Book Notes: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

Reading Time: 6 minutes

How to Take Smart Notes

Book Notes: How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers,  by Sönke Ahrens

ISBN-13 :978-1542866507

Publisher : CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2017)

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


Sönke Ahrens writes “How to Take Smart Notes” (2017) to describe the Zettlekasten method developed by the extremely prolific German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, and how it can be used to facilitate writing for students, academics, and non-fiction writers. Over a 30+ year academic career, and by the time of his death in 1998, Luhmann used the Zettelkasten method to generate over 90,000 notes and to publish over 50 books and more than 400 scholarly articles.

The Slip-Box

Zettelkasten means “slip-box” or “card index” in German, and is a way to take useful notes that help you become more productive and creative in your thinking and writing. Luhmann called it the Zettelkasten or slip-box because his system comprised a literal box that was filled with thousands of handwritten index cards. Luhmann would write his notes on small pieces of paper or A6 index cards, put a unique number in the corner, and collect the notes in the slip-box.

Another way to think about this slip-box is that it’s an organized collection of interlinked notes, a research database, or, simply, a knowledge management system that’s based on the idea of atomized, inter-connecting notes.

Main Idea

Your brain is a factory, not a warehouse or hard drive or storage device. The beauty of the human brain is that it is a versatile, creative, idea machine, suited for generating ideas, solving problems, and making connections. Instead of wasting your time trying to remember everything, the most productive and creative use of the brain is to to generate ideas. It’s more valuable to outsource the process of remembering and storage to an external device, and save the higher value functions of the brain for generating ideas and solving problems.

When reading a text, making highlights and underlining is a waste of time. You need to make connections, ask questions, develop concepts, and elaborate on a text in order to make sense of it. That means you have to take notes on what you read, and create a system where these connections can be easily made.

The Zettelkasten method is a note-taking method that is based on building knowledge and using the interlinked collection of notes as means of facilitating ideas and discovering new knowledge

Simply put, take notes as you read an interesting text, and try to summarize the ideas from those notes in your own words. You need to write in order to understand. Writing is thinking is understanding is learning.

Three Types of Notes

Fleeting notes

These are quick and easy temporary notes. They let you capture quickly and easily whatever is on your mind as you read a text or have an idea. For instance, these could be the short notes or marginalia you make as you read a book. Fleeting notes are intended to help you remember something for a short period of time, until you can later sit down and write a proper note. Fleeting notes are temporary and should be thrown away or discarded as soon as their contents have been transformed into literature or permanent notes.

Literature notes

Literature notes are notes about the content you’re reading. As you read, take notes of the main ideas and points being made in the text. Be sure to re-write these main points in your own words (ie. paraphrase) to make sure you fully understand what is being discussed. Do not merely copy and paste verbatim, and be highly selective with quotes. An excessive use of quotes could indicate that you are substituting the author’s words for your own understanding. Literature notes summarize or paraphrase the content of a text, and provide the corresponding reference or citation.

Permanent notes

Review your fleeting and literature notes (ideally, once a day), and turn them into permanent notes. Permanent notes describe your own ideas based on the literature notes, and how it connects or is related to your own insights, thinking, interests or ideas. Aim for precision and clarity, as if you were writing for your future self or for someone else. Each note/index card should correspond to one idea only.

Only permanent notes go into the slip-box. Fleeting notes get discarded and literature notes are placed in their own separate “reference” box.

Make connections

The permanent notes in the slip-box do not work in isolation. The value of the notes is in linking them together, and making connections, finding relationships, and discovering new ideas through the interleaving of these notes. A note is only as important as its connection to other notes.

Luhmann would assign a distinctive reference number to each note, and file related notes behind one or more other related notes, while also including manual links to other related cards.

The slip-box becomes more valuable the more notes are created, and one can serendipitously discover new ideas and foster creativity by exploring the relations, connections, and associations between the various notes.

There are 2 relevant types of links in a Zettelkasten:

  1. Keywords. These are implemented as tags in a note. Keywords are used to group similar things over time.
  2. Explicit link. One note can explicitly link or reference another note.

The Tools

Luhmann used a physical box and physical index cards to create his Zetttelkasten. Although Ahrens demonstrates a slight preference for taking notes by hand (because it improves information retention), the Zettelkasten method itself is platform-agnostic, and can be used with either physical or software devices. Notes written on index cards will work. Digital tools such as Zotero, or really, any note taking app or software like Evernote or Notion or Roam Research will also get the job done.

Regardless of platform, the Zettelkasten method requires four tools:

  • writing tool e.g. pen and paper, (something to take quick notes while reading or studying)
  • a reference management system, (for citations and references to the literature)
  • the main slipbox (to store your permanent notes)
  • an editor e.g. Google Docs or MS Word (for doing the actual writing)

Most of the tools to implement Zettelkasten are cheap or near to free.

Advantages of Using a Slip-Box

As one creates and accumulates permanent notes, the slip-box becomes a research database that’s made up of thousands of index cards or notes. It becomes an external memory or scaffolding for developing ideas, making connections, and streamlining the writing process. Taking permanent notes and collecting and linking them together in a slip-box allows you to 

  • Become less defensive about dissenting or contradicting arguments
  • Really understand what you have learned
  • Think across various contexts 
  • Remember what you learned
  • Become more creative 
  • Get the broad strokes, and be stalled on minor or irrelevant details 
  • Follow your curiosity and interests, and not rely on will-power or motivation
  • Implement short feedback loops, which allows for rapid improvement

Don’t Start from Zero

The most significant advantage of taking notes is that having notes helps to jumpstart or accelerate the writing process. Having notes prevents you from having to start from a blank page, which is one of the more terrifying aspects of writing. Having notes means that you don’t have to start from zero. You will already have an arsenal of notes that are dictated by your own interests and passions.

The slip-box allows you to dip into those clusters of thought within it, find ideas or concepts or questions that interest you, and use that information as raw material in your writing.

Note taking is part of learning, and writing is how you demonstrate your understanding. Thus, writing is part of how you learn. It’s difficult to summarize something you don’t really understand. Answering questions and elaborating on the questions and concepts found in your notes is the best way to demonstrate your understanding and think externally, via the medium of writing.

Key Takeaways

  • For modern day knowledge workers, life-long learning is essential to keep up with a rapidly changing environment. Everyone needs to write because everyone should always be learning. If you aren’t writing, you aren’t learning.
  • Good writing does not start from a blank page. It’s much easier to begin writing if one already has a foundation or archive of notes that are relevant to a given topic. Taking good notes is the foundation for productive writing.
  • The brain is an idea factory, not a storage warehouse.
  • The value of a single note lies in its connections with other notes
  • Pursue your interests, passions, and questions. Allow clusters of thoughts to emerge organically from the slip-box via links, and follow your those links or clusters in your writing.
  • Taking notes compounds over time. The more good notes you create, the more the ideas you can generate over time, the stronger your thinking becomes, and the more value you derive.

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