Smart Notes and How to Take Them

Everyone is a writer. This is true even if you don’t think of yourself as one, because you’re actually writing all the time, whether it be in the form of messages to other people, notes to yourself, or in simple forms like grocery lists.

But we also all write in more complex ways. We write to stay organized and we write to think through ideas, we write to remember that which we’re afraid to forget and we write to give concepts and topics the visibility we think they deserve. In truth, everything we do is centered around writing — the way we learn, the way we talk, the way we share — and so, writing is crucial and you are a writer.

A problem we have as writers, though, is that no one talks about ‘how to write’ in a meaningful way. There's a major issue with basically any book or video that tells you that it's going to teach you how to write: it assumes that the ‘start’ of the writing process involves you, sitting there, in front of a blank piece of paper or an empty screen.

That isn’t the starting point.

The starting point was way before, but we don’t talk about it.

Here’s what I mean: When we sit down and write we have an understanding of what it is we’re trying to create. We are, in essence, just assembling the past — our past thoughts that we’ve had on any given subject and our past references and connections that we’ve made that feel related. This is the true starting point, but when we have to hold all of that in our minds as we sit in front of that ‘blank page’, jumping from fuzzily remembered idea to idea, we’re at a massive disadvantage.

There's a better way, and it starts by taking better notes.You see, good writing comes from good note-taking. Turning something that is already written in your notes into something new is incomparably easier than having to hold everything in your mind and deal with that mythical, unhelpful idea of a blank page. So, how do you take good notes? Well, I’ll tell you. It turns out that we can learn quite a bit from the story and process of a man named Niklas Luhmann, a socioligist with an incredibly prolific career. Over the course of his lifetime he wrote over 70 books and hundreds and hundreds of scholarly articles — all about wildly different subjects. When asked how he was able to write so prolifically and on such a variety of topics, he said that owed his career to what he called “the slip-box”.

Whenever Luhmann encountered something that interested him, he would make a note. The note would be… Handwritten, in his own words, and on something roughly the size of an index card. He would then store that in one of two places which he called ‘slip-boxes’, which were small boxes containing every note that he had ever taken. One of the boxes contained entirely information he came across in his reading, and the other contained his own ideas, his own comments, his own thinking.

The key, in my opinion, is that second slip-box. By constantly writing his own thoughts and not just copying down the thoughts of others, everything that went into the slip-boxes had value. Just amassing notes may not lead to anything but a mass of notes, but Luhmann's slip box wasn't an archive, it was an idea generator, an engine for thought and productivity. And because it generated new ideas easily, more notes were added all the time. It was fun!

We could talk all day about the details of the slip box system, but I'm here to talk about you. Here's how to take notes in a similar way so that you can be more productive than ever. There are only a few things that you truly need to create a smart, simple note-taking system: A way to capture ideas as soon as they come up, a method of writing that allows you to take notes in your own words and through your own lens, and a system to collect and manage all of your notes so that you can easily connect ideas between them. Here’s why each of those concepts is key.

It’s important to have the ability to capture ideas immediately, because you want to focus on complexity at the level of the note, not the note app. If every time you try and take notes on a book you’re reading or a podcast you’re listening to, but you have to think about where it’s going to go, and what folder it should be filed under, and what tags you should add after it’s finished…you’ve already failed. This is a complex system and it’s bad, because capturing information in sporadic ways means that you will lose track of what you wrote and where you wrote it.

It’s important to write in your own words because doing so means that you will capture more complete (and original) ideas instead of just compiling quotes that soon lose their context and meaning. If all you’re doing is highlighting here and there, and transcribing a quote, you’re depriving your note collection of actual substance. When you take notes, pretend that you’re writing for someone else, because future-you is someone else, and will benefit greatly from more fully-fleshed out ideas that are still interesting after the reference it came from is entirely out of mind.

Finally, and this is truly key, it’s important to have a system that not only manages your notes but connects ideas from one note to the other. As you collect notes, make a habit of thinking about other things you’re been interested in, and any topics that may be emerging from within. Are there any ideas that interest you? Think about how a new concept you come across might interact with another that came before it. Does it support it, or does it contradict it? Does it add to it, or does it reveal an entirely new direction to go in? Can two fragmented ideas be combined into something new, something fully fledged? Did you just take notes on a book about writing, another about a founder of America, and another about walking in Japan? If you had taken those notes separately, your brain will likely close them off from one another — but I would imagine that there are ideas threaded through all three of those references that interest you even more than the actual material. Your note-taking system should set you up so that those ideas are front and center. Follow your interests and take whatever path seems to promise the most insight or interest. Don’t spend time racking your brain for the right way forward, instead look at what connections you were subconsciously building, and pursue them.

Having this simple system will free your brain of distraction and worry, allowing it wander fluidly from idea to idea instead of feeling bogged down by the mental weight of remembering everything. Instead of worrying about the experience of note taking, you can instead just get to work.

Okay, now that you have a good system, it’s time to tell you the best part. Remember how I said that we’re all writers? Having a good note-taking system is the secret to being a great writer. If you’ve been using your note collection not just to copy down quotes but to make meaningful connections and write your initial thoughts on them, then you’ll find that your notes are doing the work of writing for you. It is at this point that you will recognize that that tricky idea of a blank sheet or screen is a lie. Within your note collection lies a better path. Instead of thinking about a writing project as if you were starting from scratch, recognize that you already have a rough draft prepared: your notes! You aren’t starting from nothing, but taking what you’ve already written and turning it into something more cohesive. Having a good note-taking system shifts what your work actually is. It’s no longer ‘writing’. Now it’s reading and coming up with ideas. The notes are a physical manifestation of your thoughts that acts as the first draft of what you’re trying to write, and this is the very powerful result of what happens when you have a collection of notes that feel open-ended, well-documented, and easy to link together.

There’s something else that comes from a system like this and it’s just as important as a finished piece of writing: mental clarity. When asked about his own research process, Luhmann said this: “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.” Having a clear purpose when you listen to a lecture or read a book will stop you from trying to figure out what you ‘should’ learn and instead free you to distinguish the actual thoughts that you desire to retain. You’ll find that instead of running into the brick wall that is memory loss, you’ll remember more — and be more passionate about that which you remember — because it is meaningful to you in a significant way. When your brain can trust the system you’ve put in place and know that everything will be taken care of, it will finally let go trying to store information and instead feel freed to do the much more important work of connecting.

Once you start taking notes in this way, you’ll be fascinated by how much more likely you are to act on your notes. It’s simple, yes, but taking notes should be simple! It needs to be because we can only deal with so much complexity, and we want to save that for the place where it matters: the actual material we’re pulling from.

It’s easy to forget that the way we handle our tools is just as important as the tools themselves. If we try to use them without putting any thought into how they work, we don’t do the tools justice. Your collection of notes can be a helpful archive for thoughts, or a graveyard for them. Make sure that the habits you employ allow you to make the best use of your tools.

Build good notes-taking habits, take good notes, and get to writing.