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Published September 1, 2021 Updated September 4, 2021
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How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens is a great book to read if you are person who wants to get better at writing or who wants to improve how you distill and synthesis new ideas from what you’ve read. I found myself wishing I had gleaned this knowledge much earlier in my career. Granted, I’ve been journaling, using various forms of note taking applications, and even maintaining a personal PostgreSQL database of bookmarks but these systems have been rudimentary compared to what Ahrens shows how to do better in the book.

While this article is a capture of what I thought was illuminating from reading the book, these notes are by no means comprehensive. If you like what you see here, consider picking up the book to level up further. Enjoy!

Everything You Need To Know

When writing — or with other disciplines — take heed to not force yourself to work on something you don’t feel like working on. When stuck, switch to working on something else because when you return to the original task you’ll have a fresh perspective for solving the problem. The foundation for making progress is to have a structure in place that allows you to transition to other tasks in order to remain unblocked and constantly making progress on your work as a whole.

Ahrens reinforces the above by referencing another great book, Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

A good structure enables flow, the state in which you get so completely immersed in your work that you lose track of time and can just keep on going as the work becomes effortless (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Something like that does not happen by chance.

Good Solutions are Simple — and Unexpected

Getting Things Done by David Allen is referenced regarding the importance of using a trusted system to capture various actions we need to tackle that might not need immediate attention. By getting various interrupts and random thoughts rolling around in our heads captured within a trusted system, we free up precious mental capacity to stay focused on the task at hand. This is what David Allen calls having a mind like water.

💡 By the way, I’ve been using OmniFocus, which is software built on top of Getting Things Done, for years. Definitely recommend if looking for an advanced task manager.

Ahrens goes on to make an important distinction between Getting Things Done and note taking:

Unfortunately, David Allen’s technique cannot simply be transferred to the task of insightful writing. The first reason is that [Getting Things Done] relies on clearly defined objectives, whereas insight cannot be predetermined by definition. We usually start with rather vague ideas that are bound to change until they become clearer in the course of our research (cf. Ahrens, 2014, 134f.).

What we can take from Allen as an important insight is that the secret to a successful organization lies in the holistic perspective. Everything needs to be taken care of, otherwise the neglected bits will nag us until the unimportant tasks become urgent. Even the best tools won’t make much of a difference if they are used in isolation. Only if they are embedded in a well-conceived working process can the tools play out their strengths. There is no point in having great tools if they don’t fit together.

And this is the other insight of David Allen: Only if you can trust your system, only if you really know that everything will be taken care of, will your brain let go and let you focus on the task at hand. That is why we need a note-taking system that is as comprehensive as [Getting Things Done], but one that is suitable for the open-ended process of writing, learning and thinking.

The Slip-box

The slip-box was designed and developed by Niklas Luhmann who, over the course of 30 years, published 58 books along with hundreds of articles using this system. Essentially, the slip-box is to note taking and writing as Getting Things Done is to task management.

When he was asked if he missed anything in his life, he [Niklas Luhmann] 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).

The slip-box, as any good system like Getting Things Done, gives us the flexibility to stay in control and remain in a flow state while capturing thoughts and ideas in the form of notes. This allows us to avoid situations in which we get backed into a corner using inflexible systems that hinder us from making progress. Staying in control is crucial:

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.

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).

It is about having the right tools and knowing how to use them – and very few understand that you need both.

The slip-box Manual

Luhmann used two slip-boxes in practice:

  • Biblio - Captured bibliographic details by using the front of an index card to jot down bibliographic information and the back side for capturing brief notes about the bibliographic information.

  • Primary - Captured ideas in response to what was read.

To break this down a bit further:

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.

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.

Everything You Need To Do

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. If you want to learn something for the long run, you have to write it down. If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words.

If there is one thing the experts agree on, then it is this: You have to externalize 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?

Writing a paper step by step

  1. Fleeting Notes - These go straight into your Inbox and should be the quickest of all notes to capture without being distracting or causing you to break your current workflow. Pen and paper is the recommended default for capturing these notes. In my case, I avoid pen and paper entirely by using a combination of Voice Memos, OmniFocus, and/or Obsidian inboxes. At the dawn and dusk of each day — and in keeping with Inbox Zero — I have an OmniFocus repeating action that reminds me to convert and clear all of these inboxes into next actions. In cases where the thought doesn’t require additional composition but has everything I need, I’ll skip making a fleeing note by making a permanent note instead.

  2. Literature Notes - These capture the gist and/or thoughts about what you’ve read in brief detail. They should be short, avoid quotes, and be written in your own words to better synthesis what was read. They also validate you’ve understood what you’ve read. I end up capturing these details in a daily note in the form a <YYYY>-<MM>-<DD>. Example: 2020-01-10. I’ll also use tags (i.e. #example) and backlinks (i.e.[[example]]) to associate these notes with existing notes.

  3. Permanent Notes - These are your Second Brain where developing or developed ideas are the result of gathering fleeting and literature notes into permanent notes. You want to determine if the incoming ideas aid, contradict, or correct exiting ideas. Can you combine or sprout new questions based on the new information? Be precise and clear as possible when capturing these notes. You’ll also want to use full sentences and link references. The goal is to not collect more notes but add value to existing arguments, discussions, articles, etc.

  4. Slip-box - Here is where you add your permanent notes to your slip-box. In my case, I use Obsidian by tagging and back linking all content. This is much faster than the slip-box or Zettlekasten process as documented in the book.

  5. Refine Topics - As you read and gather ideas, you’ll start to notice the information you have gathered coalesces around specific topics. These are kernels of new thought and learnings which might cause you to probe deeper, read more, and even question established thought. You’ll want to let these naturally build up until you have built up a new perspective you want to share.

  6. Draft Topic - Once a topic has been refined and polished multiple times over, you can start to gather all your notes, links, and references into one cohesive thought. This is the beginning of your rough draft.

  7. Draft Article - Once you have collected all of your thoughts, you can start build your first draft for eventual publication.

  8. Edit and Proofread - This is the last step which you edit, proofread, and make any final corrections before publishing your final work.

While reference notes are only mentioned briefly in the book and not listed in the steps above, they are second source of information that Luhmann personally used. You might want to include the following details when capturing them should you want to use them:

  • Brief Overview

  • Author

  • Recommended By

The reality and beauty of the above system is you’ll never work on one idea at a time but multiple in parallel. This is the strength of your slip-box.

In truth, it is highly unlikely that every text you read will contain exactly the information you looked for and nothing else. Otherwise, you must have already known what was in there and wouldn’t have had reason to read it in the first place.*

The above is known as Meno’s Paradox.

Most people follow different lines of thought at the same time. They might focus for a while on one idea, but then leave it alone for another while until they see how to proceed further. It is helpful then to be able to pick up on another idea now and go back to the earlier thought later. It is much more realistic to keep this flexibility and you don’t have to worry about starting all over.

Everything You Need to Have

For your slip box, the book recommended you use Daniel Lüdecke’s Zettelkasten. These videos might be of interest should you want to go down this path.

A Few Things To Keep In Mind

Writing Is The Only Thing That Matters

Writing improves reading through the following:

  • Forces you to focus on the most relevant information.

  • Forces you to be more engaged in what you are reading.

  • Forces you to understand what you are reading in order to be able to phrase it in your own writing. If you can’t explain it in your own words, then you haven’t learned it.

The secret to achieving this kind of mastery is summed up well in this quote:

Deliberate practice is the only serious way of becoming better at what we are doing (cf. Anders Ericsson, 2008).

Simplicity is Paramount

For some of us, what we were taught in school or learned from others was always to figure out which topic in which to store new information. With this new system, we change to focusing on which context the information should be stumbled upon again.

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

Even though the slip-box, being organized bottom-up, does not face the trade-off problem between too many or too few topics, it too can lose its value when notes are added to it indiscriminately. It can only play out its strengths when we aim for a critical mass, which depends not only on the number of notes, but also their quality and the way they are handled.

To 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.

Fleeting notes are best when processed, or thrown away, within the same day in which they are captured. Permanent notes, like a good Git commit message are meant to be fully understood even after you’ve forgotten the original context.

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.

The last type of note, the ones that are related to only one specific project, are kept together with other project-related notes in a project-specific folder. It doesn’t matter in which format these notes are as they are going to end up in the bin after the project is finished anyway (or in an archive — the bin for the indecisive).

Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch

Good writing doesn’t happen with a blank page/screen, a goal in mind, doing the research, and then writing the analysis. Additionally, the resulting output is not formed via a straight line but through a more circuitous route. Basically, a hermeneutic circle as further developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer. The process is more a slow rumination through reading multiple sources, thinking over what is read, discussing what was learned with others, and expanding upon these ideas further. When you allow for different sources of information to culminate into a new idea, it’s much easier to produce something of value rather than struggle and force yourself to produce some desired outcome.

The process is also more enjoyable when you allow ideas to cluster together over time in order to form something new. That is where true insight can be gleaned. This frees you up to spend your time focused on topics of interest, learning more about them, and eventually writing something of value worth sharing with others.

Let The Work Carry You Forward

Feedback loops are not only crucial for the dynamics of motivation, but also the key element to any learning process. Nothing motivates us more than the experience of becoming better at what we do. And the only chance to improve in something is getting timely and concrete feedback. 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. Dweck shows convincingly that the most reliable predictor for long-term success is having a “growth mindset.” To actively seek and welcome feedback, be it positive or negative, is one of the most important factors for success (and happiness) in the long run.

Embracing a growth mindset means to get pleasure out of changing for the better (which is mostly inwardly rewarding) instead of getting pleasure in being praised (which is outwardly rewarding).

Don’t let kakorrhaphiophobia — the fear of failure — get the best of you.

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.

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. By doing this, we not only get a better sense of our ability to understand, but also increase our ability to clearly and concisely express our understanding – which in return helps to grasp ideas more quickly.

The ability to express understanding in one’s own words is a fundamental competency for everyone who writes – and only by doing it with the chance of realizing our lack of understanding can we become better at it. But the better we become, the easier and quicker we can make notes, which again increases the number of learning experiences. The same applies to the crucial ability to distinguish the important bits of a text from the less important ones: the better we become at it, the more effective our reading will become, the more we can read, the more we will learn. We will enter a beautiful, virtuous circle of competency. You cannot help but feel motivated by it.

As your slip box grows, so does your foundation of knowledge and associated connections. This growth is exponential, not linear, which allows us to make new connections faster. What’s most fascinating about our slip box is that it mimics the way our minds work because the more connected information we have makes it easier for us to learn. This is also known as our Latticework of Mental Models as coined by Charlie Munger.

Separate and Interlocking Tasks

Multitasking Is Not A Good Idea

When psychologists interviewed and tested multitaskers they discovered the following:

  • Productivity decreased even though the individual felt more productive.

  • Quality and quantity of work decreased.

  • Ability to deal with more than one thing at a time was impaired.

The reason people believe they are good at multitasking is:

  • Lack of control group or any objective form of measurement.

  • Suffer from what psychologists call the mere-exposure effect which confuses familiarity with skill. Doing something multiple times makes us believe we’ve become good at it even though our actual performance might be suboptimal.

Give Each Task The Right Kind of Attention

When the workflows of eminent scientists were analyzed, Oshin Vartanian (author of Neuroscience of Creativity and Neuroscience of Decision Making) found flexible focus — which toggles between specific concepts and the playful exploration of ideas — is what made them great versus relentless focus alone. The ability to toggle between a narrowly focused and analytical mindset to a curious and playful mindset is critical.

This also means we need an equally flexible work environment which avoids a rigid structure and allows each individual to have this freedom.

Interestingly, and unfortunately, the most common forms of writing is planning for it which pigeon holes the individual. Become an expert instead by avoiding making plans altogether.

Become an Expert Instead of a Planner

Experts are experts because of deliberate practice, the tacit accumulation of knowledge over time, and incorporated historic experience through many successes and failures. Experts often detect and see patterns faster and let past experience guide them to take informed next steps.

Get Closure

We can only hold a maximum of seven things (plus/minus two) in our short term memory at a time. The ability to bundle or associate groups of information can help expand this limitation. What we can connect via rules, patterns, mental models, narratives, etc. and is what makes our slips boxes so useful.

The Zeigarnik Effect, discovered by psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, is when one is able to recall unfinished or interrupted work better than completed tasks. This is why we can get distracted by unfinished tasks. Luckily, if we write them down, we can prevent these thoughts from constantly rolling around in our head which is why David Allen’s Getting Things Done system works so well in terms of capturing all of these thoughts in an external and trusted system where they won’t get lost.

Reduce the Number of Decisions

Willpower is a limited resource that if not measured with care can be easily depleted. This is why some people organize and standardize their life in order to make fewer decisions so they can focus on what matters. An example is of buying clothes of a certain style that can be mixed and matched with ease so you don’t have to spend time deciding what to wear before getting ready for work in the morning. That’s one less decision you don’t have to make.

Taking breaks is how you can recharge your willpower. Even better, breaks allow your brain to process new information, move this information into long-term memory, and be open for absorbing new information.

Read for Understanding

Read With A Pen In Hand

Writing down what you’ve read, in your own words, helps facilitate more understanding of what you’ve read and allows you to have time to translate and understand what you’ve read. If you can’t write it down in your own words, then you haven’t understood what you’ve read.

Keep An Open Mind

The linear process promoted by most study guides, which insanely starts with the decision on the hypothesis or the topic to write about, is a sure-fire way to let confirmation bias run rampant. First, you basically fix your present understanding, as the outcome instead of using it as the starting point, priming yourself for one-sided perception. Then you artificially create a conflict of interest between getting things done (finding support for your preconceived argument) and generating insight, turning any departure from your preconceived plan into a mutiny against the success of your own project. This is a good rule of thumb: If insight becomes a threat to your academic or writing success, you are doing it wrong.

Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight. We should be able to focus on the most insightful ideas we encounter and welcome the most surprising turns of events without jeopardizing our progress or, even better, because it brings our project forward. We postpone the decision on what to write about specifically and focus on building a critical mass within the slip-box.

Always look for information and facts that will enrich the slip-box. These can be opposing thoughts or additional open connections for further insight and additional probing. By building up a vast collection of supporting and dissenting thought, you can build a richer thesis and share more thoughtful insight that wouldn’t be possible if you only collected supporting information.

Get the Gist

The only way to get good at capturing notes is through deliberate practice of extracting insight from what you read. You need to foster identifying patterns and correlations which also improves the speed of your note taking skills.

Being able to re-frame questions, assertions and information is even more important than having an extensive knowledge, because without this ability, we wouldn’t be able to put our knowledge to use.

Learn to Read

Being able to clearly explain what you’ve read is acknowledgement that you understand what you’ve read. Another option is being able to give an introductory course which you can take what you’ve learned and teach others.

Interestingly, re-reading increases familiarity and the assumption that we’ve understood what we’ve read when we haven’t. The proof, again, is to write and see if we truly understand what’ve we’ve learned or if there are gaps left to fill in.

Writing is the main tool which helps us test what we’ve read is understood and why the slip-box is so valuable in growing our knowledge and wisdom.

Learn by Reading

The more that is read, the more you can expand and elaborate upon what you know. This will allow you to find deeper meaning in the things you know or shake up long held ideas. By letting the slip-box be the source of detailed information and reference material, the brain can focus on the all of the connections and deeper meaning, bigger picture, and creative aspects behind what’s been read/researched.

Take Smart Notes

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.

Philosophers, educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists all agree that external scaffolding — such as the slip-box — is what allows us to connect our thoughts and constantly expand our knowledge. Building and finding as many connections as possible is how we comprehend and learn in a serious fashion.

Develop Ideas

Ideally, each note has an explicit reference to an existing note when added to the slip-box but might not always be possible.

You’ll want to use keywords to tag each note so they show up in the index. They keywords you assign need to be done with an eye towards what it is you are working on or have an interest in. This process can’t be automated because it requires careful thinking and is a crucial part of the process. Good keywords lead to a deeper connection with existing notes and further clarification of the note itself.

Once the slip-box starts to fill up with notes and ideas, it’ll be a lot easier to detect similarities and differences. Even more sobering is when you think you have a great idea that you forget which turns out to already exist in your slip-box. The slip-box helps with that kind of deduplication as well. There are other advantages as well through the constant comparison of notes with new notes:

  • Sheds light on old ideas.

  • Raises conflicts with two opposing ideas that require further work to resolve. This contrast helps us develop new ideas.

  • Discovery of unrelated topics which happen to prove a similar point which might lead to a new discovery.

  • Leads to wholes in the text we’ve already read and forces us to constantly improve to get the information right.

Ludwik Fleck states that being adept within the problem space you work in along with associated tools used to work in that space — to the point of pure virtuosity — is the primary precondition for discovering further inherent possibilities.

Playing with ideas through abstraction and re-specification is what leads to insight in new ways of thinking or solving problems. It is that constant translation that allows us to re-frame our thinking.

When studying answers or solutions make sure to dig into what is not said, written, or missing in general. There is always insight within the inverse of.

A good guideline is to treat each note as if there is limited space as this will force you to focus being brief and to the point.

Share Your Insight

Traditional Brainstorming has been proven to not elicit better ideas in terms of quality or quantity. It hinders and/or limits the ideas generated. Instead, we can allow ourselves to build up our latticework of mental models within our slip-box. By searching our graph for the densest of connected learnings, we can mine it for the sharing new ideas. It’s much easier to let the our slip-box find what to write about than predict what we might want to write about with no source material to back us up. It’s these cluster of ideas that are key to writing something new worth sharing.

Another important aspect of the slip-box is that it allows you to work on writing multiple articles at once and at different rates of speed. The benefit is that when you are stuck on something, you can take a break by switching to a different article than the one you are working on. This also makes the experience more enjoyable because there is less pressure to finish a specific article at a specific time but allow the various topics to bubble up at their own rates of completion.

Make It a Habit

Willpower will not turn habit into expertise but a good strategy and trusted system will.

Afterward

The power of the slip-box is to allow the learner to decentralize their thinking within a network of diverse ideas. While learning, thinking, and capturing new ideas will accumulate a lot of knowledge and reference material, it’s not so much about acquiring the material in so much as leveling up and becoming a different person because you can now think more differently than before. 🎉