The Key to My Creativity Is This Weird Note-Taking System
Using Niklas Luhmann’s ‘slip box’ method, I’m finding better ideas everywhere
I’ve always been an avid notetaker—extracting ideas from books as inspiration for my articles. But most of my notes were disorganized, housed digitally in Pocket, Evernote, Google Docs, Trello, or on stacks of index cards. Accessing the information was a pain, and I likely wouldn’t review or even see 99% of my notes ever again.
Then about a year ago, I came across Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes, a book that details the note-taking system of the late German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. He calls it “slip box” and it’s a system that helped Luhmann write 60 books (and six more that were published posthumously), in addition to completing his grand theory “The Society of Society.” I knew I needed to try it.
On the surface, the slip box looks like a bunch of handwritten index cards. (Luhmann produced 90,000 of them in all.) The cards are stored in filing boxes, divided by subjects and numbered consecutively. But scholars who’ve studied the system know that it serves not just as a note collection, but as a partner in communication. Sociologist Johannes F.K. Schmidt writes that the process makes “serendipity possible in a systemically and theoretically informed way.”
Here’s how it works: The foundation of Luhmann’s slip box method consists of writing ideas in full sentences on index cards. (Only write on one side of the cards so you never have to flip them over.) Each card should contain one idea, and cards are connected together as threads. For example, card 1 and card 2 might be two separate threads, but if you later write a new card that you want to connect to card 1, you would label it as 1a. Then card 1b, 1c, and so on. And then if you write a card that you want to connect to 1a, you would label it as card 1a1. This way, the threads are potentially endless, and you can connect any idea anywhere in the system. You can summarize the concepts in a set of master index cards.
You don’t have to be a writer to benefit from the slip box method — it can streamline any type of creative work. I’ve been using this system for about a year and it’s already made the process of finding new ideas and putting them…