How to Take Smart Notes, Sonke Ahrens (9/10)

A simple system to help you develop and formulate your ideas and relieve your mind

How to Take Smart Notes, Sonke Ahrens (9/10)

Rating: 9/10
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🤔 Pre Read Exercise: What Do I Know About This Topic/Book?

I don't know too much about this particular book. But I do know that note-taking is extremely critical in one's ability to actually learn, digest and be able to re-apply their reading and discovery later down the line in life. It helps crystalise your experience and understanding in the same way that writing does.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. This book explains the "Zettlekasten" method developed by Niklas Luhmann, a 20th-century Sociologist who published a prodigious amount of work: 70 books and more than 400 articles before his death.
  2. The core idea is that extracting highlights when consuming material (books, TV, etc.) is a waste of time - you must manually create notes and write the ideas you get as you read.
  3. The book offers a simple system to think in to help you develop and formulate your ideas and relieve your mind

🎨 Impressions

I loved reading this book and feel it will have a profound impact on how I process information and formulate and develop my thoughts and ideas. I already read and write a lot, but now I will do so with far more purpose, direction and structure.

While this may seem like additional work and responsibility, this book offers you the tools to actually make this seamless, natural and overall less mental fatigue and work, which is v cool.

🔍 How I Discovered It

I watched an Ali Abdaal video about how he remembers everything he reads, which, funnily enough, is also why I'm writing these notes.

🥰 Who Would Like It?

Anyone who cares about learning for the take of learning + is intellectually curious to the degree that they're overwhelmed by the diversity of their interests and feels as though they cannot significantly progress within any particular field.

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

  • Introduced me to Zettlekasten, which I will now attempt to incorporate into my own life.

💬 My Favourite Quotes

  • Every interesting, meaningful and well-defined task will be done, because there is no conflict between long- and short-term commitments. Not having to use willpower indicates that you set yourself up for success. This is where the organisation of writing and note-taking comes into play.
  • “The notes are not reminders of thoughts or ideas but contain the actual thought or idea in written form. This is a crucial difference.
  • Feedback loops are critical for the motivation, and also key elements to any learning process. Improving at what we do is the greatest motivation. And the only chance to improve is with timely and concrete feedback. Embracing a growth mindset means getting pleasure out of changing for the better (inwardly rewarding) instead of getting pleasure from praise (outwardly rewarding). Orientation to the latter makes one stick to safe, proven areas. Orientation to the former draws attention to the areas most in need of improvement. The most reliable long-term growth strategy is to seek as many opportunities to learn as possible.
  • Understanding our own words is essential for any writer. It helps us improve, thereby making note-taking easier and quicker, increasing the number of learning experiences. This also applies to the ability to distinguish key text from non-key text... the better we become, the more effective our reading, the more we can read, the more we learn, etc... We enter a beautiful, virtuous circle of competency... which you can't help but feel motivated by.
  • Chess players think less than beginners. They see patterns and let themselves be guided by their experience from the past rather than attempt to calculate turns far into the future.
  • Kant (1784): Immaturity is the ability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This immaturity 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!

📒 Summary + Notes

Introduction

  • Everyone writes - students, academics, etc.
  • We write to learn and remember. To organise thoughts and exchange ideas
  • Every intellectual endeavour starts with a note
  • Writing is often discussed in the context of (a) long-form writing (b) style and structure (c) motivation and writers block
  • These discussions assume you begin with a blank screen or piece of paper. They ignore the main part - note taking
  • This book aims to show you how to efficiently turn thoughts and discoveries into convincing written pieces and build a collection of smart and interconnected notes. You can use this note-pool to make writing easier and more enjoyable, but also learn for the long-run and generate new ideas. Most of all, you can write in a way that brings your projects forward.
  • Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.
  • When we’re confronted with a blank page, it’s easy to think “I can’t write when I’m staring at a blank page”. The reason we had the blank page in the first place is because our note taking was “unsystematic, inefficient, wrong, or non-existent"
  • “To sum it up: The quality of a paper and the ease with which it is written depends more than anything on what you have done in writing before you even made a decision on the topic.”
  • The most important indicator of academic success is not IQ, it's the way everyday work is done. What does make a significant difference is how much self-discipline or self-control one uses to approach the tasks at hand (Duckworth and Seligman, 2005; Tangney, Baumeister, and Boone, 2004).
  • Self-discipline is not easy with willpower alone. Willpower is limited and difficult to improve long-term (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice, 1998; Muraven, Tice, and Baumeister, 1998; Schmeichel, Vohs, and Baumeister, 2003; Moller, 2006).
  • Nobody needs willpower to do something they wanted to do anyway.
  • Every interesting, meaningful and well-defined task will be done, because there is no conflict between long- and short-term commitments. Not having to use willpower indicates that you set yourself up for success. This is where the organisation of writing and note-taking comes into play.

Chapter 1 - Everything you need to know

1.0 - Intro

  • “I never force myself to do anything I don’t feel like. Whenever I am stuck, I do something else”
  • A good structure enables exactly this. To move seamlessly between tasks without threatening to lose sight of the bigger picture.
  • A good structure is something to trust. It relieves you needing to remember and keep track of everyting. Trust enables you to let go of the attempt to hold everything together in your head and focus on what's important: The content, the argument and the ideas.
  • We need a structure that breaks down ‘writing a paper’ into small and clearly separated tasks, so we can do one thing at a time. This enables flow.
  • Structuring is completely different from planning. Plans impose structure; they make you inflexible and you must push yourself and employ willpower to continue. This is demotivating and unsuitable for open-ended processes like research, thinking or studying, where we must constantly iterate with every new insight, understanding or achievement – which we ideally have regularly.
  • You must structure your workflow so that insight and new ideas can become the driving forces that push you forward. We don't want to make ourselves dependent on plans that can be threatened by unexpected new ideas, discoveries or insights.
  • Good students look beyond - they explore other disciplines. This requires a tracking system for an ever-increasing pool of information. This enables you to intelligently combine different ideas with the aim of generating new ideas.

1.1 - Good solutions are simple and unexpected

  • Complexity is an issue. Even if you’re just tracking what you read, organising your notes and developing your thoughts, things will become increasingly complex over time. Especially because it’s not just about collecting thoughts, but about making connections and sparking new ideas.
  • To deal with complexity, keep things as simple as possible. A simple structure allows complexity to build up where we want it: on the content level.
  • Routines require simple, repeatable tasks that can become automatic and fit together seamlessly. Only when all the related work becomes part of an overarching and interlocked process, where all bottlenecks are removed, can significant change take place.
  • The importance of an overarching workflow is the great insight of David Allen’s GTD.
  • 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. This doesn’t mean we do everything when intended, but it forces clear decisions on whether tasks still fit into the bigger picture. Only if we know that everything is taken care of, from the important to the trivial, can we let go and focus on what is right in front of us. Only once nothing is lingering in our working memory and taking up valuable mental resources can we a “mind like water”. The principle is simple but holistic. It provides a structure for our everyday work that deals with the fact that most distractions do not come so much from our environment, but our own minds.
  • Unfortunately, GTD doesn't help with writing because writing is non-linear, i.e. next steps are 'look up this footnote', 'write a paragraph', 're-read a chapter'. These are too small to write down, and hard to anticipate what should be next. Zooming out too far gets you to 'write a page' which is equally pointless.
  • The key is a holistic perspective. Everything must be taken care of, otherwise neglected bits will nag us until the unimportant becomes urgent. “Only if you can trust your system will your brain let go and let you focus on the task at hand”.
  • That's why we need a note-taking system as comprehensive as GTD, but suitable for the open-ended processes of writing, learning and thinking.

1.2 - The Slip-box

  • Nicklas Luhmann realised your ideas (notes) are only as valuable as their context - not necessarily the context they are taken from. He began thinking about how ideas could relate and contribute to different contexts. He began to collect notes in a slip-box such that the value of his notes exceeded the sum of its parts. His slip-box became his dialogue partner, main idea generator and productivity engine. It helped him structure and develop his thoughts.
  • From as early as 1985, his answer to how we was so productive was: “I do not think by myself. It happens mainly within the slip-box”. (Luhmann, Baecker, and Stanitzek 1987, 142).
  • “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.” (Luhmann et al., 1987, 154f.)”

1.3 - The Slip-box Manual

  • Luhmann had two slip-boxes
  1. Bibliographical Slip-Box. Whenever he read, he wrote the bibliographic information on one side of a card and made brief content notes on the other side.
  2. Main Slip-Box. He would then look at his brief notes and think about their relevance for his own thinking and writing. He'd then turn to the main slip-box and write his ideas, comments and thoughts on new pieces of paper.
  • He only used one side of paper for each idea, making it easier to read later without having to take them out of the box.
  • He kept them brief enough to make each idea fit on a single sheet, but sometimes add other notes to extend thoughts.
  • He usually wrote notes with an eye towards already existing notes. While the notes on the literature were brief, he wrote them with great care, not much different from his style in the final manuscript. Full sentences and explicit references.
  • More often than not, new notes directly followed other notes and became part of longer note chains.
  • He did not copy ideas or quotes. He made transitions from one context to another. It was very much like a translation where you use different words that fit a different context, but strive to keep the original meaning as truthfully as possible.
  • Organisation of notes - not by topic. He gave them fixed numbers.
  • Full description of method in the book.

Chapter 2 - Everything you need to do

2.0 - Intro

  • Writing notes is the main work: Thinking. Reading. Understanding. Coming up with ideas. Writing and notes are the tangible outcome of this.
  • Writing notes accompanies the main work and, done right, helps with it.
  • “Each step is straightforward and well-defined: (1) assemble notes and bring them into order, (2) turn these notes into a draft, (3) review it and you’re done. “
  • “Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have.“
  • If you want to learn something for the long-run, you must write it down. If you want to really understand something, you must translate it into your own words.

2.1 - Writing a paper step-by-step (3 types of notes + slipbox method overview)

  1. Make Fleeting Notes. Always have a quick-capture inbox to chuck stuff in and worry about processing later.
  2. Make Literature Notes. Whenever you read, make content notes. Write: (a) what you don't want to forget, (b) what you might use later, (c) use your own words. Be short and selective.
  3. Make Permanent Notes. Review your inbox, ideally once/day. Think about how these notes relate to your research, thinking, interests. Don't just collect ideas. Develop ideas, arguments and discussions. Does the new info contradict, correct, support, add to what you already have (in your slip-box or mind)? Can you combine ideas to generate something new? What questions are triggered?
  • Write exactly one note for each idea. Write as if you're writing for someone else. Full sentences, disclose your sources, make references. As precise, clear, brief as possible.
  • Discard fleeting notes from Step 1.
  • Put literature notes from Step 2 into your reference system. You can forget about them now. All that matters goes into the slip box.
  1. Now, add your permanent notes to the slip box by
  2. Filing each behind one/more related notes
  3. Adding links to related notes
  4. Make sure you can find this later - either link to it from your index or make a link to it on a 'Topic' note
  5. Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the system
  • See what's there, what's missing, what questions arise.
  • Read more to challenge and strengthen your arguments and change and develop your arguments accordign to the new information.
  • Take more notes, develop ideas further, and see where things take you.
  • Follow your interest and always take the path that promises most insight.
  • Build upon what you have. Do not brainstorm for a topic. Look into the slip-box to see where chains of notes have developed and ideas have been built.
  • 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.
  1. Decide on a topic to write about
  2. Turn your notes into a rough draft. Don't just copy. Translate into something coherent. Embed into the context of your argument while you build your argument at the same time.
  3. Edit and proofread.
  • Meno's Paradox - It’s unlikely that every text you read contains exactly the information you're looking for and nothing else. Otherwise, you must have already known what was in there and wouldn’t have had reason to read it in the first place. As the only way to know if something is worth reading is by reading it, it makes sense to use the time spent in the best way possible. We constantly encounter interesting ideas along the way and only a fraction of them are useful for the particular paper we started reading for. Why let them go to waste?

Chapter 3 - Everything you need to have

  • NASA tried to figure out how to make a ballpoint pen that works in space. After a series of prototypes, several test runs and tons of money invested, NASA developed a fully functional gravity-independent pen, which pushes the ink onto the paper by means of compressed nitrogen. The Russians faced the same problem. So they used pencils (De Bono, 1998, 141).
  • Keep things simple. The workflow is important. Not the app.
  • You only need four things: (1) something to write with and on, (2) A reference management system, (3) The slip-box, (4) An editor

Chapter 4 - A few things to keep in mind

  • Tools are only as good as your ability to work with them

Chapter 5 - Writing is the only thing that matters

  • Proper study is research because it's about gaining insight that cannot be anticipated and will be shared. There is no such thing as private knowledge. Private ideas are as good as ideas you never had.
  • Focus on writing. Making something public requires it to be written so it can be read. Writing is the medium to share ideas.
  • This doesn’t mean you should do everything less well. Instead, do everything else differently. “Having a clear, tangible purpose when you attend a lecture, discussion or seminar will make you more engaged and sharpen your focus. You will not waste your time with the attempt to figure out what you “should” learn. Rather, you will try to learn as efficiently as possible so you can quickly get to the point where actual open questions arise, as these are the only questions worth writing about.”
  • AA Example. Teaching - reading with the intent to understand so I can teach makes the reading more fun and interesting.
  • “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.
  • AA - Nothing counts other than writing. 10/10!
  • Having started blogging and vlogging, I consume to create. Every podcast, book, article, etc. I consume, I think about 'what are the interesting points here I can use to create...?'
  • Or if there's a specific problem I'm dealing with, I'm thinking about how I can apply this to my life (e.g. podcasts and books about management, leadership, etc.).
  • In a way, I'm acting as if nothing else counts.
  • Thus, all consumption becomes more purposeful, more engaging, more interesting, when you consume to create

Chapter 6 - Simplicity is paramount

  • 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?
  • The slip-box is a simple idea, that isn't easy to efficiently put into practice, but revolutionary.
  • Everything goes into the same box with standardised formatting. Everything is streamlined towards only one thing - insight that can be published.
  • Biggest advantage compared to a top-down system organised by topics = that slip box becomes more valuable as it grows. With topic-organisation, you either add more notes to a topic (makes them hard to find) or add more and more topics and subtopics which shifts the mess to another level.
  • The first system (topic organisation top down) is designed to find things you deliberately search for, putting all the responsibility on your brain. The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you’ve already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.
  • To achieve a critical mass, we separate notes: (1) fleeting notes, (2) permanent notes, (3) project notes.

1. Fleeting Notes - discarded after 1-2 days (drafts/notes)

  • "Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a 1-2 days and turn them into proper notes to use later"

2. Permanent Notes - never discarded. Contain necessary information in a permanently understandable way. Always stored in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

  • "Permanent notes are written that can still be understand even when you've forgotten the context they're taken from"

3. Project Notes - only relevant to a particular project, discarded or archived once the project's finished

  • Common Mistakes:
  1. Scientific journals where you write every idea, finding or quote. Here, you treat every note as "permanent" - and notes never build critical mass. Good ideas are diluted to insignificance. Moreover, the chronological order does not offer any help to productively find, combine or rearrange ideas.
  2. Collecting notes only related to specific projects.
  3. Treating all notes as fleeting ones.
  • “The notes are not reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form. This is a crucial difference.

Chapter 7 - Nobody every starts from scratch

  • “The white sheet of paper or blank screen is a fundamental misunderstanding” (Nassehi 2015, 185)
  • Traditional advice around the process of writing is: Make a decision on what you want to write about, plan your research, do your research, write. But writing can't be that linear.
  • To write about a topic, one must have already done reading and put in thought.
  • Every intellectual endeavour begins from an already existing preconception.
  • We must read, pen in hand, and develop ideas on paper and build an ever-growing pool of externalised thought. We will not be guided by blind plans, but by our interest, curiosity and intuition, formed and informed by reading, thinking, discussing, writing and developing ideas. This continuously grows and reflects our knowledge and understanding externally
  • By focusing on what's interesting and keeping written tracks of your intellectual development, topics, questions and arguments will emerge from the material without force
  • Those who develop their thinking through writing can focus on what's of current interest to them and accumulate substantial material just by doing what they feel like doing. The material will cluster around the questions they return to most, so they don't risk departing too far from their interests

Chapter 8 - Let the work carry you forward

  • Sometimes work drains our energy - we can only move forward with more energy. But when we're in flow, the work itself gains momentum, pulling us and energising us. This is the dynamic we are looking for.
  • A good workflow can easily become virtuous, with positive experience motivating us to take on the next task with ease, thereby making us better at what we are doing, which in turn makes it more likely for us to enjoy the work, etc.
  • But if we feel constantly stuck in work, we become demotivated and more likely to procrastinate, leaving us with fewer positive or bad experiences like missed deadlines. We may end up in a vicious circle of failure (cf. Fishbach, Eyal and Finkelstein, 2010).
  • Tricking ourselves into work with external rewards is a short-term solution. Only if the work itself becomes rewarding can the dynamic of motivation and reward become self-sustainable and propel the whole process forward (DePasque and Tricomi, 2015).
  • Feedback loops are critical for the motivation, and also key elements to any learning process. Improving at what we do is the greatest motivation. And the only chance to improve is with timely and concrete feedback. Embracing a growth mindset means getting pleasure out of changing for the better (inwardly rewarding) instead of getting pleasure from praise (outwardly rewarding). Orientation to the latter makes one stick to safe, proven areas. Orientation to the former draws attention to the areas most in need of improvement. The most reliable long-term growth strategy is to seek as many opportunities to learn as possible.
  • Conversely, the greatest hindrance to personal growth is a “fixed mindset.” Those who fear and avoid feedback because it might damage their self-image. May feel better in the short term, but will quickly fall behind in performance (Dweck 2006; 2013). Ironically, the highly gifted, who receive praise, are more likely to develop a fixed mindset. After being praised for what they are (talented and gifted) rather than for what they do, they focus on maintaining this impression rather than exposing themselves to new challenges and learning from failures.
  • A growth mindset is crucial, but a learning system that enables feedback loops in a practical way is equally important. Being open for feedback doesn’t help if the only feedback you get comes once every few months for work you have already finished.
  • Reading with pen in hand, for example, forces us to think about what we read and check our understanding... we tend to think we understand what we read, until we try to rewrite it in our own words. By doing this, we get a better sense of our ability to understand, and also increase our ability to clearly and concisely express our understanding. This, in turn, helps us grasp ideas more quickly. If we try to fool ourselves by writing incomprehensibley, it's detected in the next step when we try to turn our literature notes into permanent notes and connect them with others.
  • Understanding our own words is essential for any writer. It helps us improve, thereby making note-taking easier and quicker, increasing the number of learning experiences. This also applies to the ability to distinguish key text from non-key text... the better we become, the more effective our reading, the more we can read, the more we learn, etc... We enter a beautiful, virtuous circle of competency... which you can't help but feel motivated by.

Chapter 9 - Separate and interlocking tasks

9.1 - Give each task your undivided attention

  • The constant interruption of emails and text messages cuts our productivity by about 40% and makes us at least 10 IQ points dumber.

9.2 - Multitasking is not a good idea

  • Multitasking makes you feel more productive, but your productivity actually decreases - a lot (Wang and Tchernev 2012; Rosen 2008; Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009).
  • We can improve our focus by avoiding multitasking, removing distractions, and separating different kinds of tasks. This is not just about mindset - it's about workflow. A lack of structure makes focus more challenging. The slip-box provides a clear structure and also forces us to shift our attention consciously as we can complete tasks in reasonable time before moving on to the next one. Together with the fact that 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 (objectively) is very different to writing.
  • Proofreading (unobjectively) means we only see our thoughts, not the text. This is common with students - pointing out problems within the argument, an ill-defined term or ambiguous passage, students usually refer to what they meat before focussing on what they've written.
  • Letting the inner critic interfere with the author isn’t helpful, either. Here, we must focus our attention on our thoughts. If the critic constantly and prematurely interferes, we'd never get anything down. This applies especially for complex ideas that are difficult to turn into a linear text in the head alone. Trying to instantly please the critical reader would result in a standstill to our workflow.
  • Wait until it's time for proofreading. Focus on one thing at a time.
  • Proofreading requires more focused attention. Finding the right words during writing requires more floating attention.
  • Outlining or changing the outline requires a focus not on one thought, but on the whole argument.

9.4 - Become an expert instead of a planner

  • “The moment we stop making plans is the moment we start to learn”... it's like taking the training wheels off a bike. You must get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.
  • You will never learn the art of productive writing just by following linear plans.
  • Chess players think less than beginners. They see patterns and let themselves by guided by their experience from the past rather than attempt to calculate turns far into the future.

9.5 - Get closure

  • Our short-term memory is limited. We only hold c.7 things in our head at the same time.
  • It's much easier to remember what we understand - because these things are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models, or explanations. This is what the slip-box is all about.
  • Every step is accompanied by questions: How does this fit into my idea of...? How can this phenomenon be explained by that theory...? Are these two ideas contradictory or do they complement each other?
  • The way we organise everyday information makes a big difference to both long- and short- term memory.
  • With this method, we write down ideas, thereby releasing our brains. The first step is to break down the task of "writing" into smaller pieces of different tasks that can be finished in one go.
  • The second step is to ensure we write the outcome of our thinking, including possible connections to further inquiries. This makes connections possible, and makes it easy to pick up work any time where we left it without having to keep it in mind all the time.

9.6 - Reduce the number of decisions

  • Use this system to reduce decision fatigue and relax the mind
  • Take breaks-  go for walks, etc. to allow your brain to process information and move to long-term memory

Chapter 10 - Read for understanding

10.1 - Read with a Pen in Hand

10.2 - Keep an Open Mind

  • Be selective in a smart way
  • Be aware of confirmation bias
  • Instead of having the hypothesis in mind all the time, we want to:
  • Confirm we have separated tasks and focus on understanding the text we read
  • Ensure we have given a true account of its content
  • Find the relevance of it and make connections

10.3 - Get the Gist

  • 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).
  • The slip-box/second brain takes care of storing facts and information. It can't take thinking and understanding offer your shoulders
  • Getting the gist is an important part of reading. It's a skill we can improve over time. It leads to a virtuous cycle where we become better at spotting patterns, so our reading becomes faster and we understand more
  • We must develop our ability to identify what's important from a text (or anything else). By doing this deliberately over the long-term, we work our muscle of original thought.
  • Kant (1784): Immaturity is the ability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This immaturity 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!
  • Luhmann - "One must read extremely selectively and extract widespread and connected references... probably the best method is to take notes. Not excerpts, but condensed, reformulated accounts of a text. Rewriting what was already written trains one to shift the attention towards frames, patterns and categories in the observations, or the conditions / assumptions, which enable certain, but not other descriptions.
  • As you get better at this, the shorter and more condensed your own notes will be.

10.4 - Learn to Read

  • Feynmann: If you truly understand something, you'll be able to give an introductory lecture about it.
  • Could I write an article about this? Could I talk to a professor about this? Could I make a YouTube video about this?
  • Another benefit to being a creator and consuming with a purpose!
  • When we re-read, we give ourselves the illusion of understanding. We mistake familiarity for understanding. (We also tend to like things more the more often we're exposed to them). Reading with a pen in hand (ie: taking notes, creating artefacts etc) combats this tendency.
  • It's only when we test ourselves that we can be sure about whether we truly understand something or if we're just familiar with it.
  • Another test for this is rewriting the stuff in our own words without looking.

10.5 - Learn by Reading

  • Learning requires effort. This idea is still very much underrated.
  • Teachers often make students' lives more convenient by categorising things into syllabuses and topics and teaching with pre-prepared presentations. Sticking to one topic not to confuse. In doing so, students are deprived of the effort required to truly understand stuff.

Chapter 11 - Take smart notes

  • It's not possible to think systematically without writing.
  • The mind is reliant on external scaffolding.
  • We mostly consider thinking as an internal process, and writing as part of putting that thinking to paper.
  • But Luhmann and Feynmann argue that writing is thinking. Thinking happens through writing.
  • Feynmann: One time a historian visited his office and saw loads of notebooks. He said "wow, what a delight it is to see the record of your thinking". Feynmann said "no no, this isn't a record of my thinking, it is my thinking". The historian said "Well the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here". Feynmann said "No it's not a record, not really. It's working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper".
  • “Notes on paper, or on a computer screen [...] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible” is one of the key takeaways in a contemporary handbook of neuroscientists (Levy 2011, 290)
  • Consider two different characteristics of human memory: storage strength and retrieval strength.
  • We tend to focus on storage strength (i.e. memorization of facts).
  • Retrieval strength is accessing stored ideas. Building connections between ideas improves informational utility and ease of retrieval.

Chapter 12 - Develop ideas

  • “Notes are only as valuable as the note and reference networks they are embedded in.”
  • The slip-box isn't a Wikipedia replacement. Comprehensiveness is not the goal. The goal is to generate insights for the ideas and topics of interest to you.
  • Digital slip-boxes can use keywords to link notes thematically. Keywords can be generated with one of two purposes in mind:
  • Storage-first keywords (archivist): Which keyword is the most fitting?
  • Retrieval-first keywords (writer): In which circumstance will I stumble upon this note?
  • “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.”
  • Keywords are a critical part of the thinking process. Do not shortchange this task as it facilitates connections between notes.
  • Two types of cross-references for digital slip-boxes:
  • Index or entry-point notes: These are high-level notes for a given topic that are the starting point for a deeper branching of related notes.
  • Note-to-note links: These references highlight lateral connections between individual notes.
  • When you find an idea that already exists in your slip-box but is slightly different, this is an opportunity to add a new note detailing the nuance or variation. These similar but different ideas are important and are easily overlooked without a system like a slip-box.
  • Comparing notes and detecting contradictions, paradoxes and opposition are important facilitators for insight.
  • Feature-positive effect: Phenomenon in which we overweight information that is readily or most recently available to us (similar to recency or availability bias).
  • We not only learn something when we connect it to prior knowledge and try to understand its broader implications, but also when we try to retrieve it at different times and different contexts, ideally with the help of chance and deliberate effort.
  • Steve Jobs: “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.
  • Practice asking counter-factual questions like “what if?”

Chapter 13 - Share Your Insight

  • User your slip-box to identify idea clusters of interest - the raw material and inspiration for more developed writing.
  • Slip-box encourages a bottom-up approach to idea generation.
  • Good questions are in the sweet spot of being relevant and interesting, not too easy to answer but possible to tackle with material that is available or within reach.
  • Be flexible with the structure of your linear writing. The slip-box will facilitate this since individual notes comprising the base materials of your writing are highly modular atomic pieces of information that can be swapped, developed and reordered as needed.
  • Generally, be skeptical about planning, especially if it merely focuses on outcome, rather than the actual work and steps required to achieve a goal.

Chapter 14 - Make it a habit

  • Develop the habit of pen & paper when reading. Establishing a routine makes it easier to develop the urge to turn these findings into permanent notes and connect them with other notes in the slip-box.

Principles

  1. Writing is not the outcome of thinking; it is the medium in which thinking takes place
  2. Do your work as if writing is the only thing that matters
  3. Nobody ever starts from scratch
  4. Our tools and techniques are only as valuable as the workflow
  5. Standardization enables creativity
  6. Our work only gets better when exposed to high-quality feedback
  7. Work on multiple, simultaneous projects
  8. Organize your notes by context, not by topic. The context in which your notes will be used. In which context will I want to stumble upon this again? Instead of filing things away according to where they came from, you file them according to where they’re going.
  9. Always follow the most interesting path
  10. Save contradictory ideas