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Managing knowledge effectively - How the note box system makes writing easier for you

Do you read so much every day? Blog and newspaper articles, books, white papers, ... And do you often think to yourself: "This is interesting information that I should remember"?

And if you are like me, Nadja, you will have forgotten more than half of the things you read about the day in the evening.

Or the other variant: You have written down the information and / or your ideas on a piece of paper - but if you pick up the piece of paper two days later, you can no longer remember what you meant by it. After all, the piece of paper in your hand is just one of dozens of others on your desk.

That's annoying. Now you have to do some research, read again, and hope again that you have a good idea. It's inefficient. - Or, because you don't have this time, just ignore the idea. Again, that is a shame.

It is therefore important to have a functioning system for your knowledge management when writing at work. That saves time - and helps to develop new ideas and write well-thought-out texts.

Some time ago we wrote about the usefulness of excerpts in order to write better texts. Today we are going to introduce you to another method of organizing newly acquired knowledge and making it manageable: the note box.

The slip box - a simple knowledge management system that works

The method of the card box goes back to the sociologist and social theorist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1995). In addition to his well-founded theories, Niklas Luhmann stood out for one thing above all: his unbelievable output of books and articles.

Luhmann wrote more than fifty books and several hundred essays. On average there were two books and several scientific articles per year. Anyone who produces knowledge so quickly must have a well-functioning system to manage this knowledge.

We will show you how Luhmann's system works and how you can use it for yourself.

Luhmann built his knowledge management system analogously on index cards. That might sound dusty at first, but it's ingeniously effective.

To do this, he ran two separate card index systems: he wrote the information he drew from the sources on a slip of paper (source slip) and put it in a box. The ideas that he got for his future work in the other. Source and idea are managed separately - and can be linked to other ideas and sources over and over again.

Today, of course, there are various programs that will help you run the system digitally; some for free, others for a fee. Just google for "Zettelkasten Software".

However, you can also easily build your note box digitally by creating text files instead of index cards and saving them in two different folders.

If we speak of index cards and boxes in the following, this is because we are first of all explaining the system - as I said, it can also be files.

And this is how it works:

1) The source card box

On the source slip, write down the information and excerpts from the article or book you are reading that you think are important and worth remembering.

Do not just copy a passage, but describe the content in your own words. Keep it short; three to four sentences maximum.

Danger! This is NOT an excerpt. It's about the essence of information, a thought. If you find that you need more space, you are probably connecting several pieces of information together. Break the information into smaller chunks.

The source list is also NOT there to create a collection of quotations. Taken out of context, you usually can't do anything with the quotations anyway.

If you want to write out quotations, write an excerpt and that way put the quotation in context. Then you can work better with it.

It is also important:

a) Include the source: Author: in, title, year of publication, etc. For websites, copy the URL and note the date on which you visited the website.

b) Number your notes or files consecutively. So - in the next step - you can easily refer to it. You will find out what I mean by that in a moment. A source list could then look like this:

2) The ideas slip box

Now comes the highlight of the technology: the ideas sheet.

We all keep coming up with ideas as we read - and it's all too easy to forget. Therefore: Write down the ideas that came to you while reading a passage or an article on a separate index card.

Let yourself be guided by questions such as: How can you use the information for your next writing project? What other questions arise for you? What other topics, ideas can your idea be connected to?

Also, make a note of which source slip you are referring to. This is where the numbering comes into play: So that you don't have to copy all the sources or have to laboriously summarize again which passage your idea relates to, you just need to write down the number of the index card or the file name.

Also number the ideas slips or files. This makes it very easy to refer to other pieces of paper when you realize that different ideas go well together.

The point of the card box is even to find as many references as possible to existing ideas and / or sources. Numbering them also helps with cataloging what's next.

And this is what an ideas sheet could look like:

3) The keyword list

The index cards alone do not help you to find the information and ideas you have collected again. To do this, you now need your keyword list.

Think about which keywords match your idea. So z. B. #CO2-Curve or #economic crisis. You can choose as many keywords as you want. Give your ideas notes (and also your source notes) the appropriate keywords.

Of course, you cannot remember which slips of paper you will find which keyword. So you now need a system in which you write down the key words. An Excel list is well suited for this.

For example, you can write down the key word in one column and list the numbers of the notes containing the key word in another column. This is how you can find the right notes at a glance. So you can see immediately that you can find your ideas and links on the topic of #economic crisis on the slips of paper or in files 4, 7, 8 and 13, 17, 24.

Over time, of course, it gets tight in the crevices. If at some point there are 1,500 ideas under one catchphrase, you will probably no longer find your way around.

The references that you have noted on the index cards or in the files help here. From your idea on slip no. 4 you will be referred directly to your idea on slip number 34, here you will find a reference to slip no. 7 and slip no. 49 - always with the corresponding references to your source lists.

So whenever you want to write something on a topic, you already have a network of ideas.

The system needs a little discipline - especially the keywording, without which it doesn't work. But if you have got used to writing down information and ideas separately and maintaining your Excel list with the key words, this makes it easier for you to have your accumulated knowledge ready when you need it for your texts.

Try it out and write us how you organize your ideas and new knowledge. We are excited!


Nadja Buoyardane and Franziska Nauck

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