How To Take Smart Notes - Highlights

Title: How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers Author: Sönke Ahrens

improving the organisation of all writing makes a difference. LOCATION: 128

This book aims to fill this gap by showing you how to efficiently turn your thoughts and discoveries into convincing written pieces and build up a treasure of smart and interconnected notes along the way. LOCATION: 130

Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work. LOCATION: 134

There is another reason that note-taking flies mostly under the radar: We don’t experience any immediate negative feedback if we do it badly. LOCATION: 139

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. LOCATION: 143

The right question is: What can we do differently in the weeks, months or even years before we face the blank page that will get us into the best possible position to write a great paper easily? LOCATION: 149

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. LOCATION: 156

Every task that is interesting, meaningful and well-defined will be done, because there is no conflict between long- and short-term interests. Having a meaningful and well-defined task beats willpower every time. LOCATION: 179

By breaking down the amorphous task of “writing a paper” into small and clearly separated tasks, you can focus on one thing at a time, complete each in one go and move on to the next one LOCATION: 193

This is why high achievers who have had a taste of the vast amount of knowledge out there are likely to suffer from what psychologists call imposter syndrome, the feeling that you are not really up to the job, even though, of all people, they are LOCATION: 236

We only need to combine two well-known and proven ideas. LOCATION: 259

The first idea lies at the heart of this book and is the technique of the simple slip-box. LOCATION: 260

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. LOCATION: 277

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. LOCATION: 302

“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.” LOCATION: 365

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. LOCATION: 374

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. LOCATION: 381

It is about having the right tools and knowing how to use them – and very few understand that you need both. LOCATION: 386

if you don’t have an external system to think in and organise your thoughts, ideas and collected facts, or have no idea how to embed it in your overarching daily routines, the disadvantage is so enormous that it just can’t be compensated by a high IQ. LOCATION: 389

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. LOCATION: 416

he would write the bibliographic information on one side of a card and make brief notes about the content on the other LOCATION: 419

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. LOCATION: 421

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. LOCATION: 431

We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains. LOCATION: 457

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. LOCATION: 491

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. LOCATION: 495

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. LOCATION: 497

Writing a paper step by step LOCATION: 509

Make fleeting notes. Always have something at hand to write with to capture every idea that pops into your mind. LOCATION: 511

They should not cause any distraction. Put them into one place, which you define as your inbox, and process them later. I usually have a simple notebook with me, but I am happy with napkins or receipts if nothing else is at hand. LOCATION: 512

  1. Make literature notes. Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. LOCATION: 516

Keep it very short, be extremely selective, and use your own words. Be extra selective with quotes – don’t copy them to skip the step of really understanding what they mean. LOCATION: 518

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. LOCATION: 520

The idea is not to collect, but to develop ideas, arguments and discussions. LOCATION: 523

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. LOCATION: 525

Throw away the fleeting notes from LOCATION: 526

  1. Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box LOCATION: 528

  2. Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the system. LOCATION: 539

See what is there, what is missing and what questions arise. LOCATION: 539

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. LOCATION: 543

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. LOCATION: 548

  1. 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. LOCATION: 555

  2. Edit and proofread your manuscript. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder and turn to the next manuscript. LOCATION: 558

To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need. LOCATION: 615

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) LOCATION: 619

strongly recommend using Daniel Lüdecke’s Zettelkasten. LOCATION: 651

You can download it from LOCATION: 653

Studying does not prepare students for independent research. It is independent research. LOCATION: 702

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. LOCATION: 730

And by doing everything with the clear purpose of writing about it, you will do what you do deliberately. LOCATION: 736

If you change your mind about the importance of writing, you will also change your mind about everything else. LOCATION: 737

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? LOCATION: 787

everything is streamlined towards one thing only: insight that can be published. LOCATION: 793

three types of notes: LOCATION: 803

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. LOCATION: 804

Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves LOCATION: 806

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. LOCATION: 807

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. LOCATION: 810

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. LOCATION: 838

underlining sentences or writing comments in the margins are also just fleeting notes and do nothing to elaborate on a text. They will very soon become completely useless – unless you do something with them. LOCATION: 842

Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes you can use later. LOCATION: 844

These kinds of notes are just reminders of a thought, which you haven’t had the time to elaborate on yet. LOCATION: 847

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. LOCATION: 848

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. LOCATION: 851

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.” LOCATION: 856

But before he stored them away, he would read what he noted down during the day, think about its relevance for his own lines of thought and write about it, filling his main slip-box with permanent notes. Nothing in this box would ever get thrown away. LOCATION: 860

every permanent note for the slip-box is elaborated enough to have the potential to become part of or inspire a final written piece, but that can not be decided on up front as their relevance depends on future thinking and developments. LOCATION: 865

When you close the folder for your current project in the evening and nothing is left on your desk other than pen and paper, you know that you have achieved a clear separation between fleeting, permanent and project-related notes. LOCATION: 899

We have to read with a pen in hand, develop ideas on paper and build up an ever-growing pool of externalised thoughts. LOCATION: 929

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. LOCATION: 954

Maybe you will even note down the reasons why the first question is not interesting and turn that into an insight valuable enough to make public. LOCATION: 973

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. Conversely, nothing is a bigger hindrance to personal growth than having a “fixed mindset.” Those who fear and avoid feedback because it might damage their cherished positive self-image might feel better in the short term, but will quickly fall behind in actual performance LOCATION: 1010

Expressing our own thoughts in writing makes us realise if we really thought them through. LOCATION: 1042

Don’t make plans. Become an expert. LOCATION: 1195

the very thing academia and writing is all about: gaining insight and making it public. LOCATION: 1220

We can hold a maximum of seven things in our head at the same time, plus/minus two (Miller 1956). LOCATION: 1264

How does this fact fit into my idea of …? How can this phenomenon be explained by that theory? Are these two ideas contradictory or do they complement each other? Isn’t this argument similar to that one? Haven’t I heard this before? And above all: What does x mean for y? LOCATION: 1284

By always using the same notebook for making quick notes, always extracting the main ideas from a text in the same way and always turning them into the same kind of permanent notes, which are always dealt with in the same manner, the LOCATION: 1358

number of decisions during a work session can be greatly reduced. That leaves us with much more mental energy that we can direct towards more useful tasks, like trying to solve the problems in question. LOCATION: 1359

We can have breaks without fear of losing the thread. LOCATION: 1363

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. LOCATION: 1382

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. LOCATION: 1399

I always read with an eye towards possible connections in the slip-box.” LOCATION: 1406

Whenever we explore a new, unfamiliar subject, our notes will tend to be more extensive, but we shouldn’t get nervous about it, as this is the deliberate practice of understanding we cannot skip. LOCATION: 1414

sometimes it is enough to reduce a whole book to a single sentence. LOCATION: 1416

You need to take some form of literature note that captures your understanding of the text, so you have something in front of your eyes while you are making the slip-box note. LOCATION: 1431

Literature notes are short and meant to help with writing slip-box notes. Everything else either helps to get to this point or is a distraction. LOCATION: 1433

This is a good rule of thumb: If insight becomes a threat to your academic or writing success, you are doing it wrong. LOCATION: 1488

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. LOCATION: 1562

Taking smart notes is the deliberate practice of these skills. Mere reading, underlining sentences and hoping to remember the content is not. LOCATION: 1565

Permanent notes, too, are directed towards an audience ignorant of the thoughts behind the text and unaware of the original context, only equipped with a general knowledge of the field. The only difference is that the audience here consists of our future selves, which will very soon have reached the same state of ignorance as someone who never had access to what we have written about. LOCATION: 1572

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. LOCATION: 1587

The attempt to rephrase an argument in our own words confronts us without mercy with all the gaps in our understanding. LOCATION: 1589

Instead, they apply the very method research has shown again (Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger 2009) and again (Brown 2014, ch. 1) to be LOCATION: 1602

almost completely useless: rereading and underlining sentences for later rereading. And most of them choose that method, even if they are taught that they don’t work. LOCATION: 1603

When we try to answer a question before we know how to, we will later remember the answer better, even if our attempt failed LOCATION: 1633

the best-researched and most successful learning method is elaboration. LOCATION: 1648

Elaboration means nothing other than really thinking about the meaning of what we read, how it could inform different questions and topics and how it could be combined with other knowledge. LOCATION: 1650

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. LOCATION: 1673

Even doctoral students sometimes just collect de-contextualised quotes from a text – probably the worst possible approach to research imaginable. LOCATION: 1678

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. LOCATION: 1683

You could therefore measure your daily productivity by the number of notes written. LOCATION: 1727

I took some literature notes collecting reasons how and why humans act so very differently when they experience LOCATION: 1780

scarcity. This was step one, done with an eye towards the argument of the book. I had questions in mind like: Is this convincing? What methods do they use? Which of the references are familiar? But the first question I asked myself when it came to writing the first permanent note for the slip-box was: What does this all mean for my own research and the questions I think about in my slip-box? This is just another way of asking: Why did the aspects I wrote down catch my interest? LOCATION: 1780

One note states the relevance of the book for my own thinking and one explains my idea in more detail. LOCATION: 1791

What does help for true, useful learning is to connect a piece of information to as many meaningful contexts as possible, which is what we do when we connect our notes in the slip-box with other notes. LOCATION: 1887

The problem is that the meaning of something is not always obvious and needs to be explored. That is why we need to elaborate on it. But 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. LOCATION: 1912

11.4   Adding Permanent Notes to the Slip-Box The next step after writing the permanent notes is to add them to the slip-box. LOCATION: 1952

Notes are only as valuable as the note and reference networks they are embedded in. LOCATION: 1987

we are much better off accepting as early as possible that an overview of the slip-box is as impossible as having an overview of our own thinking while we are thinking. LOCATION: 1993

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. LOCATION: 2022

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. LOCATION: 2053

The most common form of reference is plain note-to-note links. They have no function other than indicating a relevant connection between two individual notes. By linking two related notes regardless of where they are within the slip-box or within different contexts, surprising new lines of thought can be established. LOCATION: 2087

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. LOCATION: 2111

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. LOCATION: 2115

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. LOCATION: 2128

the feature-positive effect LOCATION: 2141

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. Without external help, we would not only take exclusively into account what we know, but what is on top of our heads. LOCATION: 2142

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 LOCATION: 2164

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. LOCATION: 2166

1.  Pay attention to what you want to remember. 2.  Properly encode the information you want to keep. (This includes thinking about suitable cues.) 3.  Practice recall. (Ibid., 31) LOCATION: 2197

Sometimes, it is more important to rediscover the problems for which we already have a solution than to think solely about the problems that are present to us. LOCATION: 2334

Each note should fit onto the screen and there should be no need of scrolling. LOCATION: 2374

Literature is condensed on a note saying, “On page x, it says y,” and later stored with the reference in one place. LOCATION: 2376

And the slip-box 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). LOCATION: 2405

If we, on the other hand, let questions arise from the slip-box, we know that they are tried and tested among dozens or even hundreds of other possible questions. The vast majority of questions might have been answered quickly or disappeared as no notes were drawn to them, either because of a lack of interest or a lack of material. LOCATION: 2474

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?” LOCATION: 2513

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” (Whitehead)[43] LOCATION: 2659

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. LOCATION: 2680

And that is the very good news at the end. The slip-box is as simple as it gets. Read with a pen in your hand, take smart notes and make connections between them. Ideas will come by themselves and your writing will develop from there. LOCATION: 2722

There is no need to start from scratch. Keep doing what you would do anyway: Read, think, write. Just take smart notes along the way. LOCATION: 2723