Who is this book for?
This book is for the good students, ambitious academics, and curious nonfiction writers who understand that insight doesn’t come easy and that writing is not only for proclaiming opinions, but the main tool to achieve insight worth sharing.
How to Take Smart Notes- Book Summary
Every intellectual endeavor starts with a note. Our writing may have various reasons. But it’s surprising how little we think about writing when it plays a key role in learning, studying, and researching.
Note-taking is the main part of the writing process. It is often forgotten that the process of writing starts much earlier than facing the blank screen.
Writing is not what follows research, learning and studying, it is the medium of all this work.Sonke Ahrens
If you learn how to take smart notes and organize your everyday writing accordingly, you’ll never have the problem of a blank screen ever again.
Productive writing starts with a good note-taking system. If something is already written somewhere, it’s incomparably easier than assembling everything in your mind and then trying to retrieve it from there.
Therefore, the indicator of academic success is not to be found in people’s heads but in the way they do their everyday work. Doing work in smart ways somehow leads to success. We can not do everything with our brains alone. That’s why self-discipline and self-control are hard to achieve only with willpower. But if the environment is changed, it becomes easy.
So, imagine you don’t have to use your willpower or mental resources as much when you start writing. Why? Because you already have a system and a different environment. This is where the organization of writing and note-taking comes into play.
Everything you need to know
A good structure allows you to do the work seamlessly. It enables the flow state. It also put us back in charge and increases our freedom to do the right things at the right time. The challenge everyone face is to structure one’s workflow in a way that insight and new ideas become the driving forces that push us forward.
Therefore, a system is needed to keep a track of the ever-increasing pool of information, which allows one to combine different ideas in an intelligent way with the aim of generating new ideas.
Good solutions are simple, unexpected
The new way of taking smart notes can feel artificial at first. But as soon as you get used to taking smart notes, it will feel so much natural that you will wonder how you were ever able to get anything done before.
Even the best strategy won’t improve your productivity if you don’t change the daily routines that 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.
Writing is not a linear process. We constantly jump back and forth between different thoughts. Even the best tools won’t make much of a difference if they are used in isolation. Only if they are embedded in a well-conceived working process can the tools play out their strengths. There is no point in having great tools if they don’t fit together.
Slip-box is an open-ended process of writing, learning, and thinking. In the 1960s, Niklas Luhmann invented the slip-box system.
He used to read a lot and like many others, he had collected many notes. He soon realized that his notes were not taking him anywhere. So, he developed a system to collect all of them in one place called a slip-box.
He found out that one idea, one note was only as valuable as its context, which was not necessarily the context it was taken from. He thought about how one idea could relate and contribute to different contexts.
He collected his notes in slip-box in such a way that, it became his partner, main idea generator, and productivity engine.
In the span of 30 years, Luhmann published 58 books and hundreds of articles. Even after his death, about a dozen more books on different topics like religion, politics, and education were published under his name, all based on the manuscripts lying around in his office.
When he was asked about his secret to productivity, he always mentioned the slip-box. The slip-box helps you create a smart working or writing environment that helps to avoid resistance.
The Slip-box manual
Although the slip box method is so simple and so valuable, why don’t many people practice it? Because writing these notes is the main work.
It takes enormous amounts of effort, time, patience, and willpower. Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is.
The notes are just the tangible outcome of thinking and reading. All you have to have is a pen and paper or keyboard under your hands while you are doing what you are doing anyway.
And writing is the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding, and generating ideas we have. These notes build off as you go on.
Richard Feynmann stresses it as much as Benjamin Franklin. You have to externalise your ideas, you have to write.
If you develop a system and write your notes in a smart way, it will propel you forward.
Different Types of Notes & How to Write Them
Fleeting notes are reminders of what you have on your head. They are your everyday thoughts that you might think to be important. You don’t have to worry about where or how you can write them.
You can have a simple notebook or an inbox system. But if your thoughts are already sorted and you have time, you can skip this step and write down the ideas directly as a permanent note for your slip-box. They are only the reminders and can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two
Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. Write down what you don’t want to forget or can use in your own writing. Keep it very short, be extremely selective and use your own words.
Don’t just copy the content. Understand first and write them in your own words. Now place all of these notes in the same place with bibliographical details. They are tools for understanding and grasping the text.
In challenging cases, you may need to elaborate notes while in easier cases, it might be sufficient to just jot down some keywords. Sometimes it is necessary to slowly work our way through a difficult text and sometimes it is enough to reduce a whole book to a single sentence.
Go back to your slip-box and through the fleeting and literature notes ideally once a day. Think about how they relate to what is relevant to your research. The idea is not to collect but to develop ideas, arguments, and discussions.
Can you add something? Does something contradict? Can you combine ideas to generate something new? What questions are triggered by them?
Use full sentences, make references and be as precise, clear, and brief as possible. They 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. Every permanent note can be elaborated enough to have the potential to become part of or inspire a final written piece.
The permanent note is what will add value to the actual slip-box. Literature notes are short and meant to help with writing slip-box notes. Everything else either helps to get to this point or is a distraction.
Permanent notes are directed towards an audience ignorant of the thoughts behind the text and unaware of the original context, only equipped with a general knowledge of the field.
Throw away the fleeting notes and put literature notes into your reference system. Add permanent notes to your slip-box by adding links to relevant notes.
Context is Important
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?
See what’s missing and what questions arise. Read more to challenge and develop your arguments according to the new information you are learning about. Take more notes, develop ideas further and see where things will take you.
You will have developed enough ideas to decide what topics to write about. Look through the connection and collect all the relevant notes on the topic. Bring them in order and look for what is missing and what is redundant.
Turn your notes into a rough draft. Don’t just copy your notes. Translate them into something coherent. Detect holes in your argument and fill them or change the argument. Edit and proofread your paper. Done.🟢
Everything you need to have
The slip-box focuses on the model: Focus on essentials, don’t complicate things unnecessarily. If you have a pen and paper, editor, slip-box, reference system at hand, you are ready to go.
The Four Underlying Principles
Writing is the only thing that matters
Studying done properly is research. There is no such thing as private knowledge. An idea kept private is as good as the one you never had. To make something public means to write it down so it can be read.
Even if you decide to never write a single line of manuscript, you will improve your reading, thinking, and other intellectual skills just by doing everything as if nothing counts other than writing.
Simplicity is paramount
It is often believed that big transformations have to start with an equally big idea. But, it is the simplicity of the idea that makes it so powerful.
The biggest advantage compared to a top-down storage system organized by topics is that the slip-box becomes more and more valuable the more it grows, instead of getting messy and confusing.
Nobody starts from scratch
The process of writing is vastly misunderstood. Make a decision on what to write about, plan your research, do your research, write. Writing can’t be this linear.
Evey intellectual endeavor starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquiries and can serve as a starting point for following endeavors.
Nobody ever teaches or discusses a proper note-taking system. If you develop a proper note-taking system, you will never ever have to face the blank screen again.
Let the work carry you forward
Once we get into the workflow, it is as if the work itself gains momentum, pulling us along and sometimes even energizing us. 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. Reading with a pen in the hand, for example, forces, us to think about what we read and check upon our understanding.
The ability to express understanding in one’s own words is a fundamental competency for everyone who writes. The better we become at it, the more effective our reading will become, the more we can read, the more we will learn.
The slip-box is not just a collection of notes. It’s about letting ideas mingle. Its usability grows with its size not just linearly but exponentially.
More Ideas From How to Take Smart Notes
Always read with a pen and paper 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 as a series of notes is just the rearrangement of notes you already have in your slip-box, all you really have to do is have a pen in your hand when you read.
Sometimes people just underline sentences in the book or make some comments in the margins of the book. It’s like taking no notes at all. And more often, reading is not accompanied by taking notes.
Keep an open mind
Our brains are not very smart in selecting information by default. Therefore, we should always seek information, arguments, and facts that challenge our way of thinking. We are naturally drawn to everything that makes us feel good. Confirmation bias is a subtle but major force.
Get the gist
The ability to separate relevant from less relevant information is a skill that can only be learned by doing.
Learn to read
If we don’t try to verify our understanding during our studies, we will happily enjoy the feeling of getting smarter and more knowledgeable while in reality staying as dumb as we were. Understanding is not just a precondition to learning something. To a certain degree, learning is understanding.