How to Take Smart Notes

Niklas Luhmann‘s Zettelkasten system had a sequential element. He assigned incremental IDs to his notes (alternating numbers and characters to allow branching out).



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Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.

1 Everything you need to know

1.2 The Slip-box

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In Germany, a professor traditionally starts with a public lecture presenting his or her projects, and Luhmann, too, was asked what his main research project will be. His answer would become famous. He laconically stated: “My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Costs: zero” (Luhmann, 1997, 11).

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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)

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he even said: “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.” (Luhmann et al. , 1987, 154f.) [ 4 ]

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If we work in an environment that is flexible enough to accommodate our work rhythm, we don’t need to struggle with resistance. 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).

1.3 The slip-box manual

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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.

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He usually wrote his notes with an eye towards already existing notes in the slip-box.

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He did not just copy ideas or quotes from the texts he read, but made a transition from one context to another.

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The trick is that he did not organise his notes by topic, but in the rather abstract way of giving them fixed numbers.

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Whenever he added a note, he checked his slip-box for other relevant notes to make possible connections between them. Adding a note directly behind another note is only one way of doing this. Another way is by adding a link on this and / or the other note, which could be anywhere in the system. This very much resembles, of course, the way we use hyperlinks on the internet. But, as I will explain later, they are quite different and it would be rather misleading to think of his slip-box as a personal Wikipedia or a database on paper.

2 Everything You Need to Do

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Writing notes accompanies the main work and, done right, it helps with it. Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have. Notes build up while you think, read, understand and generate ideas, because you have to have a pen in your hand if you want to think, read, understand and generate ideas properly anyway.

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“Notes on paper, or on a computer screen [. .. ] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible,” neuroscientist Neil Levy concludes in the introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, summarizing decades of research. Neuroscientists, psychologists and other experts on thinking have very different ideas about how our brains work, but, as Levy writes: “no matter how internal processes are implemented, (you) need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.” (2011, 270) If there is one thing the experts agree on, then it is this: You have to externalise your ideas, you have to write. Richard Feynman stresses it as much as Benjamin Franklin. If we write, it is more likely that we understand what we read, remember what we learn and that our thoughts make sense. And if we have to write anyway, why not use our writing to build up the resources for our future publications?

2.1 Writing a paper step by step

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Keep it very short, be extremely selective, and use your own words.

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Filing each one behind one or more related notes

3 Everything you need to have

3.1 The Tool Box

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We need four tools: · Something to write with and something to write on (pen and paper will do) · A reference management system (the best programs are free) · The slip-box (the best program is free) · An editor (whatever works best for you: very good ones are free)

4 A Few Things to Keep in Mind

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The slip-box, for example, would most likely be used as an archive for notes – or worse: a graveyard for thoughts (cf. Hollier 2005, 40 on Mallarmé’s index cards).

5 Writing Is the Only Thing That Matters

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But, as Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the Humboldt University of Berlin and brother to the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt, put it, the professor is not there for the student and the student not for the professor. Both are only there for the truth. And truth is always a public matter.

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Focusing on writing as if nothing else counts does not necessarily mean you should do everything else less well, but it certainly makes you do everything else differently. Having a clear, tangible purpose when you attend a lecture, discussion or seminar will make you more engaged and sharpen your focus. You will not waste your time with the attempt to figure out what you “should” learn. Rather, you will try to learn as efficiently as possible so you can quickly get to the point where actual open questions arise, as these are the only questions worth writing about. You quickly learn to distinguish good-sounding arguments from actual good ones, as you will have to think them through whenever you try to write them down and connect them with your previous knowledge. It will change the way you read as well: You will become more focused on the most relevant aspects, knowing that you cannot write down everything. You will read in a more engaged way, because you cannot rephrase anything in your own words if you don’t understand what it is about. By doing this, you will elaborate on the meaning, which will make it much more likely that you will remember it. You also have to think beyond the things you read, because you need to turn it into something new. And by doing everything with the clear purpose of writing about it, you will do what you do deliberately.

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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.

6 Simplicity Is Paramount

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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?

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achieve a critical mass, it is crucial to distinguish clearly between three types of notes: 1. 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. 2. 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. 3. 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.

8 Let the Work Carry You Forward

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The extraordinary successful fitness motivation coach Michelle Segar uses this dynamic to turn even the most stubborn couch potatoes into exercise aficionados (Segar, 2015). She brings those who really don’t like exercise but know they have to do it into a sustainable workout routine by focusing on one thing: Creating satisfying, repeatable experiences with sports.

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then maybe the fact that the fear of failure has the ugliest name of all phobias: Kakorrhaphiophobia.

9 Separate and interlocking tasks

9.2 Multitasking is not a good idea

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But what is most interesting about these studies is not the fact that the productivity and the quality of the work decreases with multitasking, but that it also impairs the ability to deal with more than one thing at a time!

9.3 Give Each Task the Right Kind of Attention

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“Specifically, the problem-solving 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)

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“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)

9.4 Become an Expert Instead of a Planner

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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.

9.5 Get Closure

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Zeigarnik successfully reproduced what is now known as the 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. That’s right: The brain doesn’t distinguish between an actual finished task and one that is postponed by taking a note.

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This is why David Allen’s “Getting things done” system works: The secret to have a “mind like water” is to get all the little stuff out of our short-term memory.

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The first step is to break down the amorphous task of “writing” into smaller pieces of different tasks that can be finished in one go. The second step is to make sure we always write down the outcome of our thinking, including possible connections to further inquiries. As

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Conversely, we can use the Zeigarnik effect to our advantage by deliberately keeping unanswered questions in our mind.

10 Read for understanding

10.2 Keep an Open Mind

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As the psychologist Raymond Nickerson puts it: “If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration” (Nickerson 1998, 175).

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The classic role model would be Charles Darwin. He forced himself to write down (and therefore elaborate on) the arguments that were the most critical of his theories. “I had [. .. ] during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views, which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.” (Darwin 1958, 123)

10.3 Get the Gist

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Rewriting what was already written almost automatically trains one to shift the attention towards frames, patterns and categories in the observations, or the conditions / assumptions, which enable certain, but not other descriptions.

10.4 Learn to Read

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“If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself.” (John Searle)

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If we don’t try to verify our understanding during our studies, we will happily enjoy the feeling of getting smarter and more knowledgeable while in reality staying as dumb as we were. This warm feeling disappears quickly when we try to explain what we read in our own words in writing. Suddenly, we see the problem. The attempt to rephrase an argument in our own words confronts us without mercy with all the gaps in our understanding.

11 Take Smart Notes

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Jerome Bruner, a psychologist Lonka refers to, goes a step further and says that scientific thinking is plainly impossible if we can’t manage to think beyond a given context and we only focus on the information as it is given to us (Bruner, 1973, quoted after ibid.) It is not surprising, therefore, that Lonka recommends what Luhmann recommends: Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes.

11.2 Think Outside the Brain

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Luhmann states as clearly as possible: it is not possible to think systematically without writing (Luhmann 1992, 53).

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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.” “Well,” the historian said, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.” “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper.” [ 33 ] This, obviously, was a very important distinction to Feynman, much more than just a linguistic difference – and for a good reason: It is the distinction that makes all the difference when it comes to thinking.

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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.” “Well,” the historian said, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.” “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper.” [

12 Develop ideas

12.3 Compare, Correct and Differentiate

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If you use the slip-box for a while, you will inevitably make a sobering discovery: The great new idea you are about to add to the slip-box turns out to be already in there. Even worse, chances are this idea wasn’t even yours, but someone else’s.

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feature-positive effect (Allison and Messick 1988; Newman, Wolff, and Hearst 1980; Sainsbury 1971). This is the phenomenon in which we tend to overstate the importance of information that is (mentally) easily available to us and tilts our thinking towards the most recently acquired facts, not necessarily the most relevant ones.

12.4 Assemble a Toolbox for Thinking

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Munger writes: “Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang’ em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience, both vicarious and direct, on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.” (Munger 1994).

12.5 Use the Slip-Box as a Creativity Machine

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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.”

13 Share your insight

13.4 Finishing and Review

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This is advantageous not only because we make progress on the next papers or books while we are still working on the current one, but also because it allows us to switch to other projects whenever we get stuck or bored. Remember: Luhmann’s answer to the question of how one person could be so productive was that he never forced himself to do anything and only did what came easily to him. “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)

13.5 Becoming an Expert by Giving up Planning

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Zeigarnik effect (Zeigarnik 1927), in which our brains tend to stay occupied with a task until it is accomplished (or written down).

13.6 The Actual Writing

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Slavoj Žižek said in an interview 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.

14 Make It a Habit

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“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copybooks and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” (Whitehead)