How To Take Smart Notes: 10 Principles to Revolutionize Your Note-Taking and Writing
How Luhmann's slip-box worked
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Taking Smart Notes
When we take notes, it should not become a stack of forgotten thoughts. Our notes should be a rich and interconnected collection of ideas we can draw on regardless of where our interests lead us.
A smart note is a reliable and simple external structure to think in - like a second memory. It compensates for the limitations of our brains while turning our thoughts and discoveries into convincing written pieces.
German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) designed his slip-box made up of index cards. They were thematically unlimited. His simple system produced a prolific output. Over his 30-year career, Luhmann published 58 books and hundreds of articles while completing his two-volume masterwork, The Society of Society (1997). He regularly pointed to his slip-box as the source for his fantastic productivity.
How Luhmann's slip-box worked
Benefits of Luhmann's system
Writing is not the outcome of thinking
Writing is the medium in which thinking takes place.
Writing does not begin when we start to put words on a page. It starts much earlier, as we take notes on articles and books, podcasts, conversations, and life experiences we have.
These notes build up as a byproduct of reading and is a way to organize our thoughts and to keep track of the information we consume.
Nobody starts from scratch
We are typically taught to begin writing by picking a topic as the first step. But we can't decide if we haven't read about anything. And the decision to read comes from an existing interest.
Creativity never starts from a blank slate. We start researching long before, with rich material to work with. That is why an external note system is so critical: It makes the writing process possible.
Workflow is essential
Writing is often taught as a collection of tricks: brainstorm ideas, make an outline, use a three-paragraph structure, repeat the main points. Each one makes sense in isolation but requires a holistic perspective.
Writing needs a workflow - a repeatable process for collecting, organizing, and sharing of ideas. A good system is stripped from clutter. A reliable collection of notes is all we need.
Standardization enables creativity
Many people take notes in an ad-hoc fashion. They might underline a sentence or write a comment in the margin. If they have a good idea, they write it down in one of many notebooks. They might save an except from an article. In the end, their different kinds of notes in many places and formats creates a massive project to organize and become mostly unusable or forgotten.
A standardization of notes enables a mass of useful notes to build up in one place.
Our work only gets better
We will become better when we intentionally expose our work to high-quality feedback. Feedback comes in the form of peers, teachers, social media, rereading our own writing. However, notes are available any time you need it.
When we write notes in our own words, we practice the skill of insight. It enables us to separate the parts that truly matter from those that don't.
Work on multiple, simultaneous projects
Books seldom contain only the precise insights you were looking for. There may be many ideas, but only a fraction will be useful and relevant at a given time.
Note-taking enables you to collect all the ideas, and re-use them at a later stage without re-reading all the books again. It also increases the chances that you will stumble upon some forgotten ideas in the future.
Organize by context, not by topic
Organizing notes by topics and subtopics is a classic mistake. It prevents you from discovering meaningful connections between them. While organizing by topics is useful for a librarian, it is not for a writer.
Instead, organize by the context in which it will be used. Ask: “In which context will I want to stumble upon this again?”
Follow the most interesting path
We are often told to "make a plan" upfront and in detail. Success is then measured by our ability to stick to this plan.
In creative work, questions change and new directions emerge to foster a rich ground for accidental discoveries. We should focus on steering our work towards our interests and what we consider relevant. It will energize us to continue in our work without relying on much willpower to do it.
Save contradictory ideas
A slip-box system will lead us to save contradictory or paradoxical ideas. These ideas become very valuable. It will be easier to develop an argument or pros and cons than with a string of one-sided arguments or quotes.
It will also go a long way to counteract confirmation bias - our tendency to take into account only the information we agree with.
Write as if it matters
Any ideas that are kept private are as good as the ones you never had. Everything we write down and share with someone else counts: notes to a friend, homework to a professor, emails to a colleague, presentations to clients. The feedback you receive will propel your thinking forward.
If you write as if it is the only thing that matters, you will be more deliberate in your reading and be more focused, more curious, more rigorous, and more demanding of your own writing.
SIMILAR ARTICLES & IDEAS:
Note Taking - Starter Tips
Preparation steps before a note-taking session:
Taking a structured approach to note-taking is the best way. Put the outline notes by choosing four or five key points of the lecture, followed by in-depth sub-points. One way to review is to use the Cornell Method, which divides the note sheet into three sections:
The Mind Map
The mind map is a visual diagram of abstract concepts.
It works best in subjects like chemistry, history and philosophy, subjects having a neural network like interlocked and complex topics.
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Note-taking: a powerful tool for learning
How to Take Notes While Reading
Figure out your purpose
Ask yourself why are you reading:
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The Cornell Method
Divide your paper into three sections: a 2.5” margin to the left, a 2” summary section on the bottom, and a main 6” section.
The Mapping Method
The page is organized by topic. While in class, start with the main topic. Branch off and write a heading for each of the subtopics. Add important notes underneath each subtopic.
This method is useful for visual learners. It helps you understand the relationships between topics.
The Outlining Method
Use headings and bullet points with supporting facts.
This method is useful when a topic includes a lot of detail.
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