• by [[Sönke Ahrens]]
  • Progress: finished [[May 11th, 2020]]
  • Topics
    • #writing #learning #zettelkasten #research #productivity
  • Meta
    • Writing notes about a book teaching me how to write notes is a very interesting experience
    • What’s the best software to emulate this system?
    • How to easily include graphs, video snippets, images?
    • Kindle + reMarkable -> Roam flow seems to be working pretty well, but it’s so annoying to fix formatting everywhere
    • It’s been a while since finishing a book made me feel like I’m going to remember the content within
    • In the spirit of the book, I can clearly tell I’m going to derive much more use from the notes I wrote than the highlights I made
  • Key takeaways
    • [[learning]] = elaboration + spacing + variation + contextual interference + retrieval
    • If you don’t rephrase something in your words, you probably don’t care enough to learn it
    • With every use of a “slip-box” (zettelkasten note structure system) use you are reinforcing the exact same structure within your own mind
    • process of breaking research and learning down into the simple units of note-taking, re-arrangement, and synthesis allows for much larger work to be built up over time with no significant increase day-to-day
    • writing is important because it’s where the thinking actually happens
    • bad note-taking is easy because of a lack of tight feedback loops
    • starting from a blank page is hard and has little to do with the skill level of the author
      • might this apply to code? How does programming ability improve when we have boilerplate projects, functions, and modules available?

My own notes #

What is the slip-box? #

  • A collection of notes, organized in relation to each other.
  • allows us to trust it without fear of losing things
  • makes switching between tasks and context easier
  • Organization
    • one-sided notes
    • few index entry nodes
    • non-linear numbering system to tie disparate nodes together
    • non-hierarchical
    • regular review & processing
  • Not completely comparable to [[hyperlink]]s
    • Explore this further: how is it different? Any value in adding a “note about a connection”? Is this a valid definition of a note in the first place?
    • [[backlink]]s – feels like this is only part of the solution
  • Key ability is adding one note to many other contexts
  • Builds a “latticework” of ideas
    • A structure to add new ideas to existing ideas by giving them a place to “dock to”
    • Reinforces the same structure in your own brain as you use it
    • The more developed it is, the easier to add more content to it
    • Forces us to ask the key questions which make learning and understanding possible
      • What does it mean?
      • How does this relate to…?
      • How is this similar to…?
      • What’s the difference between…?
  • Process of adding knowledge to the slip-box
    1. Create a new note; number it after the related one. Connect it to several others
    2. Add only relevant backlinks from other cards
      1. #q how might automatic backlinks help or harm this situation?
    3. Make sure it can be found from the index
      1. #q what sort of index? How is it organized? Can’t necessarily be top-down.
    4. Cross-references and tags are still much more important than the index
      1. Tags should be chosen carefully and sparsely
        1. Why might that be? Any way to weigh and prioritize only the most relevant/important tags?
          1. According to the book, they should be chosen within the context of questions and ideas you are already interested in – cannot be delegated or automated.
            1. They should be different for everyone.
    5. Build a latticework of mental models
      1. Not intended to be an encyclopedia – the primary objective is to help us with our own thinking.
        1. How does this intersect with Wikipedia and the internet at large? How might the personal zettelkasten structure be combined with sharing and open-sourcing knowledge? Why aren’t a person’s notes useful to others by default? How can they be more useful?
      2. Given an interesting Tversky/Khaneman quote about underestimation:
        1. an archivist would file it under “experiment” and “misjudgement”
        2. a writer might file it under “capital allocation problems” or “political strategies”, or “elections” – depending on what they’re thinking about on a long timescale
        3. ref: [[person:Andy Matuschak]] quote
  • use constraints to your advantage
    • note length, plaintext format allows for a high degree of re-sortability down the road, less thinking
      • structure & constraint are an enabler of creativity
  • take simple ideas seriously (simple =/= easy)
    • simple ideas can be combined into more complex structures; the reverse is rarely true
  • Anatomy of a [[note]]
    • Full sentences
    • Disclose your sources
    • Make references
    • Try to be precise
    • Clear and brief
    • Written as if for someone else
  • Connection Types (relevant ones given a digital medium for a zettelkasten)
    • Topic overview notes. An in-between step towards development of a manuscript.
      • May be replaced with a more accurate/relevant overview note at a later time.
    • Plain, note-to-note connection. Indicates a relevant connection between two notes.
      • Luhmann was able to connect disparate ideas across topics such as money, power, love, truth, justice - difficult if done in hierarchy
      • Connectivity notes shouldn’t be treated as a chore: it’s where the thinking happens. Includes literally seeing and being reminded of tons of information, making new connections
        • #q On choosing what to add, might a selection criteria be to bias towards new, insightful information? Information not easily referenced anywhere?
    • It is expected you will try to re-add ideas you’ve already had // someone else had.
      • The zettelkasten structure provides a natural de-duplication process and allows you to attribute accurately.
        • ref to that reddit quote
    • According to Rothenberg, the constitution of opposition produces new ideas.
      • #q how does this happen? How do we systematically optimize for this
    • Flashcards are great, but have two drawbacks – both of which are solved:
      • not elaborated within
      • not embedded in context

On writing well #

  • Separate your tasks into stages
    • Outlining vs finding words vs proofreading all take different attention forms and attempting them simultaneously will result in sadness
      • Separate the processes of creation from improving. You can’t write and edit, or sculpt and polish, or make and analyze at the same time. If you do, the editor stops the creator. While you invent, don’t select. While you sketch, don’t inspect. While you write the first draft, don’t reflect. At the start, the creator mind must be unleashed from judgement.
        - https://kk.org/thetechnium/68-bits-of-unsolicited-advice/
    • Doing good academic work is antithetical to rigid form and structure. Over time you develop a a sense for fruitful vs wasteful avenues for exploration
      • Structure is used a few times within this book in different contexts
        • There is the thinking and planning structure, which doesn’t help anything or anyone: it bogs you down with limitations and friction
          • assumes you can plan creativity and exploration, which is typically not the case
        • Then there is the note-taking structure. It has a very short set of rules (plain text, short notes, references) that when combined and used together build a useful, complex system
    • instead of deleting things from your draft outright, move them to another doc – easier to let go
      • #writing
    • On choosing what to write and narrowing one’s focus
      • instead of starting with brainstorming (biased towards recent events, made worse by groups) we should instead look into our slipbox - where the things we find interesting have been collecting evidence
      • allow trial and error to ply out, rather than planning
      • it is with familiarity with a certain piece/set of information when we can become playful with it.
      • following our creativity and passion allows for far more interesting results than a rigid set of constraints

Process and creativity #

  • [[creativity]] is more about breaking existing [[habits]] and ways of thinking rather than generating 100x the ideas
    • [[feedback loop]]s are important: the sooner you know you’re wrong, the easier it is to fix behavior
    • need to be able to quickly grasp the idea of something
    • try to keep in mind what you might be missing
      • don’t jump to conclusions
      • try to see what might be “out of frame”
        • #q I think generally phrasing things like this is pretty limited: [[Awakening from the Meaning Crisis]] on “thinking outside the box”
      • ask counterfactual questions (“what if … “)
      • “what kind of answer can you expect from asking a question in this particular way? what is missing?”
      • #thought the closest thing I can think of this this technique is just thinking about something and being playful with it
  • the slip-box allows for working on multiple projects/transcripts at the same time
    • allows for parallel progress & switching when stuck or bored
    • removes the need to fight and force oneself to work on something in particular, easy to switch to something else

On learning #

  • fully understanding and learning an idea means being able to restate an idea in your own words without tripping up on gaps
    • Feynman – you don’t know something until you can teach it
  • Rote memorization or reading through content almost never provides actual learning
  • Rewriting things as we’re learning them create a “do-I-understand-this” feedback loop
  • Writing concrete one-off notes (~5/day) has compound interest payoff. It is also a reasonable way of measuring [[productivity]]

GTD vs smart note-taking

  • GTD -> relies on clear objectives and definitions for completion
  • Smart note-taking -> starts with vague insights

Highlights #

  • (imported from Readwise [[May 11th, 2020]])
  • Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • unsuitable for an open-ended process like research, thinking or studying in general
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Only if the work itself becomes rewarding can the dynamic of motivation and reward become self-sustainable and propel the whole process forward (DePasque and Tricomi, 2015).
  • In fact, it is almost impossible to write anything interesting and worth publishing (and therefore motivating) if it is based on nothing else than an idea we were able to come up with up front before elaborating on the problem.
  • The only difference is that the audience here consists of our future selves, which will very soon have reached the same state of ignorance as someone who never had access to what we have written about.
  • Plus, exercise reduces stress, which is good, because stress floods our brains with hormones that suppress learning processes (Baram et al. 2008).
    • #q Why might that be evolutionarily speaking?
  • It is not surprising, therefore, that the best-researched and most successful learning method is elaboration. It is very similar to what we do when we take smart notes and combine them with others, which is the opposite of mere re-viewing (Stein et al. 1984)
  • The first time one faces the challenge of writing a long text, say a dissertation, it is pretty normal to feel intimidated by the prospective of filling a few hundred pages with well-conceived ideas, source-based research and correct references on every page. If you don’t feel some kind of respect for this task, there is something wrong with you.
  • Coherent arguments require the language to be fixed, and only if something is written down is it fixed enough to be discussed independently from the author.
  • pretty much like a one-person Wikipedia stripped of the knowledge and fact-checking abilities of the community.
    • Anyway to combine the two?
  • As the slip-box is not a book with just one topic, we don’t need to have an overview of it. On the contrary, we are much better off accepting as early as possible that an overview of the slip-box is as impossible as having an overview of our own thinking while we are thinking.
  • The way people choose their keywords shows clearly if they think like an archivist or a writer. Do they wonder where to store a note or how to retrieve it? The archivist asks: Which keyword is the most fitting? A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference.
  • The great new idea you are about to add to the slip-box turns out to be already in there. Even worse, chances are this idea wasn’t even yours, but someone else’s.
  • The brain is very good at making associations and spotting patterns and similarities between seemingly different things and also very good in spotting differences between seemingly similar things, but it needs to have them presented objectively and externally. It is much easier to see differences and similarities than to detect them by mere thinking.
  • As a precondition to make use of this intuition, he emphasises the importance of experimental spaces where ideas can freely mingle (Johnson 2011). A laboratory with open-minded colleagues can be such a space, much as intellectuals and artists freely discussed ideas in the cafés of old Paris. I would add the slip-box as such a space in which ideas can mingle freely, so they can give birth to new ones.
    • Ref organizing genius, third place, bell labs
  • Abstraction should indeed not be the final goal of thinking, but it is a necessary in-between step to make heterogeneous ideas compatible.
  • Not having to think about the organisation is really good news for brains like ours – the few mental resources we have available, we need for thinking about the actual relevant questions: those concerning the contents.
  • Everything that is rather abstract, vague, emotionally neutral or does not even sound good is far down on its list of priorities – not exactly the best criteria for an intellectual endeavour.
  • Being intimately familiar with something enables us to be playful with it, to modify it, to spot new and different ideas without running the risk of merely repeating old ideas believing they are new.
  • But while the belief in our own ingenuity decreases with expertise, we become more able to actually make a genuine new contribution.
  • If we instead set out to write, say, three notes on a specific day, review one paragraph we wrote the day before or check all the literature we discovered in an article, we know exactly at the end of the day what we were able to accomplish and can adjust our expectations for the next day.