How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens

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Intellectual Humiliation

Confront your own ignorance.

How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens

One simple technique to boost writing, learning and thinking – for students, academics, and non-fiction writers

Everything You Need to Know

“Having read more does not automatically mean having more ideas. Especially in the beginning ining, it means having fewer ideas to work with, because you know that others have already thought of most of them.” – Sonke Ahrens

“Curious nonfiction writers who understand that insight doesn’t come easy and that writing is not only pro proclaiming opinions, but the main tool to achieve insight worth sharing.” – Sonke Ahrens

“Hard work can be fun as long as it is aligned with our intrinsic goals and we feel in control. The problems arise when we set up work in such an inflexible way that we can’t adjust it when things change and become arrested in the process that seems to develop a life of its own. The best way to maintain 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.” – Sonke Ahrens

“Studies of 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.” – Sonke Ahrens

“Intuitively, most people don’t expect much from simple ideas. They rather assume that impressive results must have equally impressively complicated means.” – Sonke Ahrens

The Slip-Box Manual

Luhman had two slip-boxes: a bibliographical one, which contained the references and brief notes of 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 in index cards and stored in wooden boxes.

Whenever he read something, he would write bibliographical information on one side of the card and make a brief notes about the content on the other side. These notes would end up in the bibliographical slip-box.

In a second step, 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 a new piece of paper, using only one side to make it easier to read them. He kept them usually brief enough to make one idea fit in a single sheet, but would sometimes add another note to extend a thought.

He would make the notes with great care and with references to the literature from which he extracted them from. These notes would follow new notes and would become a chain of larger notes. He would make references to other notes that followed the same path from a different angle.

He would make a transition from one context to the next. Much like a transition in which you use different words that fit a different words that fit a different context, but strive to keep the original meaning as truthfully as possible. Whenever he added a note, he checked his slip-box for other relevant notes to make possible connections between them. He wouldn’t organize them by topic, but by number randomly assigned. By adding this links between notes, he was able to add the same note to different contexts.

“Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have.” – Sonke Ahrens

“If you want to learn something for the long run, you have to write it down. If you really want to understand something, you have to transfer it into your own words.” – Sonke Ahrens

Writing On Paper Step By Step

1. Make fleeting notes. Always have something at hand to write with to capture every idea that pops into your head.

2. Make literature notes. Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. Write down what you don’t want to forget  or think you might use in your own thinking or writing. Keep it very short, be extremely selective and use your own words.

3. Make permanent notes. Take notes you made in step one or two and think how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking and interest. Does the new information contradict, correct, support or add to what you already have? Can you combine ideas to generate something new? What questions are triggered by what? 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.

4. Add your new permanent notes to the slip-box.

A) filing each one behind one or more relate notes. Look to which note the new one relates to or if it doesn’t, just file it behind the last one.

B) Adding links to related notes.

5. Developing your topics, questions and research project bottom up from within the system. See what’s there, what’s missing and what questions arise. Read more to challenge and develop your arguments according to new information.

6. You will develop an idea you have, not based on an unfounded idea about what literature you’re about to read might provide.

7. Turn your notes into a rough draft. Translate your notes into something coherent and embed them into the context of your own argument while you build your argument out of the notes at the same time.

8. Proof read and edit your manuscript.

Everything You Need to Know

You need to four tools:

1. Something to write with and something to write to.

2. A reference management system.

3. A slip-box.

4. An editor.

1. You need something to capture ideas whenever and wherever they pop into your head. They only serve as a reminder of a thought and are not meant to capture the thought itself.

2. The reference system has two purposes: to collect the references and the notes you take during the reading. Use a program like Zotero.

3. The slip-box: the program recommended is: Daniel Lidecke’s Zettelkasen.

4. The editor can be used in Zotero.

The Four Underlying Principles

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 withing 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.

3. Project notes, which are only relevant to a particular project.

Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or two and turn them into porer notes you can use later. 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.

A good information that a note has been left unprocessed too long is when you no longer understand what you meant or it appears banal. It’s important to write ideas down, but it’s even more important to elaborate on them a day or two later.

The permanent notes have your own thoughts and ideas intermingled with the previous notes and may be connected to other fleeting notes that turn permanent notes.

Project related notes are kept together, with other project-related notes in a project-related folder. They’ll end up in the bin once the project is done. Project related notes:

– Comments in manuscripts.

– Collections of project-related literature.

– Outlines.

– Snippets and drafts.

– Reminders.

– To do lists.

– The draft itself.

Never Ever Start From Scratch

In order to develop a good question to write about or find the best angle for an assignment, one must already have put some thought into a topic. To be able to decided on a topic, one must already have read quite a bit and certainly not just about one topic. And the decision to read something and not something else is obviously rooted in prior understanding, ad that didn’t come out of thin air, either. Every intellectual endeavor starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquires and can serve as a starting point for following endeavors.

 By focusing on what is interesting and keeping written track of your own intellectual development, topics questions and arguments will emerge from the material without force. Not only does it mean that finding a topic or research questions will become easier, and we don’t have to squeeze it out of the few ideas that are on top of our head anymore, every question that comes out of the slip-box will naturally and handedly come with material to work with. If we look through our slip-box to see where clusters have built up, we not only see possible topics, but topics we already have worked on.

Let The Work Carry Your Forward

Reading with a pen in 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 that we understand what w 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 understating – which in return helps us grasp ideas more quickly.

The slip-box is not a collection of notes. Working with it is less about retrieving specific notes and more about being pointed to relevant facts and generating insight by letting ideas mingle. Moreover, because of its inner complexity, a search through the slip-box will confront us with related notes we did not look for. The more content it contains, the more connections it can provide, and the easier it becomes to add new entries in a smart way and receive useful suggestions.

The Six Steps to Successful Writing

Give Each Task Your Undivided Attention

1. Give each task your undivided attention.

2. Multitasking is not a good idea: Writing on paper involves more than just typing on a keyboard. It also means reading, understanding, reflecting, getting ideas, making connections, distinguishing terms, finding the right words, structuring, organizing, editing, correcting and rewriting. All these are not just different tasks, but tasks requiring a different kind of attention. It is not only impossible to focus on more than one thing at a time, but also have a different kind of attention on more than one thing at a time.

3. Give each task the right amount of attention.

4. Become an expert instead of a planner: The moment we stop making plans is the moment we start to learn. It is a matter of practice to become good at generating insight and write good texts by choosing and moving flexible between the most important tasks, judged by nothing else than the circumstances of a given situation.

5. Get closure: It’s much easier to remember things we understand that things we don’t. It’s always about understanding – and if it’s only for the sake of learning. Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental modes or explanations. And deliberately building these kinds of meaningful connections is what the slip-box is all about. Every step is accompanied by questions like: How does this fact fit into my head? How can this phenomena be explained by that theory? Are these two ideas contradictory or do they compliment each other? Isn’t this argument similar to that one? What does X mean for Y? Once we make a meaningful connection to an idea or fact, it is difficult not to remember it when we think about what is connected with.

6. Reduce the number of decisions.

Read For Understanding

1. Read with a pen in hand: To get a good paper written, you only have to rewrite a good draft; to get a good draft written, you only have to turn a series of notes into a continuous text. And a series of notes is just the rearrangement of notes you already have on your slip-box. All you really have to do is read with a pen in your hand. If you understand what you read and translate it into the different context of your own thinking, materialized in the slip-box, you cannot help but transform the findings and thoughts of others into something that is new and your own. The series of notes in the slip-box develops into arguments, which are shaped by the theories, ideas and mental modes you have in your head. And the ideas and mental modes in your head are shaped by the things you read. Together, you can turn previously separated or even isolated facts into critical mass of interconnected ideas.

2. Keep an open mind: Confirmation bias can be tackled in two steps: first, by turning the whole writing process on its head, and secondly by changing the incentives from finding confirmation facts to an indiscriminate gathering of any relevant information regardless of what arguments it will support. The slip-box forces us to be selective in reading and note-taking but the only criterion is the question of whether something adds to the discussion in the slip-box. The only thing that matters is that it connects or is open to connections. It is after reading and taking relevant data, connecting thoughts and discussions how they fit together that it is time to draw conclusions and develop a linear structure for the argument.

3. Get the gist: The ability to distinguish the relevant from the less relevant information is another skills that can only be learned by doing. It is the practice of going for the gist and separate them from mere supporting details. With practice comes the ability to find the right words, to express something in a best possible way, which means simple, but not simplified. 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.

4. Learn to read: Choosing an external system that forces us to deliberate practice and confronts us as much as possible with our lack of understanding or not-yet-learned information is a smart move. That’s why writing down what we learned forces us to confront the gaps in our understanding.

5. Learn by reading: Learning requires effort, because we need 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

Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes. Think hard how these ideas connect with other ideas from different contexts and could inform questions that are not already the questions of the author or the text. By explicitly writing down how something connects or leads to something else, we force ourselves to clarify and distinguish ideas from each other.

The trick to remembering something isn’t about hammering the facts to our memory with repetition, but to attach meaning to information and connect it to already known networks of connections in a meaningful way. One piece of information can become the cue for anther and strings or networks of cues can be built.

The challenge of writing as well as learning is therefore not so much to learn, but to understand, as we will already have learned what we understand. 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.

Develop Ideas

The way people choose their keywords show 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?

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.

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 and the connection of other notes.

The constant comparing of notes also serves as an ongoing examination of old notes in a new light. It can lead to correction, a complementation or an improvement of old ideas.

The slip-box not only confronts us with dis-confirming information, but also helps with what is know as the future positive effects. 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 recent 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.

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 context (variation), ideally with the help of chance (contextual inference) and with deliberate effort (retrieval).

To be real enemy of creative thinking is not an external authority but our own inertia. The ability to generate ideas has more to do with breaking old habits than coming up with as many ideas as possible.

Share Your Insight

The brain more easily remembers information that it encountered recently, which has emotions attached to tit and is lively, concrete and specific. Everything that is rather abstract, vague, emotionally neutral or does not even sound good is far down on its list of priorities – not exactly the best criteria for an intellectual endeavor.

You’re more likely to follow through with an idea when the topic has meaning to us, we are able to make connections to our personal goals and are able to control our own studies autonomously in our own terms.

The risk of losing interest in what we do is high when we decided upfront on a long-term project without much clue what to expect next. 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 relevant about this that is worth noting down?” we do not just chose information according to our interests.

A key point: structure a text and keep it flexible.

Make It A Habit

The trick is not to try to break with old habits and also not to use willpower to force oneself to do something else, but to strategically build up new habits that have a change to replace old ones. The goals here is to fetch pen and paper whenever we read something, to write down the most important and interesting aspects. If we manage to establish a routine in the first place, it becomes much easier to develop to turn these findings into permanent notes and connect them with other notes on the slip-box

My rating:

This book in 3 key points

  1. Read a book with a pen.
  2. Give each task your undivided attention.
  3. Write a brief account on the main ideas of the text instead of collecting quotes. 

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