Recipes or no recipes?

Nicklas Luhmann was a social scientist and prolific writer. He published over 60 books, with some of them revolutionizing his field. A few people have studied his technique of taking notes and associating them, which seemed to explain how he could come with novel ideas and write them down so fast. I can’t recommend enough the book “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens (2017). The book describes principles and generic steps to take notes for successful writing.

What is interesting, though, are the some of the negative reactions to the book by Ahrens. They can be phrased as “the work system is not prescriptive enough” or “the work system would not… well… work for me”. But they reflect the lack of desire or ability to even try the new work system.

There are a number of assumptions in any described work system. You have to understand its goals, have the same ones, be at a point where the system resonates with the way you’re already working, so you see how to modify your existing system (everyone uses systems even if they don’t realize it- the most basic rely on habits and intuition), adopt it with some success, use it for long enough to perceive benefits. The biggest obstacle resides in the tools you use or can use. They are highly contextual.

Successfully changing your work system requires Aha moments where you try something different, and you feel it works better, and becomes a new habit.

All this requires that you have an idea of how you currently work, and think of it as a work system. Or, you can simply adopt the new one, but it requires a leap of faith- and if you are opinionated, you will just write down a negative review of the book on Goodreads!

The issue, when considering the new work system, then, is to be able to see it like a new recipe in an existing realm of recipes you have at your disposal. Today, I use this method to cook my rice. Tomorrow, I will try this other method.

When you have no idea how you cook rice today, though, the new work system will just not make any sense. It will feel “too abstract“ or “too different”.

Ahrens’s promise to “boost writing [for] Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers” is very ambitious. If you are a student, you know by comparing how you work with how other students you know work, how incredibly diverse and different your work systems all are.

For people who have not thought hard about how they work today, expecting to adopt a new work system like a new recipe, is like trying to read a partition for a musical instrument you do not know how to play.

Recipes are for people who know how to cook.

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