Daniel's working notes

How to take smart notes

Author: Sönke Ahrens


We write when we need to remember something, be it an idea, a quote or the outcome of a study. We write when we want to organise our thoughts and when we want to exchange ideas with others. loc. 135-136

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. loc. 177-178

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. loc. 200-203

A good structure is something you can trust. It relieves you from the burden of remembering and keeping track of everything. If you can trust the system, you can let go of the attempt to hold everything together in your head and you can start focusing on what is important: The content, the argument and the ideas. loc. 221-224

That means that those who are not very good at something tend to be overly confident, while those who have made an effort tend to underestimate their abilities. loc. 261-262

Even the best tool will not improve your productivity considerably if you don’t change your daily routines the tool is embedded in, just as the fastest car won’t help you much if you don’t have proper roads to drive it on. loc. 293-295

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 (cf. Neal et al. 2012; loc. 408-410

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. loc. 442-444

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. loc. 456-458

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. loc. 527-529

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 loc. 529-530

If we write, it is more likely that we understand what we read, remember what we learn and that our thoughts make sense loc. 536-537

Make fleeting notes. Always have something at hand to write with to capture every idea that pops into your mind. loc. 544-545

Put them into one place, which you define as your inbox, and process them later loc. 546-547

Make literature notes. Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. loc. 550-551

Write down what you don’t want to forget or think you might use in your own thinking or writing loc. 551-551

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 loc. 558-560

The more you become interested in something, the more you will read and think about it, the more notes you will collect and the more likely it is that you will generate questions from it. loc. 579-580

Focus on the essentials, don’t complicate things unnecessarily. loc. 637-637

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. loc. 777-779

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. loc. 810-812

The things you are supposed to find in your head by brainstorming usually don’t have their origins in there. Rather, they come from the outside: through reading, having discussions and listening to others, through all the things that could have been accompanied and often even would have been improved by writing. loc. 1031-1033

Feedback loops are not only crucial for the dynamics of motivation, but also the key element to any learning process. loc. 1099-1100

Nothing motivates us more than the experience of becoming better at what we do. loc. 1100-1100

Having a growth mindset is crucial, but only one side of the equation. ::Having a learning system in place that enables feedback loops in a practical way is equally important.:: loc. 1113-1115

Reading with a pen in the 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 we understand what we read – until we try to rewrite it in our own words.:: loc. 1123-1124

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 loc. 1128-1129

The same goes for writing permanent notes, which have another feedback loop built-in: Expressing our own thoughts in writing makes us realise if we really thought them through loc. 1133-1134

But we know today that the more connected information we already have, the easier it is to learn, because new information can dock to that information. loc. 1146-1147

however it might be, it is obvious that we are surrounded by more sources of distraction and less opportunities to train our attention spans. loc. 1191-1192

If more than one thing tries to catch your attention, the temptation is great to look at more than one thing at the same time – to multitask. loc. 1195-1196

Today, research differentiates between multiple forms of attention. Ever since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s described “flow,” the state in which being highly focused becomes effortless (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975),[18] other forms of attention, which are much less dependent on will and effort, attracted researchers’ interest. loc. 1226-1231

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 loc. 1237-1239

Attention is not our only limited resource. Our short-term memory is also limited. loc. 1370-1370

It is not that we have to choose to focus either on learning or understanding. It is always about understanding – and if it is only for the sake of learning. Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations. loc. 1389-1391

Every step is accompanied by questions like: 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? loc. 1392-1394

We also know that we don’t actually have to finish tasks to convince our brains to stop thinking about them. All we have to do is to write them down in a way that convinces us that it will be taken care of. That’s right: The brain doesn’t distinguish between an actual finished task and one that is postponed by taking a note. (::TODO:: Research: Close open loops) loc. 1407-1409

And as we can’t take care of everything once and for all 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 loc. 1411-1412

And as we can’t take care of everything once and for all 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. loc. 1411-1412

And as we can’t take care of everything once and for all 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. loc. 1411-1412

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. loc. 1436-1438

The series of notes in the slip-box develops into arguments, which are shaped by the theories, ideas and mental models you have in your head. loc. 1502-1503

Translating means to give the truest possible account of the original work, using different words – it does not mean the freedom to make something fit loc. 1517-1518

Handwriting makes pure copying impossible, but instead facilitates the translation of what is said (or written) into one’s own words. loc. 1563-1564

To put it differently: One has to read extremely selectively and extract widespread and connected references. One has to be able to follow recurrences. loc. 1667-1668

Taking smart notes is the deliberate practice of these skills. Mere reading, underlining sentences and hoping to remember the content is not loc. 1684-1685

The moment we become familiar with something, we start believing we also understand it. loc. 1702-1703

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. loc. 1710-1711

::Rereading, therefore, makes us feel we have learned what we read: “I know that already:: loc. 1717-1717

This is why 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 such a smart move. loc. 1725-1727

::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. loc. 1736-1737

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 loc. 1768-1769

The ability to think beyond the given frames of a text (Lonka 2003, 155f). loc. 1798-1799

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 loc. 1800-1801

Without understanding information within its context, it is also impossible to go beyond it, to reframe it and to think about what it could mean for another question. loc. 1806-1807

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. loc. 1814-1815

Taking permanent notes of our own thoughts is a form of self-testing as well loc. 1861-1862

Why did the aspects I wrote down catch my interest? loc. 1912-1912

Learned right, which means understanding, which means connecting in a meaningful way to previous knowledge, information almost cannot be forgotten anymore and will be reliably retrieved if triggered by the right cues. loc. 2051-2052

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. loc. 2153-2154

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. loc. 2182-2183

The first type of links are those on notes that are giving you the overview of a topic. loc. 2194-2194

If we forget about an idea and have it again, our brains get as excited as if we are having it the first time. 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. loc. 2243-2246

Comparing notes also helps us to detect contradictions, paradoxes or oppositions – important facilitators for insight. loc. 2256-2257

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. loc. 2276-2277

so to remember what you have learned, you need to build effective long-term memory structures.” loc. 2323-2324

“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) loc. 2341-2342

This is why the search for small differences is key. It is such an important skill to see differences between seemingly similar concepts, or connections between seemingly different ideas. loc. 2367-2368

The brain is more likely to notice details when it scans than when it focuses.” (Zull 2002, 142f) This is one of the reasons why thinking works so much better when we have the very things we think about in front of our eyes. It is in our nature. loc. 2376-2377

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. loc. 2396-2398

Before new information prompts our brains to think differently about something, they make the new information fit into the known or let it disappear completely from our perception. loc. 2411-2412

Often, companies don’t even keep track of their own failed attempts, providing McMath with whole series in which one kind of mistake was made in multiple variations, sometimes from each generation of developers in the same company loc. 2448-2450

“The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” loc. 2451-2451

Simple ideas can be tied together into consistent theories and build up enormous complexity. loc. 2484-2484

We check if what we understood from a text is really in the text by having our understanding in written form in front of our eyes. loc. 2485-2486

We can make it a habit to always think about what is missing when we write down our own ideas. loc. 2487-2487

Standardised is also the way we treat literature and our own thoughts: Instead of using different kinds of notes or techniques for different kinds of texts or ideas, the approach here is always the same, simple one. Literature is condensed on a note saying, “On page x, it says y,” and later stored with the reference in one place. Ideas and thoughts are captured on the slip-box notes and connected to other notes always in the same way in the same place. loc. 2499-2503

While we want to find topics that are important, interesting and can be dealt with using the material we have available, the brain prioritises ideas that are easily available in the moment. loc. 2571-2573

Every time we read something, we make a decision on what is worth writing down and what is not. loc. 2590-2591

Not all ideas can fit into the same article, and only a fraction of the information we encounter is useful for one particular project loc. 2697-2698

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