It presents a note taking workflow aimed to support effective writing
Everything you need to know
Note taking is not just about collecting and aggregating thoughts but about making connections and sparkling new ideas.
A well conceived working progress requires that used tools and techniques fit together.
The slip box
It is composed by:
- Bibliographic notes: Sketchy notes on the reading
- Permanent notes: A note describing just an idea and linking to other notes (bibliographic or permanent)
- Index of entry point notes: Topics arise from entry point notes linking to other notes.
How to write a paper
In order to write a paper you need:
- Assemble notes putting arguments and put them into order
- Write a draft
- Review it and correct it
The main work here is not taking notes but thinking, reading and coming up with new ideas.
Step by step
- Fleeting notes. Sketch ideas, reminders of what is in your head. Put them in the inbox and process them later. If idea is already mature, go directly to write a permanent note in the slip box.
- Literature notes. When reading, watching videos or podcast write down what catches your attention and might be reusable. Write it with your own words. Keep the notes in the reference system.
- Permanent notes. Go to the slip-box and process notes taken in step 1 and 2. Write a new idea that comes into your mind. **One idea, one note ** write in a clear concise way but it must be self contained disclosing references and sources. Discard fleeting notes and move literature notes to reference system.
- Add permanent notes to slip box. Add links to related notes, link the notes in a MoC or index.
- Develop your topics by exploring the slip box, search for clusters of ideas, contradictions and find arguments that need further research and exploration.
- At this point there should be enough ideas to decide the topic to write about. Look through connections and collect relevant notes. Look for missing and redundant information. Go back to reading and develop new ideas.
- Write a rough draft. Translate the notes into a coherent text. Detect holes in the argument, fill them or change the argument.
- Edit and submit the paper.
In the process you will find many accidental ideas that you were not expecting to find when you started. Don’t waste this ideas because they do not fit the topic you are currently working on. Instead save them, process them and generate new ideas.
The 4 underlying principles
Writing is the only thing that matters
Working as if nothing else counts than writing
Taking notes involves more focused reading, as you cannot write everything down and you always rephrase the contents in your own words (pushing you to understand the core ideas).
By doing everything with the purpose of writing means that you do it deliberately.
Simplicity is paramount
The slip box is not arranged by topics, but it is simoky linked so that instead of forcing you to remember where you store them you focus on finding forgotten ideas and creating new ones
In order to work we need a critical mass of notes and distinguish between 3 kind of notes:
- Fleeting notes: remainders of information, it can be thrown away once processed. Capture ideas while you are doing something else
- Permanent notes: self-explanatory and fully understandable without more context. They are not reminders of thoughts or ideas, but the actual thought.
- Project notes: relevant only for one project, might be archived once the project is done.
A typical mistake in note taking workflow is considering all notes as permanent. Good ideas are diluted among irrelevant information.
Other problem is to only take project related notes. You can’t restrict your thinking to a narrow project, instead new information and ideas on other topics will emerge while researching. It is tempting to try to open new projects to dump these new ideas, but in that case you end up with a lot of unfinished projects.
In the case of treating all notes as fleeting ones, what follows is chaos and the need to clean up and start all over again.
Nobody ever starts from scratch
Usually scientific workflows follow this structure:
- Choose a topic
- plan research
- do research
Truth is that writing is not that linear.
In order to do the first step, choose a topic, you should have already read and thought about a bunch of topics.
Most how to guides rely heavily on brainstorming, because it is the only thing left when you have not been taken proper notes.
Finding a topic it is just follow the threads in the slip box, while it is a frustrating experience when you have not been writing while studying.
Let the work carry you be forward
When you are working in flow mode, the own work generates momentum to keep on working. For that to happen, the workflow must be rewarding so that the dynamics of work and reward yield a feedback loop that motivates you to keep on working.
Seek and welcome feedback. Means finding pleasure out of changing for the better instead of receiving praise. Being praised for what you are, instead of what you do might lead you to have a fixed mindset.
Taking notes is a form of increasing the frequency of feedback. Instead of waiting for a paper review we obtain feedback on our notes as writing them test our understanding and our hability to explain them concisely. Reviewing our notes to take permanent notes, means realizing that we do not fully understand an idea and hence we can work on it. This leads to better writing, faster note taking and deeper reading.
The six steps to successful writing
1. Separate and interlocking tasks
Attention deficit caused by multitasking and information overload lowers productivity. You can not get better at multitasking as no one is able to focus on more than one thing at a time. Instead what we do is to switch focus really fast what in the end drains our attention.
Here we are talking about sustained attention, no Mt about focus attention or flow ( a state of highly focused and effortless attention)
An organised workflow might improve our sustained attention by separating tasks and pushing us to focus on one thing for longer.
Writing also involves very different tasks such as proof reading, acting as a external reviewer and writing itself. Other tasks are developing thoughts, outlining. The same happens with reading, some texts need our full attention while others might be skimmed.
Successful problem solving, as it is done by eminent scholars, involves deep focus spans of time and flexible playful moments.
Besides attention, we must also take into account the importance of writing on order to free up our short term memory. It has been demonstrated that we can only hold 7+-2 things at a time in our head, that’s why it is so important to dump our thoughts to a system that takes removes the need to keep in mind what we were thinking or doing.
Zeigarnik effect: open tasks are a burden for our short term memory till they are done. Done or written down. We can trick our brains so that they no longer worry about that task.
Besides attention, and short term memory there is a third scarce recourse: motivation or willpower. Ego depletion refers to a drain of willpower caused by prior use of volition.
Standardised working environment reduces cognitive load (see Team Cognitive Load) which reduces willpower to a lesser extent .
2. Read for understanding
Reading with pen and paper is the way to translate other people’s ideas into our own coherent thought. This is quite different than copying and pastin, since even using the same expression as the author they will be less meaningful than our own words.
After finishing the book, go through the notes and see if you can relate them with any note at the slip box.
Confirmation bias is one of the major flaws of human reasoning. Slip box allows us to gather facts and ideas that connect with other thoughts independently if they are addition or contradictions. The only thing that matters is that if it’s relevant or irrelevant.
Re-reading, cramming and re-reviewring are not effective for learning, just for passing the test. A much more successful learning method is elaboration (thinking about the meaning of what we read, how it can inform different topics and and linking to other topics).
3. Take Smart notes
Effective reading means being able to read a text linkinh it to other topics and find missing arguments. A common problem of inexperienced readers is that the stick to the frame where the tamezt lives.
Writing can be thought as an external arena where the true process of thinking occurs. It allows us to see our thoughts in perspective which is exactly what we need to keep them as rational as possible and far from the reach of brains shortcuts.
We can measure memory capabilities in terms of:
- Storage strength: ability to store memories
- retrieval strength: ability to build connections between memories
The slip box is where our thinking occurs. It is then impossible to keep it constrained inside artificial boundaries. That is why there are no categories for the permanent notes, but connections with other thoughts.
In order to develop topics we might use an index that links to notes via tags, but what it is more important is the links between notes so that we enter into the realm of surprise and concrete thoughts.
Another way is to create a note that overviews a topic.
In order to choose a keyword we should think as writers instead of archivists, and look for in which circumstances we want to come across with this thought. Keywords should be chosen while keeping an eye on the topics we are interested to develop, not in isolation.
Types of cross references:
- links in notes reviewing a topic.
- note-to-note links
The process of linking notes is a core point of thinking. And leaning on the slip box, as an external source of ideas, we are less prone to imagine connections where there aren’t any.
Working with the slip box is sometimes disillusioning as weay think that one idea we are excited about is ours and novel and when we check the slip box might be already there (we have forgot about it) and it may not be ours. This is not only bad news as we may usually confront ideas or find subtle but interesting differences between them, sparking new discussion.
Build a lattice of mental models to get a grip on reality. Charlie Munger
Creativity and generation of new ideas depends more on breaking old habits of thinking.
Structure and restrictions, although it sounds counterintuitive, are a source of scientific progress and creativity.
Share your insight
The slip box allows us to easily find a topic to write about. This is because our own motivations are already there: in each note we take, in every literature note we write, we are saving those thoughts that are more important to us. It is evolution applied to ideas and thoughts.
Truly understanding something means that we can spot it’s limitations. That is the reason why are more open to new ideas the more familiar we are with certain thoughts. You may just fall in love with a particular idea that you are somewhat familiar with. But once you go deeper, find new perspectives on the topic and think on its drawbacks you might be able to find something that becomes a breakthrough innovation.
Work on different manuscripts at the same time. That prevents you from blockages and also takes advantage of by-products generated by each project which might generate new projects which generate more by-products and so on.
Zeigarnik effect. Our brains are occupied with a task till it is accomplished or written down. Every long work fills the time we set aside for it while short tasks are often speed up. It is important to get started and do it with feasible tasks (take a note is much better than working on vague and I’ll defined task such as keep working an overdue paper)
One of the hardest parts of reviewing a draft is to get rid (cut) some parts. For this purpose it is a good practice to cut the sentences and paragraphs that don’t fit in the manuscript to other document in order to reuse them. Although you may never use them, it helps you psychologically to “kill your darlings”.