Sönke Ahrens worked at different universities, lastly as an interim professor for philosophy of education at the University for the German Federal Armed Forces in Munich, before moving to Bangkok and travelling Asia for a couple of years.
How to take Smart Notes

2017

Sönke Ahrens

Goodreads

20 phút

Đây là một trong số ít các quyển sách “How to…” lý thú về cách ghi chú cho sinh viên & giới học thuật.

Hầu như mọi người ai cũng ghi chú lại những gì mình đọc, nhưng ít ai có một hệ thống ghi chú bài bản như Niklas Luhmann. Với hệ thống ghi chú slip-box của mình, Luhmann đã viết hơn 60 quyển sách và hơn 400 bài viết.

  • Viết lách không phải là kết quả của quá trình suy nghĩ; mà đó chính là công cụ để suy nghĩ.
    Do vậy, để đảm bảo rằng mình hiểu được một vấn đề, bạn cần viết lại bằng chính ngôn từ của mình, chứ không phải trích dẫn từ sách.
  • Học không phải là thuộc lòng từng câu chữ, mà là liên kết các ý tưởng lại với nhau. Việc viết lại các ý tưởng sẽ giúp bạn so sánh, kết nối, tổng quát hoá kiến thức dễ dàng hơn.
  • Mục đích của việc ghi chú là tạo một bộ nhớ ngoài, giải phóng não bộ khỏi việc nhớ lại (remembering), thay vào đó tập trung vào việc suy nghĩ (thinking).

Principle #1

Forte Labs

Principle #1

Writing is not the outcome of thinking; it is the medium in which thinking takes place

Writing doesn’t begin when we sit down to put one paragraph after another on the screen or page. It begins much, much earlier, as we take notes on the articles or books we read, the podcasts or audiobooks we listen to, and the interesting conversations and life experiences we have. 

These notes build up as a byproduct of the reading we’re already doing anyway. Even if you don’t aim to develop a grand theory, you need a way to organize your thoughts and keep track of the information you consume. 

If you want to learn and remember something long-term, you have to write it down. If you want to understand an idea, you have to translate it into your own words. If we have to do this writing anyway, why not use it to build up resources for future publications? 

Writing is not only for proclaiming fully formed opinions, but for developing opinions worth sharing in the first place. 

Writing works well in improving one’s thinking because it forces you to engage with what you’re reading on a deeper level. Just because you read more doesn’t automatically mean you have more or better ideas. It’s Iike learning to swim – you have to learn by doing it, not by merely reading about it.

The challenge of writing as well as learning is therefore not so much to learn, but to understand, as you will already have learned what you understand. When you truly understand something, it is anchored to a latticework of related ideas and meanings, which makes it far easier to remember.

For example, you could memorize the fact that arteries are red and veins are blue. But it is only when you understand why – that arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body, while veins carry blood low in oxygen back to the heart – that that fact has any value. And once we make this meaningful connection between ideas, it’s hard not to remember it.

The problem is that the meaning of something is not always obvious. It requires elaboration – we need to copy, translate, re-write, compare, contrast, and describe a new idea in our own terms. We have to view the idea from multiple perspectives and answer questions such as “How does this fact fit with others I already know?” and “How can this phenomenon be explained by that theory?” or “How does this argument compare to that one?”

Completing these tasks is exceedingly difficult inside the confines of our heads. We need an external medium in which to perform this elaboration, and writing is the most effective and convenient one ever invented.

Principle #2

Principle #2

Do your work as if writing is the only thing that matters

The second principle extends the previous one even further: Do you work as if writing is the only thing that matters.

In academia and science, virtually all research is aimed at eventual publication Ahrens notes that “there is no such thing as private knowledge in academia. An idea kept private is as good as one you never had.”

The purpose of research is to produce public knowledge that can be scrutinized and tested. For that to happen, it has to be written down. And once it is, what the author meant doesn’t matter – only the actual words written on the page matter.

This principle requires us to expand our definition of “publication” beyond the usual narrow sense. Few people will ever publish their work in an academic journal or even on a blog. But everything that we write down and share with someone else counts: notes we share with a friend, homework we submit to a professor, emails we write to our colleagues, and presentations we deliver to clients all count as knowledge made public.

This might still seem like a radical principle. Should we publicize even the ideas we’ve only just encountered, or opinions half-formed, or wild theories we can’t substantiate? Do we really need even more people broadcasting half-baked opinions and theories online?

But the important part is the principle: Work as if writing is the only thing that matters. Having a clear, tangible purpose when you consume information completely changes the way you engage with it. You’ll be more focused, more curious, more rigorous, and more demanding. You won’t waste time writing down every detail, trying to make a perfect record of everything that was said. Instead, you’ll try to learn the basics as efficiently as possible so you can get to the point where open questions arise, as these are the only questions worth writing about.

Almost every aspect of your life will change when you live as if you are working toward publication. You’ll read differently, becoming more focused on the parts most relevant to the argument you’re building. You’ll ask sharper questions, no longer satisfied with vague explanations or leaps in logic. You’ll naturally seek venues to present your work, since the feedback you receive will propel your thinking forward like nothing else. You’ll begin to act more deliberately, thinking several steps beyond what you’re reading to consider its implications and potential.

Deliberate practice is the best way to get better at anything, and in this case, you are deliberately practicing the most fundamental skill of all: thinking. Even if you never actually publish one line of writing, you will vastly improve every aspect of your thinking when you do everything as if nothing counts except writing.

Principle #3

Principle #3

Nobody ever starts from scratch

One of the most damaging myths about creativity is that it starts from nothing. The blank page, the white canvas, the empty dance floor: Our most romantic and universal artistic motifs seem to suggest that “starting from scratch” is the essence of creativity.

This belief is reinforced by how writing is typically taught: We are told to “pick a topic” as a necessary first step, then to conduct research, discuss and analyze it, and finally come to a conclusion.

But how can you decide on an interesting topic before you’ve read about it? You have to immerse yourself in research before you even know how to formulate a good question. And the decision to read about one subject versus another also doesn’t appear out of thin air. It usually comes from an existing interest or understanding. The truth is every intellectual endeavor starts with a preceding conception.

This is the tension at the heart of the creative process: You have to research before you pick what you will write about. Ideally, you should start researching long before, so you have weeks and months and even years of rich material to work with as soon as you decide on a topic. This is why an external system to record your research is so critical. It doesn’t just enhance your writing process; it makes it possible.

And all this pre-research also involves writing. We build up an ever-growing pool of externalized thoughts as we read. When the time comes to produce, we aren’t following a blindly invented plan plucked from our unreliable brains. We look in our notes and follow our interests, curiosity, and intuition, which are informed by the actual work of reading, thinking, discussing, and taking notes. We never again have to face that blank screen with the impossible demand of “thinking of something to write about.”

No one ever really starts from scratch. Anything they come up with has to come from prior experience, research, or other understanding. But because they haven’t acted on this fact, they can’t track ideas back to their origins. They have neither supporting material nor accurate sources. Since they haven’t been taking notes from the start, they either have to start with something completely new (which is risky) or retrace their steps (which is boring).

It’s no wonder that nearly every guide to writing begins with “brainstorming.” If you don’t have notes, you have no other option. But this is a bit like a financial advisor telling a 65-year-old to start saving for retirement – too little, too late.

Taking notes allows you to break free from the traditional, linear path of writing. It allows you to systematically extract information from linear sources, mix and shake them up together until new patterns emerge, and then turn them back into linear texts for others to consume. 

You’ll know you’ve succeeded in making this shift when the problem of not having enough to write about is replaced by the problem of having far too much to write about. When you finally arrive at the decision of what to write about, you’ll already have made that decision again and again at every single step along the way.

Principle #4

Principle #4

Our tools and techniques are only as valuable as the workflow

Just because writing is not a linear process doesn’t mean we should go about it haphazardly. We need a workflow – a repeatable process for collecting, organizing, and sharing ideas.

Writing is often taught as a collection of “tips and tricks” – brainstorm ideas, make an outline, use a three-paragraph structure, repeat the main points, use vivid examples, set a timer. Each one in isolation might make sense, but without the holistic perspective of how they fit together, they add more work than they save. Every additional technique becomes its own project without bringing the whole much further forward. Before long, the whole mess of techniques falls apart under its own weight.

It is only when all the work becomes part of an integrated process that it becomes more than the sum of its parts. Even the best techniques won’t make a difference if they are used in conflicting ways. This is why the slip-box isn’t yet another technique. It is the system in which all the techniques are linked together.

Good systems don’t add options and features; they strip away complexity and distractions from the main work, which is thinking. An undistracted brain and a reliable collection of notes is pretty much all we need. Everything else is just clutter.

Principle #5

Principle #5

Standardization enables creativity

Ahrens uses the excellent analogy of how the invention of shipping containers revolutionized international trade to demonstrate the role of note-taking in modern writing

Container shipping is a simple idea: ship products in standardized containers instead of loading them onto ships haphazardly as had always been done. But it took multiple failed attempts before it was successful, because it wasn’t actually about the container, which after all is just a box.

The potential of the shipping container was only unleashed when every other part of the shipping supply chain was changed to accommodate it. From manufacturing to packaging to final delivery, the design of ships, cranes, trucks, and harbors all had to align around moving containers as quickly and efficiently as possible. Once they did, international shipping exploded, setting the stage for Asia to become an economic power among many other historic changes. 

Many people still take notes, if at all, in an ad-hoc, random way. If they see a nice sentence, they underline it. If they want to make a comment, they write it in the margins. If they have a good idea, they write it in whichever notebook is close at hand. And if an article seems important enough, they might make the effort to save an excerpt. This leaves them with many different kinds of notes in many different places and formats. This means when it comes time to write, they first have to undertake a massive project to collect and organize all these scattered notes.

Notes are like shipping containers for ideas. Instead of inventing a new way to take notes for every source you read, use a completely standardized and predictable format every time. It doesn’t matter what the notes contain, which topic they relate to, or what medium they arrived through – you treat each and every note exactly the same way.

It is this standardization of notes that enables a critical mass to build up in one place. Without a standard format, the larger the collection grows, the more time and energy have to be spent navigating the ever-growing inconsistencies between them. A common format removes unnecessary complexity and takes the second-guessing out of the process. Like LEGOs, standardized notes can easily be shuffled around and assembled into endless configurations without losing sight of what they contain. 

The same principle applies to the steps of processing our notes. Consider that no single step in the process of turning raw ideas into finished pieces of writing is particularly difficult. It isn’t very hard to write down notes in the first place. Nor is turning a group of notes into an outline very demanding. It also isn’t much of a challenge to turn a working outline full of relevant arguments into a rough draft. And polishing a well-conceived rough draft into a final draft is trivial.

So if each individual step is so easy, why do we find the overall experience of writing so grueling? Because we try to do all the steps at once. Each of the activities that make up “writing” – reading, reflecting, having ideas, making connections, distinguishing terms, finding the right words, structuring, organizing, editing, correcting, and rewriting – require a very different kind of attention.

Proofreading requires very focused, detail-oriented attention, while choosing which words to put down in the first place might require a more open, free-floating attention. When looking for interesting connections between notes, we often need to be in a playful, curious state of mind, whereas when putting them in logical order, our state of mind probably needs to be more serious and precise.

The slip-box is the host of the process outlined above. It provides a place where distinct batches of work can be created, worked on, and saved permanently until the next time we are ready to deploy that particular kind of attention. It deliberately puts distance between ourselves and what we’ve written, which is essential for evaluating it objectively. It is far easier to switch between the role of creator and critic when there is a clear separation between them, and you don’t have to do both at the same time.

By standardizing and streamlining both the format of our notes and the steps by which we process them, the real work can come to the forefront: thinking, reflecting, writing, discussing, testing, and sharing. This is the work that adds value, and now we have the time to do it more effectively.

Principle #6

Principle #6

Our work only gets better when exposed to high-quality feedback

A workflow is similar to a chemical reaction: It can feed on itself, becoming a virtuous cycle where the positive experience of understanding a text motivates us to take on the next task, which helps us get better at what we’re doing, which in return makes it more likely for us to enjoy our work, and so on. 

Nothing motivates us more than becoming better at what we do. And we can only become better when we intentionally expose our work to high-quality feedback.

There are many forms of feedback, both internal and external – from peers, from teachers, from social media, and from rereading our own writing. But notes are the only kind of feedback that is available anytime you need it. It is the only way to deliberately practice your thinking and communication skills multiple times per day.

It is easy to think we understand a concept until we try to put it in our own words. Each time we try, we practice the core skill of insight: distinguishing the bits that truly matter from those that don’t. The better we become at it, the more efficient and enjoyable our reading becomes.

Feedback also helps us adjust our expectations and predictions about how much we can get done in an hour or a day. Instead of sitting down to the amorphous task of “writing,” we dedicate each working session to concrete tasks that can be finished in a reasonable timeframe: Write three notes, review two paragraphs, check five sources for an essay, etc. At the end of the day, we know exactly how much we accomplished (or didn’t accomplish) and can adjust our future expectations accordingly.

Principle #7

Principle #7

Work on multiple, simultaneous projects

It is only when you have multiple, simultaneous projects and interests that the full potential of an external thinking system is realized.

Think of the last time you read a book. Perhaps you read it for a certain purpose – to gain some familiarity with a topic you’re interested in or find insights for a project you’re working on. What are the chances that the book contains only the precise insights you were looking for, and no others? Extremely low it would seem. We encounter a constant stream of new ideas, but only a tiny fraction of them will be useful and relevant to us at any given moment.

Since the only way to find out which insights a book contains is to read it, you might as well read and take notes productively. Spending a little extra time to record the best ideas you encounter – whether or not you know how they will ultimately be used – vastly increases the chances that you will “stumble upon” them in the future.

The ability to increase the chances of such future accidental encounters is a powerful one, because the best ideas are usually ones we haven’t anticipated. The most interesting topics are the ones we didn’t plan on learning about. But we can anticipate that fact and set our future selves up for a high probability of productive “accidents.”

Principle #8

Principle #8

Organize your notes by context, not by topic

Now that you’ve been collecting notes on your reading, how should you organize them?

The classic mistake is to organize them into ever more specific topics and subtopics. This makes it look less complex, but quickly becomes overwhelming. The more notes pile up, the smaller and narrower the subtopics become, limiting your ability to see meaningful connections between them. With this approach, the greater one’s collection of notes, the less accessible and useful they become.

Instead of organizing by topic and subtopic, it is much more effective to organize by context. Specifically, the context in which it will be used. The primary question when deciding where to put something becomes “In which context will I want to stumble upon this again?”

In other words, instead of filing things away according to where they came from, you file them according to where they’re going. This is the essential difference between organizing like a librarian and organizing like a writer.

A librarian asks “Where should I store this note?” Their goal is to maintain a taxonomy of knowledge that is accessible to everyone, which means they have to use only the most obvious categories. They might file notes on a psychology paper under “misjudgments,” “experimental psychology,” or “experiments.” 

That works fine for a library, but not for a writer. No pile of notes filed uniformly under “psychology” will be easy to turn into a paper. There is no variation or disagreement from which an interesting argument could arise.

A writer asks “In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note?” They will file it under a paper they are writing, a conference they are speaking at, or an ongoing collaboration with a colleague. These are concrete, near-term deliverables and not abstract categories.

Organizing by context does take a little bit of thought. The answer isn’t always immediately obvious. A book about personal finance might interest me for completely different reasons if I am a politician working on a campaign speech, a financial advisor trying to help a client, or an economist developing monetary policy. If I encounter a novel engineering method, it may be useful for completely different reasons depending on whether I am working on an engineering textbook, a skyscraper, or a rocket booster.

Writers don’t think about a single, “correct” location for a piece of information. They deal in “scraps” which can often be repurposed and reused elsewhere. The discarded byproducts from one piece of writing may become the essential pillars of the next one. The slip-box is a thinking tool, not an encyclopedia, so completeness is not important. The only gaps we do need to be concerned about are the gaps in the final manuscript we are working toward.

By saving all the byproducts of our writing, we collect all the future material we might need in one place. This approach sets up your future self with everything they need to work as decisively and efficiently as possible. They won’t need to trawl through folder after folder looking for all the sources they need. You’ll already have done that work for them.

Principle #9

Principle #9

Always follow the most interesting path

Ahrens notes that in most cases, students fail not because of a lack of ability, but because they lose a personal connection to what they are learning:

“When even highly intelligent students fail in their studies, it’s most often because they cease to see the meaning in what they were supposed to learn (cf. Balduf 2009), are unable to make a connection to their personal goals (Glynn et al. 2009) or lack the ability to control their own studies autonomously and on their own terms (Reeve and Jan 2006; Reeve 2009).”

This is why we must spend as much time as possible working on things we find interesting. It is not an indulgence. It is an essential part of making our work sustainable and thus successful.

This advice runs counter to the typical approach to planning we are taught. We are told to “make a plan” upfront and in detail. Success is then measured by how closely we stick to this plan. Our changing interests and motivations are to be ignored or suppressed if they interfere with the plan.

The history of science is full of stories of accidental discoveries. Ahrens gives the example of the team that discovered the structure of DNA. It started with a grant, but not a grant to study DNA. They were awarded funds to find a treatment for cancer. As they worked, the team followed their intuition and interest, developing the actual research program along the way (Rheinberger 1997). If they had stuck religiously to their original plan, they probably wouldn’t have discovered a cure for cancer and certainly wouldn’t have discovered the structure of DNA.

Plans are meant to help us feel in control. But it is much more important to actually be in control, which means being able to steer our work towards what we consider interesting and relevant. According to a 2006 study by psychology professor Arlen Moller, “When people experienced a sense of autonomy with regard to the choice [of what to work on], their energy for subsequent tasks was not diminished” (Moller 2006, 1034). In other words, when we have a choice about what to work on and when, it doesn’t take as much willpower to do it.

Our sense of motivation depends on making consistent forward progress. But in creative work, questions change and new directions emerge. That is the nature of insight. So we don’t want to work according to a rigid workflow that is threatened by the unexpected. We need to be able to make small, constant adjustments to keep our interest, motivation, and work aligned.

By breaking down the work of writing into discrete steps, getting quick feedback on each one, and always following the path that promises the most insight, unexpected insights can become the driving force of our work. 

Luhmann never forced himself to do anything and only did what came easily to him: “When I am stuck for one moment, I leave it and do something else.” As in martial arts, if you encounter resistance or an opposing force, you should not push against it but instead redirect it towards another productive goal.

Principle #10

Principle #10

Save contradictory ideas

Working with a slip-box naturally leads us to save ideas that are contradictory or paradoxical.

It’s much easier to develop an argument from a lively discussion of pros and cons rather than a litany of one-sided arguments and perfectly fitting quotes.

Our only criterion for what to save is whether it connects to existing ideas and adds to the discussion. When we focus on open connections, disconfirming or contradictory data suddenly becomes very valuable. It often raises new questions and opens new paths of inquiry. The experience of having one piece of data completely change your perspective can be exhilarating. 

The real enemy of independent thinking is not any external authority, but our own inertia. We need to find ways to counteract confirmation bias – our tendency to take into account only information that confirms what we already believe. We need to regularly confront our errors, mistakes, and misunderstandings. 

By taking notes on a wide variety of sources and in objective formats that exist outside our heads, we practice the skill of seeing what is really there and describing it plainfully and factually. By saving ideas that aren’t compatible with each other and don’t necessarily support what we already think, we train ourselves to develop subtle theories over time instead of immediately jumping to conclusions. 

By playing with a concept, stretching and reconceiving and remixing it, we become less attached to how it was originally presented. We can extract certain aspects or details for our own uses. With so many ideas at our disposal, we are no longer threatened by the possibility that a new idea will undermine existing ones.

8 Steps of Taking Notes

The 8 Steps of Taking Smart Notes

Ahrens recommends the following 8 steps for taking notes:

  1. Make fleeting notes
  2. Make literature notes
  3. Make permanent notes
  4. Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box
  5. Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the slip-box
  6. Decide on a topic to write about from within the slip-box
  7. Turn your notes into a rough draft
  8. Edit and proofread your manuscript

He notes that Luhmann actually had two slip-boxes: the first was the “bibliographical” slip-box, which contained brief notes on the content of the literature he read along with a citation of the source; the second “main” slip-box contained the ideas and theories he developed based on those sources. Both were wooden boxes containing paper index cards. 

Luhmann distinguished between three kinds of notes that went into his slip-boxes: fleeting notes, literature notes, and permanent notes. 

1. Make fleeting notes

Fleeting notes are quick, informal notes on any thought or idea that pops into your mind. They don’t need to be highly organized, and in fact shouldn’t be. They are not meant to capture an idea in full detail, but serve more as reminders of what is in your head.

2. Make literature notes

The second type of note is known as a “literature note.” As he read, Luhmann would write down on index cards the main points he didn’t want to forget or that he thought he could use in his own writing, with the bibliographic details on the back. 

Ahrens offers four guidelines in creating literature notes:

  1. Be extremely selective in what you decide to keep
  2. Keep the overall note as short as possible
  3. Use your own words, instead of copying quotes verbatim
  4. Write down the bibliographic details on the source

3. Make permanent notes

Permanent notes are the third type of note, and make up the long-term knowledge that give the slip-box its value.

This step starts with looking through the first two kinds of notes that you’ve created: fleeting notes and literature notes. Ahrens recommends doing this about once a day, before you completely forget what they contain.

As you go through them, think about how they relate to your research, current thinking, or interests. The goal is not just to collect ideas, but to develop arguments and discussions over time. If you need help jogging your memory, simply look at the existing topics in your slip-box, since it already contains only things that interest you. 

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you turn fleeting and literature notes into permanent notes:

  • How does the new information contradict, correct, support, or add to what I already know?
  • How can I combine ideas to generate something new?
  • What questions are triggered by these new ideas?

As answers to these questions come to mind, write down each new idea, comment, or thought on its own note. If writing on paper, only write on one side, so you can quickly review your notes without having to flip them over.

Write these permanent notes as if you are writing for someone else. That is, use full sentences, disclose your sources, make explicit references, and try to be as precise and brief as possible. 

Once this step is done, throw away (or delete) the fleeting notes from step one and file the literature notes from step two into your bibliographic slip-box.

4. Add your permanent notes to the slip-box

It’s now time to add the permanent notes you’ve created to your slip-box. Do this by filing each note behind a related note (if it doesn’t relate to any existing notes, add it to the very end).

Optionally, you can also:

  • Add links to (and from) related notes
  • Adding it to an “index” – a special kind of note that serves as a “table of contents” and entry point for an important topic, including a sorted collection of links on the topic

Each of the above methods is a way of creating an internal pathway through your slip-box. Like hyperlinks on a website, they give you many ways to associate ideas with each other. By following the links, you encounter new and different perspectives than where you started.

Luhmann wrote his notes with great care, not much different from his style in the final manuscript. More often than not, new notes would become part of existing strands of thought. He would add links to other notes both close by, and in distantly related fields. Rarely would a note stay in isolation.

5. Develop your topics, questions, and research projects bottom up from within the slip-box

With so many standardized notes organized in a consistent format, you are now free to develop ideas in a “bottom up” way. See what is there, what is missing, and which questions arise. Look for gaps that you can fill through further reading.

If and when needed, another special kind of note you can create is an “overview” note. These notes provide a “bird’s eye view” of a topic that has already been developed to such an extent that a big picture view is needed. Overview notes help to structure your thoughts and can be seen as an in-between step in the development of a manuscript.

6. Decide on a topic to write about from within the slip-box

Instead of coming up with a topic or thesis upfront, you can just look into your slip-box and look for what is most interesting. Your writing will be based on what you already have, not on an unfounded guess about what the literature you are about to read might contain. Follow the connections between notes and collect all the relevant notes on the topic you’ve found.

7. 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. As you detect holes in your argument, fill them or change the argument.

8. Edit and proofread your manuscript

From this point forward, all you have to do is refine your rough draft until it’s ready to be published.

This process of creating notes and making connections shouldn’t be seen as merely maintenance. The search for meaningful connections is a crucial part of the thinking process. Instead of figuratively searching our memories, we literally go through the slip-box and form concrete links. By working with actual notes, we ensure that our thinking is rooted in a network of facts, thought-through ideas, and verifiable references.

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