Book Notes: How to Take Smart Notes

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens
Read Oct 28, 2020 - Dec 27, 2020

How To Take Smart Notes presents a technique for taking notes that helps you develop your own thinkin and is also conducive to writing new content. The method is called Zettelkasten – German for “slip box”, a box with notes on paper slips.

The core idea of Zettlekasten is to keep notes brief, with one idea per note, and to keep track of connections between notes/ideas. There are many good summaries out there on the web, like this one from the website.

These ideas makes a lot of sense to me. However, this book is very focused on an audience of academic writers, and some of the advice doesn’t fit for me. Additionally, the book dragged towards the end, repeating some core ideas over and over. If you are interested in this method, one of the summaries of Zettelkasten that you can find on the web is probably a better choice than this book.

Book Highlights

The linear process promoted by most study guides, which insanely starts with the decision on the hypothesis or the topic to write about, is a sure-fire way to let confirmation bias run rampant.

What good readers can do is spot the limitations of a particular approach and see what is not mentioned in the text.

Lonka recommends what Luhmann recommends: Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes.

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.

Taking permanent notes of our own thoughts is a form of self-testing as well: do they still make sense in writing? Are we even able to get the thought on paper? Do we have the references, facts and supporting sources at hand?

Coherent arguments require the language to be fixed, and only if something is written down is it fixed enough to be discussed independently from the author.

Luhmann states as clearly as possible: it is not possible to think systematically without writing.

But the first question I asked myself when it came to writing the first permanent note for the slip-box was: What does this all mean for my own research and the questions I think about in my slip-box? This is just another way of asking: Why did the aspects I wrote down catch my interest?

What does help for true, useful learning is to connect a piece of information to as many meaningful contexts as possible, which is what we do when we connect our notes in the slip-box with other notes.

The challenge of writing as well as learning is therefore not so much to learn, but to understand, as we will already have learned what we understand.

If you focus your time and energy on understanding, you cannot help but learn.

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.

Notes are only as valuable as the note and reference networks they are embedded in.

We don’t need to write anything down just to bridge a gap in a note sequence. We only write if it helps us with our own thinking.

We are much better off accepting as early as possible that an overview of the slip-box is as impossible as having an overview of our own thinking while we are thinking.

The slip-box is the medium we think in, not something we think about.

Every consideration on the structure of a topic is just another consideration on a note – bound to change and dependent on the development of our understanding.

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?

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.

Assigning keywords is much more than just a bureaucratic act. It is a crucial part of the thinking process, which often leads to a deeper elaboration of the note itself and the connection to other notes.

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