How to take smart notes

Sönke Ahrens | 2017 | Amazon | Goodreads

Why take notes? And why be structured and disciplined about how it is done?

Academic success is not correlated to IQ north of 120, so what’s the secret sauce?

There is no measurable correlation between a high IQ and academic success – This tallies with studies of Nobel prize winners, where the IQ range is given as >=120. If you listen to interviews with prize winners, they will often describe themselves as not the smartest in their group. What is never in doubt is how hard they are working on their chosen problem. . What does make a significant difference along the whole intelligence spectrum is something else: how much self-discipline or self-control one uses to approach the tasks at hand.

Having a meaningful and well-defined task beats willpower every time, structured note taking is meaningful and well defined

Self-control and self-discipline have much more to do with our environment than with ourselves. The environment can be changed. Every task that is interesting, meaningful and well-defined will be done, because there is no conflict between long and short-term interests. Not having to use willpower to get yourself to complete a task indicates that you set yourself up for success. This is where the organisation of writing and note-taking comes into play. Making note taking a structured activity that is conducive to By this I mean that it's varied, the challenge is at the right level, it's immersive, there's clear goals and fast feedback on progress. will make it enjoyable. In turn, having a workflow and a rhythm to how we work re-inforces this process, helping us get into the flow state quicker.

Our work environment and schedule should be set up to minimise resistance to doing, having a structured approach to note taking supports this process

If we work in an environment that is flexible enough to accommodate our work rhythm, we don’t need to struggle with resistance. Studies on highly successful people have proven again and again that success is not the result of strong willpower and the ability to overcome resistance, but rather the result of smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place. So this is not just about having the right mindset, it is also about having the right workflow. Note taking is part of that workflow.

A growth mindset thrives on feedback loops, note taking is a feedback loop for reading

Feedback loops are not only crucial for the dynamics of motivation, but also the key element to any learning process. There are connections here to Carol Dweck and the idea of a growth mindset. . We only improve if we get timely and concrete feedback. Reading with a pen in hand 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, then read back what we have written.

Elaboration is the most effective learning method, note taking supports elaboration

The best-researched and most successful learning method is elaboration. 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. Note taking supports this process.

It’s worth mentioning here that recall is also important for retaining information. 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).

Writing good notes is not hard, thinking, reading and understanding is

Writing notes is not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is. Writing notes accompanies the main work and, done right, it helps with it. Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have. If you want to learn something for the long run, you have to write it down. The flipside of this is that not learning from what we read because we don’t take the time to develop our thinking is a waste of time.

Reduce the number of decisions you make when working by keeping the way you write notes and organise the same

Most organisational decisions can be made once and once only by deciding on one system. 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 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 whatever problem is on our mind that day.

The slip box (or zettelkasten) is a note writing technique that creates a reliable, external structure to compensate for the limitations of our brains

How does the slip box work?

There’s a long discussion in the book about the slip box or Zettelkasten method for note taking, and how this approach was developed/used by Niklas Luhmann, a German Sociologist. I’m less interested in the specifics of this method but I’ll try and summarise it briefly here.

Luhmann’s approach involved writing notes on index cards, which were then stored in wooden boxes, one box for bibliographical notes and another for the major work that Luhrmann did, which is reforming the bibliographic notes into his own words and world view. When he read something, he would record the bibliographic information on one side of the card and make brief content notes on the other side. These notes would go into the bibliographical slip-box.

Afterwards, Luhmann would review the brief notes and assess their relevance to his own thinking and writing. He would then turn to the main slip-box and write his ideas, comments, and thoughts on separate sheets of paper. Each idea was allocated its own sheet, restricting himself to one side to facilitate later reading without removing them from the box. The notes were typically concise enough to fit on a single sheet, though he sometimes added additional notes to expand on a thought. Luhmann wrote his notes with care. Rather than simply copying ideas or quotes from the texts he read, he translated them into a different context, aiming to preserve the original meaning. The slip-box notes were then just assigned an id based on their sequence (monotonic integer).

Luhmann frequently sought connections between notes, checking the slip-box for relevant ones. He added links between notes, allowing the same note to appear in different contexts. This method facilitated the bottom-up development of topics, as opposed to starting with a predetermined order.

For me, the main takeaway from this is not the slip box method but the process that Luhrmann goes through - breaking down reading and forming it into new knowledge with care and attention is a lot like deliberate practice. Building the graph of information and making links between notes is a lot building the latticework of mental models (see Charlie Munger) or the complex mental representations that are required to form We all describe experts as being able to quickly make gut decisions, the intuition that leads to an expert decision like this comes from this internalised graph of information. For example, chess players seem to think less than beginners. They see patterns and let themselves be guided by their experience from the past rather than attempt to calculate turns far into the future. . As you write the notes you are constantly testing this mental model, which improves it: 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?

In summary, I don’t think the specifics of the tool that you use matter. What counts is the reading, thinking and writing.

What are some best practices for reading, note taking and using notes?

How should you read?

Expert readers have the ability to think beyond the given frames of a text. They read with questions in mind and try to relate it to other possible approaches. 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.

What makes a good slip box note?

What we are looking for are facts and information that can add something and therefore enrich the slip-box. One of the most important habitual changes when starting to work with the slip-box is moving the attention from the individual project with our preconceived ideas towards the open connections within the slip-box.

Add links by literally going note by note through the slipbox. 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. So keep the whole graph and mental model in mind as you work through your notes one by one.

How should I use the notes that I make?

The brain more easily remembers information that it encountered recently, which has emotions attached to it and is lively, concrete or specific. This is why brainstorming on your own is often ineffective - the process relies on information that is easily available to you. Use your notes to facilitate the ideation process at the start of a project instead. Work through your notes sequentially with the goal in mind and make links. You’ll start to make connections and the draft of what you need will form from the connected notes.

How should I change the way I think about the problems I’m trying to solve?

Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory until they are done, in what is known as the Zeigarnik effect. This is why we get so easily distracted by thoughts of unfinished tasks, regardless of their importance. We also know that we don’t actually have to finish tasks to convince our brains to stop thinking about them. This is why David 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.

We can use the Zeigarnik effect to our advantage by deliberately keeping unanswered questions in our mind. 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. This is why we so often find the answer to a question in casual situations - while we’re out walking or cleaning the house.

Stitching it all together: 6 steps to successful note taking

1. Separate interlocking tasks

Give each task your undivided attention and while you’re doing this, make sure it is the the right kind of attention (e.g. While proofreading requires more focused attention, finding the right words during writing requires much more floating type of attention.) Become an expert instead of a planner; to be creative, we need an flexible work structure that doesn’t break down every time we depart from a preconceived plan. It needs to enable us to explore our best ideas freely but also zoom in and focus when we need to. Get closure; optimise how you work to take advantage of the Zeigarnik effect. Reduce the number of decisions you’re having to make; recognise that willpower is a finite resource and should be protected, so use one system for your work so your energy can be focussed on the hard problems you are solving and not how you are organising yourself.

2. Read for understanding

Read with a pen in hand; the idea is not to copy, but to have a meaningful dialogue with the texts we read. Keep an open mind as you do this - beware confirmation bias, an advantage of the slipbox is that as you are not finding confirming facts but instead gathering relevant information regardless of what argument it will support. The slipbox causes discussion, which makes you actively seek disconfirming information. Get the gist; extracting the gist of a text or an idea and giving an account in writing is for academics what daily practice on the piano is for pianists. Do it often and focus as you do it - it then becomes deliberate practice. As we read we should think about the meaning of what we read, how it could inform different questions and topics and how it could be combined with other knowledge The attempt to rephrase an argument in our own words confronts us without mercy with all the gaps in our understanding

3. Take smart notes

Make a career one note at a time. Do this by investing in note writing each day. Luhrmann wrote about 6 notes a day so a decent target for the rest of us is 3. If you’re in a research heavy role, you could choose to measure your daily productivity by the number of notes written. Taking smart notes allows us to think outside the brain. Note taking is a form of thinking within the medium of writing and in dialogue with the already existing notes within the slip-box. Learn by not trying. Learned right means understanding, means connecting in a meaningful way to previous knowledge. If you focus your time and energy on understanding, you cannot help but learn. But if you focus your time and energy on learning without trying to understand, you will not only not understand, but also probably not learn.)

4. Develop ideas

Develop topics within your notes, 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. Make smart connections and think of notes forming a graph of leaves and nodes. Nodes overview a topic and link outwards. Leaves can have weak links to other leaves and it is these relationships that can lead to surprising connections. Compare, correct and differentiate. Comparing notes helps us to detect differences, similarities, contradictions, paradoxes and oppositions. When we realise that we used to accept two contradicting ideas as equally true, we know that we have a problem. As we’re typically comparing to old notes, this process helps to correct for recency bias. Assemble a toolbox for thinking, look out for the most powerful concepts in every discipline and to try to understand them so thoroughly that they become part of your thinking. Use this to assemble a latticework of mental models. Use the Slipbox as a creativity machine. Follow slow hunches, we might not be able to explicitly state why it is more promising to follow one idea instead of another, but being experienced, we somehow know – which is enough. Think inside the box: playing and tinkering with ideas is what leads to insight and exceptional texts. Do this by asking good questions of the note, for example: what is missing?.

5. Share Your insight

From brainstorming to slipbox-storming. The process of note taking is self-reinforcing. A visibly developed cluster of notes attracts more ideas and provides more possible connections, which in return influence our choices on what to read and think further. From top down to bottom up: we become more open to new ideas if we work bottom up, we have the full context of the discussion. Get things done by following your interests - the more control we have to steer our work towards what we consider interesting and relevant, the less willpower we have to put into getting things done.

6. 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 chance to replace the old ones.