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[Book Summary] How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

How to Take Smart Notes (2017) is exactly that – an explanation of how and why to take smart notes. It explains how this simple, little-known, and often misunderstood technique can aid your thinking, writing, and learning. With the help of smart notes, you may never face the horror of a blank page again.

[Book Summary] How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

Researcher and author Dr. Sönke Ahrens explores the meaning of writing and discusses how to write effectively using the “slip-box system.” He explains how to follow the lead of Niklas Luhmann, a prolific author and sociologist who produced 58 books in 30 years. Luhmann’s slip-box, note-taking system allowed him to connect notes he’d made from his readings with other information from a variety of contexts. Whether you follow this manual’s process or create a digital version, the concept remains the same. It starts with writing notes about what you read and tracking how they intersect, which makes this illuminating for students, academics, researchers, businesspeople and other writers.

What’s inside?

Free your brain by using a “slip-box” system to store and connect your research information.

“To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need.” – Sönke Ahrens

Content Summary

Genres
Advantage #1: Two‐stage filter to prevent mediocre ideas from diluting existing notes.
Advantage #2: Bottom-up approach to deepen understanding and generate new insights.
Final Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Education, Teaching, Studying, Workbooks, Study Guides, Productivity, Writing, Self Help, Personal Development, Psychology, Time Management

Don’t leave this world with valuable knowledge in your head, notebook, or note‐taking application. Take what you’ve learned (or are currently learning) and turn it into something useful by adopting the “Zettelkasten” note‐taking system. The “Zettelkasten” note‐taking system was invented by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann used the system to write 58 books and over 500 academic papers in his lifetime by averaging just six notes a day.

The Zettelkasten system seems like a primitive system of index cards and boxes but is has a remarkable way of gathering and organizing notes so that writing the first draft of a book, academic paper, business plan, or article is effortless. Here are two primary reasons the Zettelkasten system is different and better than traditional note‐taking systems:

Advantage #1: Two=stage filter to prevent mediocre ideas from diluting existing notes.

Capture interesting information from books, lectures, articles, or podcasts, and ideas that come to mind throughout the day (stage 1). I use Evernote, but you can capture literature notes and fleeting notes in any note‐taking application you choose (Apple notes, Google Keep, Notion, or in a simple notepad in your pocket). Capturing fleeting and literature notes is like collecting interesting artifacts on a hike and putting them in your backpack to look at later.

Then, once a day (preferably at the same time each day), go through your metaphorical backpack of literature notes and fleeting notes from the past 24 hours, and determine which notes you should convert to permanent notes.

Ask yourself two questions when determining if you should make a note permanent:

  1. Does this note produce a similar level of excitement as when I first captured it? I often have brilliant ideas in a caffeinated state at a coffee shop, but when I review my notes at home in a non‐caffeinated state, most of the ideas I captured are useless.
  2. Does this note add value to other permanent notes? If an idea is not critical to your project or does not expand your understanding of a topic in your Zettelkasten system, do not waste time converting it to a permanent note).

If an idea or piece of information passes those two criteria (very few will), make it a permanent note by rewriting the note on an index card (I suggest using 4×6 index cards). When you rewrite a note, try to incorporate existing ideas. By finding ways to connect new ideas to existing ideas, you expand your web of knowledge, deepen your understanding, and boost your creativity. As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” And when you are forced to handwrite notes on index cards, you’re forced to slow down, clarify your ideas, and express your ideas in as few words as possible (which will save you time when you write your first draft).

Advantage #2: Bottom-up approach to deepen understanding and generate new insights.

Most people take a top‐down approach to researching by outlining their book, article, or school paper, and then gathering information. However, having a structured outline too early will discourage you from exploring ideas outside your structure. The Zettelkasten system is a bottom‐up researching system that allows you to follow your curiosity and generate keywords as you gather notes. Overtime, your list of keywords organically turns into an interesting outline for your project.

Adopt a bottom‐up approach to your research and writing by adding three things to every permanent note:

1. A location code prefixed to the title

  • Prefix the title of every permanent note with a location code to easily sort and reference your notes. The first note you add to your Zettelkasten system will have a “1” prefixed to its title, and your second note will have a “2” prefixed to its title. If your third note builds on the first note, place it between notes “1” and “2,” with the code “1A” prefixed to its title. If you have notes, “1A” and “1B,” and wish to insert a note between those two notes, it will have the code “1A1.” And if you insert a note between “1A1” and “1A2,” its code will be “1A1A.” Notice a pattern?

2. A list of keywords in the top right corner

  • Keywords are like Twitter hashtags in that they group notes together and are used to quickly find relevant notes. Aim to add one to three keywords to the top right corner of every permanent note. Identify keywords by asking yourself: “What is one word or phrase that will relate this note to an existing note?”
  • When you come up with a new keyword or phrase, put it on your “Master Index” located at the front of your index card box. The Master Index includes keywords and phrases with location codes (like “3A1”) you can use when determining where you should insert new notes. Continuously update your “master index” with keywords and use your “master index” to outline your first draft.

3. Links to permanent notes in the bottom right corner

  • Often a permanent note will have many potential friends in your Zettelkasten system. For example, if a new note could fit nicely behind note “12A1” and have the code “12A2,” but it also relates to notes “2B1” and “24B,” don’t spend too much time debating where the note should go. Simply code the note “12A2” and write down location codes to related notes in the bottom right corner of the note so you can review these links when you write your first draft. Finding links to notes in other parts of your Zettelkasten system is a great way to expand your web of knowledge and spark new ideas that improve your book, school paper, or article.

When your research phase is over, go through your Zettelkasten system sequentially, one card at a time, and effortlessly write your first draft.

Final Summary

About the author

Dr. Sönke Ahrens is a writer and researcher in the field of education and social science, author of the award winning book “Experiment and Exploration. Forms of World-Disclosure” (Springer) and university teacher for philosophy of education.

Education and social science researcher Dr. Sönke Ahrens also wrote the award-winning Experiment and Exploration: Forms of World-Disclosure.

Sönke Ahrens | Twitter @soenke_ahrens

Sönke Ahrens

Table of Contents

Introduction
1 Everything You Need to Know
2 Everything You Need to Do
3 Everything You Need to Have
4 A Few Things to Keep in Mind
The Four Underlying Principles
5 Writing Is the Only Thing That Matters
6 Simplicity Is Paramount
7 Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch
8 Let the Work Carry You Forward
The Six Steps to Successful Writing
9 Separate and Interlocking Tasks
10 Read for Understanding
11 Take Smart Notes
12 Develop Ideas
13 Share Your Insight
14 Make It a Habit
Afterword
Bibliography
Index

Overview

The key to good and efficient writing lies in the intelligent organisation of ideas and notes. This book helps students, academics and nonfiction writers to get more done, write intelligent texts and learn for the long run. It teaches you how to take smart notes and ensure they bring you and your projects forward. The Take Smart Notes principle is based on established psychological insight and draws from a tried and tested note-taking-technique. This is the first comprehensive guide and description of this system in English, and not only does it explain how it works, but also why. It suits students and academics in the social sciences and humanities, nonfiction writers and others who are in the business of reading, thinking and writing. Instead of wasting your time searching for notes, quotes or references, you can focus on what really counts: thinking, understanding and developing new ideas in writing. It does not matter if you prefer taking notes with pen and paper or on a computer, be it Windows, Mac or Linux. And you can start right away.

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“Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavor easier, they make it possible … no matter how internal processes are implemented […you..] need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.” (Levy 2011, 270)

“One cannot think without writing.” (Luhmann 1992, 53)

INTRODUCTION

Everybody writes. Especially in academia. Students write and professors write. And nonfiction writers, who are the third group of people this book is aiming to help, obviously write as well. And writing doesn’t necessarily mean papers, articles or books, but everyday, basic writing. We write when we need to remember something, be it an idea, a quote or the outcome of a study. We write when we want to organise our thoughts and when we want to exchange ideas with others. Students write when they take an exam, but the first thing they do to prepare even for an oral examination is to grab pen and paper. We write down not only those things we fear we won’t remember otherwise, but also the very things we try to memorise. Every intellectual endeavour starts with a note.

Writing p; lays such a central role in learning, studying and research that it is surprising how little we think about it. If writing is discussed, the focus lies almost always on the few exceptional moments where we write a lengthy piece, a book, an article or, as students, the essays and theses we have to hand in. At first glance, that makes sense: these are the tasks that cause the most anxiety and with which we struggle the longest. Consequently, these “written pieces” are also what most self-help books for academics or study guides focus on, but very few give guidance for the everyday note-taking that takes up the biggest chunk of our writing.

The available books fall roughly into two categories. The first teaches the formal requirements: style, structure or how to quote correctly. And then there are the psychological ones, which teach you how to get it done without mental breakdowns and before your supervisor or publisher starts refusing to move the deadline once more. What they all have in common, though, is that they start with a blank screen or sheet of paper.[1] But by doing this, they ignore the main part, namely note-taking, failing to understand that improving the organisation of all writing makes a difference. They seem to forget that the process of writing starts much, much earlier than that blank screen and that the actual writing down of the argument is the smallest part of its development. This book aims to fill this gap by showing you how to efficiently turn your thoughts and discoveries into convincing written pieces and build up a treasure of smart and interconnected notes along the way. You can use this pool of notes not only to make writing easier and more fun for yourself, but also to learn for the long run and generate new ideas. But most of all, you can write every day 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. And maybe that is the reason why we rarely think about this writing, the everyday writing, the note-taking and draft-making. Like breathing, it is vital to what we do, but because we do it constantly, it escapes our attention. But while even the best breathing technique would probably not make much of a difference to our writing, any improvement in the way we organise the everyday writing, how we take notes of what we encounter and what we do with them, will make all the difference for the moment we do face the blank page/screen – or rather not, as those who take smart notes will never have the problem of a blank screen again.

There is another reason that note-taking flies mostly under the radar: We don’t experience any immediate negative feedback if we do it badly. But without an immediate experience of failure, there is also not much demand for help. And the publishing market working how it works, there is not much help in supply for this lack of demand either. It is the panic in front of the blank screen that brings students and academic writers to turn to the bookshelves full of self-help books on writing, a market publishers meet in droves by focusing on how to deal with this horse-has-already-left-the-barn situation. If we take notes unsystematically, inefficiently or simply wrong, we might not even realise it until we are in the midst of a deadline panic and wonder why there always seem to be a few who get a lot of good writing done and still have time for a coffee every time we ask them. And even then, it is more likely that some form of rationalization will cloud the view of the actual reason, which is most likely the difference between good and bad note-taking. “Some people are just like that,” “writing has to be difficult,” “the struggle is part of the deal” are just a few of the mantras that keep too many from inquiring what exactly distinguishes successful writing strategies from less successful ones.

The right question is: What can we do differently in the weeks, months or even years before we face the blank page that will get us into the best possible position to write a great paper easily? Very few people struggle with their papers because they don’t know how to cite correctly or because they suffer from a psychological issue that keeps them from writing. Few struggle to text their friends or write emails. The rules of citation can be looked up and there is no way that there are as many mental issues as papers postponed. Most people struggle for much more mundane reasons, and one is the myth of the blank page itself. They struggle because they believe, as they are made to believe, that writing starts with a blank page. If you believe that you have indeed nothing at hand to fill it, you have a very good reason to panic. Just having it all in your head is not enough, as getting it down on paper is the hard bit. That is why good, productive writing is based on good note-taking. Getting something that is already written into another written piece is incomparably easier than assembling everything in your mind and then trying to retrieve it from there.

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. But if that is true (and I wholeheartedly believe it is), and the key to successful writing lies in the preparation, it also means that the vast majority of self-help books and study guides can only help you to close the barn door correctly and according to official rules – not just a moment, but many months after the horse has already escaped.

With that in mind, it is not surprising that the single most important indicator of academic success is not to be found in people’s heads, but in the way they do their everyday work. In fact, 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. What does make a significant difference along the whole intelligence spectrum is something else: how much self-discipline or self-control one uses to approach the tasks at hand (Duckworth and Seligman, 2005; Tangney, Baumeister, and Boone, 2004).

It is not so important who you are, but what you do. Doing the work required and doing it in a smart way leads, somehow unsurprisingly, to success. At first glance, this is both good and bad news. The good news is that we wouldn’t be able to do much about our IQ anyway, while it seems to be within our control to have more self-discipline with a little bit of willpower. The bad news is that we do not have this kind of control over ourselves. Self-discipline or self-control is not that easy to achieve with willpower alone. Willpower is, as far as we know today,[2] a limited resource that depletes quickly and is also not that much up for improvement over the long term (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice, 1998; Muraven, Tice, and Baumeister, 1998; Schmeichel, Vohs, and Baumeister, 2003; Moller, 2006). And who would want to flog oneself to work, anyway?

Luckily, this is not the whole story. We know today that self-control and self-discipline have much more to do with our environment than with ourselves (cf. Thaler, 2015, ch. 2) – 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.

1 Everything You Need to Know

Until now, writing and note-taking techniques were usually taught without much regard to the overarching workflow. This book aims to change that. It will present you with the tools of note-taking that turned the son of a brewer into one of the most productive and revered social scientists of the 20th century. But moreover, it describes how he implemented them into his workflow so he could honestly say: “I never force myself to do anything I don’t feel like. Whenever I am stuck, I do something else.” A good structure allows you to do that, to move seamlessly from one task to another – without threatening the whole arrangement or losing sight of the bigger picture.

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 (Chapter 3.1). 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 (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Something like that does not happen by chance.

As students, researchers and nonfiction writers, we have so much more freedom than others to choose what we want to spend our time on. Still, 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.

Having a clear structure to work in is completely different from making plans about something. If you make a plan, you impose a structure on yourself; it makes you inflexible. To keep going according to plan, you have to push yourself and employ willpower. 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 – which we ideally have on a regular basis and not just as an exception. Even though planning is often at odds with the very idea of research and learning, it is the mantra of most study guides and self-help books on academic writing. How do you plan for insight, which, by definition, cannot be anticipated? 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.

Unfortunately, even universities try to turn students into planners. Sure, planning will get you through your exams if you stick to them and push through. But it will not make you an expert in the art of learning/writing/note-taking (there is research on that: cf. Chapter 1.3). Planners are also unlikely to continue with their studies after they finish their examinations. They are rather glad it is over. Experts, on the other hand, would not even consider voluntarily giving up what has already proved to be rewarding and fun: learning in a way that generates real insight, is accumulative and sparks new ideas. The fact that you invested in this book tells me that you would rather be an expert than a planner.

And if you are a student seeking help with your writing, the chances are that you already aim high too, because it is usually the best students who struggle the most. Good students wrestle with their sentences because they care about finding the right expression. It takes them longer to find a good idea to write about because they know from experience that the first idea is rarely that great and good questions do not fall into their laps. They spend more time in the library to get a better overview of the literature, which leads to more reading, which means that they have to juggle more information. Having read more does not automatically mean having more ideas. Especially in the beginning, it means having fewer ideas to work with, because you know that others have already thought of most of them.

Good students also look beyond the obvious. They peek over the fences of their own disciplines – and once you have done that, you cannot go back and do what everyone else is doing, even if you now must deal with heterogeneous ideas that come without a manual on how they might fit together. All that means is that a system is needed to keep track of the ever-increasing pool of information, which allows one to combine different ideas in an intelligent way with the aim of generating new ideas.

Poor students do not have any of these problems. As long as they stick within the boundaries of their discipline and read only as much as they are told to (or less), no serious external system is required and writing can be done by sticking with the usual formulas of “how to write a scientific paper.” In fact, poor students often feel more successful (until they are tested), because they don’t experience much self-doubt. In psychology, this is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). Poor students lack insight into their own limitations – as they would have to know about the vast amount of knowledge out there to be able to see how little they know in comparison. That means that those who are not very good at something tend to be overly confident, while those who have made an effort tend to underestimate their abilities. Poor students also have no trouble finding a question to write about: they neither lack opinions nor the confidence that they have already thought them through. They also won’t have trouble finding confirming evidence in the literature as they usually lack both interest and skill to detect and think through dis-confirming facts and arguments.

Good students, on the other hand, constantly raise the bar for themselves as they focus on what they haven’t learned and mastered yet. This is why high achievers who have had a taste of the vast amount of knowledge out there are likely to suffer from what psychologists call imposter syndrome, the feeling that you are not really up to the job, even though, of all people, they are (Clance and Imes 1978; Brems et al. 1994). This book is for you, the good students, ambitious academics and curious nonfiction writers who understand that insight doesn’t come easy and that writing is not only for proclaiming opinions, but the main tool to achieve insight worth sharing.

1.1 Good Solutions are Simple – and Unexpected

There is no need to build a complex system and there is no need to reorganise everything you already have. You can start working and developing ideas immediately by taking smart notes.

Complexity is an issue, though. Even if you don’t aim to develop a grand theory and just want to keep track of what you read, organise your notes and develop your thoughts, you will have to deal with an increasingly complex body of content, especially because it is not just about collecting thoughts, but about making connections and sparking new ideas. Most people try to reduce complexity by separating what they have into smaller stacks, piles or separate folders. They sort their notes by topics and sub-topics, which makes it look less complex, but quickly becomes very complicated. Plus, it reduces the likelihood of building and finding surprising connections between the notes themselves, which means a trade-off between its usability and usefulness.

Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between usability and usefulness. Quite the contrary. The best way to deal with complexity is to keep things as simple as possible and to follow a few basic principles. The simplicity of the structure allows complexity to build up where we want it: on the content level. There is quite extensive empirical and logical research on this phenomenon (for an overview: cf. Sull and Eisenhardt, 2015). Taking smart notes is as simple as it gets.

Another item of good news regards the amount of time and effort you have to put into getting started. Even though you will change considerably the way you read, take notes and write, there is almost no preparation time needed (except for understanding the principle and installing one or two free programs). It is not about redoing what you have done before, but about changing the way of working from now on. There is really no need to reorganise anything you already have. Just deal with things differently the moment you have to deal with them anyway.

There is more good news. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We only need to combine two well-known and proven ideas. The first idea lies at the heart of this book and is the technique of the simple slip-box. I will explain the principle of this system in the next chapter and show how it can be implemented in the everyday routines of students, academics or nonfiction writers. Thankfully, there are digital versions for all major operating systems available, but if you prefer, you can also use pen and paper. In terms of productivity and ease, you will still easily surpass those who are taking not-so-smart notes.

The second idea is equally important. Even the best tool will not improve your productivity considerably if you don’t change your daily routines the tool is embedded in, just as the fastest car won’t help you much if you don’t have proper roads to drive it on. Like every change in behaviour, a change in working habits means going through a phase where you are drawn back to your old ways. The new way of working might feel artificial at first and not necessarily like what you intuitively would do. That is normal. But as soon as you get used to taking smart notes, it will feel so much more natural that you will wonder how you were ever able to get anything done before. Routines require simple, repeatable tasks that can become automatic and fit together seamlessly (cf. Mata, Todd, and Lippke, 2010). Only when all the related work becomes part of an overarching and interlocked process, where all bottlenecks are removed, can significant change take place (which is why none of the typical “10 mind-blowing tools to improve your productivity” tips you can find all over the internet will ever be of much help).

The importance of an overarching workflow is the great insight of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (Allen, 2001). There are few serious knowledge workers left who haven’t heard of “GTD” and that is for a good reason: It works. 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 necessarily mean that we actually do everything we once intended to do, but it forces us to make clear choices and regularly check if our 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 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. The principle is simple but holistic. It is not a quick fix or a fancy tool. It doesn’t do the work for you. But it does provide 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, David Allen’s technique cannot simply be transferred to the task of insightful writing. The first reason is that GTD relies on clearly defined objectives, whereas insight cannot be predetermined by definition. We usually start with rather vague ideas that are bound to change until they become clearer in the course of our research (cf. Ahrens, 2014, 134f.). Writing that aims at insight must therefore be organised in a much more open manner. The other reason is that GTD requires projects to be broken down into smaller, concrete “next steps.” Of course, insightful writing or academic work is also done one step at a time, but these are most often too small to be worth writing down (looking up a footnote, rereading a chapter, writing a paragraph) or too grand to be finished in one go. It is also difficult to anticipate which step has to be taken after the next one. You might notice a footnote, which you check quickly on. You try to understand a paragraph and need to look up something for clarification. You make a note, go back to reading and then jump up to write down a sentence that formed itself in your mind.

Writing is not a linear process. We constantly have to jump back and forth between different tasks. It wouldn’t make any sense to micromanage ourselves on that level. Zooming out to the bigger picture does not really help, either, because then we have next steps like “writing a page.” That does not really help with navigating the things you have to do to write a page, often a whole bunch of other things that can take an hour or a month. One has to navigate mostly by sight. These are probably the reasons why GTD never really caught on in academia, although it is very successful in business and has a good reputation among the self-employed.

What we can take from Allen as an important insight is that the secret to a successful organization lies in the holistic perspective. Everything needs to be taken care of, otherwise the neglected bits will nag us until the unimportant tasks become urgent. Even the best tools won’t make much of a difference if they are used in isolation. Only if they are embedded in a well-conceived working process can the tools play out their strengths. There is no point in having great tools if they don’t fit together.

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. And this is the other insight of David Allen: 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.

That is why we need a note-taking system that is as comprehensive as GTD, but one that is suitable for the open-ended process of writing, learning and thinking. Enter the slip-box.

1.2 The Slip-box

It is the 1960s, somewhere in Germany. Among the staff of a German administration office is the son of a brewer. His name is Niklas Luhmann. He went to law school, but he has chosen to be a public servant, as he did not like the idea of having to work for multiple clients. Fully aware he is also not suited for a career in administration, as it involves a lot of socializing, he excuses himself every day after his 9-5 shift and goes home to do what he liked most: reading and following his diverse interests in philosophy, organizational theory and sociology.

Whenever he encountered something remarkable or had a thought about what he read, he made a note. Now, many people read in the evening and follow their interests, and some even take notes. But for very few is it the path to something as extraordinary as Luhmann’s career.

After collecting notes for a while in the way most people do, commenting in the margins of a text or collecting handwritten notes by topic, Luhmann realised his note-taking was not leading anywhere. So he turned note-taking on its head. Instead of adding notes to existing categories or the respective texts, he wrote them all on small pieces of paper, put a number in the corner and collected them in one place: the slip-box.

He soon developed new categories of these notes. He realised that one idea, one note was only as valuable as its context, which was not necessarily the context it was taken from. So he started to think about how one idea could relate and contribute to different contexts. Just amassing notes in one place would not lead to anything other than a mass of notes. But he collected his notes in his slip-box in such a way that the collection became much more than the sum of its parts. His slip-box became his dialogue partner, main idea generator and productivity engine. It helped him to structure and develop his thoughts. And it was fun to work with – because it worked.

And it led him to enter academia. One day, he put some of these thoughts together into a manuscript and handed it over to Helmut Schelsky, one of the most influential sociologists in Germany. Schelsky took it home, read what this academic outsider had written and contacted Luhmann. He suggested that he should become a professor of sociology in the newly founded University of Bielefeld. As attractive and prestigious as this position was, Luhmann wasn’t a sociologist. He didn’t have the formal qualifications required even to become an assistant for a sociology professor in Germany. He hadn’t written a habilitation, the highest academic qualification in many European countries, which is based on the second book after the doctoral thesis. He had never held a doctorate or even obtained a sociology degree. Most people would take the offer as a huge compliment, but point out the impossibility of it and move on.

Not Luhmann. He turned to his slip-box and with its help he put together a doctoral thesis and the habilitation thesis in less than a year – while taking classes in sociology. Shortly after, in 1968, he was chosen to become professor of sociology at the University of Bielefeld – a position he would hold for the rest of his life.

In Germany, a professor traditionally starts with a public lecture presenting his or her projects, and Luhmann, too, was asked what his main research project will be. His answer would become famous. He laconically stated: “My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Costs: zero” (Luhmann, 1997, 11). In sociology, a “theory of society” is the mother of all projects.

When he finished the final chapter, almost exactly 29 and a half years later, as a two-volume book with the title “The Society of Society” (1997), it stirred up the scientific community.[3] It was a radical new theory that not only changed sociology, but stirred heated discussions in philosophy, education, political theory and psychology as well. Not everyone was able to follow the discussions, though. What he did was unusually sophisticated, very different and highly complex. The chapters were published individually, each book discussing one social system. He wrote on law, politics, economy, communication, art, education, epistemology – and even love.

In 30 years, he published 58 books and hundreds of articles, translations not included. Many became classics in their respective fields. Even after his death, about half a dozen more books on diverse subjects like religion, education or politics were published in his name – based on almost finished manuscripts lying around in his office. There are more than a few colleagues I know who would give a lot to be as productive in their whole lifetime as Luhmann was after his death.

While some career-oriented academics try to squeeze as many publications out of one idea as possible, Luhmann seemed to do the opposite. He constantly generated more ideas than he was able to write down. His texts read as if he is trying to squeeze as much insight and as many ideas as possible into one publication.

When he was asked if he missed anything in his life, he famously answered: “If I want something, it’s more time. The only thing that really is a nuisance is the lack of time.” (Luhmann, Baecker, and Stanitzek, 1987, 139) And while some academics let their assistants do the main work or have a team that is writing the papers to which they add their names, Luhmann rarely had any assistance at all. The last assistant who worked for him swore blind that the only help he was able to give was to spot a few typos in his manuscripts here and there. Luhmann’s only real help was a housekeeper who cooked for him and his children during the week, not that extraordinary considering he had to raise three children on his own after his wife died early. Five warm meals a week of course do not explain the production of roughly 60 influential books and countless articles.

After doing extensive research on Luhmann’s workflow, the German sociologist Johannes F.K. Schmidt concluded his productivity could only be explained by his unique working technique (Schmidt 2013, 168). That technique has never been a secret – Luhmann was always open about it. He regularly mentioned the slip-box as the reason for his productivity. From as early as 1985, his standard answer to the question of how anyone could be so productive was: “I, of course, do not think everything by myself. It happens mainly within the slip-box” (Luhmann, Baecker, and Stanitzek 1987, 142). But few gave the slip-box and the way he worked with it a closer look, dismissing his explanation as the modest understatement of a genius.

His productivity is, of course, impressive. But what is even more impressive than the sheer number of publications or the outstanding quality of his writing is the fact that he seemed to achieve all this with almost no real effort. He not only stressed that he never forced himself to do something he didn’t feel like, he even said: “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.” (Luhmann et al., 1987, 154f.)[4]

Until recently, almost no one really seemed to believe it. We are still so used to the idea that a great outcome requires great effort that we tend not to believe that a simple change in our work routines could not only make us more productive, but the work also more fun. But doesn’t it make much more sense that the impressive body of work was produced not in spite of the fact he never made himself do anything he didn’t feel like, but because of it? Even hard work can be fun as long as it is aligned with our intrinsic goals and we feel in control. The problems arise when we set up our work in such an inflexible way that we can’t adjust it when things change and become arrested in a process that seems to develop a life of its own.

The best way to maintain the feeling of being in control is to stay in control. And to stay in control, it’s better to keep your options open during the writing process rather than limit yourself to your first idea. It is in the nature of writing, especially insight-oriented writing, that questions change, the material we work with turns out to be very different from the one imagined or that new ideas emerge, which might change our whole perspective on what we do. Only if the work is set up in a way that is flexible enough to allow these small and constant adjustments can we keep our interest, motivation and work aligned – which is the precondition to effortless or almost effortless work.

Luhmann was able to focus on the important things right in front of him, pick up quickly where he left off and stay in control of the process because the structure of his work allowed him to do this. If we work in an environment that is flexible enough to accommodate our work rhythm, we don’t need to struggle with resistance. 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 (cf. Neal et al. 2012; Painter et al. 2002; Hearn et al. 1998). Instead of struggling with adverse dynamics, highly productive people deflect resistance, very much like judo champions. This is not just about having the right mindset, it is also about having the right workflow. It is the way Luhmann and his slip-box worked together that allowed him to move freely and flexibly between different tasks and levels of thinking. It is about having the right tools and knowing how to use them – and very few understand that you need both.

People still search for Luhmann’s “secret,” putting down his remarkable output to him being a genius or even thinking they only need his slip-box and they would be set. Sure, you need to be smart to be successful in academia and writing, but if you don’t have an external system to think in and organise your thoughts, ideas and collected facts, or have no idea how to embed it in your overarching daily routines, the disadvantage is so enormous that it just can’t be compensated by a high IQ.

As far as the technology is concerned, there is no secret. It has all been in the open for more than three decades now. So why is not everybody using a slip-box and working effortlessly towards success? Is it because it is too complicated? Certainly not. It is rather surprisingly simple. The reasons are much more mundane:

1. Until very recently, when the first results from the research on the file system were published, some crucial misunderstandings prevailed about how Luhmann actually worked, which led to disappointing results for many who tried to emulate the system. The main misunderstanding stems from an isolated focus on the slip-box and a neglect of the actual workflow in which it is embedded.

2. Almost everything that is published about this system was only accessible in German and was almost exclusively discussed within a small group of devoted sociologists who specialised in Luhmann’s theory of social systems – hardly the kind of critical mass that would draw much attention.

3. The third and maybe the most important reason is the very fact that it is simple. Intuitively, most people do not expect much from simple ideas. They rather assume that impressive results must have equally impressively complicated means.

The contemporaries of Henry Ford did not understand why something as simple as the conveyor belt should be that revolutionary. What difference does it make to let the cars move from worker to worker instead of letting the workers walk from car to car? I would not be surprised if some of them even thought of Ford as a bit simpleminded and overly enthusiastic about a rather minor change in work organization. It is only in hindsight that the scale of the advantages of this small tweak became obvious to everyone. I wonder how long it will take until the advantages of Luhmann’s slip-box and work routines become equally obvious to everyone. But by then, everyone will already have known it all along the way.

Whatever the reasons were: The word is out now and I wouldn’t be surprised if it spreads fast.

1.3 The slip-box manual

How does the slip-box, the heart of this system, work?

Strictly speaking, Luhmann had two slip-boxes: a bibliographical one, which contained the references and brief notes on the content of the literature, and the main one in which he collected and generated his ideas, mainly in response to what he read. The notes were written on index cards and stored in wooden boxes.

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.

He usually wrote his notes with an eye towards already existing notes in the slip-box. And while the notes on the literature were brief, he wrote them with great care, not much different from his style in the final manuscript: in full sentences and with explicit references to the literature from which he drew his material. More often than not, a new note would directly follow up on another note and would become part of a longer chain of notes. He then would add references to notes somewhere else in the slip-box, some of them which were located nearby, others in completely different areas and contexts. Some were directly related and read more like comments, others contained not-so-obvious connections. Rarely would a note stay in isolation.

He did not just copy ideas or quotes from the texts he read, but made a transition 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. Writing that an author struggles in one chapter to justify his method can be a much more adequate description of this chapter’s content than any quote from the text itself (this would call for an explanation, of course).

The trick is that he did not organise his notes by topic, but in the rather abstract way of giving them fixed numbers. The numbers bore no meaning and were only there to identify each note permanently. If a new note was relevant or directly referred to an already existing note, such as a comment, correction or addition, he added it directly behind the previous note. If the existing note had the number 22, the new note would become note number 23. If 23 already existed, he named the new note 22a. By alternating numbers and letters, with some slashes and commas in between, he was able to branch out into as many strings of thought as he liked. For example, a note about causality and systems theory carried the number 21/3d7a7 following a note with the number 21/3d7a6.

Whenever he added a note, he checked his slip-box for other relevant notes to make possible connections between them. Adding a note directly behind another note is only one way of doing this. Another way is by adding a link on this and/or the other note, which could be anywhere in the system. This very much resembles, of course, the way we use hyperlinks on the internet. But, as I will explain later, they are quite different and it would be rather misleading to think of his slip-box as a personal Wikipedia or a database on paper. The similarities are obviously there, but the subtle differences are what makes this system unique.

By adding these links between notes, Luhmann was able to add the same note to different contexts. While other systems start with a preconceived order of topics, Luhmann developed topics bottom up, then added another note to his slip-box, on which he would sort a topic by sorting the links of the relevant other notes.

The last element in his file system was an index, from which he would refer to one or two notes that would serve as a kind of entry point into a line of thought or topic. Notes with a sorted collection of links are, of course, good entry points.

That’s it. Actually, it is even simpler than this, as we now have software that makes it much easier (cf. chapter 1.3): we don’t need to manually add numbers on notes or cut out paper as Luhmann had to.[5]

Now that you know how the slip-box works, you only need to understand how to work with it. And the best way to understand this is to understand a little bit about the way we think, learn and develop ideas. And if I were forced to boil it down to a single bullet point, it would be this: We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains. But first, let me guide you through the process of writing a paper with the slip-box.

2 Everything You Need to Do

Imagine you do not start with a clean sheet. Imagine instead some friendly genie (or well-paid personal assistant – whatever is more likely for you to have available) prepared a rough draft of your paper for you. It is already a fully developed argument including all references, quotes and some really smart ideas. The only thing left to do is to revise this rough draft and send it off. Make no mistake: there is still work to do and it is more than just finding some typos. Editing is work that needs focus. You have to rephrase some sentences, delete one or two redundancies and maybe add a couple of sentences or even passages to fill some holes left in the argument. But at the same time, it is a well-defined task: nothing that couldn’t be done within a few days and certainly nothing you would have trouble motivating yourself to do: Everybody is motivated when the finish line is within reach. No problem so far.

Imagine now you are not the one who has to edit the rough draft and turn it into the final paper, but the one who has to prepare it. What would be helpful to achieve that quickly? It would certainly make things a lot easier if you already had everything you need right in front of you: The ideas, the arguments, the quotes, long developed passages, complete with bibliography and references. And not just readily available, but already in order, sorted by chapters that have descriptive headlines. Now that’s also a clear assignment. No worries about perfect sentences (someone else will take care of that), no worries about finding things and coming up with ideas (someone else already took care of that), you just focus on turning a string of ideas into a continuous text. Again, that is still serious work and you have to put some effort into it, if you want to make it great. You might spot a missing step in an argument and have to fill it, or you might want to rearrange some notes or leave something out that you regard as less relevant. But, again, this is not an overwhelming task and luckily, it doesn’t need to be perfect. No problem so far.

Equally manageable is the task of bringing already existing notes into order, especially if half of them already are in order. Searching through a file system with strings of discussions, plenty of material and ideas is, believe it or not, fun. It does not require the kind of focused attention you would need to formulate a sentence or to understand a difficult text. Your attention is rather at ease and it even helps to have a playful mindset. Only with a less narrow focus will you be able to see connections and patterns. You see clearly where long strings of discussions have already been built up – this is a good starting point. If you do look for specific notes, you have an index to turn to. No problem at all so far.

At this point, it should become clear that you don’t need to wait for a genie to appear, as each step is clearly not only within your abilities, but also straightforward and well defined: Assemble notes and bring them into order, turn these notes into a draft, review it and you are done.

Now, that’s all well and good, you might say, but what about writing these notes? Obviously, it is easy to write a paper if the main part of the writing is already done and only needs to be turned into a linear text. But isn’t that a little bit like saying: If you are short of money, just take what you need out of your piggy bank? Everyone can make things look easy by leaving out the main part. So, where is the genie for that?

Granted, writing these notes is the main work. It will take enormous amounts of effort, time, patience and willpower, and you will probably break under the weight of this task. Just kidding. It is the easiest part of all. Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is. And this is how it is supposed to be. The notes are just the tangible outcome of it. All you have to do is to have a pen in your hand while you are doing what you are doing anyway (or a keyboard under your fingers). Writing notes accompanies the main work and, done right, it helps with it. 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 properly anyway. 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. “Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible,” neuroscientist Neil Levy concludes in the introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, summarizing decades of research. Neuroscientists, psychologists and other experts on thinking have very different ideas about how our brains work, but, as Levy writes: “no matter how internal processes are implemented, (you) need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.” (2011, 270) 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?

Thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas is the main work of everyone who studies, does research or writes. If you write to improve all of these activities, you have a strong tailwind going for you. If you take your notes in a smart way, it will propel you forward.

2.1 Writing a paper step by step

1. Make fleeting notes. Always have something at hand to write with to capture every idea that pops into your mind. Don’t worry too much about how you write it down or what you write it on. These are fleeting notes, mere reminders of what is in your head. They should not cause any distraction. Put them into one place, which you define as your inbox, and process them later. I usually have a simple notebook with me, but I am happy with napkins or receipts if nothing else is at hand. Sometimes I leave a voice record on my phone. If your thoughts are already sorted and you have the time, you can skip this step and write your idea directly down as a proper, permanent note for your slip-box.

2. Make literature notes. Whenever you read something, make notes about the content. Write down what you don’t want to forget or think you might use in your own thinking or writing. Keep it very short, be extremely selective, and use your own words. Be extra selective with quotes – don’t copy them to skip the step of really understanding what they mean. Keep these notes together with the bibliographic details in one place – your reference system.

3. 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) and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking or interests. This can soon be done by looking into the slip-box – it only contains what interests you anyway. The idea is not to collect, 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?

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. Throw away the fleeting notes from step one and put the literature notes from step two into your reference system. You can forget about them now. All that matters is going into the slip-box.

4. Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box by:

a) Filing each one behind one or more related notes (with a program, you can put one note “behind” multiple notes; if you use pen and paper like Luhmann, you have to decide where it fits best and add manual links to the other notes). Look to which note the new one directly relates or, if it does not relate directly to any other note yet, just file it behind the last one.

b) Adding links to related notes.

c) Making sure you will be able to find this note later by either linking to it from your index or by making a link to it on a note that you use as an entry point to a discussion or topic and is itself linked to the index.

5. Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the system. See what is there, what is missing and what questions arise. Read more to challenge and strengthen your arguments and change and develop your arguments according to the new information you are learning about. Take more notes, develop ideas further and see where things will take you. Just follow your interest and always take the path that promises the most insight. Build upon what you have. Even if you don’t have anything in your slip-box yet, you never start from scratch – you already have ideas on your mind to be tested, opinions to be challenged and questions to be answered. Do not brainstorm for a topic. Look into the slip-box instead to see where chains of notes have developed and ideas have been built up to clusters. 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. It might be exactly what you were interested in from the beginning, but it is more likely that your interests will have changed – that is what insight does.

6. After a while, you will have developed ideas far enough to decide on a topic to write about. Your topic is now based on what you have, not based on an unfounded idea about what the literature you are about to read might provide. Look through the connections and collect all the relevant notes on this topic (most of the relevant notes will already be in partial order), copy them onto your “desktop”[6] and bring them in order. Look for what is missing and what is redundant. Don’t wait until you have everything together. Rather, try ideas out and give yourself enough time to go back to reading and note-taking to improve your ideas, arguments and their structure.

7. 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.

8. Edit and proofread your manuscript. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder and turn to the next manuscript.

These are the steps, presented as if you will write only one paper/article at a time. In reality, you never work on just one idea, but many ideas in different stages at the same time. And that is where the system plays out its real strengths. We cannot help but think about more than one question at a time and the chances are that you will think and write in the future as well. It might not be for academia or a publication, but certainly for your own intellectual growth. Gather what you encounter along your way and don’t let any good idea go to waste. You might read a certain book in hope it could be useful for one of the papers you write. Maybe you are wrong, but it still might contain some interesting thoughts worth keeping and useful for something else you haven’t thought about yet.

In truth, it is highly unlikely that every text you read will contain exactly the information you looked 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.[7] As the only way to find out if something is worth reading is by reading it (even just bits of it), it makes sense to use the time spent in the best possible way. We constantly encounter interesting ideas along the way and only a fraction of them are useful for the particular paper we started reading it for. Why let them go to waste? Make a note and add it to your slip-box. It improves it. Every idea adds to what can become a critical mass that turns a mere collection of ideas into an idea-generator.

A typical work day will contain many, if not all, of these steps: You read and take notes. You build connections within the slip-box, which in itself will spark new ideas. You write them down and add them to the discussion. You write on your paper, notice a hole in the argument and have another look in the file system for the missing link. You follow up on a footnote, go back to research and might add a fitting quote to one of your papers in the making.

How focused you want to read depends on your priorities. You don’t have to read anything you don’t consider an absolute necessity for finishing your most urgent paper, but you will still encounter a lot of other ideas and information along the way. Spending the little extra time to add them to your system will make all the difference, because the accidental encounters make up the majority of what we learn.

Imagine if we went through life learning only what we planned to learn or being explicitly taught. I doubt we would have even learned to speak. Each added bit of information, filtered only by our interest, is a contribution to our future understanding, thinking and writing. And the best ideas are usually the ones we haven’t anticipated anyway.

Most people follow different lines of thought at the same time. They might focus for a while on one idea, but then leave it alone for another while until they see how to proceed further. It is helpful then to be able to pick up on another idea now and go back to the earlier thought later. It is much more realistic to keep this flexibility and you don’t have to worry about starting all over.

3 Everything You Need to Have

There is this story where NASA tried to figure out how to make a ballpoint pen that works in space. If you have ever tried to use a ballpoint pen over your head, you have probably realised it is gravity that keeps the ink flowing. 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. According to this story, the Russians faced the same problem. So they used pencils (De Bono, 1998, 141). The slip-box follows the Russian model: Focus on the essentials, don’t complicate things unnecessarily.

Academic writing in itself is not a complicated process that requires a variety of complicated tools, but is in constant danger of being clogged with unnecessary distractions. Unfortunately, most students collect and embrace over time a variety of learning and note-taking techniques, each promising to make something easier, but combined have the opposite effect.

The whole workflow becomes complicated: There is the technique of underlining important sentences (sometimes in different colours or shapes), commenting in the margins of a text, writing excerpts, employing reading methods with acronyms like SQ3R[8] or SQ4R,[9] writing a journal, brainstorming a topic or following multi-step question sheets – and then there are, of course, the one thousand and twelve apps and programs that are supposed to help with learning and writing. Few of these techniques are particularly complicated in themselves, but they are usually used without any regard to the actual workflow, which then quickly becomes a mess. As nothing really fits together, working within this arrangement becomes extremely complicated indeed and difficult to get anything done.

And if you stumble upon one idea and think that it might connect to another idea, what do you do when you employ all these different techniques? Go through all your books to find the right underlined sentence? Reread all your journals and excerpts? And what do you do then? Write an excerpt about it? Where do you save it and how does this help to make new connections? Every little step suddenly turns into its own project without bringing the whole much further forward. Adding another promising technique to it, then, would make things only worse.

That is why the slip-box is not introduced as another technique, but as a crucial element in an overarching workflow that is stripped of everything that could distract from what is important. Good tools do not add features and more options to what we already have, but help to reduce distractions from the main work, which here is thinking. The slip-box provides an external scaffold to think in and helps with those tasks our brains are not very good at, most of all objective storage of information.

That is pretty much it. To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need. Everything else is just clutter.

3.1 The Tool Box

We need four tools:

· Something to write with and something to write on (pen and paper will do)

· A reference management system (the best programs are free)

· The slip-box (the best program is free)

· An editor (whatever works best for you: very good ones are free)

More is unnecessary, less is impossible.

1. You need something to capture ideas whenever and wherever they pop into your head. Whatever you use, it should not require any thoughts, attention or multiple steps to write it down. It can be a notebook, a napkin, an app on your phone or iPad. 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, which requires time to phrase proper sentences and check facts. I recommend having pen and paper with you at all times. It is really hard to beat a notebook in its simplicity. If you use other tools, make sure everything ends up in one place, a central inbox or something like that, where you can process it soon, ideally within a day.

2. The reference system has two purposes: To collect the references (duh) and the notes you take during your reading. I strongly recommend using a free program like Zotero, which allows you to make new entries via browser plugins or just by entering the ISBN or digital object identifier (DOI) number. Zotero also can be integrated into Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, LibreOffice and NeoOffice, which allows you to insert quotations without actually typing in the reference. That not only makes things easier, you also mitigate the risk of messing things up when you add, edit or delete additional references. You can also easily change the format according to the standards required by your professors or the journal you write for. You can add notes to each entry – but it would also be fine to write your notes by hand and link them to the reference if you prefer to write by hand at this stage. In that case, just give the notes a standardised title like “AuthorYear” and keep them in alphabetical order in one place. You can download Zotero for free at zotero.org (Windows, Mac and Linux). You will find the links to all recommended programs on takesmartnotes.com.[10] If you prefer or already work with another, equally simple program, there is no reason not to use that.

3. The slip-box. Some prefer the old-fashioned pen and paper version in a wooden box. That’s fine – computers can only speed up a relatively minor part of the work anyway, like adding links and formatting references. They can’t speed up the main part of the work, which is thinking, reading and understanding. All you would need are sheets of paper about the size of a postcard (Luhmann used the DIN A6 size, 148 x 105 mm or 5.83 x 4.13 inches) and a box to keep them in. And even though there are clear benefits of handwriting (cf. below chapter 3.2.1), I recommend using the digital version, if only for mobility. Even though you could basically emulate the slip-box with any program that allows setting links and tagging (like Evernote or a Wiki), I strongly recommend using Daniel Lüdecke’s Zettelkasten. It is the only program I know that really implements the principles behind Luhmann’s system and is at the same time simple and easy to use. It is free and available for different operating systems. You can download it from zettelkasten.danielluedecke.de (please consider sending a donation to the developer if you like it).

4. Finally, the editor: If you use Zotero, I recommend using one of the editors it is compatible with (Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, LibreOffice or NeoOffice), because it makes life a lot easier if you don’t have to type in every reference manually. Except for that, everything works fine – no editor can improve an argument.

If you have pen and paper, an editor, your slip-box and reference system at hand, you are ready to go.

4 A Few Things to Keep in Mind

Getting the tools ready shouldn’t have taken more than 5-10 minutes. But having the right tools is only one part of the equation. It is easy to get fooled by their simplicity. Many “tried them out” without really understanding how to work with them and were expectedly disappointed with the results. Tools are only as good as your ability to work with them. Everybody knows how to handle a flute (you blow into one end and press your fingers on the holes according to the notes you are playing), but nobody would try it out once and then judge the instrument on what they hear.[11]

But with tools like the slip-box, we sometimes forget that the handling is as important as the possibilities of the tool itself. If we try to use a tool without putting any thought into the way we work with it, even the best tool would not be of much help. The slip-box, for example, would most likely be used as an archive for notes – or worse: a graveyard for thoughts (cf. Hollier 2005, 40 on Mallarmé’s index cards). Unfortunately, there are quite a few explanations of Luhmann’s technique on the Internet that focus in a misleading way on the technicalities of the slip-box. This has led to plenty of misconceptions about its abilities. But things are changing: Luhmann’s slip-box is currently the object of a long-term research project at the University of Bielefeld, and their first results have already given us a comprehensive understanding about how Luhmann really worked with it. You can look up for yourself some of his notes on their website.[12] Soon, you will be able to access the whole digitalised slip-box online. Add to this understanding recent psychological insights about learning, creativity and thinking, and we also get a pretty good picture why it works. And it is indeed crucially important not only to know how it works or how to work with it, but also why it works. Only then will you be able to tweak it for your own needs. And this is what this book is for: To give you all the resources you need to work in the best possible way with the best technique available. By keeping just a few basic principles in mind and with an understanding of the logic behind the file system, I see no reason why anyone should not be able to replicate Luhmann’s formula for successful learning, writing and research.

THE FOUR UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES

5 Writing Is the Only Thing That Matters

For students, the need for writing mainly appears in the form of examination. In this understanding, the written work represents a preceded performance, namely learning, understanding and the ability to analyse other texts critically. By writing, students demonstrate what they have learned, show their ability to think critically and ability to develop ideas. This understanding is related to the idea that students prepare for independent research. In this mindset, the writing of a paper is just another skill to be learned. It is compartmentalised from the other tasks – it is seen as one task among others. Students should not only learn to write papers, but also learn facts, be able to discuss their ideas in seminars and listen carefully to lectures. Writing papers is seen as a task in itself with a beginning and an end. Almost all books written on academic writing start from this assumption. And almost all of them proceed accordingly, describing an idealised process in certain consecutive steps.

First, the task to write is given, then there is the challenge to find a topic or a specific angle on a problem, the research to do, starting with the collection of the relevant literature, followed by reading the material, processing it and coming to a conclusion. Writing is what follows: In the beginning stands the question to be answered, followed by an overview of the literature, the discussion of it and the conclusion. This, according to this thinking, prepares you for doing independent research. Alas, it does not. If you become successful in your research, it was not because you learned to approach writing in this way, but despite it.

This book is based on another assumption: 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. Studying, done properly, is research, because it is about gaining insight that cannot be anticipated and will be shared within the scientific community under public scrutiny. 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.

School is different. Pupils are usually not encouraged to follow their own learning paths, question and discuss everything the teacher is teaching and move on to another topic if something does not promise to generate interesting insight. The teacher is there for the pupils to learn. But, as Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the Humboldt University of Berlin and brother to the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt, put it, the professor is not there for the student and the student not for the professor. Both are only there for the truth. And truth is always a public matter. Everything within the university aims at some kind of publication. A written piece does not necessarily need to be accepted in an international journal to become public. In fact, the vast majority of what is written and discussed is not published in this narrow sense. The review process itself is a form of presenting an idea publicly to the peers and so is everything a student hands over to a professor or lecturer. Even the handout for a presentation discussed with fellow students is a written piece made public. It is public because in the discussion, it does not matter anymore what the author meant, only what is there in writing. The moment the author can be removed from the scene, the written piece is a public claim on truth. The criteria for a convincing argument are always the same, regardless of who the author is or the status of the publisher: They have to be coherent and based on facts. Truth does not belong to anyone; it is the outcome of the scientific exchange of written ideas. This is why the presentation and the production of knowledge cannot be separated, but are rather two sides of the same coin (Peters and Schäfer 2006, 9). If writing is the medium of research and studying nothing else than research, then there is no reason not to work as if nothing else counts than writing.

Working as if nothing else counts than writing does not mean spending more time writing at the expense of everything else. Only if we compartmentalise our work into different, isolated tasks will it seem like focusing on writing reduces the time we spend on other tasks. But it does not mean to read less, for this is the main source of the writing material. It doesn’t mean to attend fewer lectures or seminars, because they provide you with the ideas to write about and questions worth answering. Attending lectures is also one of the best ways to get an idea about the current state of research, not to mention the ability to ask and discuss questions. Focusing on writing also doesn’t mean to stop giving presentations or finding other ways of making your thoughts public. Where else could you get feedback for your ideas?

Focusing on writing as if nothing else counts does not necessarily mean you should do everything else less well, but it certainly makes you 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. 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. Deliberate practice is the only serious way of becoming better at what we are doing (cf. Anders Ericsson, 2008). If you change your mind about the importance of writing, you will also change your mind about everything else. 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.

6 Simplicity Is Paramount

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). Boxes, for example, are simple. Malcom McLean, the owner of a trucking company and a former trucker himself, regularly got stuck in traffic on the crowded coastal highways. When he came up with an idea to circumvent the congested roads, it was a simple one. He had no clue that it would tip the world in a new direction. He did not foresee that his simple idea would reshape the political landscape, let some nations rise to the top and other fall behind, make century-old professions redundant, give birth to new industries, and would barely leave a single person on earth unaffected by it. I am speaking, of course, of the shipping container, which is basically just a box. When McLean converted the tanker Ideal X to be able to carry 58 containers and set it to sail on 26 April 1956, it was just because it made more sense to ship parts of a lorry than the whole lorry itself, which in itself made more sense than to have them stand in traffic for days. He certainly did not aim to turn world trade upside down and pave the way for Asia to become the next big economic power. He just didn’t want to get stuck in traffic anymore.

It wasn’t just that nobody foresaw the impact of something as simple as this box. Most ship owners had in fact considered the idea of putting different kinds of products into the same sized boxes as fairly abstruse. Experienced stevedores were able to use the storage room on a ship optimally by arranging and fitting the goods, and every good came in its optimal package. Why replace it with an obviously less optimal solution? And speaking of suboptimal, why would anyone want to try to fit square boxes into a round-shaped ship body anyway? Ship owners also didn’t have many customers who wanted to ship exactly the amount that fit into a container. That either left customers unhappy or containers half empty or filled with goods from different customers, which meant that you had to unpack and rearrange the containers to untangle different orders in every single harbour. That did not sound very efficient to the ears of experienced shippers. And then you had the problem with the boxes themselves. Once unloaded and sent off on trucks, you had to find a way to get them back. McLean lost hundreds of containers this way. It was a logistical nightmare.

And by the way: McLean wasn’t the only one who had the idea to use containers on ships. Many others tried it, too, and almost all gave up on the idea soon after – not because they were too stubborn to accept a great idea, but because they lost too much money on it (Levinson, 2006, 45f). The idea was simple, but it wasn’t easy to put it efficiently into practice.

In hindsight, we know why they failed: The ship owners tried to integrate the container into their usual way of working without changing the infrastructure and their routines. They tried to benefit from the obvious simplicity of loading containers onto ships without letting go of what they were used to. In the beginning, the perception was very much shaped by what worked before, and only the most immediate effects were visible. The ship owners looked at the bags and crates of goods and wondered why they should pack them a second time into another box. They were glad when they unloaded their goods at the harbour and they were eager to move on. They wondered why they should go container-hunting instead. They looked at the ships they had and wondered how to fit containers into them. McLean understood better than others that it is not the perspective of the ship-owners that counts, but the purpose of the whole trade: to bring goods from the producer to the final destination. Only after aligning every single part of the delivery chain, from packaging to delivery, from the design of the ships to the design of the harbours, was the full potential of the container unleashed.

When the advantages became obvious, second-order effects came into play and went into a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop. The more harbours were able to handle containers, the more container ships were needed to be built, which made shipping cheaper, which increased the range of goods worth shipping, which created more traffic, which made bigger container ships economical, which created more demand for infrastructure and so on. It wasn’t just another way of shipping goods. It was a whole new way of doing business.

Many students and academic writers think like the early ship owners when it comes to note-taking. They handle their ideas and findings in the way it makes immediate sense: If they read an interesting sentence, they underline it. If they have a comment to make, they write it into the margins. If they have an idea, they write it into their notebook, and if an article seems important enough, they make the effort and write an excerpt. 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 this textual infrastructure, this so-often-taught workflow, it indeed does not make much sense to rewrite these notes and put them into a box, only to take them out again later when a certain quote or reference is needed during writing and thinking.

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? Most students sort their material by topic or even by seminars and semester. From the perspective of someone who writes, that makes as much sense as sorting your errands by purchase date and the store they were bought from. Can’t find your trousers? Maybe they are with the bleach you bought the same day at your department store.

The slip-box is the shipping container of the academic world. Instead of having different storage for different ideas, everything goes into the same slip-box and is standardised into the same format. Instead of focusing on the in-between steps and trying to make a science out of underlining systems, reading techniques or excerpt writing, everything is streamlined towards one thing only: insight that can be published. The biggest advantage compared to a top-down storage system organised by topics is that the slip-box becomes more and more valuable the more it grows, instead of getting messy and confusing. If you sort by topic, you are faced with the dilemma of either adding more and more notes to one topic, which makes them increasingly hard to find, or adding more and more topics and subtopics to it, which only shifts the mess to another level. The first system 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 have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.

Even though the slip-box, being organised bottom-up, does not face the trade-off problem between too many or too few topics, it too can lose its value when notes are added to it indiscriminately. It can only play out its strengths when we aim for a critical mass, which depends not only on the number of notes, but also their quality and the way they are handled.

To achieve a critical mass, it is crucial to distinguish clearly between three types of notes:

1. Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.

2. Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

3. Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished.

Only if the notes of these three categories are kept separated it will be possible to build a critical mass of ideas within the slip-box. One of the major reasons for not getting much writing or publishing done lies in the confusion of these categories.

A typical mistake is made by many diligent students who are adhering to the advice to keep a scientific journal. A friend of mine does not let any idea, interesting finding or quote he stumbles upon dwindle away and writes everything down. He always carries a notebook with him and often makes a few quick notes during a conversation. The advantage is obvious: No idea ever gets lost. The disadvantages are serious, though: As he treats every note as if it belongs to the “permanent” category, the notes will never build up a critical mass. The collection of good ideas is diluted to insignificance by all the other notes, which are only relevant for a specific project or actually not that good on second sight. On top of that, the strict chronological order does not offer any help to find, combine or rearrange ideas in a productive sense. It is not surprising that my friend has a bookshelf filled with notebooks full of wonderful ideas, but not a single publication to show.

The second typical mistake is to collect notes only related to specific projects. On first sight, it makes much more sense. You decide on what you are going to write about and then collect everything that helps you to do that. The disadvantage is that you have to start all over after each project and cut off all other promising lines of thought. That means that everything you found, thought or encountered during the time of a project will be lost. If you try to mitigate the effect by opening a new folder for every potential new project whenever you stumble upon something that might be interesting for that, you will soon end up with an overwhelming amount of unfinished projects. If that in itself does not become a drag on your motivation, the task of keeping track of them will. But most importantly, without a permanent reservoir of ideas, you will not be able to develop any major ideas over a longer period of time because you are restricting yourself either to the length of a single project or the capacity of your memory. Exceptional ideas need much more than that.

The third typical mistake is, of course, to treat all notes as fleeting ones. You can easily spot this approach by the mess that comes with it, or rather by the cycle of slowly growing piles of material followed by the impulse for major clean-ps. Just collecting unprocessed fleeting notes inevitably leads to chaos. Even small amounts of unclear and unrelated notes lingering around your desk will soon induce the wish of starting from scratch.

What all these category-confusing approaches have in common is that the benefit of note-taking decreases with the number of notes you keep. More notes will make it more difficult to retrieve the right ones and bring related ones together in a playful way. But it should be just the opposite: The more you learn and collect, the more beneficial your notes should become, the more ideas can mingle and give birth to new ones – and the easier it should be to write an intelligent text with less effort.

It is important to reflect on the purpose of these different types of notes. Fleeting notes are there for capturing ideas quickly while you are busy doing something else. When you are in a conversation, listing to a lecture, hear something noteworthy or an idea pops into your mind while you are running errands, a quick note is the best you can do without interrupting what you are in the middle of doing. That might even apply to reading, if you want to focus on a text without interrupting your reading flow. Then you might want to just underline sentences or write short comments in the margins. It is important to understand, though, that underlining sentences or writing comments in the margins are also just fleeting notes and do nothing to elaborate on a text. They will very soon become completely useless – unless you do something with them. If you already know that you will not go back to them, don’t take these kind of notes in the first place. Take proper notes instead. Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes you can use later. Fleeting literature notes can make sense if you need an extra step to understand or grasp an idea, but they will not help you in the later stages of the writing process, as no underlined sentence will ever present itself when you need it in the development of an argument. These kinds of notes are just reminders of a thought, which you haven’t had the time to elaborate on yet. Permanent notes, on the other hand, are written in a way that can still be understood even when you have forgotten the context they are taken from.

Most ideas will not stand the test of time, while others might become the seed for a major project. Unfortunately, they are not easy to distinguish right away. That is why the threshold to write an idea down has to be as low as possible, but it is equally crucial to elaborate on them within a day or two. A good indication that a note has been left unprocessed too long is when you no longer understand what you meant or it appears banal. In the first case, you forgot what it was supposed to remind you of. In the second case, you forgot the context that gave it its meaning.

The only permanently stored notes are the literature notes in the reference system and the main notes in the slip-box. The former can be very brief as the context is clearly the text they refer to. The latter need be written with more care and details as they need to be self-explanatory. Luhmann never underlined sentences in the text he read or wrote comments in the margins. All he did was take brief notes about the ideas that caught his attention in a text on a separate piece of paper: “I make a note with the bibliographic details. On the backside I would write ‘on page x is this, on page y is that,’ and then it goes into the bibliographic slip-box where I collect everything I read.” (Hagen, 1997)[13] But before he stored them away, he would read what he noted down during the day, think about its relevance for his own lines of thought and write about it, filling his main slip-box with permanent notes. Nothing in this box would ever get thrown away. Some notes might disappear into the background and never catch his attention again, while others might become connection points to various lines of reasoning and reappear on a regular basis in various contexts.

As it is not possible to foresee the development of the slip-box, the fate of the notes is nothing to worry about. In contrast to the fleeting notes, every permanent note for the slip-box is elaborated enough to have the potential to become part of or inspire a final written piece, but that can not be decided on up front as their relevance depends on future thinking and developments. The notes are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form. This is a crucial difference.

It is the standardised format that enables the notes to build up a critical mass in one place. It is also the key to facilitating the thinking and writing process by removing all unnecessary complications or decisions that come with a variety of different formats and storage places. Only because every note is in the same format at the same place can they later be combined and assembled into something new and no thought is ever wasted on the question of where to put or label it.

The last type of note, the ones that are related to only one specific project, are kept together with other project-related notes in a project-specific folder. It doesn’t matter in which format these notes are as they are going to end up in the bin after the project is finished anyway (or in an archive – the bin for the indecisive).

Project-related notes can be:

· comments in the manuscript

· collections of project-related literature

· outlines

· snippets of drafts

· reminders

· to-do lists

· and of course the draft itself.

The Zettelkasten has the built-in function of project-specific desktops. Here, you can not only structure your thoughts and conceptualise the chapters of your draft, but also collect and sort the notes for this specific project without fear that they will water down or interfere with the slip-box itself. You can even change the notes according to your project without affecting the notes in the slip-box.

The same applies to the reference system. In Zotero, you can collect literature in project-specific folders without taking them out of the reference system itself. All this keeps the permanent notes from the project-related notes clearly separated and allows you to experiment and tinker with them as much as you like within the boundaries of each project without interfering with the actual slip-box. I suggest keeping a physical binder for each project to keep all the handwritten notes and printouts separate from the rest and combined in one place.

When you close the folder for your current project in the evening and nothing is left on your desk other than pen and paper, you know that you have achieved a clear separation between fleeting, permanent and project-related notes.

7 Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch

“The white sheet of paper – or today: the blank screen – is a fundamental misunderstanding” (Nassehi 2015, 185)

The process of writing is vastly misunderstood. If you grab off the shelf a random study guide or self-help book on writing and skim through the first pages, the chances are that you will encounter something like this: “To make your research more efficient, your first step should be to narrow the aspect you choose to focus on and also formulate an explicit question that your research and analysis will address.”[14] Almost always, the decision on the topic is presented as the necessary first step, after which follows everything else, like in this guide: “When you have chosen a topic that is right for you, having taken into consideration your personal interests and any necessary background knowledge that may be needed, assess the availability of sources.”[15] Thereafter, you will certainly find a multi-step plan you are supposed to follow: Be it twelve steps, according to the Academic Skills & Learning Centre of the Australian National University, or eight, if you go with the recommendations of the Writing Center of the University of Wisconsin, the rough order is always the same: Make a decision on what to write about, plan your research, do your research, write. Interestingly enough, these road maps usually come with the concession that this is only an idealised plan and that in reality, it rarely works like that. This is certainly true. Writing can’t be that linear. The obvious question is: If that is true, why not root the course of action in reality instead?

In order to develop a good question to write about or find the best angle for an assignment, one must already have put some thought into a topic. To be able to decide on a topic, one must already have read quite a bit and certainly not just about one topic. And the decision to read something and not something else is obviously rooted in prior understanding, and that didn’t come out of thin air, either. Every intellectual endeavour starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquires and can serve as a starting point for following endeavours. Basically, that is what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the hermeneutic circle (Gadamer 2004). And even though the hermeneutic circle is regularly taught in university, writing at the same time continues to be taught as if we could start from scratch and move forward in a straight line – as if it were possible to pull a good question out of thin air and wait with the reading until the literature research is done. The seemingly pragmatic and down-to-earth-sounding advice – to decide what to write about before you start writing – is therefore either misleading or banal. It is banal if it means only that you should think before you put words on paper. It is misleading if it means that you could make a sound plan on what to write before you have immersed yourself in the topics at hand, which involves writing. It accompanies everything: We have to read with a pen in hand, develop ideas on paper and build up an ever-growing pool of externalised thoughts. We will not be guided by a blindly made-up plan picked from our unreliable brains, but by our interest, curiosity and intuition, which is formed and informed by the actual work of reading, thinking, discussing, writing and developing ideas – and is something that continuously grows and reflects our knowledge and understanding externally.

By focusing on what is interesting and keeping written track of your own intellectual development, topics, questions and arguments will emerge from the material without force. Not only does it means that finding a topic or a research question will become easier, as we don’t have to squeeze it out of the few ideas that are on top of our head anymore, every question that emerges out of our slip-box will naturally and handily come with material to work with. If we look into our slip-box to see where clusters have built up, we not only see possible topics, but topics we have already worked on – even if we were not able to see it up front. The idea that nobody ever starts from scratch suddenly becomes very concrete. If we take it seriously and work accordingly, we literally never have to start from scratch again.

Of course, those who believe that they do start from scratch don’t really start from scratch, either, as they too can only draw on what they have learned or encountered before. But as they haven’t acted on this fact, they can’t track ideas back to their origins and have neither supporting material at hand nor their sources in order. As writing has not accompanied their previous work, they have to either start with something completely new (which is risky) or retrace their ideas (which is boring).

As proper note-taking is rarely taught or discussed, it is no wonder that almost every guide on writing recommends to start with brainstorming. If you haven’t written along the way, the brain is indeed the only place to turn to. On its own, it is not such a great choice: it is neither objective nor reliable – two quite important aspects in academic or nonfiction writing. The promotion of brainstorming as a starting point is all the more surprising as it is not the origin of most ideas: The things you are supposed to find in your head by brainstorming usually don’t have their origins in there. Rather, they come from the outside: through reading, having discussions and listening to others, through all the things that could have been accompanied and often even would have been improved by writing. The advice to think about what to write about before you write comes both too early and too late. Too late, as you already have passed up the chance to build up written resources when you face the white sheet of paper or the blank screen, but also too early, if you try to postpone every serious content-related work until you have made a decision on the topic.

If something comes too early and too late at the same time, it is not possible to fix it by rearranging the order as the fictional linearity is the problem in itself. Taking smart notes is the precondition to break with the linear order. There is one reliable sign if you managed to structure your workflow according to the fact that writing is not a linear process, but a circular one: the problem of finding a topic is replaced by the problem of having too many topics to write about. Having trouble finding the right topic is a symptom of the wrong attempt to rely heavily on the limitations of the brain, not the inevitable problematic starting point, as most study guides insinuate. If you on the other hand develop your thinking in writing, open questions will become clearly visible and give you an abundance of possible topics to elaborate further in writing.

After many years of working with students, I am convinced that the attempt of these study guides to squeeze a nonlinear process like writing into a linear order is the main reason for the very problems and frustrations they promise to solve. How can you not have trouble finding a topic if you believe you have to decide on one before you have done your research, have read and learned about something? How can you not feel threatened by an empty page if you have literally nothing at hand to fill it with? Who can blame you for procrastinating if you find yourself stuck with a topic you decided on blindly and now have to stick with it as the deadline is approaching? And how can anyone be surprised that students feel overwhelmed with writing assignments when they are not taught how to turn months and years of reading, discussing and research into material they can really use?

These study guides, which neglect everything before a writing assignment is given, are a little bit like financial advisors who discuss how 65-year-olds can save for retirement. At this point you would be better off curbing your enthusiasm (which is exactly what one of the most often sold study guides in Germany recommends: first, lower your expectations on quality and insight).[16]

But those who have already developed their thinking through writing can keep the focus on what is interesting for them at the moment and accumulate substantial material just by doing what they most feel like doing. The material will cluster around the questions they returned to most often, so they don’t risk too far of a departure from their interest. If your first chosen topic turns out to be not as interesting, you will just move on and your notes will cluster around something else. Maybe you will even note down the reasons why the first question is not interesting and turn that into an insight valuable enough to make public. When it finally comes to the decision on what to write about, you will already have made the decision – because you made it on every single step along the way, again and again every day, improving it gradually. Instead of spending your time worrying about finding the right topic, you will spend your time actually working on your already existing interests and doing what is necessary to make informed decisions – reading, thinking and writing. By doing the work, you can trust that interesting questions will emerge. You might not know where you will end up (and you don’t need to), but you can’t force insight into a preconceived direction anyway. You minimise both the risk of losing interest in a topic you have once chosen ill-informed and the risk of having to start all over again.

Even though academic writing is not a linear process, that does not mean you should follow an anything-goes approach. On the contrary, a clear, reliable structure is paramount.

8 Let the Work Carry You Forward

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. This is the kind of dynamic we are looking for.

A good workflow can easily turn into a virtuous circle, where the positive experience motivates us to take on the next task with ease, which helps us to get better at what we are doing, which in return makes it more likely for us to enjoy the work, and so on. But if we feel constantly stuck in our work, we will become demotivated and much more likely to procrastinate, leaving us with fewer positive or even bad experiences like missed deadlines. We might end up in a vicious circle of failure (cf. Fishbach, Eyal and Finkelstein, 2010).

Any attempts to trick ourselves into work with external rewards (like doing something nice after finishing a chapter) are only short-term solutions with no prospect of establishing a positive feedback loop. These are very fragile motivational constructions. Only if the work itself becomes rewarding can the dynamic of motivation and reward become self-sustainable and propel the whole process forward…

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