22 February 2021

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


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.

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.

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

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.

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.

It is a huge misunderstanding that the only alternative to planning is aimless messing around.

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.

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 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.

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).

1.1 – Good Solutions are Simple – and Unexpected

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.

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.

Writing is not a linear process. We constantly have to jump back and forth between different tasks.

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.

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.

1.2 – The Slip-box

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).

1.3 – The slip-box manual

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.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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.

2 – Everything You Need to Do

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

3. Now turn to your slip-box. Go through the notes you made in [steps above]. (...) 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. (...) 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.

4. Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box by: a) Filing each one behind one or more related notes, 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.

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.

3.1 – The Tool Box

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.

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.

5 – Writing Is the Only Thing That Matters

There is no such thing as private knowledge in academia. An idea kept private is as good as one you never had.

6 – Simplicity Is Paramount

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?

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.

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.

7 – Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. (...) Any attempts to trick ourselves into work with external rewards (like doing something nice after finishing a chapter) are only short-term solutions with no prospect of establishing a positive feedback loop. These are very fragile motivational constructions. 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).

9.2 – Multitasking is not a good idea

Trying to multitask fatigues us and decreases our ability to deal with more than one task. The fact that people nevertheless believe that they can get better at it and increase their productivity can easily be explained by two factors. The first is the lack of a control group or an objective external measurement that would provide us with the feedback we need to learn. The second is what psychologists call the mere-exposure effect: doing something many times makes us believe we have become good at it – completely independent of our actual performance (Bornstein 1989). We unfortunately tend to confuse familiarity with skill.

9.5 – Get Closure

The brain doesn't distinguish between an actual finished task and one that is postponed by taking a note. By writing something down, we literally get it out of our heads. This is why David Allen’s “Getting things done” system works.

Conversely, we can use the Zeigarnik effect to our advantage by deliberately keeping unanswered questions in our mind. We can ruminate about them, even when we do something that has nothing to do with work and ideally does not require our full attention. Letting thoughts linger without focusing on them gives our brains the opportunity to deal with problems in a different, often surprisingly productive way.

9.6 – Reduce the Number of Decisions

Doing the work that need to be done without having to apply too much willpower requires a technique, a ruse.

It is well known that decision-making is one of the most tiring and wearying tasks, which is why people like Barack Obama or Bill Gates only wear two suit colours: dark blue or dark grey. This means they have one less decision to make in the morning, leaving more resources for the decisions that really matter.

Most organisational decisions can be made up front, once and for all, by deciding on one system. By always using the same notebook for making quick notes, always extracting the main ideas from a text in the same way and always turning them into the same kind of permanent notes, which are always dealt with in the same manner, the number of decisions during a work session can be greatly reduced.

10.2 – Keep an Open Mind

It becomes easier to seek out dis-confirming data with practice and can become quite addictive. The experience of how one piece of information can change the whole perspective on a certain problem is exciting. And the more diverse the content of the slip-box is, the further it can bring our thinking forward – provided we haven’t decided on the direction upfront.

It is so much easier to develop an interesting text from a lively discussion with a lot of pros and cons than from a collection of one-sided notes.

10.3 – Get the Gist

One has to read extremely selectively and extract widespread and connected references. One has to be able to follow recurrences. But how to learn it if guidance is impossible? […] Probably the best method is to take notes – not excerpts, but condensed reformulated accounts of a text. Rewriting what was already written almost automatically trains one to shift the attention towards frames, patterns and categories in the observations, or the conditions/assumptions, which enable certain, but not other descriptions. It makes sense to always ask the question: What is not meant, what is excluded if a certain claim is made?

10.4 – Learn to Read

Richard Feynman once said that he could only determine whether he understood something if he could give an introductory lecture on it.

In oral presentations, we easily get away with unfounded claims. We can distract from argumentative gaps with confident gestures or drop a casual “you know what I mean” irrespective of whether we know what we meant. In writing, these manoeuvres are a little too obvious. It is easy to check a statement like: “But that is what I said!”

Seeing something we have seen before causes the same emotional reaction as if we had been able to retrieve the information from our memory. Rereading, therefore, makes us feel we have learned what we read.

The majority of students chooses every day not to test themselves in any way. Instead, they apply the very method research has shown again (Karpicke, Butler, and Roediger 2009) and again (Brown 2014, ch. 1) to be almost completely useless: rereading and underlining sentences for later rereading.

10.5 – Learn by Reading

This is why choosing an external system that forces us to deliberate practice and confronts us as much as possible with our lack of understanding or not-yet-learned information is such a smart move.

When we try to answer a question before we know how to, we will later remember the answer better, even if our attempt failed (Arnold and McDermott 2013).

11 – Take Smart Notes

Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes. And she also stresses that it is no less important to do something with these ideas – to think hard about how they connect with other ideas from different contexts and could inform questions that are not already the questions of the author of the respective text.

11.1 – Make a Career One Note at a Time

It does make sense to break down the work into manageable and measurable steps, but pages per day don’t work that well as a unit when you also have to read, do research and think.

In contrast to manuscript pages per day, a certain number of notes a day is a reasonable goal for academic writing. And that is because taking a note and sorting it into the slip-box can be done in one go, while writing a manuscript page could involve weeks and months of preparation involving other tasks as well.

11.2 – Think Outside the Brain

The brain works with rules of thumb and makes things look as if they fit, even if they don’t. It remembers events that never happened, connects unrelated episodes to convincing narratives and completes incomplete images. It cannot help but see patterns and meaning everywhere, even in the most random things (cf. Byrne, 2008). The brain, as Kahneman writes, is “a machine for jumping to conclusions” (Kahneman, 2013, 79).

Luhmann states as clearly as possible: it is not possible to think systematically without writing (Luhmann 1992, 53).

11.3 – Learn by not Trying

Writing notes and sorting them into the slip-box is nothing other than an attempt to understand the wider meaning of something. The slip-box forces us to ask numerous elaborating questions: What does it mean? How does it connect to … ? What is the difference between … ? What is it similar to? That the slip-box is not sorted by topics is the precondition for actively building connections between notes.

The fact that too much order can impede learning has become more and more known (Carey 2014). Conversely, we know that the deliberate creation of variations and contrasts can facilitate learning. Nate Kornell and Bjork showed this when they experimentally taught students different art styles. First, they used the traditional approach of showing students one art style at a time using different paintings. Then, they deliberately mixed up the styles and shuffled the paintings around.

12.1 – Develop Topics

Because it should not be used as an archive, where we just take out what we put in, but as a system to think with, the references between the notes are much more important than the references from the index to a single note. Focusing exclusively on the index would basically mean that we always know upfront what we are looking for – we would have to have a fully developed plan in our heads.

The file-box can do much more than just hand out what we request. It can surprise and remind us of long-forgotten ideas and trigger new ones.

All we need from the index are entry points. A few wisely chosen notes are sufficient for each entry point. The quicker we get from the index to the concrete notes, the quicker we move our attention from mentally preconceived ideas towards the fact-rich level of interconnected content.

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.

Keywords should always be assigned with an eye towards the topics you are working on or interested in, never by looking at the note in isolation.

12.2 – Make Smart Connections

The first type of links are those on notes that are giving you the overview of a topic. These are notes directly referred to from the index and usually used as an entry point into a topic that has already developed to such a degree that an overview is needed or at least becomes helpful. On a note like this, you can collect links to other relevant notes to this topic or question, preferably with a short indication of what to find on these notes (one or two words or a short sentence is sufficient). This kind of note helps to structure thoughts and can be seen as an in-between step towards the development of a manuscript. Above all, they help orientate oneself within the slip-box.

The most common form of reference is plain note-to-note links. They have no function other than indicating a relevant connection between two individual notes. By linking two related notes regardless of where they are within the slip-box or within different contexts, surprising new lines of thought can be established. These note-to-note links are like the “weak links” (Granovetter 1973) of social relationships we have with acquaintances: even though they are usually not the ones we turn to first, they often can offer new and different perspectives.

Keep in mind that making these links is not a chore, a kind of file-box maintenance. The search for meaningful connections is a crucial part of the thinking process towards the finished manuscript. But here, it is dealt with in a very concrete way. Instead of figuratively searching our internal memory, we literally go through the file-box and look for connections.

12.3 – Compare, Correct and Differentiate

Feature-positive effect (Allison and Messick 1988; Newman, Wolff, and Hearst 1980; Sainsbury 1971): this is the phenomenon in which we tend to overstate the importance of information that is (mentally) easily available to us and tilts our thinking towards the most recently acquired facts, not necessarily the most relevant ones. Without external help, we would not only take exclusively into account what we know, but what is on top of our heads.

12.6 – Think Inside the Box

Another piece of advice is not a feature of the slip-box and might sound banal, but it is crucial: Make sure that you really see what you think you see and describe it as plainly and factually as possible. Double-check if necessary. That this isn’t as obvious as it sounds will become clearer by the fact that the ability to truly see what is in front of one’s eyes is often listed as a trait of experts. And that is easily explained by the fact that our perception does not follow the order of seeing first and interpreting second. It does both at the same time: We always perceive something as something – our interpretation is instantaneous. This is why we have so much trouble not falling for an optical illusion: If we look at a three-dimensional drawing, we cannot see it just as an arrangement of lines and shapes – unless we are highly trained to do so. We don’t even notice objectively missing parts in our perception, like the blind spot in the middle of everything we see. (...) The same is true when we read: We don’t see lines on a paper first, then realise that these are words, then use them to build sentences and finally decipher the meaning. We immediately read on the level of meaningful understanding. To really understand a text is therefore a constant revision of our first interpretation. We have to train ourselves to get used to seeing this difference and to hold back our ingrained urge to jump to conclusions. To be able to see what we see instead of what we expect to see is indeed a skill in itself, not like a character trait of being “open-minded.” Those who think of themselves as being open-minded are often even more prone to stick to their first understanding as they believe to be without natural prejudices and therefore don’t see the need to counterbalance them. If we think we can “hold back” an interpretation, we are fooling ourselves. While the constant comparison of notes can help us to detect differences, no technique can help us see what is missing. But we can make it a habit to always ask what is not in the picture, but could be relevant. This, too, does not come naturally to us. One of the most famous figures to illustrate this skill is the mathematician Abraham Wald (Mangel and Samaniego 1984). During World War II, he was asked to help the Royal Air Force find the areas on their planes that were most often hit by bullets so they could cover them with more armour. But instead of counting the bullet holes on the returned planes, he recommended armouring the spots where none of the planes had taken any hits. The RAF forgot to take into account what was not there to see: All the planes that didn’t make it back.

In his beautifully titled book “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” Oliver Burkeman describes how much our culture is focused on success and how we neglect the important lessons from failure (Burkeman 2013). Manager biographies are a good example: Even though all of them contain some anecdotes about setbacks, these are always embedded in a bigger story about success.

12.7 – Facilitate Creativity through Restrictions

Even though the digital program lifts the physical restrictions on the length of a note, I highly recommend treating a digital note as if the space were limited. By restricting ourselves to one format, we also restrict ourselves to just one idea per note and force ourselves to be as precise and brief as possible. The restriction to one idea per note is also the precondition to recombine them freely later. Luhmann choose notes in the format A6. A good rule of thumb for working with the program is: Each note should fit onto the screen and there should be no need of scrolling.

In his book “The Paradox of Choice,” Barry Schwartz used numerous examples, from shopping to career options to romance, to show that less choice can not only increase our productivity, but also our freedom and make it easier to be in the moment and enjoy it (Schwartz, 2007). Not having to make choices can unleash a lot of potential, which would otherwise be wasted on making these choices.

(...) think of poetry: It imposes restrictions in terms of rhythm, syllables or rhymes.

Language in itself is extremely standardised and limited in many ways. We are restricted to the use of only 26 letters, but what that enables us to do!

The binary code is radically more limited than the alphabet as it contains only two states, one or zero, but it opened up a range of creative possibilities that is unprecedented. The biggest threat to creativity and scientific progress is therefore the opposite: a lack of structure and restrictions. Without structure, we cannot differentiate, compare or experiment with ideas. Without restrictions, we would never be forced to make the decision on what is worth pursuing and what is not. Indifference is the worst environment for insight. And the slip-box is, above all, a tool for enforcing distinctions, decisions and making differences visible.

13.1 – From Brainstorming to Slip-box-Storming

Whenever someone struggles with finding a good topic to write about, someone else will recommend brainstorming. (...) For many people, it is still the best method to generate new ideas. I suggest to see it rather as an expression of an outdated fixation on the brain, which is mirrored in the fixation of our educational system to learn things by heart – which means to think without external tools. (...) It makes things worse that we tend to like our first ideas the best and are very reluctant to let go of them, irrespective of their actual relevance (Strack and Mussweiler 1997).

More people in a brainstorming group usually come up with less good ideas and restrict themselves inadvertently to a narrower range of topics (Mullen, Johnson, and Salas 1991). You can avoid that, though, by letting all members brainstorm for themselves and compiling the results afterwards.

It is the one decision in the beginning, to make writing the mean and the end of the whole intellectual endeavour, that changed the role of topic-finding completely. It is now less about finding a topic to write about and more about working on the questions we generated by writing.

13.2 – From Top Down to Bottom Up

It seems counterintuitive that we become more open to new ideas the more familiar we are with ideas we have already encountered, but historians of science will happily confirm this (Rheinberger 1997). It makes sense when you think about it: without intense elaboration on what we already know, we would have trouble seeing its limitations, what is missing or possibly wrong.

This is also true in art: New, groundbreaking work is rarely created on a whim by some accidental artist who believes himself to be amazingly innovative. On the contrary: The more time an artist devotes to learning about an aesthetic “problem,” the more unexpected and creative his solution will be regarded later by art experts (Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi 1976).

13.3 – Getting Things Done by Following Your Interests

The risk of losing interest in what we do is high when we decide upfront on a long-term project without much clue about what to expect. We can mitigate this risk considerably by applying a flexible organisation scheme that allows us to change course whenever necessary.

The ability to keep control over our work and change course if necessary is made possible by the fact that the big task of “writing a text” is broken down into small, concrete tasks, which allows us practically to do exactly what is needed at a certain time and take the next step from there. It is not just about feeling in control, it is about setting up the work in a way that we really are in control. And the more control we have to steer our work towards what we consider interesting and relevant, the less willpower we have to put into getting things done. Only then can work itself become the source of motivation, which is crucial to make it sustainable.

Organizing the work so we can steer our projects in the most promising direction not only allows us to stay focused for longer, but also to have more fun – and that is a fact (Gilbert 2006).

13.4 – Finishing and Review

Try working on different manuscripts at the same time. While the slip-box is already helpful to get one project done, its real strength comes into play when we start working on multiple projects at the same time. The slip-box is in some way what the chemical industry calls “verbund.” This is a setup in which the inevitable by-product of one production line becomes the resource for another, which again produces by-products that can be used in other processes and so on, until a network of production lines becomes so efficiently intertwined that there is no chance of an isolated factory competing with it anymore.

This is advantageous not only because we make progress on the next papers or books while we are still working on the current one, but also because it allows us to switch to other projects whenever we get stuck or bored.

13.5 – Becoming an Expert by Giving up Planning

Be generally sceptical about planning, especially if it is merely focused on the outcome, not on the actual work and the steps required to achieve a goal. While it doesn’t help to imagine oneself the great author of a successful and timely finished paper, it does make a difference if we have a realistic idea about what needs to be done to get there in our minds. We know from sports that it doesn’t help when athletes imagine themselves as winners of a race, but it makes a big difference if they imagine all the training that is necessary to be able to win.

The problem with the linear model is not just that one phase might need longer than planned, but that it is highly unlikely that we will finish a phase sooner than planned. If the whole problem was just an error in judgement, we would on average overestimate the time we need as often as we underestimate it, but unfortunately, that is not how it works. According to the famous law of Parkinson, every kind of work tends to fill the time we set aside for it, like air fills every corner of a room (Parkinson 1957).

If we have the finish line in sight, we tend to speed up, as everyone knows who has ever run a marathon. That means that the most important step is to get started. Rituals help, too (Currey 2013). But the biggest difference lies in the task you are facing to start with. It is much easier to get started if the next step is as feasible as “writing a note,” “collect what is interesting in this paper” or “turning this series of notes into a paragraph” than if we decide to spend the next days with a vague and ill-defined task like “keep working on that overdue paper.”

14 – Make It a Habit

It is really easy to predict the behaviour of people in the long run. In all likelihood, we will do in a month, a year or two years from now exactly what we have done before: eat as many chocolates as before, go to the gym as often as before, and get ourselves into the same kinds of arguments with our partners as before. To put it differently, good intentions don’t last very long, usually.

The trick is not to try to break with old habits and also not to use willpower to force oneself to do something else, but to strategically build up new habits that have a chance to replace the old ones.