How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s well-written on a small scale (pages, chapters) but the overall structure is a mystery to me.

Did I find a way how to organize a mess in my notes? Not exactly, but I’ve found some good hints.

Good bits:

Bad bits:

I really recommend it if you:

Writing is not a linear process. We constantly have to jump back and forth between different tasks. It wouldn’t make any sense to micromanage ourselves on that level. Zooming out to the bigger picture does not really help, either, because then we have next steps like “writing a page.” That does not really help with navigating the things you have to do to write a page, often a whole bunch of other things that can take an hour or a month. One has to navigate mostly by sight. These are probably the reasons why GTD never really caught on in academia, although it is very successful in business and has a good reputation among the self-employed.
And this is the other insight of David Allen: Only if you can trust your system, only if you really know that everything will be taken care of, will your brain let go and let you focus on the task at hand.
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. And if we have to write anyway, why not use our writing to build up the resources for our future publications.
And if you stumble upon one idea and think that it might connect to another idea, what do you do when you employ all these different techniques? Go through all your books to find the right underlined sentence? Reread all your journals and excerpts? And what do you do then? Write an excerpt about it? Where do you save it and how does this help to make new connections? Every little step suddenly turns into its own project without bringing the whole much further forward. Adding another promising technique to it, then, would make things only worse.

For students, the need for writing mainly appears in the form of examination. In this understanding, the written work represents a preceded performance, namely learning, understanding and the ability to analyse other texts critically. By writing, students demonstrate what they have learned, show their ability to think critically and ability to develop ideas. This understanding is related to the idea that students prepare for independent research. In this mindset, the writing of a paper is just another skill to be learned. It is compartmentalised from the other tasks – it is seen as one task among others. Students should not only learn to write papers, but also learn facts, be able to discuss their ideas in seminars and listen carefully to lectures. Writing papers is seen as a task in itself with a beginning and an end. Almost all books written on academic writing start from this assumption. And almost all of them proceed accordingly, describing an idealised process in certain consecutive steps.

First, the task to write is given, then there is the challenge to find a topic or a specific angle on a problem, the research to do, starting with the collection of the relevant literature, followed by reading the material, processing it and coming to a conclusion. Writing is what follows: In the beginning stands the question to be answered, followed by an overview of the literature, the discussion of it and the conclusion. This, according to this thinking, prepares you for doing independent research. Alas, it does not. If you become successful in your research, it was not because you learned to approach writing in this way, but despite it. 
This book is based on another assumption: Studying does not prepare students for independent research. It is independent research. 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 and will be shared within the scientific community under public scrutiny. There is no such thing as private knowledge in academia. An idea kept private is as good as one you never had. And a fact no one can reproduce is no fact at all. Making something public always means to write it down so it can be read. There is no such thing as a history of unwritten ideas.

School is different. Pupils are usually not encouraged to follow their own learning paths, question and discuss everything the teacher is teaching and move on to another topic if something does not promise to generate interesting insight. The teacher is there for the pupils to learn. But, as Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the Humboldt University of Berlin and brother to the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt, put it, the professor is not there for the student and the student not for the professor. Both are only there for the truth. And truth is always a public matter. Everything within the university aims at some kind of publication. A written piece does not necessarily need to be accepted in an international journal to become public. In fact, the vast majority of what is written and discussed is not published in this narrow sense. The review process itself is a form of presenting an idea publicly to the peers and so is everything a student hands over to a professor or lecturer. Even the handout for a presentation discussed with fellow students is a written piece made public. It is public because in the discussion, it does not matter anymore what the author meant , only what is there in writing. The moment the author can be removed from the scene, the written piece is a public claim on truth. The criteria for a convincing argument are always the same, regardless of who the author is or the status of the publisher: They have to be coherent and based on facts. Truth does not belong to anyone; it is the outcome of the scientific exchange of written ideas. This is why the presentation and the production of knowledge cannot be separated, but are rather two sides of the same coin (Peters and Schäfer 2006, 9). If writing is the medium of research and studying nothing else than research, then there is no reason not to work as if nothing else counts than writing.

When the advantages became obvious, second-order effects came into play and went into a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop. The more harbours were able to handle containers, the more container ships were needed to be built, which made shipping cheaper, which increased the range of goods worth shipping, which created more traffic, which made bigger container ships economical, which created more demand for infrastructure and so on. It wasn’t just another way of shipping goods. It was a whole new way of doing business.

Many students and academic writers think like the early ship owners when it comes to note-taking. They handle their ideas and findings in the way it makes immediate sense: 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. Writing, then, means to rely heavily on your brain to remember where and when these notes were written down. A text must then be conceptualised independently from these notes, which explains why so many resort to brainstorming to arrange the resources afterwards according to this preconceived idea. In this textual infrastructure, this so-often-taught workflow, it indeed does not make much sense to rewrite these notes and put them into a box, only to take them out again later when a certain quote or reference is needed during writing and thinking.

In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again? Most students sort their material by topic or even by seminars and semester. From the perspective of someone who writes, that makes as much sense as sorting your errands by purchase date and the store they were bought from. Can’t find your trousers? Maybe they are with the bleach you bought the same day at your department store.

The slip-box is the shipping container of the academic world.

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.
After many years of working with students, I am convinced that the attempt of these study guides to squeeze a nonlinear process like writing into a linear order is the main reason for the very problems and frustrations they promise to solve. 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? How can you not feel threatened by an empty page if you have literally nothing at hand to fill it with? Who can blame you for procrastinating if you find yourself stuck with a topic you decided on blindly and now have to stick with it as the deadline is approaching? And how can anyone be surprised that students feel overwhelmed with writing assignments when they are not taught how to turn months and years of reading, discussing and research into material they can really use.
Psychologists who interviewed the multitaskers did test them instead of just asking. They gave them different tasks to accomplish and compared their results with another group that was instructed to do only one thing at a time. The outcome is unambiguous: While those who multitasked felt more productive, their productivity actually decreased – a lot (Wang and Tchernev 2012; Rosen 2008; Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009). Not only the quantity but also the quality of their accomplishments lagged significantly behind that of the control group.
The fact that people nevertheless believe that they can get better at it and increase their productivity can easily be explained by two factors. The first is the lack of a control group or an objective external measurement that would provide us with the feedback we need to learn. The second is what psychologists call the mere-exposure effect: doing something many times makes us believe we have become good at it – completely independent of our actual performance (Bornstein 1989). We unfortunately tend to confuse familiarity with skill.
And this, by the way, is the reason why you should never ask the teachers of paramedics for help if you find yourself in the admittedly unlikely situation where you can choose the person who should perform CPR on you.
In an experiment, beginner and expert paramedics and their teachers were shown scenes of CPR performed by either experienced paramedics or those who had just finished their training ( Flyvbjerg 2001). [19]
As you might expect, the experienced paramedics were able to spot their kind correctly in almost all cases (~90%), while the beginners were more or less just guessing (~50%). So far, so good. But when the teachers watched the videos, they systematically mistook the beginners for experts and the experts for beginners. They were wrong in most of the cases (and only right in about a third of all the cases).
Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus, researchers on expertise, have a simple explanation: Teachers tend to mistake the ability to follow (their) rules with the ability to make the right choices in real situations. Unlike the expert paramedics, they did not look at the unique circumstances and check if the paramedics in the videos did the best thing possible in each individual situation. Instead, they focused on the question of whether the people in the videos acted according to the rules they taught.

Here, we have to thank Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik for her insight and observational skills. The story goes that she went for lunch with her colleagues and was very impressed by the waiter’s ability to remember correctly who ordered what without the need to write anything down. It is said that she had to go back to the restaurant to get the jacket she left there. Much to her surprise, the waiter she admired just minutes ago for his great memory didn’t even recognise her. Questioned about what seemed to her a contradiction, he explained that all the waiters had no problem remembering the orders and matching them with the guests at the table. But the very second diners left the restaurant, the waiters all forgot them completely and focused on the next group.

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. But thanks to Zeigarnik’s follow-up research, we also know that we don’t actually have to finish tasks to convince our brains to stop thinking about them. All we have to do is to write them down in a way that convinces us that it will be taken care of. That’s right: The brain doesn’t distinguish between an actual finished task and one that is postponed by taking a note. By writing something down, we literally get it out of our heads. 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.

Even though results of these studies are currently under intense scrutiny and have to be taken with a grain of salt (Carter and McCullough 2014; Engber and Cauterucci 2016; Job, Dweck and Walton 2010), it is safe to argue that a reliable and standardised working environment is less taxing on our attention, concentration and willpower, or, if you like, ego . It is well known that 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.

Instead of reviewing a text, you could just as well play a round of ping-pong. In fact, chances are it would help you more because exercise helps to transfer information into long-term memory (cf. Ratey 2008). Plus, exercise reduces stress, which is good, because stress floods our brains with hormones that suppress learning processes (Baram et al. 2008).

In short: Pure re-viewing just doesn’t make any sense, neither for understanding nor for learning. It is debatable if we even can call it learning.

It is not surprising, therefore, that 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 (Stein et al. 1984) 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. In fact, “Writing for Learning” is the name of an “elaboration method” (Gunel, Hand, and Prain 2007). But there is a caveat. Even though elaboration works verifiably well for deep understanding, it might not be the best choice if you just want to learn isolated encyclopaedic facts (Rivard 1994). But as long as you are not striving for a career as a quiz show candidate, why would you want that, anyway? The slip-box takes care of storing facts and information.

There is a reason why the best scientists are also often very good teachers. For someone like Richard Feynman, everything was about understanding, regardless of whether he was doing research or teaching. His famous Feynman diagrams are primarily tools to make understanding easier and his lectures are famous because they help students to really understand physics. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was passionate about challenging traditional education methods. He couldn’t stand textbooks full of pseudo-explanations (Feynman 1985) and teachers who tried to make learning easier for students by using artificial “real-life” examples instead of using their actual prior understanding as a connection point (Feynman 1963).

Writing notes and sorting them into the slip-box is nothing other than an attempt to understand the wider meaning of something. 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? That the slip-box is not sorted by topics is the precondition for actively building connections between notes. Connections can be made between heterogeneous notes – as long as the connection makes sense. This is the best antidote to the impeding way most information is given to us in our learning institutions. Most often, it comes in modular form, sorted by topic, separated by disciplines and generally isolated from other information. The slip-box is forcing us to do the exact opposite: To elaborate, to understand, to connect and therefore to learn seriously.

The next step after writing the permanent notes is to add them 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. Number it consecutively. The Zettelkasten numbers the notes automatically. “New note” will just add a note with a new number. If you click “New note sequence,” the new note will be registered at the same time as the note that follows the note currently active on the screen. But you can always add notes “behind” other notes anytime later. Each note can follow multiple other notes and therefore be part of different note sequences.

  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.
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. Even worse, chances are this idea wasn’t even yours, but someone else’s. Having the same thought twice or mistaking another person’s idea with our own is far from unusual. Unfortunately, most people never notice this humbling fact because they have no system that confronts them with already thought thoughts. If we forget about an idea and have it again, our brains get as excited as if we are having it the first time. Therefore, working with the slip-box is disillusioning, but at the same time it increases the chance that we actually move forward in our thinking towards uncharted territory, instead of just feeling like we are moving forward.
I do not recommend “thinking outside the box”. On the contrary, we can turn the slip-box into a tool for breaking out of our own thinking habits.
Ideas and thoughts are captured on the slip-box notes and connected to other notes always in the same way in the same place. These standardizations make it possible that the technical side of note-taking can become automatic. 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.
This kind of self-imposed restriction is counterintuitive in a culture where more choice is usually regarded as a good thing and more tools to choose from seen as better than having less at hand. But not having to make decisions can be quite liberating. In his book “The Paradox of Choice,” Barry Schwartz used numerous examples, from shopping to career options to romance, to show that less choice can not only increase our productivity, but also our freedom and make it easier to be in the moment and enjoy it (Schwartz, 2007). Not having to make choices can unleash a lot of potential, which would otherwise be wasted on making these choices. Academic writing should definitely be added to Schwartz’ list of examples in which less choice is better.
Language in itself is extremely standardised and limited in many ways. 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. Nobody will open a book and wish it contains more types of letters or be disappointed because it is, again, just another variation of the same alphabet.
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. Indifference is the worst environment for insight. And the slip-box is, above all, a tool for enforcing distinctions, decisions and making differences visible. One thing is for sure: the common idea that we should liberate ourselves from any restrictions and “open ourselves up” to be more creative is very misleading indeed

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. They should not cause any distraction. Put them into one place, which you define as your inbox, and process them later. I usually have a simple notebook with me, but I am happy with napkins or receipts if nothing else is at hand. Sometimes I leave a voice record on my phone. If your thoughts are already sorted and you have the time, you can skip this step and write your idea directly down as a proper, permanent note for your slip-box.

  2. Make literature notes. Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. Write down what you don’t want to forget or think you might use in your own thinking or writing. Keep it very short, be extremely selective, and use your own words. Be extra selective with quotes – don’t copy them to skip the step of really understanding what they mean. Keep these notes together with the bibliographic details in one place – your reference system.

  3. Make permanent notes. Now turn to your slip-box. 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. This can soon be done by looking into the slip-box – it only contains what interests you anyway. 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. You can forget about them now. All that matters is going into the slip-box.

  4. Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box by:
a) Filing each one behind one or more related notes (with a program, you can put one note “behind” multiple notes; if you use pen and paper like Luhmann, you have to decide where it fits best and add manual links to the other 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. Read more to challenge and strengthen your arguments and change 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. Just follow your interest and always take the path that promises the most insight. Build upon what you have. Even if you don’t have anything in your slip-box yet, you never start from scratch – you already have ideas on your mind to be tested, opinions to be challenged and questions to be answered. Do not brainstorm for a topic. Look into the slip-box instead to see where chains of notes have developed and ideas have been built up to clusters. Don’t cling to an idea if another, more promising one gains momentum. The more you become interested in something, the more you will read and think about it, the more notes you will collect and the more likely it is that you will generate questions from it. It might be exactly what you were interested in from the beginning, but it is more likely that your interests will have changed – that is what insight does.

  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 , not based on an unfounded idea about what the literature you are about to read might provide. Look through the connections and collect all the relevant notes on this topic (most of the relevant notes will already be in partial order), copy them onto your “desktop” and bring them in order. Look for what is missing and what is redundant. Don’t wait until you have everything together. Rather, try ideas out and give yourself enough time to go back to reading and note-taking to improve your ideas, arguments and their structure.

  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 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. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder and turn to the next manuscript.