One of the latest productivity tools to capture the attention of the Internet is called a Slipbox (or, in German, a Zettelkasten).
The basic idea of a Slipbox is that you write short notes to capture insights about the things you’ve read, and you use indexes and a complex system of numbering to link everything together. (This was originally done with small slips of paper and shoeboxes, but there are now computer tools to make this easier.)
If done correctly, your Slipbox becomes a writing partner, surfacing unexpectedly brilliant ideas for you to craft into scholarly articles, dissertations, best-selling books, and – if the stars align – perhaps even a popular blog post or two.
Usually, the description of the tool is quickly followed by a brief bio of the tool’s “inventor”, Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist. And that is often followed by a quick recap of his insanely prolific writing career: he wrote 70 books and 400 academic papers across a ~40 year career, spanning the subjects of “law, economy, politics, art, religion, ecology, mass media, and love” according to Wikipedia. What a wildman!
Usually, *that* is all followed by the suggestion that if you, too, practiced these Slipbox note-taking techniques with unwavering dilligence, then you, too, could re-define the academic field of your choosing.
Then, the article moves on to the mechanics of building a Slipbox – your own private external brain. The sentences thicken. The process sounds joyless, another thing you Should Do, after you wax your car, rinse your recyclables, take your fiber.
But something has been tugging at my sleeve: Every description of Slipbox-style notetaking I’ve read makes it sound like a chore, and Luhmann was lazy.
According to the book How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens, Luhmann “stressed that he never forced himself to do something he didn’t feel like.”
This is mentioned in the context of writing, but are we to believe that Luhmann, while a lazy writer, pressed his note-taking nose to the grindstone for years, scribing tens of thousands of slips in his off hours, in a way that was fundamentally unpleasant for him, in the faint hope that his homegrown knowledge system may one day make it easier for him to write books?
I don’t buy it.
Because again, in Ahrens’s book, while Luhmann exhibits curiosity, he doesn’t show an especially high level of discipline, nor does he seem like somebody who would adopt an unenjoyable routine for the vague promise of advancement. 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.” As a civil servant, he is “fully aware he is also not suited for a career in administration, as it involves a lot of socializing.”
[Side note: “I don’t like parties” is an amusing excuse for a professional failure to launch.]
Instead, Luhmann “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.”
Well, here’s the thing: within the lethargy of this pandemic, I often explore my diverse interests in philosophy, organizational theory, and sociology. In less lofty terms, I scan Reddit, Hacker News, and Twitter (and recently, Every.to), and read the posts and responses that look interesting.
Suddenly Luhmann’s research doesn’t sound so impressive. I’m joking, of course, but the point is that Luhmann didn’t have a master plan toward which he was diligently working, and didn’t have a schedule to which he systematically stuck. In fact, he was *avoiding* work, and amusing himself.
Why is this important? Because while I believe that the Slipbox represents a hugely amazing productivity tool, I also think we are trying way too hard at it. *Luhmann was lazy*, so if it worked, it worked only because *it was fun*. If it’s not fun, it won’t work.
This is my theory:
Luhmann read whatever he felt like reading. But he realized this was an escape, and he felt guilty about his lack of ambition. He often thought “if only I weren’t such a lazy ass, I’d be a successful lawyer. Or I’d be managing my civil service department. But I have no discipline.”
He tried various note-taking systems in order to feel less guilty and have some tangible result from his reading, but everything he tried sucked the joy out of the whole ordeal, so nothing stuck.
Finally, to assuage his guilt, he took the bare minimum step required to call his reading habit “research”: after reading something, he identified the one or two insights that tickled his cerebellum, wrote them down on index cards, and put them in a card catalog. This small amount of bookkeeping was tolerable because it let Luhmann continue to indulge in his daily habit of aimless reading.
On average, this translated into six notes per day. (According to Sonke.)
As the “research” accumulated, a new game emerged, a kind of intellectual Tetris. How do these insights that I’ve collected fit together? Can I relate them in unexpected ways to tell myself stories about the world?
And it turns out that he could fit them together – maybe because he was a genius, maybe because he had a genius, or more likely because that’s how the human brain works. We are wired to seek patterns and notice relationships. Some of these patterns are common across humankind, and we call that common sense and universal truth. Others are novel to our own uniquely wired brains, and we call that creativity. But it’s enormously entertaining to find and catalog connections because as humans we yearn to understand and be understood.
For example, right now, I’m making a connection between my haphazard historical fiction of Luhmann’s invention of the Slipbox and a lecture I watched recently called The Myth of the Objective. In the lecture, Kenneth Stanley asserts that it is more productive to collect unique stepping stones than to chase a clearly defined objective, and that this applies to everything, including machine learning, scientific research, and business.
And I’m also connecting this to my own experience in various artistic fields (improv comedy, songwriting), where things just go better if you accept that the art is the boss and you are along for the ride.
Making these connections across different ideas cause me to *feel like* I understand the world better, and that releases serotonin in my brain, which causes me to want to keep finding new insights, and making new connections.
And furthermore, these connections feel brand new. And because of that, I want to share them with you, just like Luhmann shared his creative insights in the form of 70 books and 400 scholarly articles, just like children are compelled to run to their parents with their latest crayon drawing. Evolution wired humans to find joy in sharing creations and insights.
So that’s the insight I offer to you: Luhmann was lazy, and to keep your Slipbox humming, you must be lazy too.
Lazy, but insatiably curious.
Content © 2006-2021 Rusty Klophaus