not that easy to achieve with willpower alone. Willpower is, as far as we know today,[2] a limited resource that depletes quickly and is also not that much up for improvement over the long term

Every task that is interesting, meaningful and well-defined will be done, because there is no conflict between long- and short-term interests.

Planners are also unlikely to continue with their studies after they finish their examinations. They are rather glad it is over. Experts, on the other hand, would not even consider voluntarily giving up what has already proved to be rewarding and fun: learning in a way that generates real insight, is accumulative and sparks new ideas.

In fact, poor students often feel more successful (until they are tested), because they don’t experience much self-doubt. In psychology, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). Poor students lack insight into their own limitations – as they would have to know about the vast amount of knowledge out there to be able to see how little they know in comparison.

It is not about redoing what you have done before, but about changing the way of working from now on. There is really no need to reorganise anything you already have. Just deal with things differently the moment you have to deal with them anyway.

Even the best tool will not improve your productivity considerably if you don’t change your daily routines the tool is embedded in,

Only if we know that everything is taken care of, from the important to the trivial, can we let go and focus on what is right in front of us. Only if nothing else is lingering in our working memory and taking up valuable mental resources can we experience what Allen calls a “mind like water” - the state where we can focus on the work right in front of us without getting distracted by competing thoughts. - Note: Some of the best learnings are portable from tool to tool.

There is no point in having great tools if they don’t fit together.

The best way to maintain the feeling of being in control is to stay in control. And to stay in control, it’s better to keep your options open during the writing process rather than limit yourself to your first idea.

Studies on highly successful people have proven again and again that success is not the result of strong willpower and the ability to overcome resistance, but rather the result of smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place (cf. Neal et al. 2012; Painter et al. 2002; Hearn et al. 1998).

Luhmann had two slip-boxes: a bibliographical one, which contained the references and brief notes on the content of the literature, and the main one in which he collected and generated his ideas, mainly in response to what he read.

The last element in his file system was an index, from which he would refer to one or two notes that would serve as a kind of entry point into a line of thought or topic.

Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is. And this is how it is supposed to be. The notes are just the tangible outcome of it. - Note: So that you can refer back to them in the future

If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words. - Note: This may be the next step beyond the highlighting I’m doing now

Go through the notes you made in step one or two (ideally once a day and before you forget what you meant) and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking or interests. This can soon be done by looking into the slip-box – it only contains what interests you anyway. The idea is not to collect, but to develop ideas, arguments and discussions.

Write exactly one note for each idea and write as if you were writing for someone else: Use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references and try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible.

Do not brainstorm for a topic. Look into the slip-box instead to see where chains of notes have developed and ideas have been built up to clusters.

It is public because in the discussion, it does not matter anymore what the author meant, only what is there in writing. - Note: What you mean’t becomes irrelevant.

Deliberate practice is the only serious way of becoming better at what we are doing - Note: This is a stupid example, but i realized I was bad at wall shots so now I warm up with wall shots. I have hit a few these last few weeks as a result.

Even if you decide never to write a single line of a manuscript, you will improve your reading, thinking and other intellectual skills just by doing everything as if nothing counts other than writing.

The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.

Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.

Fleeting Notes

Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished.

Only if the notes of these three categories are kept separated it will be possible to build a critical mass of ideas within the slip-box.

He always carries a notebook with him and often makes a few quick notes during a conversation. The advantage is obvious: No idea ever gets lost. The disadvantages are serious, though: As he treats every note as if it belongs to the “permanent” category, the notes will never build up a critical mass. The collection of good ideas is diluted to insignificance by all the other notes, which are only relevant for a specific project or actually not that good on second sight.

Fleeting notes are there for capturing ideas quickly while you are busy doing something else. When you are in a conversation, listening to a lecture, hear something noteworthy or an idea pops into your mind while you are running errands, a quick note is the best you can do without interrupting what you are in the middle of doing. That might even apply to reading, if you want to focus on a text without interrupting your reading flow. Then you might want to just underline sentences or write short comments in the margins. It is important to understand, though, that underlining sentences or writing comments in the margins are also just fleeting notes and do nothing to elaborate on a text. - Note: TickTick should be my repo for fleeting notes that i then need to process into permanent notes

Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes you can use later.

Permanent notes, on the other hand, are written in a way that can still be understood even when you have forgotten the context they are taken from.

That is why the threshold to write an idea down has to be as low as possible, but it is equally crucial to elaborate on them within a day or two. A good indication that a note has been left unprocessed too long is when you no longer understand what you meant or it appears banal. In the first case, you forgot what it was supposed to remind you of. In the second case, you forgot the context that gave it its meaning. - Note: I have felt this way about tasks in TickTick, but usually less so with highlights

Luhmann never underlined sentences in the text he read or wrote comments in the margins. All he did was take brief notes about the ideas that caught his attention in a text on a separate piece of paper: “I make a note with the bibliographic details. On the backside I would write ‘on page x is this, on page y is that,’ and then it goes into the bibliographic slip-box where I collect everything I read.” - Note: The fact that I read in the bed makes this challenging.

The notes are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form. This is a crucial difference.

But if we feel constantly stuck in our work, we will become demotivated and much more likely to procrastinate, leaving us with fewer positive or even bad experiences like missed deadlines.

Seeking feedback, not avoiding it, is the first virtue of anyone who wants to learn, or in the more general terms of psychologist Carol Dweck, to grow.

Following a circular approach, on the other hand, allows you to implement many feedback loops, which give you the chance to improve your work while you are working on it. It is not just about increasing the number of opportunities to learn, but also to be able to correct the mistakes we inevitably make. As the feedback loops are usually smaller than one big chunk of feedback at the end, they are also much less scary and easier to embrace. - Note: This hints at the way I design. Explore. Create questions. Discuss the space and questions with someone who knows it. Then LOFI design. Discuss then HIFI design

Reading with a pen in the hand, for example, forces, us to think about what we read and check upon our understanding. It is the simplest test: We tend to think we understand what we read – until we try to rewrite it in our own words. - Note: This is similar to learning more about a topic you believed you already knew by attempting to teach it to someone else.

Yes, our ability to learn isolated facts is indeed limited and probably decreases with age. But if facts are not kept isolated nor learned in an isolated fashion, but hang together in a network of ideas, or “latticework of mental models” (Munger, 1994), it becomes easier to make sense of new information. That makes it easier not only to learn and remember, but also to retrieve the information later in the moment and context it is needed.

According to a widely cited study, the constant interruption of emails and text messages cuts our productivity by about 40% and makes us at least 10 IQ points dumber.

Multitasking is not what we think it is. It is not focusing attention on more than one thing at a time. Nobody can do that. When we think we multitask, what we really do is shift our attention quickly between two (or more) things. And every shift is a drain on our ability to shift and delays the moment we manage to get focused again.

When we proofread a manuscript, we take on the role of a critic who takes a step back to see the text with the eyes of a dispassionate reader. We scan the text for typos, try to smooth out patches and check structure. We deliberately put distance between ourselves and the text to see what is really on the paper, not just in our heads. - Note: This is an important point as to why its useful to have others proofread, because they can see only what is on the paper. If we as people can practice this skill we can be better at producing on our own timelines.

“On one hand, those with wandering, defocused, childlike minds seem to be the most creative; on the other, it seems to be analysis and application that’s important. The answer to this conundrum is that creative people need both … The key to creativity is being able to switch between a wide-open, playful mind and a narrow analytical frame.” (Dean, 2013, 152)

“(An) exclusive use of analytical rationality tends to impede further improvement in human performance because of analytical rationality’s slow reasoning and its emphasis on rules, principles, and universal solutions. - Note: This was the same point brought up in Alchemy. If you rely strictly on logic you will miss the creative solution

Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus, researchers on expertise, have a simple explanation: Teachers tend to mistake the ability to follow (their) rules with the ability to make the right choices in real situations. Unlike the expert paramedics, they did not look at the unique circumstances and check if the paramedics in the videos did the best thing possible in each individual situation. Instead, they focused on the question of whether the people in the videos acted according to the rules they taught.

psychologists used to tend to agree on a very specific number when it came to short-term memory: We can hold a maximum of seven things in our head at the same time, plus/minus two

While we want to remember some things as long as possible, we don’t want to clog our brains with irrelevant information.

Zeigarnik effect: Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory – until they are done. That is why we get so easily distracted by thoughts of unfinished tasks, regardless of their importance. But thanks to Zeigarnik’s follow-up research, we also know that we don’t actually have to finish tasks to convince our brains to stop thinking about them. All we have to do is to write them down in a way that convinces us that it will be taken care of.

make sure we always write down the outcome of our thinking, including possible connections to further inquiries. As the outcome of each task is written down and possible connections become visible, it is easy to pick up the work any time where we left it without having to keep it in mind all the time.

Letting thoughts linger without focusing on them gives our brains the opportunity to deal with problems in a different, often surprisingly productive way. While we have a walk or a shower or clean the house, the brain cannot help but play around with the last unsolved problem it came across. And that is why we so often find the answer to a question in rather casual situations. - Note: Usually doing things that do not require our full attention. For me, sometimes while driving alone.

Today, willpower is compared to muscles: a limited resource that depletes quickly and needs time to recover. Improvement through training is possible to a certain degree, but takes time and effort. - Note: This is why Atomic Habits focuses on workspace design. This is also why I likely end up playing video games when I should be video editing. Having my work desk and play desk be one is a recipe for unnecessary willpower testing and depletion.

It is well known that decision-making is one of the most tiring and wearying tasks, which is why people like Barack Obama or Bill Gates only wear two suit colours: dark blue or dark grey. This means they have one less decision to make in the morning, leaving more resources for the decisions that really matter. - Note: Hence why I buy multiples of the same clothes that I like. I have boiled this down to archetypes. What decisions can be removed from our day?

Translating means to give the truest possible account of the original work, using different words – it does not mean the freedom to make something fit. As well, the mere copying of quotes almost always changes their meaning by stripping them out of context, even though the words aren’t changed. This is a common beginner mistake, which can only lead to a patchwork of ideas, but never a coherent thought.

While the literature notes will be stored within the reference system together with the bibliographic details, separate from the slip-box, but still close to the context of the original text, - Note: This justifies why you keep the Readwise notes separate from the slipbox notes

It is mainly a matter of having an extensive latticework of mental models or theories in our heads that enable us to identify and describe the main ideas quickly

Different independent studies indicate that writing by hand facilitates understanding. In a small but fascinating study, two psychologists tried to find out if it made a difference if students in a lecture took notes by hand or by typing them into their laptops (Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014). They were not able to find any difference in terms of the number of facts the students were able to remember. But in terms of understanding the content of the lecture, the students who took their notes by hand came out much, much better. After a week, this difference in understanding was still clearly measurable.

Handwriting is slower and can’t be corrected as quickly as electronic notes. Because students can’t write fast enough to keep up with everything that is said in a lecture, they are forced to focus on the gist of what is being said, not the details. But to be able to note down the gist of a lecture, you have to understand it in the first place. So if you are writing by hand, you are forced to think about what you hear (or read)

we are naturally drawn to everything that makes us feel good, which is everything that confirms what we already believe we know. - Note: Confirmation Bias. Which is likely a big part of why Reddit communities are so popular. Why do we as humans want this validation?

The ability to distinguish relevant from less relevant information is another skill that can only be learned by doing. It is the practice of looking for the gist and distinguishing it from mere supporting details.

Reading, especially rereading, can easily fool us into believing we understand a text. Rereading is especially dangerous because of the mere-exposure effect: The moment we become familiar with something, we start believing we also understand it. On top of that, we also tend to like it more - Note: Is this why we like certain songs more after repeat listening?

A coach is not there to do the work, but to show us how to use our time and effort in the most effective way.

The slip-box takes care of details and references and is a long-term memory resource that keeps information objectively unaltered. That allows the brain to focus on the gist, the deeper understanding and the bigger picture, and frees it up to be creative.

When we take permanent notes, it is much more a form of thinking within the medium of writing and in dialogue with the already existing notes within the slip-box than a protocol of preconceived ideas. Any thought of a certain complexity requires writing.

Luhmann states as clearly as possible: it is not possible to think systematically without writing

Richard Feynman once had a visitor in his office, a historian who wanted to interview him. When he spotted Feynman’s notebooks, he said how delighted he was to see such “wonderful records of Feynman’s thinking.” “No, no!” Feynman protested. “They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.”

elaboration is nothing more than connecting information to other information in a meaningful way. The first step of elaboration is to think enough about a piece of information so we are able to write about it. The second step is to think about what it means for other contexts as well.

Learned right, which means understanding, which means connecting in a meaningful way to previous knowledge, information almost cannot be forgotten anymore and will be reliably retrieved if triggered by the right cues. - Note: This is an example of Curse of Knowledge

This shows that elaborating on the differences and similarities of notes instead of sorting them by topic not only facilitates learning, but facilitates the ability to categorise and create sensible classifications! - Note: This reminds me of Bryson’s commentary on how I explore music by comparing artists to other artists I know.

Notes are only as valuable as the note and reference networks they are embedded in.

If we forget about an idea and have it again, our brains get as excited as if we are having it the first time. Therefore, working with the slip-box is disillusioning, but at the same time it increases the chance that we actually move forward in our thinking towards uncharted territory, instead of just feeling like we are moving forward. - Note: Lay a foundation to build upon so you don’t start from scratch each time. Don’t Start from Scratch

Albert Rothenberg suggests that the construction of oppositions is the most reliable way of generating new ideas (Rothenberg 1971; 1996; 2015).

He advocates looking out for the most powerful concepts in every discipline and to try to understand them so thoroughly that they become part of our thinking. - Note: This is why I like knowing a little bit about many things, as it lays a good foundation for decision making. Generalist

A truly wise person is not someone who knows everything, but someone who is able to make sense of things by drawing from an extended resource of interpretation schemes. This stands in harsh contrast to the common but not-so-wise belief that we need to learn from experience.

But we can make it a habit to always ask what is not in the picture, but could be relevant. - Note: This is not natural, but can set us apart in our thinking.

Often, companies don’t even keep track of their own failed attempts, providing McMath with whole series in which one kind of mistake was made in multiple variations, sometimes from each generation of developers in the same company - Note: If we only focus on our successes we will fall into the same traps in the future.

It is very good to know what has already proven to not work if we try to come up with new ideas that do work. - Note: Reading books only from people who found success only gives one half of the story. Perhaps the lucky half

Each note should fit onto the screen and there should be no need of scrolling.

Language in itself is extremely standardised and limited in many ways. We are restricted to the use of only 26 letters, but what that enables us to do! We can write novels, theories, love letters or court orders – just by rearranging these 26 letters. This is certainly not possible despite the restriction to 26 letters, but because of it. Nobody will open a book and wish it contains more types of letters or be disappointed because it is, again, just another variation of the same alphabet. - Note: But this is also why language evolves because we have a limited set of letters and words. Would this repurposing of words still happen with more letters available to us?

Just look into your slip-box and see where clusters have been built up. These clusters are what caught your interest again and again, so you already know that you have found material to work with. Now you can spread out these notes on your desktop or use the outliner of the Zettelkasten, outline your argument and construct a preliminary order of sections, chapters or paragraphs. This will make questions, which are not answered, obvious, and it will show the gaps in the argument that need to be filled and make visible which parts still need some work.

Being intimately familiar with something enables us to be playful with it, to modify it, to spot new and different ideas without running the risk of merely repeating old ideas believing they are new. - Note: Early into a specific field we feel we are doing innovative things that are not novel or new. As we spend more time with a field we feel like we are being less innovative, but are actually being more innovative. We are poor judges of how innovative our ideas are. This is another form of the Curse of Knowledge.

Nothing motivates us more than seeing a project we can identify with moving forward, and nothing is more demotivating than being stuck with a project that doesn’t seem to be worth doing.

“When people experienced a sense of autonomy with regard to the choice, their energy for subsequent tasks was not diminished. - Note: This leads me to think we should give engineering a budget and let them decide what they should spend it on. We should stay out of the decision making process and support what they decide.

With this method, to work on different things simultaneously, I never encounter any mental blockages.” (Luhmann, Baecker, and Stanitzek 1987, 125–55) It is like martial arts: If you encounter resistance or an opposing force, you should not push against it, but redirect it towards another productive goal.

If there is one piece of advice that is worth giving, it is to keep in mind that the first draft is only the first draft. Slavoj Žižek said in an interview[41] that he wouldn’t be able to write a single sentence if he didn’t start by convincing himself he was only writing down some ideas for himself, and that maybe he could turn it into something publishable later. By the time he stopped writing, he was always surprised to find that the only thing left to do was revise the draft he already had. - Note: Just get started. Its easier to revise later than than to try to get it perfect from the start

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” - Note: This is the argument for laying the foundation to build upon. Also why recurring meetings should have agendas.

The goal here is to get into the habit of fetching pen and paper whenever we read something, to write down the most important and interesting aspects. If we manage to establish a routine in this first step, it becomes much easier to develop the urge to turn these findings into permanent notes and connect them with other notes in the slip-box.