September 30, 2021

Book Notes

How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens | Book Notes


  • Writing plays such a central role in learning, studying and research that it is surprising how little we think about it.
  • the process of writing starts much, much earlier than that blank screen and that the actual writing down of the argument is the smallest part of its development.
  • Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.
  • There is another reason that note-taking flies mostly under the radar: We don’t experience any immediate negative feedback if we do it badly.
  • good, productive writing is based on good note-taking.
  • Self-discipline or self-control is not that easy to achieve with willpower alone. Willpower is, as far as we know today, a limited resource that depletes quickly and is also not that much up for improvement over the long term
  • self-control and self-discipline have much more to do with our environment than with ourselves
  • Nobody needs willpower not to eat a chocolate bar when there isn’t one around. And nobody needs willpower to do something they wanted to do anyway.
  • 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.

1.  Everything You Need to Know

  • “I never force myself to do anything I don’t feel like. Whenever I am stuck, I do something else.” A good structure allows you to do that, to move seamlessly from one task to another – without threatening the whole arrangement or losing sight of the bigger picture.
  • A good structure enables flow, the state in which you get so completely immersed in your work that you lose track of time and can just keep on going as the work becomes effortless
  • planning is often at odds with the very idea of research and learning,
  • How do you plan for insight, which, by definition, cannot be anticipated?
  • Planners are also unlikely to continue with their studies after they finish their examinations. They are rather glad it is over.
  • Experts, on the other hand, would not even consider voluntarily giving up what has already proved to be rewarding and fun: learning in a way that generates real insight, is accumulative and sparks new ideas.
  • The concept of planners vs experts
  • a system is needed to keep 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.
  • Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). Poor students lack insight into their own limitations – as they would have to know about the vast amount of knowledge out there to be able to see how little they know in comparison.
  • 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.
  • high achievers who have had a taste of the vast amount of knowledge out there are likely to suffer from what psychologists call imposter syndrome, the feeling that you are not really up to the job,
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect

1.1 Good Solutions are Simple – and Unexpected

  • Routines require simple, repeatable tasks that can become automatic and fit together seamlessly (cf. Mata, Todd, and Lippke, 2010).
  • The principle of GTD is to collect everything that needs to be taken care of in one place and process it in a standardised way.
  • Writing is not a linear process. We constantly have to jump back and forth between different tasks.
  • 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.
  • When it comes to writing, everything, from research to proofreading, is closely connected. All the little steps must be linked in a way that will enable you to go seamlessly from one task to another, but still be kept separate enough to enable us to flexibly do what needs to be done in any given situation.

1.2 The Slip-box

  • Niklas Lumann's note-taking strategy helped him publish over 70 books and 400 academic articles
  • Whenever he encountered something remarkable or had a thought about what he read, he made a note.
  • Instead of adding notes to existing categories or the respective texts, he wrote them all on small pieces of paper, put a number in the corner and collected them in one place: the slip-box.
  • He realised that one idea, one note was only as valuable as its context, which was not necessarily the context it was taken from.
  • But he collected his notes in his slip-box in such a way that the collection became much more than the sum of its parts. His slip-box became his dialogue partner, main idea generator and productivity engine. It helped him to structure and develop his thoughts.
  • laconically
  • From as early as 1985, his standard answer to the question of how anyone could be so productive was: “I, of course, do not think everything by myself. It happens mainly within the slip-box” (Luhmann, Baecker, and Stanitzek 1987, 142).
  • He not only stressed that he never forced himself to do something he didn’t feel like, he even said: “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.” (Luhmann et al., 1987, 154f.)
  • We are still so used to the idea that a great outcome requires great effort that we tend not to believe that a simple change in our work routines could not only make us more productive, but the work also more fun.
  • Even hard work can be fun as long as it is aligned with our intrinsic goals and we feel in control.
  • The problems arise when we set up our work in such an inflexible way that we can’t adjust it when things change and become arrested in a process that seems to develop a life of its own.
  • to stay in control, it's better to keep your options open during the writing process rather than limit yourself to your first idea.
  • It is in the nature of writing, especially insight-oriented writing, that questions change, the material we work with turns out to be very different from the one imagined or that new ideas emerge, which might change our whole perspective on what we do.
  • Luhmann was able to focus on the important things right in front of him, pick up quickly where he left off and stay in control of the process because the structure of his work allowed him to do this.
  • 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; Painter et al. 2002; Hearn et al. 1998).
  • So why is not everybody using a slip-box and working effortlessly towards success? The reasons are much more mundane:
  • Until very recently, when the first results from the research on the file system were published, some crucial misunderstandings prevailed about how Luhmann actually worked, which led to disappointing results for many who tried to emulate the system. The main misunderstanding stems from an isolated focus on the slip-box and a neglect of the actual workflow in which it is embedded.
  • Almost everything that is published about this system was only accessible in German and was almost exclusively discussed within a small group of devoted sociologists who specialised in Luhmann’s theory of social systems – hardly the kind of critical mass that would draw much attention.
  • The third and maybe the most important reason is the very fact that it is simple. Intuitively, most people do not expect much from simple ideas. They rather assume that impressive results must have equally impressively complicated means.

1.3 The slip-box manual

  • How does the slip-box, the heart of this system, work?
  • 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.
  • Whenever he read something, he would write the bibliographic information on one side of a card and make brief notes about the content on the other side (Schmidt 2013, 170). These notes would end up in the bibliographic slip-box.
  • shortly after, he would look at his brief notes and think about their relevance for his own thinking and writing. He then would turn to the main slip-box and write his ideas, comments and thoughts on new pieces of paper, using only one for each idea and restricting himself to one side of the paper, to make it easier to read them later without having to take them out of the box.
  • He did not just copy ideas or quotes from the texts he read, but made a transition from one context to another.
  • The trick is that he did not organise his notes by topic, but in the rather abstract way of giving them fixed numbers.
  • Whenever he added a note, he checked his slip-box for other relevant notes to make possible connections between them. Adding a note directly behind another note is only one way of doing this.
  • The last element in his file system was an index, from which he would refer to one or two notes that would serve as a kind of entry point into a line of thought or topic.
  • We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains.

2. Everything You Need to Do

  • Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is.
  • Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have.
  • 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.
  • If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words.
  • If there is one thing the experts agree on, then it is this: You have to externalise your ideas, you have to write. Richard Feynman stresses it as much as Benjamin Franklin. If we write, it is more likely that we understand what we read, remember what we learn and that our thoughts make sense.
  • Thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas is the main work of everyone who studies, does research or writes. If you write to improve all of these activities, you have a strong tailwind going for you. If you take your notes in a smart way, it will propel you forward.

2.1 Writing a paper step by step

  • 1. Make fleeting notes.
  • Always have something at hand to write with to capture every idea that pops into your mind. Don’t worry too much about how you write it down or what you write it on.
  • These are fleeting notes, mere reminders of what is in your head.
  • Put them into one place, which you define as your inbox, and process them later.
  • 2. Make literature notes.
  • Whenever you read something, make notes about the content.
  • Keep it very short, be extremely selective, and use your own words.
  • Keep these notes together with the bibliographic details in one place – your reference system.
  • 3. Make permanent notes.
  • Go through the notes you made in step one or two (ideally once a day and before you forget what you meant) and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking or interests.
  • The idea is not to collect, but to develop ideas, arguments and discussions.
  • Does the new information contradict, correct, support or add to what you already have (in the slip-box or on your mind)? 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.
  • Throw away the fleeting notes from step one and put the literature notes from step two into your reference system.
  • 4. Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box by:
  • a) Filing each one behind one or more related notes
  • Look to which note the new one directly relates or, if it does not relate directly to any other note yet, just file it behind the last one.
  • b) Adding links to related notes.
  • c) Making sure you will be able to find this note later by either linking to it from your index or by making a link to it on a note that you use as an entry point to a discussion or topic and is itself linked to the index.
  • 5. Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the system. See what is there, what is missing and what questions arise.
  • Take more notes, develop ideas further and see where things will take you.
  • 6. After a while, you will have developed ideas far enough to decide on a topic to write about. Your topic is now based on what you have,
  • Look through the connections and collect all the relevant notes on this topic
  • Look for what is missing and what is redundant.
  • 7. Turn your notes into a rough draft.
  • Translate them into something coherent and embed them into the context of your argument while you build your argument out of the notes at the same time.
  • Detect holes in your argument, fill them or change your argument.
  • 8. Edit and proofread your manuscript.
  • These are the steps, presented as if you will write only one paper/article at a time. In reality, you never work on just one idea, but many ideas in different stages at the same time.
  • We constantly encounter interesting ideas along the way and only a fraction of them are useful for the particular paper we started reading it for. Why let them go to waste? Make a note and add it to your slip-box.
  • Every idea adds to what can become a critical mass that turns a mere collection of ideas into an idea-generator.
  • the accidental encounters make up the majority of what we learn.
  • Each added bit of information, filtered only by our interest, is a contribution to our future understanding, thinking and writing.
  • And the best ideas are usually the ones we haven’t anticipated anyway.
  • Taking notes preserves our accidental learning we come across daily

3. Everything You Need to Have

  • Focus on the essentials, don’t complicate things unnecessarily.
  • The slip-box provides an external scaffold to think in and helps with those tasks our brains are not very good at, most of all objective storage of information.
  • To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need. Everything else is just clutter.

3.1 The Tool Box

  • We need four tools:
  • Something to write with and something to write on (pen and paper will do)
  • A reference management system (the best programs are free)
  • The slip-box (the best program is free)
  • An editor (whatever works best for you: very good ones are free)
  • 1.  You need something to capture ideas whenever and wherever they pop into your head. Whatever you use, it should not require any thoughts, attention or multiple steps to write it down.
  • These notes are not meant to be stored permanently.
  • They only function as a reminder of a thought and are not meant to capture the thought itself, which requires time to phrase proper sentences and check facts.
  • make sure everything ends up in one place, a central inbox or something like that, where you can process it soon, ideally within a day.
  • 2.  The reference system has two purposes: To collect the references (duh) and the notes you take during your reading.
  • 3.  The slip-box.
  • I strongly recommend using Daniel Lüdecke’s Zettelkasten.
  • 4.  Finally, the editor:

4. A Few Things to Keep in Mind

  • Tools are only as good as your ability to work with them.
  • Related: Collecting all the gear to do something but then moving on to something else

The Four Underlying Principles

5. Writing Is the Only Thing That Matters

  • written work represents a preceded performance, namely learning, understanding and the ability to analyse other texts critically.
  • Nobody starts from scratch and everybody is already able to think for themselves.
  • Studying, done properly, is research, because it is about gaining insight that cannot be anticipated
  • An idea kept private is as good as one you never had.
  • Deliberate practice is the only serious way of becoming better at what we are doing
  • 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.

6. Simplicity Is Paramount

  • If they read an interesting sentence, they underline it. If they have a comment to make, they write it into the margins. If they have an idea, they write it into their notebook, and if an article seems important enough, they make the effort and write an excerpt. Working like this will leave you with a lot of different notes in many different places.
  • the slip-box becomes more and more valuable the more it grows, instead of getting messy and confusing.
  • If you sort by topic, you are faced with the dilemma of either adding more and more notes to one topic, which makes them increasingly hard to find, or adding more and more topics and subtopics to it, which only shifts the mess to another level.
  • The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.
  • It can only play out its strengths when we aim for a critical mass, which depends not only on the number of notes, but also their quality and the way they are handled.
  • 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.
  • Only if the notes of these three categories are kept separated it will be possible to build a critical mass of ideas within the slip-box.
  • As he treats every note as if it belongs to the “permanent” category, the notes will never build up a critical mass. The collection of good ideas is diluted to insignificance by all the other notes,
  • The second typical mistake is to collect notes only related to specific projects.
  • The disadvantage is that you have to start all over after each project and cut off all other promising lines of thought. That means that everything you found, thought or encountered during the time of a project will be lost.
  • without a permanent reservoir of ideas, you will not be able to develop any major ideas over a longer period of time because you are restricting yourself either to the length of a single project or the capacity of your memory.
  • The third typical mistake is, of course, to treat all notes as fleeting ones.
  • Just collecting unprocessed fleeting notes inevitably leads to chaos.
  • the benefit of note-taking decreases with the number of notes you keep.
  • More notes will make it more difficult to retrieve the right ones and bring related ones together in a playful way.
  • Fleeting notes are there for capturing ideas quickly while you are busy doing something else.
  • Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes you can use later.
  • 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.
  • the threshold to write an idea down has to be as low as possible, but it is equally crucial to elaborate on them within a day or two.

7. Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch

  • “The white sheet of paper – or today: the blank screen – is a fundamental misunderstanding” (Nassehi 2015, 185)
  • Every intellectual endeavour starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquires and can serve as a starting point for following endeavours. Basically, that is what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the hermeneutic circle (Gadamer 2004).
  • The seemingly pragmatic and down-to-earth-sounding advice – to decide what to write about before you start writing – is therefore either misleading or banal.
  • By focusing on what is interesting and keeping written track of your own intellectual development, topics, questions and arguments will emerge from the material without force.
  • If we look into our slip-box to see where clusters have built up, we not only see possible topics, but topics we have already worked on – even if we were not able to see it up front.
  • The idea that nobody ever starts from scratch suddenly becomes very concrete.
  • As proper note-taking is rarely taught or discussed, it is no wonder that almost every guide on writing recommends to start with brainstorming.
  • If you haven’t written along the way, the brain is indeed the only place to turn to. On its own, it is not such a great choice: it is neither objective nor reliable – two quite important aspects in academic or nonfiction writing.
  • Taking smart notes is the precondition to break with the linear order.
  • If you on the other hand develop your thinking in writing, open questions will become clearly visible and give you an abundance of possible topics to elaborate further in writing.
  • How can you not have trouble finding a topic if you believe you have to decide on one before you have done your research, have read and learned about something?

8. Let the Work Carry You Forward

  • Sometimes we feel like our work is draining our energy and we can only move forward if we put more and more energy into it. But sometimes it is the opposite. Once we get into the workflow, it is as if the work itself gains momentum, pulling us along and sometimes even energizing us.
  • Feedback loops are not only crucial for the dynamics of motivation, but also the key element to any learning process.
  • And the only chance to improve in something is getting timely and concrete feedback.
  • “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.
  • 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
  • Embracing a growth mindset means to get pleasure out of changing for the better (which is mostly inwardly rewarding) instead of getting pleasure in being praised (which is outwardly rewarding).
  • To seek as many opportunities to learn as possible is the most reliable long-term growth strategy.
  • Having a learning system in place that enables feedback loops in a practical way is equally important. Being open for feedback doesn’t help very much if the only feedback you can get comes once every few months for work you have already finished.
  • We tend to think we understand what we read – until we try to rewrite it in our own words.
  • 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.
  • Expressing our own thoughts in writing makes us realise if we really thought them through.
  • the more connected information we already have, the easier it is to learn, because new information can dock to that information.
  • But if facts are not kept isolated nor learned in an isolated fashion, but hang together in a network of ideas, or “latticework of mental models” (Munger, 1994), it becomes easier to make sense of new information.

The Six Steps to Successful Writing

9. Separate and Interlocking Tasks

9.1 Give Each Task Your Undivided Attention

  • we are surrounded by more sources of distraction and less opportunities to train our attention spans.
  • To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

9.2 Multitasking is not a good idea

  • 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.
  • While those who multitasked felt more productive,their productivity actually decreased – a lot (Wang and Tchernev 2012; Rosen 2008; Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009).
  • productivity and the quality of the work decreases with multitasking, but that it also impairs the ability to deal with more than one thing at a time!
  • When we think we multitask, what we really do is shift our attention quickly between two (or more) things. And every shift is a drain on our ability to shift and delays the moment we manage to get focused again.
  • Mere-exposure effect: doing something many times makes us believe we have become good at it – completely independent of our actual performance (Bornstein 1989). We unfortunately tend to confuse familiarity with skill.
  • Usually, when we think about attention, we only think about focused attention – something that requires willpower to sustain.
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s described “flow,” the state in which being highly focused becomes effortless. (1), (2)
  • When it comes to focused attention, we focus on one thing only, something we can sustain for only a few seconds.
  • Focused attention is different from “sustained attention,” which we need to stay focused on one task for a longer period and is necessary to learn, understand or get something done.
  • 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.
  • A lack of structure makes it much more challenging to stay focused for extended periods of time.
  • The slip-box provides not only a clear structure to work in, but also forces us to shift our attention consciously as we can complete tasks in reasonable time before moving on to the next one.
  • every task is accompanied by writing, which in itself requires undistracted attention, the slip-box can become a haven for our restless minds.

9.3 Give Each Task the Right Kind of Attention

  • Proofreading, for example, is obviously part of the writing process, but requires a very different state of mind than the attempt to find the right words.
  • To be able to switch between the role of critic and the role of writer requires a clear separation between these two tasks, and that becomes easier with experience.
  • Letting the inner critic interfere with the author isn’t helpful, either. Here we have to focus our attention on our thoughts. If the critic constantly and prematurely interferes whenever a sentence isn’t perfect yet, we would never get anything on paper.
  • Especially complex ideas are difficult to turn into a linear text in the head alone.
  • We tend to call extremely slow writers, who always try to write as if for print, perfectionists.
  • While proofreading requires more focused attention, finding the right words during writing requires much more floating attention.
  • Outlining or changing the outline is also a very different task that requires a very different focus on something else: not on one thought, but on the whole argument.
  • Proofreading, formulating and outlining are also different from the task of combining and developing thoughts.
  • Reading, of course, is also different. Reading in itself can require very different kinds of attention, depending on the text.
  • It is not a sign of professionalism to master one technique and stick to it no matter what, but to be flexible and adjust one’s reading to whatever speed or approach a text requires.
  • creative people need both … The key to creativity is being able to switch between a wide-open, playful mind and a narrow analytical frame.”

9.4 Become an Expert Instead of a Planner

  • The widespread praise for planning rests on the misconception that a process like writing an academic text, which is highly dependent on cognition and thinking, can rely on conscious decision-making alone.
  • To be able to become an expert, we need the freedom to make our own decisions and all the necessary mistakes that help us learn. (1), (2)
  • gut feeling (intuition) is not a mysterious force, but an incorporated history of experience. It is the sedimentation of deeply learned practice through numerous feedback loops on success or failure.

9.5 Get Closure

  • Attention is not our only limited resource. Our short-term memory is also limited. We need strategies not to waste its capacity with thoughts we can better delegate to an external system.
  • We can hold a maximum of seven things in our head at the same time, plus/minus two (Miller 1956).
  • Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations. And deliberately building these kinds of meaningful connections is what the slip-box is all about.
  • Once we make a meaningful connection to an idea or fact, it is difficult not to remember it when we think about what it is connected with.
  • Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik for
  • Zeigarnik successfully reproduced what is now known as the Zeigarnik Effect: Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory – until they are done. That 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. All we have to do is to write them down in a way that convinces us that it will be taken care of.
  • This is why David Allen’s “Getting things done” system works: The secret to have a “mind like water” is to get all the little stuff out of our short-term memory. 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.
  • make sure we always write down the outcome of our thinking, including possible connections to further inquiries.
  • As the outcome of each task is written down and possible connections become visible, it is easy to pick up the work any time where we left it without having to keep it in mind all the time.
  • That is one of the main advantages of thinking in writing – everything is externalised anyway.
  • we can use the Zeigarnik Effect to our advantage by deliberately keeping unanswered questions in our mind.
  • Letting thoughts linger without focusing on them gives our brains the opportunity to deal with problems in a different, often surprisingly productive way.
  • While we have a walk or a shower or clean the house, the brain cannot help but play around with the last unsolved problem it came across. And that is why we so often find the answer to a question in rather casual situations.

9.6 Reduce the Number of Decisions

  • 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.
  • Today, willpower is compared to muscles: a limited resource that depletes quickly and needs time to recover.
  • The phenomenon is usually discussed under the term “ego depletion”: “We use the term ego depletion to refer to a temporary reduction in the self’s capacity or willingness to engage in volitional action (including controlling the environment, controlling the self, making choices, and initiating action) caused by prior exercise of volition.” (Baumeister et al., 1998, 1253)
  • “Our results suggest that a broad assortment of actions make use of the same resource. Acts of self-control, responsible decision making, and active choice seem to interfere with other such acts that follow soon after. The implication is that some vital resource of the self becomes depleted by such acts of volition.
  • Instead of forcing ourselves to do something we don’t feel like doing, we need to find a way to make us feel like doing what moves our project further along. Doing the work that need to be done without having to apply too much willpower requires a technique, a ruse.
  • a reliable and standardised working environment is less taxing on our attention, concentration and willpower,
  • decision-making is one of the most tiring and wearying tasks, which is why people like Barack Obama or Bill Gates only wear two suit colours: dark blue or dark grey. This means they have one less decision to make in the morning, leaving more resources for the decisions that really matter.
  • In the way we organise our research and writing, we too can significantly reduce the amount of decisions we have to make.
  • Being able to finish a task in a timely manner and to pick up the work exactly where we left it has another enjoyable advantage that helps to restore our attention: We can have breaks without fear of losing the thread.

10. Read for Understanding

“I would advise you to read with a pen in your hand and enter in a little book short hints of what you feel that is common or that may be useful; for this will be the best method of imprinting such portcullis in your memory.” – Benjamin Franklin

10.1 Read With a Pen 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.
  • 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. And the theories, ideas and mental models in your head are also shaped by the things you read.
  • The slip-box is an idea generator that develops in lockstep with your own intellectual development.
  • The outcome of reading with a pen in hand is not possible to anticipate either, and here, too, the idea is not to copy, but to have a meaningful dialogue with the texts we read.
  • When we extract ideas from the specific context of a text, we deal with ideas that serve a specific purpose in a particular context, support a specific argument, are part of a theory that isn’t ours or written in a language we wouldn’t use. This is why we have to translate them into our own language to prepare them to be embedded into new contexts of our own thinking, the different context(s) within the slip-box.
  • Luhmann describes this step as follows: “I always have a slip of paper at hand, on which I note down the ideas of certain pages. On the backside I write down the bibliographic details. After finishing the book I go through my notes and think how these notes might be relevant for already written notes in the slip-box. It means that I always read with an eye towards possible connections in the slip-box.” (Luhmann et al., 1987, 150)
  • As literature notes are also a tool for understanding and grasping the text, more elaborate notes make sense in more challenging cases, while in easier cases it might be sufficient to just jot down some keywords.
  • It is mainly a matter of having an extensive Latticework of mental models or theories in our heads that enable us to identify and describe the main ideas quickly
  • 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.
  • Without a clear purpose for the notes, taking them will feel more like a chore than an important step within a bigger project.
  • And more often than not, reading is not accompanied by taking notes, which is, in terms of writing, almost as valuable as not having read at all.
  • You need to take some form of literature note that captures your understanding of the text, so you have something in front of your eyes while you are making the slip-box note.
  • Literature notes are short and meant to help with writing slip-box notes.
  • Different independent studies indicate that writing by hand facilitates understanding.
  • There is no secret to it and the explanation is pretty simple: Handwriting is slower and can’t be corrected as quickly as electronic notes.
  • So if you are writing by hand, you are forced to think about what you hear (or read) – otherwise you wouldn’t be able to grasp the underlying principle, the idea, the structure of an argument.

10.2 Keep an Open Mind

  • While selectivity is the key to smart note-taking, it is equally important to be selective in a smart way.
  • The very moment we decide on a hypothesis, our brains automatically go into search mode, scanning our surroundings for supporting data, which is neither a good way to learn nor research. Worse, we are usually not even aware of this confirmation bias.
  • Confirmation bias is tackled here in two steps: First, by turning the whole writing process on its head, and secondly, by changing the incentives from finding confirming facts to an indiscriminate gathering of any relevant information regardless of what argument it will support.
  • If insight becomes a threat to your academic or writing success, you are doing it wrong.
  • Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight.
  • Instead of having the hypothesis in mind all the time, we want to:  
  • Confirm that we have separated tasks and focus on understanding the text we read,
  • Make sure we have given a true account of its content
  • Find the relevance of it and make connections.
  • Only then do we take a step back to look at what developed, then make a decision on what conclusions are to be drawn from that.
  • Everything can contribute to the development of thoughts within the slip-box: an addition as well as a contradiction, the questioning of a seemingly obvious idea as well as the differentiation of an argument.
  • The experience of how one piece of information can change the whole perspective on a certain problem is exciting.
  • And the more diverse the content of the slip-box is, the further it can bring our thinking forward – provided we haven’t decided on the direction upfront.

10.3 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:
  • Immanuel Kant described in his famous text about the Enlightenment: “Nonage immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.” (Kant 1784)
  • The ability to use one’s own understanding is a challenge, not a given.
  • With practice comes the ability to find the right words to express something in the best possible way, which means in a simple, but not simplified way.
  • Being able to re-frame questions, assertions and information is even more important than having an extensive knowledge, because without this ability, we wouldn’t be able to put our knowledge to use.
  • Taking smart notes is the deliberate practice of these skills. Mere reading, underlining sentences and hoping to remember the content is not.

10.4 Learn to Read

  • “If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself.” (John Searle)
  • Physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman once said that he could only determine whether he understood something if he could give an introductory lecture on it.
  • In oral presentations, we easily get away with unfounded claims. We can distract from argumentative gaps with confident gestures or drop a casual “you know what I mean” irrespective of whether we know what we meant. In writing, these manoeuvres are a little too obvious.
  • The most important advantage of writing is that it helps us to confront ourselves when we do not understand something as well as we would like to believe.
  • “The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool,” Feynman
  • While it is obvious that familiarity is not understanding, we have no chance of knowing whether we understand something or just believe we understand something until we test ourselves in some form.
  • The attempt to rephrase an argument in our own words confronts us without mercy with all the gaps in our understanding.
  • 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.
  • Only the actual attempt to retrieve information will clearly show us if we have learned something or not.
  • The majority of students chooses every day not to test themselves in any way. Instead, they apply the very method research has shown again (Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger 2009) and again (Brown 2014, ch. 1) to be almost completely useless: rereading and underlining sentences for later rereading.

10.5 Learn by Reading

  • “The one who does the work does the learning,”
  • 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.
  • “Manipulations such as variation, spacing, introducing contextual interference, and using tests, rather than presentations, as learning events, all share the property that they appear during the learning process to impede learning, but they then often enhance learning as measured by post-training tests of retention and transfer.
  • When we try to answer a question before we know how to, we will later remember the answer better, even if our attempt failed (Test-Potentiated Learning: Distinguishing Between Direct and Indirect Effects of Tests,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).
  • Intuitively, most students resort to cramming, which is just another term for reading something again and again in a failed attempt to learn it (Dunlosky et al. 2013).
  • And as much as rereading doesn’t help with learning, it certainly doesn’t help with understanding. Admittedly, cramming does get information into your head for a short while – usually long enough to stay in there to pass a test. But cramming won’t help you learn.
  • Pure re-viewing just doesn’t make any sense, neither for understanding nor for learning.
  • the best-researched and most successful learning method is elaboration.
  • It is very similar to what we do when we take smart notes and combine them with others, which is the opposite of mere re-viewing
  • 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.
  • Writing for Learning” is the name of an “elaboration method” (Gunel, Hand, and Prain 2007).
  • Writing, taking notes and thinking about how ideas connect is exactly the kind of elaboration that is needed to learn. Not learning from what we read because we don’t take the time to elaborate on it is the real waste of time.
  • There is a clear division of labour between the brain and the slip-box: The slip-box takes care of details and references and is a long-term memory resource that keeps information objectively unaltered. That allows the brain to focus on the gist, the deeper understanding and the bigger picture, and frees it up to be creative.

11. Take Smart Notes

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes.

11.1 Make a Career One Note at a Time

  • The technique of writing a certain amount every day was perfected by Anthony Trollope, one of the most popular and productive authors of the 19th century: He would start every morning at 5:30 a.m. with a cup of coffee and a clock in front of him. Then he would write at least 250 words every 15 minutes. This, he writes in his autobiography: “allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year”
  • Putting notes into the slip-box, however, is like investing and reaping the rewards of compounded interest
  • Luhmann’s slip-box contains about 90,000 notes,

11.2 Think Outside the Brain

  • Taking literature notes is a form of deliberate practice as it gives us feedback on our understanding or lack of it, while the effort to put into our own words the gist of something is at the same time the best approach to understanding what we read.
  • Taking permanent notes of our own thoughts is a form of self-testing as well: do they still make sense in writing? Are we even able to get the thought on paper? Do we have the references, facts and supporting sources at hand? And at the same time, writing it is the best way to get our thoughts in order.
  • Any thought of a certain complexity requires writing.
  • Only in the written form can an argument be looked at with a certain distance – literally. We need this distance to think about an argument
  • The brain, as Kahneman writes, is “a machine for jumping to conclusions” (Kahneman, 2013, 79).
  • Luhmann states as clearly as possible: it is not possible to think systematically without writing (Luhmann 1992, 53).
  • real thinking requires some kind of externalization, especially in the form of writing.
  • 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.
  • By explicitly writing down how something connects or leads to something else, we force ourselves to clarify and distinguish ideas from each other.

11.3 Learn by not Trying

  • elaboration through taking smart literature notes increases the likelihood that we will remember what we read in the long term.
  • Transferring these ideas into the network of our own thoughts, our latticework of theories, concepts and mental models in the slip-box brings our thinking to the next level.
  • Forgetting, then, would not be the loss of a memory, but the erection of a mental barrier between the conscious mind and our long-term memory. Psychologists call this mechanism active inhibition
  • Robert and Elizabeth Ligon Bjork from the University of California suggest distinguishing between two different measurements when it comes to memory: Storage strength and retrieval strength (Bjork 2011).
  • storage strength, the ability to store memories, only becomes greater over one’s lifetime.
  • If we instead focus on “retrieval strength,” we instantly start to think strategically about what kind of cues should trigger the retrieval of a memory.
  • Every piece of information can become the trigger for another piece of information.
  • “involuntary memory” for a reason: we can’t retrieve it on purpose.
  • Then there are the accidental cues that become attached to information when we learn something in a particular environment.
  • 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.
  • Hermann Ebbinghaus, the godfather of learning theory,
  • The challenge of writing as well as learning is therefore not so much to learn, but to understand, as we will already have learned what we understand.
  • 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.
  • Barry S. Stein et al. summarises: “The results of several recent studies support the hypothesis that retention is facilitated by acquisition conditions that prompt people to elaborate information in a way that increases the distinctiveness of their memory representations.” (Stein et al. 1984, 522)
  • 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.
  • The slip-box forces us to ask numerous elaborating questions: What does it mean? How does it connect to … ? What is the difference between … ? What is it similar to?
  • The fact that too much order can impede learning has become more and more known (Carey 2014).
  • elaborating on the differences and similarities of notes instead of sorting them by topic not only facilitates learning, but facilitates the ability to categorise and create sensible classifications!

11.4 Adding Permanent Notes to the Slip-Box

  • 1.  Add a note to the slip-box either behind the note you directly refer to or, if you do not follow up on a specific note, just behind the last note in the slip-box.
  • 2.  Add links to other notes or links on other notes to your new note.
  • 3.  Make sure it can be found from the index; add an entry in the index if necessary or refer to it from a note that is connected to the index.
  • 4.  Build a Latticework of mental models

12. Develop Ideas

  • “Every note is just an element in the network of references and back references in the system, from which it gains its quality.” (Luhmann 1992)
  • Ideally, new notes are written with explicit reference to already existing notes.
  • Because the slip-box is not intended to be an encyclopaedia, but a tool to think with, we don’t need to worry about completeness.
  • As the slip-box is not a book with just one topic, we don’t need to have an overview of it.
  • As an extension of our own memory, the slip-box is the medium we think in, not something we think about.

12.1 Develop Topics

  • After adding a note to the slip-box, we need to make sure it can be found again. This is what the index is for.
  • The file-box can do much more than just hand out what we request. It can surprise and remind us of long-forgotten ideas and trigger new ones.
  • Most notes will be found through other notes.
  • 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.
  • 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.

12.2 Make Smart Connections

  • Luhmann used four basic types of cross-references in his file-box
  • 1.  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
  • 2.  A similar though less crucial kind of link collection is on those notes that give an overview of a local, physical cluster of the slip-box. This is only necessary if you work with pen and paper like Luhmann.
  • 3.  Equally less relevant for the digital version are those links that indicate the note to which the current note is a follow-up and those links that indicate the note that follows on the current note.
  • 4.  The most common form of reference is plain note-to-note links.
  • By linking two related notes regardless of where they are within the slip-box or within different contexts, surprising new lines of thought can be established.
  • These links can help us to find surprising connections and similarities between seemingly unrelated topics. Patterns might not become visible right away, but they might emerge after multiple note-to-note links between two topics have been established.
  • The search for meaningful connections is a crucial part of the thinking process towards the finished manuscript.
  • As we are making these connections, we build up an internal structure of the slip-box, which is shaped by our thinking.

12.3 Compare, Correct and Differentiate

  • If you use the slip-box for a while, you will inevitably make a sobering discovery: The great new idea you are about to add to the slip-box turns out to be already in there.
  • Sometimes, the confrontation with old notes helps to detect differences we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
  • We then can explicitly discuss this difference on another note. This is especially helpful when two authors use the same concept in slightly different ways.
  • The brain is very good at making associations and spotting patterns and similarities between seemingly different things and also very good in spotting differences between seemingly similar things, but it needs to have them presented objectively and externally.
  • It is much easier to see differences and similarities than to detect them by mere thinking.
  • Comparing notes also helps us to detect contradictions, paradoxes or oppositions – important facilitators for insight.
  • The constant comparing of notes also serves as an ongoing examination of old notes in a new light.
  • Adding new notes to old notes and being forced to compare them leads not only to a constant improvement of one’s own work, but often discloses weaknesses in the texts we read.
  • 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.

12.4 Assemble a Toolbox for Thinking

  • Our ability to read a situation or to interpret information depends on our broader knowledge and how we make sense of it.
  • it makes sense to assemble a toolbox of useful mental models (Manktelow and Craik 2004) that could help with our daily challenges and make sense of the things we learn and encounter.
  • Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, stresses the importance of having a broad theoretical toolbox – not to be a good academic, but to have a good, pragmatic grip on reality.
  • He advocates looking out for the most powerful concepts in every discipline and to try to understand them so thoroughly that they become part of our thinking.
  • The moment one starts to combine these mental models and attach one’s experiences to them, one cannot help but gain what he calls “worldly wisdom.”
  • Munger writes: “Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience, both vicarious and direct, on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.” (Munger 1994).
  • A truly wise person is not someone who knows everything, but someone who is able to make sense of things by drawing from an extended resource of interpretation schemes.
  • If we practice learning not as a pure accumulation of knowledge, but as an attempt to build up a latticework of theories and mental models to which information can stick, we enter a virtuous circle where learning facilitates learning.
  • Helmut D. Sachs puts it like this: “By learning, retaining, and building on the retained basics, we are creating a rich web of associated information. The more we know, the more information (hooks) we have to connect new information to, the easier we can form long-term memories.
  • His recommendations for learning read almost like instructions for the slip-box: 1.  Pay attention to what you want to remember. 2.  Properly encode the information you want to keep. (This includes thinking about suitable cues.) 3.  Practice recall.
  • 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).
  • The slip-box not only provides us with the opportunity to learn in this proven way, it forces us to do exactly what is recommended just by using it.
  • We have to elaborate on what we read just to be able to write it down and translate it into different contexts. We retrieve information from the slip-box whenever we try to connect new notes with old notes. Just by doing this, we mix up contexts, shuffle notes and retrieve the information in irregular intervals. And along the way, we further elaborate on the information, which we always retrieve deliberately.

12.5 Use the Slip-Box as a Creativity Machine

  • “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)
  • all good ideas need time. Even sudden breakthroughs are usually preceded by a long, intense process of preparation.
  • 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
  • conscious, explicit knowledge (cf. Ahrens 2014). Steven Johnson, who wrote an insightful book about how people in science and in general come up with genuine new ideas, calls it the “slow hunch.”
  • As a precondition to make use of this intuition, he emphasises the importance of experimental spaces where ideas can freely mingle

12.6 Think Inside the Box

  • “Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see“ (Andreasen 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.
  • Even very personal, intimate experiences, like encounters with art, require abstraction.
  • 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.
  • Abstraction is also the key to analyse and compare concepts, to make analogies and to combine ideas; this is especially true when it comes to interdisciplinary work (Goldstone and Wilensky 2008).
  • Creativity cannot be taught like a rule or approached like a plan.
  • The ability to generate new ideas has more to do with breaking with old habits of thinking than with coming up with as many ideas as possible.
  • Our brains just love routines. 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.
  • In their book with the showy title “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking”, the mathematicians Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird collected different strategies to do that (2012).
  • they emphasise the importance of feedback loops and the need to find ways to confront ourselves with our errors, mistakes and misunderstandings.
  • Another habit of the effective thinkers they highlight is their ability to focus on the main ideas behind the details, to grasp the gist of something.
  • Make sure that you really see what you think you see and describe it as plainly and factually as possible.
  • To really understand a text is therefore a constant revision of our first interpretation.
  • While the constant comparison of notes can help us to detect differences, no technique can help us see what is missing. But we can make it a habit to always ask what is not in the picture, but could be relevant.
  • One of the most famous figures to illustrate this skill is the mathematician Abraham Wald (Mangel and Samaniego 1984). During World War II, he was asked to help the Royal Air Force find the areas on their planes that were most often hit by bullets so they could cover them with more armour. But instead of counting the bullet holes on the returned planes, he recommended armouring the spots where none of the planes had taken any hits. The RAF forgot to take into account what was not there to see: All the planes that didn’t make it back. The RAF fell for a common error in thinking called survivorship bias (Taleb 2005).
  • It is very good to know what has already proven to not work if we try to come up with new ideas that do work.
  • He understands that simple is not the same as easy, and that the worst thing you can do is to make a simple task unnecessarily complicated.
  • There is a reason why Buffett is not only a great investor, but also a great teacher: He not only has a vast knowledge about everything related to business, he can also explain it all in simple terms.
  • Simple ideas can be tied together into consistent theories and build up enormous complexity.
  • By using the slip-box on a daily basis, we train these important intellectual skills deliberately: 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.
  • We learn to focus on the gist of an idea by restricting ourselves in terms of space.
  • And we can practice asking good questions when we sort our notes into the slip-box and connect them with other notes.

12.7 Facilitate Creativity through Restrictions

  • And even though the digital program lifts the physical restrictions on the length of a note, I highly recommend treating a digital note as if the space were limited.
  • The restriction to one idea per note is also the precondition to recombine them freely later.
  • A good rule of thumb for working with the program is: Each note should fit onto the screen and there should be no need of scrolling.
  • Not having to think about the organisation is really good news for brains like ours – the few mental resources we have available, we need for thinking about the actual relevant questions: those concerning the contents.
  • But not having to make decisions can be quite liberating.
  • Not having to make choices can unleash a lot of potential, which would otherwise be wasted on making these choices.
  • Thinking and creativity can flourish under restricted conditions and there are plenty of studies to back that claim
  • We are restricted to the use of only 26 letters, but what that enables us to do! We can write novels, theories, love letters or court orders – just by rearranging these 26 letters. This is certainly not possible despite the restriction to 26 letters, but because of it.
  • The biggest threat to creativity and scientific progress is therefore the opposite: a lack of structure and restrictions.
  • Without structure, we cannot differentiate, compare or experiment with ideas. Without restrictions, we would never be forced to make the decision on what is worth pursuing and what is not.

13. Share Your Insight

  • Since writing is nothing more than the revision of a rough draft, which is nothing more than turning a series of notes into a continuous text, which are written on a day-to-day basis, connected and indexed in the slip-box, there is no need to worry about finding a topic to write about.
  • Now you can spread out these notes on your desktop or use the outliner of the Zettelkasten, outline your argument and construct a preliminary order of sections, chapters or paragraphs.
  • Instead of widening the perspective to find as many possible lines of thought to which an idea might contribute, it is now about narrowing the perspective, making a decision on one topic only and cutting out everything that does not directly contribute to the development of the text and support the main argument.

13.1 From Brainstorming to Slip-box-Storming

  • Whenever someone struggles with finding a good topic to write about, someone else will recommend brainstorming.
  • For many people, it is still the best method to generate new ideas.
  • 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.
  • The brain more easily remembers information that it encountered recently, which has emotions attached to it and is lively, concrete or specific.
  • More people in a brainstorming group usually come up with less good ideas and restrict themselves inadvertently to a narrower range of topics (Mullen, Johnson, and Salas 1991).
  • Every time we read something, we make a decision on what is worth writing down and what is not. Every time we make a permanent note, we also made a decision about the aspects of a text we regarded as relevant for our longer-term thinking and relevant for the development of our ideas.
  • It is now less about finding a topic to write about and more about working on the questions we generated by writing.
  • We have to work, write, connect, differentiate, complement and elaborate on questions – but this is what we do when we take smart notes.

13.2 From Top Down to Bottom Up

  • The more time an artist devotes to learning about an aesthetic “problem,” the more unexpected and creative his solution will be regarded later by art experts

13.3 Getting Things Done by Following Your Interests

  • Nothing motivates us more than seeing a project we can identify with moving forward, and nothing is more demotivating than being stuck with a project that doesn’t seem to be worth doing.
  • The risk of losing interest in what we do is high when we decide upfront on a long-term project without much clue about what to expect.
  • The ability to keep control over our work and change course if necessary is made possible by the fact that the big task of “writing a text” is broken down into small, concrete tasks, which allows us practically to do exactly what is needed at a certain time and take the next step from there.
  • Organizing the work so we can steer our projects in the most promising direction not only allows us to stay focused for longer, but also to have more fun

13.4 Finishing and Review

  • The key is to structure the draft visibly.
  • The slip-box is in some way what the chemical industry calls “verbund.” This is a setup in which the inevitable by-product of one production line becomes the resource for another, which again produces by-products that can be used in other processes and so on,
  • The process of reading and writing inevitably produces a lot of unintended by-products.
  • If we read something that is interesting, but not directly relevant to our current project, we can still use it for another project we are working on or might work on.
  • By taking smart notes, we collect en passant the material for our future writings in one place.
  • If you encounter resistance or an opposing force, you should not push against it, but redirect it towards another productive goal. The slip-box will always provide you with multiple possibilities.

13.5 Becoming an Expert by Giving up Planning

  • overconfidence bias,
  • we can only learn from our experiences if feedback follows shortly afterwards – and maybe more than once in a while.
  • According to the famous law of Parkinson, every kind of work tends to fill the time we set aside for it, like air fills every corner of a room (Parkinson 1957).

13.6 The Actual Writing

  • One of the most difficult tasks is to rigorously delete what has no function within an argument – “kill your darlings.”

14. Make It a Habit

  • Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” (Whitehead)
  • When it comes to the long run, researchers struggle to find any measurable connection between our intentions and our actual behaviour
  • change (Dean 2013). And that is not so easy, because the more we are used to doing something in a particular way, the more in control we feel about it, even though we are less in control of it. (This is in part also due to the aforementioned mere-exposure error.)
  • 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.

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