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How to Take Smart Notes

Revolutionize your note-taking and knowledge management techniques with the smart note-taking system.

How to Take Smart Notes


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~ 8 min read

We know today that self-control and self-discipline have much more to do with our environment than with ourselves. and the environment can be changed. Nobody needs willpower not to eat a chocolate bar when there isn’t one around. And nobody needs willpower to do something they wanted to do anyway. 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 organisation of writing and note-taking comes into play.

A good structure is something you can trust. It relieves you from the burden of remembering and keeping track of everything. If you can trust the system, you can let go of the attempt to hold everything together in your head, and you can start focusing on what is important: The content, the argument and the ideas. By breaking down the amorphous task of “writing a paper” into small and clearly separated tasks, you can focus on one thing at a time, complete each in one go and move on to the next one.

A good structure enables flow, the state in which you get so completely immersed in your work that you lose track of time and can just keep on going as the work becomes effortless.

It is a huge misunderstanding that the only alternative to planning is aimless messing around. The challenge is to structure one’s workflow in a way that insight and new ideas can become the driving forces that push us forward. We do not want to make ourselves dependent on a plan that is threatened by the unexpected, like a new idea, discovery – or insight.

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 if nothing else is lingering in our working memory and taking up valuable mental resources can we experience what Allen calls a “mind like water” - the state where we can focus on the work right in front of us without getting distracted by competing thoughts.

Most distractions do not come so much from our environment, but our own minds.

Everything needs to be taken care of, otherwise the neglected bits will nag us until the unimportant tasks become urgent.

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.

“I, of course, do not think everything by myself. It happens mainly within the slip-box”

Studies on highly successful people have proven again and again that success is not the result of strong willpower and the ability to overcome resistance, but rather the result of smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place.

Whenever he read something, he would write the bibliographic information on one side of a card and make brief notes about the content on the other side (Schmidt 2013, 170). These notes would end up in the bibliographic slip-box. In a second step, shortly after, he would look at his brief notes and think about their relevance for his own thinking and writing. He then would turn to the main slip-box and write his ideas, comments and thoughts on new pieces of paper, using only one for each idea and restricting himself to one side of the paper, to make it easier to read them later without having to take them out of the box. He kept them usually brief enough to make one idea fit on a single sheet, but would sometimes add another note to extend a thought.

Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have.

Notes build up while you think, read, understand and generate ideas, because you have to have a pen in your hand if you want to think, read, understand and generate ideas.

You want to learn something for the long run, you have to write it down.

You want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words.

“No matter how internal processes are implemented, (you) need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.”

If there is one thing the experts agree on, then it is this: 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?

Be extra selective with quotes – don’t copy them to skip the step of really understanding what they mean.

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)

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.

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.

More is unnecessary, less is impossible.

You need something to capture ideas whenever and wherever they pop into your head. These notes are not meant to be stored permanently. They will be deleted or chucked soon anyway. They only function as a reminder of a thought and are not meant to capture the thought itself,

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.

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.

You quickly learn to distinguish good-sounding arguments from actual good ones, as you will have to think them through whenever you try to write them down and connect them with your previous knowledge.

It will change the way you read as well: You will become more focused on the most relevant aspects, knowing that you cannot write down everything. You will read in a more engaged way, because you cannot rephrase anything in your own words if you don’t understand what it is about. By doing this, you will elaborate on the meaning, which will make it much more likely that you will remember it. You also have to think beyond the things you read, because you need to turn it into something new. And by doing everything with the clear purpose of writing about it, you will do what you do deliberately.

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.

We tend to think that big transformations have to start with an equally big idea. But more often than not, it is the simplicity of an idea that makes it so powerful (and often overlooked in the beginning).

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 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 designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.


Do you have any questions, or simply wish to contact me privately? Don't hesitate to shoot me a DM on Twitter.

Have a wonderful day.
Abhishek 🙏

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