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How to Take Smart Notes book summary

How to Take Smart Notes book cover

This book is a study of the Slip-Box method (or Zettelkasten as it's known in German) of collecting information and knowledge, created by Niklas Luhmann. It provides a way of organising snippets of information in a structure that is free-flowing rather than rigid, allowing the surfacing of new, creative ideas to come about naturally through the mingling of these individual notes.

The book doesn’t just talk about the what, but also the how and why. To summarise quickly, there's essentially two stages:

  1. The jotting down of quick (or fleeting) notes. This should happen immediately when (or as shortly after) the impulse to do so strikes you - in meetings, when reading a book, in the shower etc. This should also be a quick action, to allow you to stay in the flow of whatever you're doing / reading.
  2. The conversion of quick notes into permanent notes. This should ideally be done within the same day to prevent the loss of context and comprehension. Permanent notes should be understandable by someone else - after all, this might be you in 1/2/5/10 years time.

By taking the time to properly organise your thoughts down onto a permanent note, you'll challenge yourself to see whether you've really understood something. Thinking things through also allows your brain to make connections to other ideas, which feeds into your note and how you might archive it for later. In a way, it's a physical representation of how your brain naturally makes connections and sparks new ideas.

The book goes into the actual step by step process of implementing the entire system, right the way through from how to consume information, to producing output for your next creative project. The original Luhmann Zettelkasten method utilised a pen and paper, but there are now a myriad of digital platforms that can be used to a similar (or in my opinion, to a better) effect. The rough steps are as follows:

  1. Keep all your notes in one place. All notes should have the same format and be individually identifiable.
  2. When thinking of how to translate your quick notes into permanent notes, also think about what new ideas are sparked and how they might alter your existing thoughts / notes. Write down everything into succinct permanent notes.
    • You can delete your quick notes once this process is completed.
  3. Think about how these new notes connect to your existing network of notes. Do not artificially impose a category on your notes as this might stifle your creative process down the line. Allow themes and ideas to bubble from the bottom-up. Link your new notes to existing notes by cross-referencing them.
    • A tool like Obsidian is amazing for this, with its graph view and back-linking features.
  4. Depending on the number of notes you have, it might be helpful to have an index list of entry points into your network of notes. i.e. a list of links to your "first note" on particular thought sequences / themes / topics. These "first notes" will then be linked to the rest of your notes through backlinks and references.
  5. Develop a habit for doing this for the content your consume and you'll soon have a treasure trove of written content for your next creative project.

Highlights from the book

What you need to know

  • 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
  • Luhmann 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.
  • We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains.

What you need to do

  • 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. Thinking takes place as much on paper as in your own head.
  • 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?
  • 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.

The importance of writing

  • Deliberate practice is the only serious way of becoming better at what we are doing. If you change your mind about the importance of writing, you will also change your mind about everything else. 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.

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 a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either as literature notes 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.

The idea is to start with ideas that have already shown themselves

  • Taking smart notes is the precondition to break with the linear order. There is one reliable sign if you managed to structure your workflow according to the fact that writing is not a linear process, but a circular one: the problem of finding a topic is replaced by the problem of having too many topics to write about. Having trouble finding the right topic is a symptom of the wrong attempt to rely heavily on the limitations of the brain, not the inevitable problematic starting point, as most study guides insinuate. If you on the other hand develop your thinking in writing, open questions will become clearly visible and give you an abundance of possible topics to elaborate further in writing.

Having to write something in our own words identifies any gaps in our lack of understanding

  • 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.

Separate and interlocking tasks

  • 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. Trying to multitask fatigues us and decreases our ability to deal with more than one task.
  • Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations. And deliberately building these kinds of meaningful connections is what the slip-box is all about.
  • The brain doesn’t distinguish between an actual finished task and one that is postponed by taking a note. By writing something down, we literally get it out of our heads. This is why Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system works: The secret to having a “mind like water” is to get all the little stuff out of our short-term memory. And as we can’t take care of everything right now, the only way to do that is to have a reliable external system in place where we can keep all our nagging thoughts about the many things that need to be done and trust that they will not be lost.
  • Conversely, we can use the Zeigarnik effect to our advantage by deliberately keeping unanswered questions in our minds. We can ruminate about them, even when we do something that has nothing to do with work and ideally does not require our full attention. 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.
  • Next to the attention that can only be directed at one thing at a time and the short-term memory that can only hold up to seven things at once, the third limited resource is motivation or willpower.

Read for understanding

  • 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.
  • The ability to spot patterns, to question the frames used and detect the distinctions made by others, is the precondition to thinking critically and looking behind the assertions of a text or a talk. 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.
  • 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. It certainly feels less good, but this struggle is the only chance we have to improve our understanding, to learn and move forward (cf. below). This, again, is deliberate practice. Now we are faced with a clear choice: We have to choose between feeling smarter or becoming smarter. And while writing down an idea feels like a detour, extra time spent, not writing it down is the real waste of time, as it renders most of what we read as ineffectual.
  • Learning requires effort, because we have to think to understand and we need to actively retrieve old knowledge to convince our brains to connect it with new ideas as cues.

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.
  • The brain works with rules of thumb and makes things look as if they fit, even if they don’t. It remembers events that never happened, connects unrelated episodes to convincing narratives and completes incomplete images. It cannot help but see patterns and meaning everywhere, even in the most random things (cf. Byrne, 2008). The brain, as Daniel Kahneman writes, is “a machine for jumping to conclusions” (Kahneman, 2013, 79). And a machine that is designed for jumping to conclusions is not the kind of machine you want to rely on when it comes to facts and rationality – at least, you would want to counterbalance it. Luhmann states as clearly as possible: it is not possible to think systematically without writing (Luhmann 1992, 53).
  • Learning would be not so much about saving information, like on a hard disk, but about building connections and bridges between pieces of information to enable circumventing the inhibition mechanism in the right moment. It is about making sure that the right “cues” trigger the right memory, about how we can think strategically to remember the most useful information when we need it.

Develop ideas

  • The organisation of the notes is in the network of references in the slip-box, so all we need from the index are entry points. A few wisely chosen notes are sufficient for each entry point. The quicker we get from the index to the concrete notes, the quicker we move our attention from mentally preconceived ideas towards the fact-rich level of interconnected content, where we can conduct a fact-based dialogue with the slip-box.
  • Keywords should always be assigned with an eye towards the topics you are working on or interested in, never by looking at the note in isolation. This is also why this process cannot be automated or delegated to a machine or program – it requires thinking.
  • Assigning keywords is much more than just a bureaucratic act. It is a crucial part of the thinking process, which often leads to a deeper elaboration of the note itself and the connection to other notes.
  • A paradox can be a sign that we haven’t thought thoroughly enough about a problem or, conversely, that we exhausted the possibilities of a certain paradigm. Finally, oppositions help to shape ideas by providing contrast. Albert Rothenberg suggests that the construction of oppositions is the most reliable way of generating new ideas (Rothenberg 1971; 1996; 2015).
  • The slip-box not only confronts us with disconfirming information, but also helps with what is known as the 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.
  • 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. It is much better to learn from the experiences of others – especially when this experience is reflected on and turned into versatile “mental models” that can be used in different situations.
  • 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
  • The same is true when we read: We don’t see lines on paper first, then realise that these are words, then use them to build sentences and finally decipher the meaning. We immediately read on the level of meaningful understanding. To really understand a text is therefore a constant revision of our first interpretation. We have to train ourselves to get used to seeing this difference and to hold back our ingrained urge to jump to conclusions.
  • While the constant comparison of notes can help us to detect differences, no technique can help us see what is missing. But we can make it a habit to always ask what is not in the picture, but could be relevant. This, too, does not come naturally to us.
  • In his book “The Paradox of Choice,” Barry Schwartz used numerous examples, from shopping to career options to romance, to show that less choice can not only increase our productivity, but also our freedom and make it easier to be in the moment and enjoy it (Schwartz, 2007). Not having to make choices can unleash a lot of potential, which would otherwise be wasted on making these choices.
  • 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 slip-box is, above all, a tool for enforcing distinctions, decisions and making differences visible.

Share your insight

  • When even highly intelligent students fail in their studies, it’s most often because they cease to see the meaning in what they were supposed to learn (cf. Balduf 2009), are unable to make a connection to their personal goals (Glynn et al. 2009) or lack the ability to control their own studies autonomously and on their own terms (Reeve and Jan, 2006; Reeve, 2009).
  • It is vital to have a separate, project-specific place to sort your notes for a particular project. An outliner helps with developing a rough structure, but also allows you to keep it flexible. The structure of an argument is part of it and therefore will change during the process of developing it – it is not a vessel to be filled with content.
  • Another key point: Try working on different manuscripts at the same time. While the slip-box is already helpful to get one project done, its real strength comes into play when we start working on multiple projects at the same time. The slip-box is in some way what the chemical industry calls “verbund.” This is a setup in which the inevitable by-product of one production line becomes the resource for another, which again produces by-products that can be used in other processes and so on, until a network of production lines becomes so efficiently intertwined that there is no chance of an isolated factory competing with it anymore.
  • One of the most difficult tasks is to rigorously delete what has no function within an argument – “kill your darlings.” This becomes much easier when you move the questionable passages into another document and tell yourself you might use them later. For every document I write, I have another called “xy-rest.doc,” and every single time I cut something, I copy it into the other document, convincing myself that I will later look through it and add it back where it might fit. Of course, it never happens – but it still works. Others who know a thing or two about psychology do the same (cf. Thaler, 2015, 81f).

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