HOW TO TAKE SMART NOTES
Another lifechanging one. I was skeptical at the start with the story of this 'sexy foreign untranslated secret' (even though the sexy foreign place was Germany), but this gave me a new tool to structure my notes with. Still working on the details, but loving it so far. 10/10 would recommend.
The myth of the blank page - it is infinitely easier to connect existing information
The ease at which you can complete work is very much dependent on the preparatory work you've done on the topic beforehand
Properly refining your task helps with getting it done
Dividing notes into topics quickly becomes overly complicated, and reduces the chances of new connections being formed
Realising how little time we have (to learn and do things) can help with being more grateful and productive
Take notes while thinking 'where would I want to run into this' rather than what topic does this belong to
Topics are dangerous: they seem simple, but end up overcomplicating things and don't allow for easy connections between information
Having been praised about something may make you feel you have a reputation to maintain, and therefore make you less likely to be creative and take risks
Multitasking gives you the illusion of being more productive
Creativity is just connecting things
On the myth of a blank page
Most people struggle for much more mundane reasons, and one is the myth of the blank page itself. They struggle because they believe, as they are made to believe, that writing starts with a blank page. If you believe that you have indeed nothing at hand to fill it, you have a very good reason to panic. 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.
To sum it up: The quality of a paper and the ease with which it is written depends more than anything on what you have done in writing before you even made a decision on the topic.
On the importance of defining your task
Every task that is interesting, meaningful and well-defined will be done, because there is no conflict between longand short-term interests. Having a meaningful and well-defined task beats willpower every time.
Not having willpower, but not having to use willpower indicates that you set yourself up for success.
This is where the organisation of writing and notetaking comes into play.
Why topics are a bad idea
Most people try to reduce complexity by separating what they have into smaller stacks, piles or separate folders. They sort their notes by topics and sub-topics, which makes it look less complex, but quickly becomes very complicated. Plus, it reduces the likelihood of building and finding surprising connections between the notes themselves, which means a trade-off between its usability and usefulness.
The simplicity of the structure allows complexity to build up where we want it: on the content level.
When he was asked if he missed anything in his life, he famously answered: “If I want something, it’s more time. The only thing that really is a nuisance is the lack of time.” (Luhmann, Baecker, and Stanitzek, 1987, 139)
On the importance of having a second brain
“I, of course, do not think everything by myself. It happens mainly within the slip-box” (Luhmann, Baecker, and Stanitzek 1987, 142).
Flexbility and Flow
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. It is in the nature of writing, especially insight-oriented writing, that questions change, the material we work with turns out to be very different from the one imagined or that new ideas emerge, which might change our whole perspective on what we do. Only if the work is set up in a way that is flexible enough to allow these small and constant adjustments can we keep our interest, motivation and work aligned – which is the precondition to effortless or almost effortless work.
Designing your environment
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's slip boxes
Strictly speaking, 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 notes were written on index cards and stored in wooden boxes.
Whenever he read something, he would write the bibliographic information on one side of a card and make brief notes about the content on the other side (Schmidt 2013, 170). These notes would end up in the bibliographic slip-box.
In a second step, shortly after, he would look at his brief notes and think about their relevance for his own thinking and writing. He then would turn to the main slip-box and write his ideas, comments and thoughts on new pieces of paper, using only one for each idea and restricting himself to one side of the paper, to make it easier to read them later without having to take them out of the box. He kept them usually brief enough to make one idea fit on a single sheet, but would sometimes add another note to extend a thought.
He did not just copy ideas or quotes from the texts he read, but made a transition from one context to another. It was very much like a translation where you use different words that fit a different context, but strive to keep the original meaning as truthfully as possible. Writing that an author struggles in one chapter to justify his method can be a much more adequate description of this chapter’s content than any quote from the text itself (this would call for an explanation, of course).
The trick is that he did not organise his notes by topic, but in the rather abstract way of giving them fixed numbers. The numbers bore no meaning and were only there to identify each note permanently. If a new note was relevant or directly referred to an already existing note, such as a comment, correction or addition, he added it directly behind the previous note. If the existing note had the number 22, the new note would become note number 23. If 23 already existed, he named the new note 22a. By alternating numbers and letters, with some slashes and commas in between, he was able to branch out into as many strings of thought as he liked. For example, a note about causality and systems theory carried the number 21/3d7a7 following a note with the number 21/3d7a6.
Assemble notes and bring them into order, turn these notes into a draft, review it and you are done.
Make fleeting notes.
Make literature notes (Write down what you don’t want to forget or think you might use in your own thinking or writing.)
Make permanent notes. Now turn to your slip-box. 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 slipbox – it only contains what interests you anyway. The idea is not to collect, but to develop ideas, arguments and discussions. Does the new information contradict, correct, support or add to what you already have (in the slip-box or on your mind)? Can you combine ideas to generate something new? What questions are triggered by them?
Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box by: Filing each one behind one or more related notes (with a program, you can put one note “behind” multiple notes; if you use pen and paper like Luhmann, you have to decide where it fits best and add manual links to the other notes). Look to which note the new one directly relates or, if it does not relate directly to any other note yet, just file it behind the last one. Adding links to related notes. Making sure you will be able to find this note later by either linking to it from your index or by making a link to it on a note that you use as an entry point to a discussion or topic and is itself linked to the index.
Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the system. See what is there, what is missing and what questions arise. Read more to challenge and strengthen your arguments and change and develop your arguments according to the new information you are learning about. Take more notes, develop ideas further and see where things will take you. Just follow your interest and always take the path that promises the most insight. Build upon what you have.
After a while, you will have developed ideas far enough to decide on a topic to write about. Your topic is now based on what you have, not based on an unfounded idea about what the literature you are about to read might provide. Look through the connections and collect all the relevant notes on this topic (most of the relevant notes will already be in partial order), copy them onto your “desktop” and bring them in order. Look for what is missing and what is redundant. Don’t wait until you have everything together. Rather, try ideas out and give yourself enough time to go back to reading and note-taking to improve your ideas, arguments and their structure.
Turn your notes into a rough draft. Don’t simply copy your notes into a manuscript. Translate them into something coherent and embed them into the context of your argument while you build your argument out of the notes at the same time. Detect holes in your argument, fill them or change your argument.
Edit and proofread your manuscript. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder and turn to the next manuscript. This is why the presentation and the production of knowledge cannot be separated, but are rather two sides of the same coin (Peters and Schäfer 2006, 9).
If you understand what you read and translate it into the different context of your own thinking, materialised in the slip-box, you cannot help but transform the findings and thoughts of others into something that is new and your own.
In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again?
Perfectionism vs creativity
Ironically, it is therefore often the highly gifted and talented students, who receive a lot of praise, who are more in danger of developing a fixed mindset and getting stuck. Having been praised for what they are (talented and gifted) rather than for what they do, they tend to focus on keeping this impression intact, rather than exposing themselves to new challenges and the possibility of learning from failure.
On not making things unnecessarily complicated
There is this story where NASA tried to figure out how to make a ballpoint pen that works in space. If you have ever tried to use a ballpoint pen over your head, you have probably realised it is gravity that keeps the ink flowing. After a series of prototypes, several test runs and tons of money invested, NASA developed a fully functional gravity-independent pen, which pushes the ink onto the paper by means of compressed nitrogen. According to this story, the Russians faced the same problem. So they used pencils (De Bono, 1998, 141). The slip-box follows the Russian model: Focus on the essentials, don’t complicate things unnecessarily.
You have to work on what you're passionate about
Only if the work itself becomes rewarding can the dynamic of motivation and reward become self-sustainable and propel the whole process forward (DePasque and Tricomi, 2015).
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/
While those who multitasked felt more productive, their productivity actually decreased – a lot (Wang and Tchernev 2012; Rosen 2008; Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009).
Specifically, the problemsolving behavior of eminent scientists can alternate between extraordinary levels of focus on specific concepts and playful exploration of ideas. This suggests that successful problem solving may be a function of flexible strategy application in relation to task demands.” (Vartanian 2009, 57)
Even though results of these studies are currently under intense scrutiny and have to be taken with a grain of salt (Carter and McCullough 2014; Engber and Cauterucci 2016; Job, Dweck and Walton 2010), it is safe to argue that a reliable and standardised working environment is less taxing on our attention, concentration and willpower, or, if you like, ego. 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.
I suggest taking this literally. The ability to use one’s own understanding is a challenge, not a given.
To understand how groundbreaking this idea is, it helps to remember how much effort teachers still put into the attempt to make learning easier for their students by prearranging information, sorting it into modules, categories and themes. By doing that, they achieve the opposite of what they intend to do. They make it harder for the student to learn because they set everything up for reviewing, taking away the opportunity to build meaningful connections and to make sense of something by translating it into one’s own language. It is like fast food: It is neither nutritious nor very enjoyable, it is just convenient.
Manipulations such as variation, spacing, introducing contextual interference, and using tests, rather than presentations, as learning events, all share the property that they appear during the learning process to impede learning, but they then often enhance learning as measured by post-training tests of retention and transfer. Conversely, manipulations such as keeping conditions constant and predictable and massing trials on a given task often appear to enhance the rate of learning during instruction or training, but then typically fail to support long-term retention and transfer” (Bjork, 2011, 8).
Experienced academic readers usually read a text with questions in mind and try to relate it to other possible approaches, while inexperienced readers tend to adopt the question of a text and the frames of the argument and take it as a given. What good readers can do is spot the limitations of a particular approach and see what is not mentioned in the text.
Without understanding information within its context, it is also impossible to go beyond it, to reframe it and to think about what it could mean for another question.
Scarcity: why having too little means so much
Although he was very good at remembering facts, Shereshevsky was almost incapable of getting the gist of something, the concepts behind the particulars and distinguishing the relevant facts from minor details. He had great trouble relating to literature or poetry.
Keywords can easily be added to a note like tags and will then show up in the index. They should be chosen carefully and sparsely. Luhmann would add the number of one or two (rarely more) notes next to a keyword in the index (Schmidt 2013, 171). The reason he was so economical with notes per keyword and why we too should be very selective lies in the way the slip-box is used. Because it should not be used as an archive, where we just take out what we put in, but as a system to think with, the references between the notes are much more important than the references from the index to a single note.
The way people choose their keywords shows clearly if they think like an archivist or a writer. Do they wonder where to store a note or how to retrieve it? The archivist asks: Which keyword is the most fitting? A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference.
The slip-box constantly reminds us to interpret information depends on our broader knowledge and how we make sense of it.
Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, stresses the importance of having a broad theoretical toolbox – not to be a good academic, but to have a good, pragmatic grip on reality. He regularly explains to students which mental models have proven most useful to help him understand markets and human behaviour. 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. The moment one starts to combine these mental models and attach one’s experiences to them, one cannot help but gain what he calls “worldly wisdom.” The importance is to have not just a few, but a broad range of mental models in your head. Otherwise, you risk becoming too attached to one or two and see only what fits them. You would become the man with a hammer who sees nails everywhere (cf. Maslow, 1966, 15).
We learn something not only when we connect it to prior knowledge and try to understand its broader implications (elaboration), but also when we try to retrieve it at different times (spacing) in different contexts (variation), ideally with the help of chance (contextual interference) and with a deliberate effort (retrieval).
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” (Steve Jobs)
Steven Johnson, who wrote an insightful book about how people in science and in general come up with genuine new ideas, calls it the “slow hunch.” As a precondition to make use of this intuition, he emphasises the importance of experimental spaces where ideas can freely mingle (Johnson 2011).
To be able to play with ideas, we first have to liberate them from their original context by means of abstraction and re-specification.
The real enemy of independent thinking is not an external authority, but our own inertia. The ability to generate new ideas has more to do with breaking with old habits of thinking than with coming up with as many ideas as possible. For obvious reasons, I do not recommend “thinking outside the box”. On the contrary, we can turn the slip-box into a tool for breaking out of our own thinking habits.
Thinking and creativity can flourish under restricted conditions and there are plenty of studies to back that claim (cf. Stokes 2001; Rheinberger 1997).
The biggest threat to creativity and scientific progress is therefore the opposite: a lack of structure and restrictions. Without structure, we cannot differentiate, compare or experiment with ideas. Without restrictions, we would never be forced to make the decision on what is worth pursuing and what is not. Indifference is the worst environment for insight. And the slipbox is, above all, a tool for enforcing distinctions, decisions and making differences visible. One thing is for sure: the common idea that we should liberate ourselves from any restrictions and “open ourselves up” to be more creative is very misleading indeed (Dean 2013, 201).
Jeremy Dean, who has written extensively on routines and rituals and suggests seeing old ways of thinking as thinking routines, puts it well when he writes that we cannot break with a certain way of thinking if we are not even aware that it is a certain way of thinking (Dean, 2013).
If we accompany every step of our work with the question, “What is interesting about this?” and everything we read with the question, “What is so relevant about this that it is worth noting down?” we do not just choose information according to our interest. By elaborating on what we encounter, we also discover aspects we didn’t know anything about before and therefore develop our interests along the way. It would be quite sad if we did not change our interests during research.
When I am stuck for one moment, I leave it and do something else.” When he was asked what else he did when he was stuck, his answer was: “Well, writing other books. I always work on different manuscripts at the same time. With this method, to work on different things simultaneously, I never encounter any mental blockages.” (Luhmann, Baecker, and Stanitzek 1987, 125–55)
This is partly due to the aforementioned Zeigarnik effect (Zeigarnik 1927), in which our brains tend to stay occupied with a task until it is accomplished (or written down). If we have the finish line in sight, we tend to speed up, as everyone knows who has ever run a marathon. That means that the most important step is to get started. Rituals help, too (Currey 2013).
We have the best chance to change our behaviour over the long term if we start with a realistic idea about the difficulties of behavioural change (Dean 2013). And that is not so easy, because the more we are used to doing something in a particular way, the more in control we feel about it, even though we are less in control of it.