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How to Take Smart Notes

·17 mins
Book Notes Nonfiction Productivity Self Help Reference
Table of Contents

Top-Level Thought

When it comes to academic or non-fiction writing, how can one learn, think, take notes, and connect the ideas from that notes? Taking notes doesn’t mean collecting information on a piece of paper or on a hard disc, it’s all about building bridges among those information to make it remember when one needs that. To do that remarkable German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has developed a prominent system called ‘Zettelkasten’ or ‘slip-box’, where he collects all of his notes, ideas and connects them in a meaningful way which made him publish over 600 publication in his lifetime.


In my sense, the title of this book shouldn’t be “how to take smart notes”, rather it should be how to ‘use’ smart notes or more precisely how to ‘connect’ smart notes. Then that will make the same difference between learning and understanding. How can we organize ourselves and get motivated for an open-end process like research where there is no defined destination. How can we build knowledge of trees by extracting the information from our literature notes in an insightful way and connecting them smartly? To extract the gist from an article or piece of text or a book is a matter of practice. We will be master on it by practicing more and more. Learning requires effort, effort to recall previous knowledge, and connect them; and understanding requires finding the pattern that we are reading and the ability to express it with our own words. Otherwise we will be just familiar with something, neither learn nor understand the gist of the writing.



  • There is no measurable correlation between a high IQ and academic success – at least not north of 120. Yes, a certain intellectual capacity helps to get into academia, and if you struggle severely with an IQ test, it is likely that you will struggle to solve academic problems, too. But once you are in, a superior IQ will neither help you to distinguish yourself nor protect you from failure.
  • Every task that is interesting, meaningful and well-defined will be done, because there is no conflict between long- and short-term interests. 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. This is where the organization of writing and note-taking comes into play.

Everything You Need to Know

  • We often struggle the most with procrastination and motivation. It is certainly not the lack of interesting topics, but rather the employment of problematic work routines that seems to take charge of us instead of allowing us to steer the process in the right direction. A good, structured workflow puts us back in charge and increases our freedom to do the right thing at the right time.
  • This is not only demotivating, but also unsuitable for an open-ended process like research, thinking or studying in general, where we have to adjust our next steps with every new insight, understanding or achievement
  • Insight doesn’t come easy and that writing is not only for proclaiming opinions, but the main tool to achieve insight worth sharing.
  • We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains.

Everything You Need To Do

  • Writing notes is not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is.
  • If you want to learn something for the long run, you have to write it down. If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words. Thinking takes place as much on paper as in your own head.
  • Thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas is the main work of everyone who studies, does research or writes.
  • Three steps of taking notes → Make fleeting notes → Make literature notes → Make permanent notes.
  • The idea is not to collect (information), 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?
  • Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the system.
  • Turn your notes into a rough draft. Edit and proofread your manuscript.

Writing Is the Only Thing That Matters

  • 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.

Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch

  • The rough order is always the same: Make a decision on what to write about, plan your research, do your research, write.
  • You may remember from school the difference between an exergonic and an endergonic reaction. In the first case, you constantly need to add energy to keep the process going. In the second case, the reaction, once triggered, continues by itself and even releases energy. The dynamics of work are not so different. 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.

Separate and Interlocking Tasks

  • Multitasking is not a good idea. While those who multitasked felt more productive, their productivity actually decreased – a lot. ( Wang and Tchernev 2012; Rosen 2008; Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009)
  • Writing a paper involves much more than just typing on the keyboard. It also means reading, understanding, reflecting, getting ideas, making connections, distinguishing terms, finding the right words, structuring, organizing, editing, correcting and rewriting. All these are not just different tasks, but tasks requiring a different kind of attention. It is not only impossible to focus on more than one thing at a time, but also to have a different kind of attention on more than one thing at a time.
  • If we proofread a manuscript and don’t manage to get enough distance from ourselves as authors, we will only see our thoughts, not the actual text.
  • The key to creativity is being able to switch between a wide-open, playful mind and a narrow analytical frame. ( Dean, 2013, 152)
  • The workflow around the slip-box is not a prescription that tells you what to do at what stage of writing. On the contrary: It gives you a structure of clearly separable tasks, which can be completed within reasonable time and provides you with instant feedback through interconnected writing tasks.
  • 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. While the estimations of our long-term memory capacity are wildly diverse and rather speculative, psychologists used to tend to agree on a very specific number when it came to short-term memory: We can hold a maximum of seven things in our head at the same time, plus/minus two ( Miller 1956).
  • It is not that we have to choose to focus either on learning or understanding. It is always about understanding.
  • 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.
  • 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. Willpower is compared to muscles: a limited resource that depletes quickly and needs time to recover. Improvement through training is possible to a certain degree, but takes time and effort.

Read for Understanding

  • 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 outcome of reading with a pen in the 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.
  • “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)
  • In a small but fascinating study, two psychologists tried to find out if it made a difference if students in a lecture took notes by hand or by typing them into their laptops (Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014). They were not able to find any difference in terms of the number of facts the students were able to remember. But in terms of understanding the content of the lecture, the students who took their notes by hand came out much, much better. After a week, this difference in understanding was still clearly measurable.
  • 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 (or myside bias) that surreptitiously meddles with our life.
  • “If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration.” ( Nickerson 1998, 175).
  • 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.
  • Collecting only one-sided ideas wouldn’t be very enriching. Yes, we have to be selective, but not in terms of pros and cons, but in terms of relevant or irrelevant.
  • 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: The more often we do it and the more focused we are, the more virtuous we become.
  • 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. The good news is that these skills can be learned. But it requires deliberate practice ( Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer 1993; Anders Ericsson 2008).
  • The attempt to rephrase an argument in our own words confronts us without mercy with all the gaps in our understanding.
  • Understanding is not just a precondition to learning something. To a certain degree, learning is understanding. And the mechanisms are not so different, either: We can only improve our learning if we test ourselves on our progress.
  • To understand how groundbreaking this idea is, it helps to remember how much effort teachers still put into the attempt to make learning easier for their students by prearranging information, sorting it into modules, categories and themes. By doing that, they achieve the opposite of what they intend to do. They make it harder for the student to learn because they set everything up for reviewing, taking away the opportunity to build meaningful connections and to make sense of something by translating it into one’s own language. It is like fast food: It is neither nutritious nor very enjoyable, it is just convenient.
  • When we try to answer a question before we know how to, we will later remember the answer better, even if our attempt failed ( Arnold and McDermott 2013).
  • “If learning is your goal, cramming is an irrational act” ( Doyle and Zakrajsek 2013).
  • Exercise reduces stress, which is good, because stress floods our brains with hormones that suppress learning processes ( Baram et al. 2008).
  • 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).

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.
  • Even more problematic than staying within the given frame of a text or an argument is the inability to interpret particular information in the text within the bigger frame or argument of the text.
  • Jerome Bruner, a psychologist Lonka refers to, goes a step further and says that scientific thinking is plainly impossible if we can’t manage to think beyond a given context and we only focus on the information as it is given to us ( Bruner, 1973, quoted after ibid.)
  • Academic or nonfiction texts are not written like this (write everyday for a specific tome) because in addition to the writing, there is the reading, the research, the thinking and the tinkering with ideas.
  • The sum of the slip-box content is worth much more than the sum of the notes. More notes mean more possible connections, more ideas, more synergy between different projects and therefore a much higher degree of productivity.
  • Most people still think about thinking as a purely internal process, and believe that the only function of the pen is to put finished thoughts on paper. Richard Feynman once had a visitor in his office, a historian who wanted to interview him. When he spotted Feynman’s notebooks, he said how delighted he was to see such “wonderful records of Feynman’s thinking.” “No, no!” Feynman protested. “They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.”
  • “Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavor easier, they make it possible” is one of the key takeaways in a contemporary handbook of neuroscientists ( Levy 2011, 290)
  • 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. ( cf. MacLeod, 2007).
  • Learning would be not so much about saving information, like on a hard disk, but about building connections and bridges between pieces of information to circumvent the inhibition mechanism in the right moment. It is about making sure that the right “cues” trigger the right memory, about how we can think strategically to remember the most useful information when we need it.
  • If we test ourselves repeatedly in the same context and environment in which we have learned something, it would make us overconfident in terms of learning success, because we would not be able to discount the environmental cues that probably won’t exist in the context in which we want to remember what we learned.
  • Elaboration is nothing more than connecting information to other information in a meaningful way. 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.

Develop Ideas

  • The slip-box is the medium we think in, not something we think about.
  • It should not be used as an archive, where we just take out what we put in, but as a system to think with, the references between the notes are much more important than the references from the index to a single note.
  • The archivist asks: Which keyword is the most fitting? A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference.
  • It is much easier to detect these small but crucial differences when we literally have our notes in front of our eyes, comparing them during our attempts to connect them.
  • Comparing notes also helps us to detect contradictions, paradoxes or oppositions – important facilitators for insight. When we realise that we used to accept two contradicting ideas as equally true, we know that we have a problem – and problems are good because we now have something to solve.
  • 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.
  • “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.
  • 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).
  • 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 beginning of the research project that led to the discovery of DNA’s structure was the application for a grant. The grant was not to discover DNA’s structure, but find a treatment for cancer. If the scientists had stuck to their promises, not only would they probably not have found a cure for cancer, but they definitely would not have discovered the structure of DNA.
  • It is like martial arts: 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.
  • If someone starts from the unrealistic assumption that a paper can be written by following a linear plan of finding a topic first, doing literature research second, followed by separable stages of reading, thinking, writing and proof-reading, then it is no surprise that any time planning that is based on this assumption will be unrealistic as well. Once we do some research, we may discover that our initial idea was not as good as we thought; once we read something, it is likely that we will discover something else to read, because that is how we discover literature; once we start writing down our arguments, it is likely that we will realise that we need to take something else into account, change our initial ideas or go back to an article we might not have understood well enough. None of this is unusual, but all of this will mess up any grand plans.
  • Ernest Hemingway was once asked how often he rewrote his first draft. His answer: “It depends. I rewrote the ending of ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”
  • If there is one piece of advice that is worth giving, it is to keep in mind that the first draft is only the first draft. Slavoj Žižek said in an interview that he wouldn’t be able to write a single sentence if he didn’t start by convincing himself he was only writing down some ideas for himself, and that maybe he could turn it into something publishable later. By the time he stopped writing, he was always surprised to find that the only thing left to do was revise the draft he already had.
  • The goal here is to get into the habit of fetching pen and paper whenever we read something, to write down the most important and interesting aspects. If we manage to establish a routine in this first step, it becomes much easier to develop the urge to turn these findings into permanent notes and connect them with other notes in the slip-box.
  • The slip-box is as simple as it gets. Read with a pen in your hand, take smart notes and make connections between them. Ideas will come by themselves and your writing will develop from there. There is no need to start from scratch. Keep doing what you would do anyway: Read, think, write. Just take smart notes along the way.

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·6 mins
Book Notes Nonfiction Productivity Self Help Reference