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

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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.
Year:
2017
Edition:
1
Publisher:
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Language:
english
Pages:
176
ISBN 10:
1542866502
ISBN 13:
9781542866507
File:
EPUB, 225 KB
Download (epub, 225 KB)

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Sönke Ahrens


 


 


 


How
to Take Smart Notes


 


One Simple
Technique to Boost Writing, 


Learning and
Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


2017



















 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


Copyright © 2017 Sönke Ahrens


All rights reserved.


takesmartnotes.com


 


Edited by Kathy Drouin-Keith


Cover Design by Oliver Ferreira
















 


“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)
















 


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


 












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
plays 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