🪴 (plotted plant) | Literature note |

How to take Smart Notes - Key Insights

High level instructions for the Slip Box

1) Pay attention to what you want to remember 2) Properly encode the information you want to keep 3) Practice recall

Purpose of taking Smart Notes

  • Willpower is a limited resources that depletes quickly. And willpower improvement is limited.
    • this is connected to memorising and re-reading to retrieve the previous learning
    • success is not the result of strong willpower and overcoming resistance but of smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place
      • It is about having the right tools AND knowing how to use them
  • impose structure to
    • if we organise our research and writing we can significantly reduce the number of decisions we have to make (based on the fact that decision making is one of the most tiring and wearying tasks)
    • enable taking breaks and afterwards simplify starting where you stopped
  • productive writing is based on good note-taking
    • assembling from a previously (well) written thought is far easier than retrieving all from memory
    • fosters productivity - if one really trusts a system of work and can rely on it our brain let’s go and one can focus on the task at hand.
  • If you want to learn something on the long run, you have to write it down. If you really want to understand something, you have to translate it into your own words. So taking smart notes immediately supports a deeper understanding.
    • we also learn when we try to retrieve information at different times (spacing) and in different contexts (variation)
  • Helps with expressing/sharing thoughts with others
  • Changes the way of reading as one becomes more focused on most relevant aspects. With the purpose of writing about it.
  • Fosters generating ideas and new thoughts guided by our interest, curiosity and intuition formed and informed by reading, thinking, discussing, writing and developing ideas (instead of just picking up from our brains)
  • enables learning with [[#Feedback Loops]]
  • writing helps to grasp ideas more quickly (as we deepen our understanding by expressing what we read with our own written words)
  • Being recognised as an expert. It is proven that readers regard an author and an audience a speaker as more intelligent the more clear and to the point their expressions are.
  • Motivate discussions. If something is written it is fixed enough to be discussed independently from the author (as it does not need the presence of the author when using it).
  • Offload information and de-stress by freeing up mental capacity. (Connecting to Braindump exercise)
  • Slip-box as a tool for enforcing distinctions, decisions and making differences visible.

Feedback Loops

  • Crucial for motivation and also key element of any learning process.
  • [[Mindset]] - seeking feedback, not avoiding it as first virtue for learning/growing
    • get pleasure out of changing for the better (so converting to taking smart notes instead of just capturing)
    • seeking as many opportunities to learn as possible is most reliable long-term growth strategy
  • working with external rewards are only short term solutions but don’t establish a positive feedback loop (questionable when considering Hook Model where external and internal rewards are used to build loops)
  • with writing we create a feedback loop if we understood what we read
  • confront ourselves with errors, mistakes and misunderstandings. Taking repetition and feedback loops to revision our first interpretation.
  • increase capabilities of taking smart notes increases the number of learning experiences. So a virtuous cycle for learning.
    • Create a virtuous cycle of learning loop graphic
  • Linking immediately shows contradictions, inconsistencies and repetitions.
  • What is missing when we write down an idea?


  • enables flow as you can focus on what is important
  • it is more about how we structure our work instead of planning our work
    • planning work makes us less flexible while working as you have to push yourself and employ willpower
    • planning is not suitable for an open-ended process like research
  • create structure in a way that insights and new ideas become the driving forces that push us forward
  • the best way to deal with complexity is to keep things as simple as possible and to follow a few basic principles
  • Whenever one encounters something remarkable take a fleeting note.
    • So one needs the equipment/setting to take notes everywhere.
    • The note needs to be embedded in its context
      • Link to journal
      • Capture surrounding thoughts
      • Link to other context and thoughts
  • One Slip box for capturing Bibliographical notes - references and brief notes on the content of the literature. In Obsidian I implement that with:
    • Kindle Importer
    • Book Notes
    • Matter import
  • 2nd Slip-Box for collecting and generating ideas (mainly in response to reading)
    • These are my Fleeting Notes, Permanent notes. Permanent notes spread through [[Para Blog by Tiago Forte | PARA]]
  • restrict to one idea per note and be as precise as possible
  • a lack of structure and restrictions is a big threat to creativity

3 Types of Notes

Fleeting notes

  • reminders of information
  • can be written in any kind of way
  • will end up in trash within a day or two
    • I’m not yet there with my fleeting notes. Currently the accumulate via Matter and Kindle. I need more focus on processing and transforming rather than collecting!
  • for capturing ideas quickly while you’re busy doing something else
  • only useful if reviewed (within a day) and turned to permanent notes

Permanent notes

  • will never be thrown away
  • contain necessary information and a well written and permanently understandable way
    • PARA - areas, permanent notes folder, Meta folder
  • Contain the actual thought or idea in written form (and not just reminders of thoughts or ideas)

Project notes

  • Only relevant to a particular project
    • PARA - Projects folder and sub-structure

Processing thoughts

  • writing for learning
  • work with Bibliographic notes and think about relevance for own thinking and writing
  • turn to main slip-box and write ideas, comments, thoughts. But use only one note for each idea and max one side of paper. This makes it easier to process later.
    • So I’m not yet there. I capture many notes for a book and follow the book order. I’m not yet generating many new thoughts from there and also don’t connect much with other notes. Why is that difference?
  • Capture notes in full sentences and reference to source
  • Capture with own words as this translates to own context and state of knowledge.
  • Write down what you don’t want to forget and what you think. Eg. with an extra note in Kindle or Matter. Also good for taking a fleeting note.
    • Does the information contradict, correct, support or add?
    • Can you combine ideas to generate something new?
    • What questions are triggered?
    • Capture what to to read more to challenge, strengthen and develop your arguments.
    • What is not meant? What is excluded if a certain claim is made?
  • Don’t try to organise by a topic. This already fixes the context and make us less flexible to discover new connections.
  • Writing the thoughts is not the main work, but thinking and reading is. Writing accompanies the main work.
  • It needs deliberate practice.
  • Note taking streamlined towards on thing only: Insights that can be published.
  • Focus on the gist what is being said. Handwriting is a good tool for that as we can’t write as fast as it is read.
    • Important criterion: Does it add to a discussion in the slip-box?
  • Try to lead your research with a question before we know how to get to the answer.
  • thinking and creativity can flourish under restricting conditions. (The Paradox of Choice - Barry Schwartz)
  • What is interesting about this?
  • What is so relevant that it is worth noting down?

Linking while taking notes

  • Read with an eye towards possible connections
  • Immediately link to other notes
    • will show us contradictions, inconsistencies and repetitions
  • Use MOCs as entry points to train for thoughts.
    • to make sure one can find this note later on
  • Linking immediately shows contradictions, inconsistencies and repetitions.
  • Search in 2nd brain confronts us with related notes we did not look for. So we take more into account than what is available from our internal memory (that is prone to daily fluctuations).
    • Memory changes and reinvents information over time
  • Connecting thoughts enables learning. In line with Birkenbihl (eg [[Stroh im Kopf]] and KAGA, KAWA). Connect to as many as possible meaningful contexts as possible.
  • Capture reasons of a notes importance by connecting to our own lines of thoughts (the moment we capture it). I noticed for example that taking a short contextual note while marking something in Kindle during reading is supporting further processing.
  • Thing strategically about cues that should trigger the retrieval of an information. Ask: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note?
  • Assigning keywords is a crucial part of the thinking process and leads to a deeper elaboration of the note itself.
  • You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.(Munger 1994) … also connects to Birkenbihl
  • The search for small differences is key.

  • How does this fact fit into my idea?
  • How can this be explained by that theory?
  • Are these two ideas contradictory or complementary?
  • What does X mean for Y?

Types of task for smart notes

  • Proof reading
    • focussed attention
    • analytical
  • Formulating
    • floating attention
    • analytical
  • Outlining
    • floating attention and big picture perspective
    • analytical but also playful
  • Combining and developing thoughts
    • associative, playful, creating

Full focus

  • multitasking feels more productive but decreases productivity (Wang and Tchernev 2012; Rosen 2008; Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009). Quality and Quantity lagged significantly.
  • Multitasking fatigues us and decreases ability to deal with more
  • Mere-exposure effect: doing something many times makes us believe we have become good at it – completely independent of our actual performance (Bornstein 1989)
  • We can hold a maximum of seven things in our head at the same time, plus/minus two (Miller 1956).
  • Zeigarnik effect: Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory until they are done. (Connect to Braindump exercise)
    • so write down thought in e.g. Fleeting notes to flush memory and ensure focus.

Focussed attention

Focus on ONE thing only, something we can sustain only for a few seconds.

  • proof reading required focussed attention

Sustained attention (floating attention)

Needed to stay focussed on one task for a longer period. To learn, understand and get something done.

  • avoid multitasking
  • remove distractions
  • separate different kinds of tasks
    • e.g. writing without having inner critic interfere immediately
    • get thoughts on paper first and improve from there (where we can look at them). Versus juggling everything in our brain.

Finding the right words and writing requires floating attention. Hint to have the outline always available to know what we’ll write about where and don’t struggle too much with thinking about the structure while in writing mode. (with Obsidian I can display the outline in parallel, but need a better monitor setup).

Outlining requires focus on whole argument and not just one thought. We need to return to outlining throughout the writing process and consider it as a continuously task to be done.

Build a behavior for taking Smart Notes

  • Apply the structure to reduce friction by decision making about the way we work
  • write a defined amount of notes every day (Luhmann wrote about 6 notes per day)

Mistakes for taking notes

  • Building on chronological order. This often is based on recency bias. It does not help to find, combine and rearrange ideas.
  • Collect notes only related to specific projects.
  • Treating all notes as fleeting notes.
  • Taking too many notes: Most difficult - rigorously delete what has not function within an argument. kill your darlings

On expressing

  • follow interest and what promises most insights
  • look through connection, create an outline and bring previously well crafted notes in order

Core of GTD

Collect everything that needs to be taken care of in one place and process it in a standardised way.

  • So Obsidian enables to collect everything on one place (at least when combined with linking)

Forces us to make clear choices to which bucket a task belongs and to check if a tasks fits in the bigger picture.

Leads to a Mind like water as one does not have to keep everything in memory.

Quotes to use later

Dunning Kruger effect - poor students often feel more successful (until they are tested), because they don’t experience much self-doubt.

  • those who have made an effort tend to underestimate their abilities
  • imposter syndrome, the feeling that you are not really up to the job

For coaching

(so making learning easier for other can have the opposite effect as they don’t have to do the work and therefore miss important aspects of learning like arranging information, phrasing in own words and making a meaning of something, building connections)

Further processing


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