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I get it. You are staring at a blank page. I have been there too. You do not know where to start. It feels daunting and a struggle. You need to produce. We’ve been doing this wrong the whole time! We should have been taking smart notes. Make your life easier! Use the smart note technique to create new ideas and content. You might think that great creators start with a blank page or canvas. Nope! That could not be further from the truth. Creators have a wealth of material and sources to get ideas. Sönke Ahrens teaches the slip box (Zettlekasten) method that Niklas Luhmann used to generate lots of writing effortlessly. The gist of the technique is to summarize complex ideas to a singular note. You then link to similar notes based on a concept you want to develop.

Writing Notes

In the book, Ahrens describes three types of notes. Fleeting notes, meant for rapid collection and deletion. Project notes, for notes related to various projects. Finally, important notes are the ones you want to keep and continue to refine into new works. The first step is to capture your ideas into your knowledge management system. You can decide what notes to keep and which to eliminate. The point of this is to capture and nurture ideas as you think through them and add to them. Reduce these ideas into their raw essence and transform them into new works.

“Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is.”

Simplicity and Linking

The point of this system is to collect, refine, and rethink ideas you understand and want to express. The way you can leverage this system is by keeping it simple by writing about one idea per note. Write these notes as if a stranger can pick them up and comprehend them. Simplicity is essential. You will make it easier for your future self to connect and find ideas. Think through how you want to link your notes together. Ahrens recommends choosing keywords based on what you are working on or future topics you want to develop. The choice of keyword is a type of elaboration that will help you learn the material.

Learning

Ahrens shares the learning mechanisms via elaboration, spacing, variance, context, and retrieval. These are techniques that help you learn your topic better and they can be part of this system. I’ve internalized this process via Tiago Forte’s method called CODE (Collect, Organize, Distill, Express). What I like about smart notes is that it is specific in that the intent of the system is producing written content. These notes become a bedrock foundation for you to create new works that help you understand and play with the ideas in new ways. I can turn this book into a note and link it to my knowledge management concepts. I can review and compare how this system relates to CODE or other learning techniques and research. Over time I can create a video or another blog sharing what I learned. It’s a fun virtuous cycle of molding and shaping ideas into new forms that could create a new insight.

Conclusion

Use a tool to capture your ideas and thoughts (fleeting) as they arise. Keep the important notes. Write simple notes. As if someone could read and understand their source quickly. Make this technique your creativity machine. Future writing and projects will start from an abundance of ideas, sources, and content you have already written on your own.

  • Write down notes (fleeting, project, important) and use those to create new content.
  • Link your notes to illustrate hidden connections
  • Elaborate on what you are learning, space it out over time, vary the context, and actively retrieve that information.
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