How to Take Smart Notes
- Sönke Ahrens
- My last highlight
- Number of highlights
The slip-box is the shipping container of the academic world. Instead of having different storage for different ideas, everything goes into the same slip-box and is standardised into the same format.
A common way to embed an idea into the context of the slip-box is by writing out the reasons of its importance for your own lines of thought.
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? Most students sort their material by topic or even by seminars and semester. From the perspective of someone who writes, that makes as much sense as sorting your errands by purchase date and the store they were bought from.
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. Not having willpower, but not having to use willpower indicates that you set yourself up for success.
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.
There is no such thing as private knowledge in academia. An idea kept private is as good as one you never had. And a fact no one can reproduce is no fact at all. Making something public always means to write it down so it can be read. There is no such thing as a history of unwritten ideas.
The biggest advantage compared to a top-down storage system organised by topics is that the slip-box becomes more and more valuable the more it grows, instead of getting messy and confusing.
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 only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes you can use later.
These kinds of notes are just reminders of a thought, which you haven’t had the time to elaborate on yet. 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.
Luhmann used four basic types of cross-references in his file-box (Schmidt 2013, 173f; Schmidt 2015, 165f). Only the first and last are relevant for the digital Zettelkasten, the other two are merely compensating for restrictions of the analogue pen and paper version.
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.” (Hagen, 1997) 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.
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. 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 (Dweck 2006; 2013).
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 mere-exposure effect: doing something many times makes us believe we have become good at it – completely independent of our actual performance (Bornstein 1989).
The good news is that we can train ourselves to stay focused on one thing for longer if we avoid multitasking, remove possible distractions and separate different kinds of tasks as much as possible so they will not interfere with each other.
You can type a literature note directly into Zotero, where it will be stored with the bibliographic details. You might want to write them by hand, though. Different independent studies indicate that writing by hand facilitates understanding.
When we try to answer a question before we know how to, we will later remember the answer better, even if our attempt failed (Arnold and McDermott 2013). If we put effort into the attempt of retrieving information, we are much more likely to remember it in the long run, even if we fail to retrieve it without help in the end (Roediger and Karpicke 2006).
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.
This is exactly what we do when we take the next step, in which we write and add permanent notes to the slip-box. We don’t just play with ideas in our heads, but do something with them in a very concrete way: We think about what they mean for other lines of thoughts, then we write this explicitly on paper and connect them literally with the other notes.
When we take permanent notes, it is much more a form of thinking within the medium of writing and in dialogue with the already existing notes within the slip-box than a protocol of preconceived ideas.
As we write notes with an eye towards existing notes, we take more into account than the information that is already available in our internal memory. That is extremely important, because the internal memory retrieves information not in a rational or logical way, but according to psycho-logical rules.
Luhmann states as clearly as possible: it is not possible to think systematically without writing (Luhmann 1992, 53). Most people still think about thinking as a purely internal process, and believe that the only function of the pen is to put finished thoughts on paper. Richard Feynman once had a visitor in his office, a historian who wanted to interview him. When he spotted Feynman’s notebooks, he said how delighted he was to see such “wonderful records of Feynman’s thinking.” “No, no!” Feynman protested. “They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.” “Well,” the historian said, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.” “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper.”
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?
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. Making these connections deliberately means building up a self-supporting network of interconnected ideas and facts that work reciprocally as cues for each other. Mistaking learning
Ideally, new notes are written with explicit reference to already existing notes. Obviously, this is not always possible, especially in the beginning when the slip-box is still in its infancy, but it will very soon become the first option most of the time. Then you can put the new note “behind” an existing, related note straight away.
Even though we will not get an overview of the whole slip-box (as we certainly will never get an overview of our whole internal memory), we can get an overview of a specific topic. But because the structure of topics and subtopics is not a given, but the outcome of our thinking, they too are subject to ongoing considerations and alteration. The consideration of how to structure a topic, therefore, belongs on notes as well – and not on a meta-hierarchical level. We can provide ourselves with a (temporarily valid) overview over a topic or subtopic just by making another note. If we then link from the index to such a note, we have a good entry point. If the overview on this note ceases to correctly represent the state of a cluster or topic, or we decide it should be structured differently, we can write a new note with a better structure and update the respective link from the index. This is important: Every consideration on the structure of a topic is just another consideration on a note – bound to change and dependent on the development of our understanding.
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.
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.
Good keywords are usually not already mentioned as words in the note. Assume I have the note “A sudden increase of ad-hoc theories is for Kuhn a sign that a normal-science phase might be in crisis (Kuhn 1967, 96).” A fitting keyword might be “paradigm change,” but that phrase is not in the note and therefore would not be suggested by the program. 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.
The first type of links are those on notes that are giving you the overview of a topic. These are notes directly referred to from the index and usually used as an entry point into a topic that has already developed to such a degree that an overview is needed or at least becomes helpful. On a note like this, you can collect links to other relevant notes to this topic or question, preferably with a short indication of what to find on these notes (one or two words or a short sentence is sufficient). This kind of note helps to structure thoughts and can be seen as an in-between step towards the development of a manuscript. Above all, they help orientate oneself within the slip-box. You will know when you need to write one.
The slip-box not only confronts us with dis-confirming 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. Without external help, we would not only take exclusively into account what we know, but what is on top of our heads. The slip-box constantly reminds us of information we have long forgotten and wouldn’t remember otherwise – so much so, we wouldn’t even look for it.
Being experienced with a problem and intimately familiar with the tools and devices we work with, ideally to the point of virtuosity, is the precondition for discovering their inherent possibilities, writes Ludwik Fleck, a historian of science
intuition is not the opposition to rationality and knowledge, it is rather the incorporated, practical side of our intellectual endeavours, the sedimented experience on which we build our conscious, explicit knowledge (cf. Ahrens 2014).
To be able to play with ideas, we first have to liberate them from their original context by means of abstraction and re-specification. We did this when we took literature notes and translated them into the different contexts within the slip-box.
Studies on creativity with engineers show that the ability to find not only creative, but functional and working solutions for technical problems is equal to the ability to make abstractions. The better an engineer is at abstracting from a specific problem, the better and more pragmatic his solutions will be – even for the very problem he abstracted from (Gassmann and Zeschky, 2008, 103).