How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking

by Sönke Ahrens

How can you read efficiently, organize your thoughts and ideas, generate interesting topics for research using those ideas, and finally develop an effective paper? In How To Take Smart Notes, Sönke Ahrens outlines the slip-box approach to note-taking, which will help you easily link ideas together as you develop your write-up. 

Instead of brainstorming for ideas and writing a poorly-thought-out paper, this approach helps us choose topics of interest from our note collection and write cohesive arguments.

Summary Notes

Everything You Need To Have

There are many techniques you could use to enhance your learning through note-taking. For example, you could underline important lines in a textbook, write excerpts, or take notes in the margins of your textbook. You could also follow more formalized methods such as SQ3R or SQ4R, which involve studying the text through surveys, questioning, reading, reciting, and reviewing the text. 

These techniques are usually used without considering the actual workflow of research. As a result, no note or piece of information gained through these techniques really fits together. 

Productivity is stunted when you force yourself to do something you don’t feel like doing. Instead, develop a good structure for your workflow so you can focus on small tasks and switch seamlessly between them. These small tasks will build up to your big paper - and a structure you trust enables you to let go of all the information in your head so you can focus solely on the task at hand. 

The slip-box approach is an excellent way to structure your note-taking as it helps you link your thoughts, ideas, and references together. Instead of relying on your memory for details, the slip-box approach provides a simple way to keep track of everything you need to know on your topic. You will need four things: 

  1. Something to write with and something to write on, such as a pen and a notebook

  2. A reference system to collect references, such as the computer program Zotero

  3. A simple box to store away all your notes

  4. An editor with which you can write your paper, for example, Microsoft Word.

Actions to take

Everything You Need To Know

A good workflow structure removes the burden of remembering each and every little detail. By trusting your structure, you can do away with keeping track of every deadline and instead focus on the content of your work. 

This is completely different from making plans about when you want to work. If you make a plan, you impose a structure on yourself, making yourself inflexible. Following this imposed structure requires willpower and effort. This is not only demotivating but also unsuitable for research, thinking, or studying in general, where we have to adjust our next steps with every new insight, understanding, or achievement. 

Instead of making plans that might change, establish a workflow structure where new ideas and concepts act as fuel to propel your forward in your work. 

When it comes to writing, everything, from research to proofreading, is closely connected. All the little steps must be linked in a way that will enable you to go seamlessly from one task to another but still be kept separate enough to enable us to flexibly do what needs to be done in any given situation. 

The slip-box approach to taking smart notes helps us to create a structure that is not only flexible for the purposes of open-ended processes like research and writing but also one in which each new insight and discovery helps us strengthen our arguments and improve the quality of our work.

Ideas are only as valuable as their context, which is not necessarily the same context as they were taken from. The slip-box approach enables you to generate ideas by following chains of notes you have amassed while considering the greater context from which they were taken. 

Fascinating questions will arise, for which the answers and arguments can be extracted from the notes themselves.

Actions to take

Everything You Need To Do

Imagine that the ideas, arguments, quotes, and long-developed passages, complete with a bibliography and references for your paper, are readily available through the practice of consistent note-making. 

The slip-box method makes this possible. The final task of actually writing the paper is the easiest step of the process. The bulk of the work goes into reading literature, thinking about it, and understanding it to translate the information into your notes. If you write to improve these activities, you have a strong tailwind going for you. If you smartly take your notes, it will propel you forward. 

Writing a paper involves the following steps: 

  1. Take notes whenever an idea pops into your mind

  2. Make notes about what you are reading

  3. Develop questions and arguments from these notes and convert them into a written draft

  4. Proofread and edit to fill any holes in the arguments that you have made.

Your notes are central to your writing process. Using the slip-box approach and following your chains of linked notes simplify the writing process. All you have to do is trust in the system you have developed.

Actions to take

Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch

If you grab a study guide off the shelf, chances are, it will emphasize the importance of choosing the right topic and formulating a good question first. However, to develop a good question to write about, you must already have put some thought into the topic. In order to select the right topic, you must have done a bit of research into a number of topics.

A written, linked track of notes will help topics, questions, ideas, and arguments emerge without any force. Plus, all the material you need to answer and support your question is right there too! 

This slip-box method of taking notes reinforces the idea that nobody ever starts from scratch. Instead, everyone draws on the experiences, knowledge, and other information they might have come across. However, without a written record, they can’t trace the ideas they might have to their origins, and they do not have the references or material necessary to answer any questions they come up with.

People who develop their thinking through writing and taking notes can focus on the topics that interest them. So, they are able to generate substantial material on these topics. If the chosen topic turns out to be not as interesting, it is fairly easy to switch to another topic, and the notes will start to cluster around that topic. 

Thus, by consistently taking notes, one is able to gather enough material around their topics of interest to generate interesting questions and ideas.

Actions to take

Let the Work Carry You Forward

A good workflow can turn into a virtuous cycle in which the positive experience of completing a task motivates us to take on the next task. Through practice, we will get better at what we are doing, making us more likely to enjoy our work, and so the cycle continues. 

However, if we feel constantly stuck at work, we become more likely to procrastinate. Any attempts to trick ourselves into working by rewarding ourselves with external rewards contingent on meeting a certain goal are only short-term solutions. 

The dynamic of motivation and rewards only becomes self-sustainable when the work itself becomes rewarding. This means that to motivate yourself to write truly, you need to develop a positive feedback loop. 

We are motivated by the experience of getting better at what we do, and the only way we can improve is through feedback. It is therefore important to develop a “growth mindset” based on constant feedback and improvement. 

However, having such a mindset is also only one part of the solution. It is also important to have a learning system in place that facilitates the creation of such feedback loops. Feedback loops are important to implement in your workflow because they allow us to correct our mistakes while working. 

In most cases, we can only receive feedback when the work is completed - which is not ideal. Instead, reading with a pen in hand and rewriting what we read in our own words provides instant feedback by confirming you have processed the information you have read.

Actions to take

Separate and Interlocking Tasks

If more than one thing tries to catch our attention, we feel the urge to do multiple things at once. Studies have shown that the productivity of people who multitask actually decreases. Not only do they produce a reduced quantity of work, but their quality also falls. 

This is relevant for writing, too - after all, writing involves much more than just typing on the keyboard. Reading, understanding, reflecting, getting ideas, distinguishing terms, finding the right words, structuring, editing, correcting, and rewriting are all essential components of the writing process. These tasks may result in decreased productivity if a conscious effort is not made to separate them practically.

We can train ourselves to be more focused on the task at hand if we avoid multitasking, remove distractions, and separate our tasks so that they do not interfere with each other.

Actions to take

Read for Understanding

Good readers read literature with a pen in hand. This will allow you to rewrite what you have read in your own words and check your understanding of the text. If you understand what you have read and can relate it to your own thoughts, you will be able to transform the findings and thoughts of others into your own unique ideas and arguments.

An author's thoughts and ideas are written framing in a specific context, supporting a specific argument or theory that is theirs and not ours. When we write, we have to view their ideas objectively and give the truest account of what is written in the text. We have to explain it in our own words, embedding it into new contexts of our thinking. 

We have to be smartly selective about what we choose to write in our notes. We may intend to search for arguments, facts, and evidence that disprove our claim, but we are naturally drawn to things that confirm what we already know. 

Developing arguments bottom-up instead of top-down, as with the slip-box approach, is an effective way to deal with this confirmation bias. Gather all the relevant information first and make inferences second. This will enable you to welcome the most insightful ideas you encounter and draw logical conclusions from the complete picture. 

This selectivity also involves distinguishing relevant information from the irrelevant, which becomes possible when you read with awareness, i.e., rewriting what you read to process it better. 

The more we practice, the better we become at this entire process.

Actions to take

Develop Ideas

As your collection of notes grows, you should aim only to add notes that can be linked to existing ones. 

As more and more follow-up notes are linked, you will be able to form your main topic easily. Related, linked branches of notes will form your sub-topics. These note sequences are the backbone of your text, and their loose ordering allows you to change your topic when necessary. 

To link notes with one another, they must be numbered appropriately. Following the numbered sequence will allow you to make meaningful connections. 

As you make these connections, your thinking shapes the internal structure of your note collection. Instead of relying on your fallible memory, you can follow a documented train of thought. 

As your note collection grows larger and larger, you may repeat the same information. To avoid this, compare each new note to your existing collection. Ensure it is unique and contains novel information worthy of being added to your collection. 

When you compare and differentiate your notes, you will likely uncover subtleties that enable you to apply concepts in different contexts. You will also catch any errors, paradoxes, or contradictions in the information in your notes.

Actions to take

Share Your Insights

Once we have made notes, done the required research, generated ideas, selected a topic from our collection of notes, established connections, and gathered all the information, it is time to develop our own arguments. 

For this, you will need to choose your topic and exclude all the information that does not contribute to developing your argument and text.

Finding the right topic is only worrisome for those who rely on their memory. Those who rely on their collection of notes can easily choose their topic of interest by scanning through the chains of linked information. Every time they make a note, they also decide what is worth writing down.

As your collection of notes develops, it will form visible clusters that revolve around a common topic. You can then easily choose what you want to write about. 

Nothing motivates us more than working on a topic that interests us, and nothing is more demotivating than being stuck on a topic, trying to make it work for the purposes of our text. We can minimize this risk of being stuck by utilizing a flexible structure that allows us to change course when necessary.

Actions to take

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