How to Take Smart Notes by Dr. Sönke Ahrens

How to Take Smart Notes by Dr. Sönke Ahrens

Quick Summary

Dr. Sönke Ahrens explains a modern approach to the Zettelkasten Method that was first developed by a sociologist named Niklas Luhmann. This note-taking method encourages the long-term curation and connection of ideas across your full spectrum of interests.


Big Picture

This book completely transformed the way I take notes. It’s based on a complicated note-card system but the concepts behind it are easy to implement using digital tools.

Essentially, it boils down to this:

  1. Take quick notes as you consume. Keep these notes short so that they don’t interrupt your workflow. Be picky! Luhmann himself only took ~6 notes per day.
  2. Revisit those quick notes and elaborate on them. Elaboration and active recall are great for deepening understanding.
  3. Look for ways to connect your notes together. Permanent notes should be densely linked.

The note system is covered in detail, but for me the big takeaway was the “why” more than the “how.” Smart notes can make you a more prolific reader and writer.

Fleeting, Permanent, and Project-Related Notes

Fleeting notes are quick notes that you take while you read, watch videos, or do some other activity that might foster insights. They’re meant to be quickly jotted down without interrupting the flow of the activity that you’re doing. These types of notes go into an “inbox” of sorts, which you then revisit at the end of the day with the express purpose of fleshing out the notes further in your own words.

It’s important to separate your fleeting, permanent, and project-related notes because they all play a different role in the overall system. Each type of note represents a different stage of writing and requires a different type of focus.

When it comes to the written word, what you mean is irrelevant. It’s what you actually say that is important. By separating your idea generation, literature notes, first draft, and projects you are able to separate the writer from the editor and proofreader. This helps you catch mistakes, inconsistencies, and weak arguments before they make it to your editors, publishers, and audiences.

Multitasking is bad. Even people who think that they’re good at it and who judge themselves as having been effective at it are actually far worse than their peers who do the same tasks but one at a time. The note taking system is designed to let you focus on one task at a time.

The Importance of Elaboration

Taking smart notes and systematically improving them by putting them into your own words and expanding on your thoughts is the deliberate practice of becoming a better thinker and communicator. The practice of doing it will become easier and the results even better as the compendium grows.

For best results, take shorter fleeting notes and then elaborate on them as you translate them into your permanent notes. The act of elaboration is the key to learning and understanding.

A smart notes system quickly adds up into a giant compendium of knowledge. Only 6 notes per day led to Luhmann’s publishing of 58 novels and hundreds of scholarly articles. It’s possible to get incredible results without the need for extensive, endless note-taking work. Take short notes, elaborate on them, and then connect them with other ideas you’ve already written down.

Restrict your notes to one idea per note. This keeps them modular, forces you to be concise, and makes it easier to treat each note like an interchangeable component that can be inserted in a variety of different articles, essays, books, etc.

Use Your Own Words

The process of converting our thoughts into words through writing forces us to confront our own understanding (or lack thereof) of the material. Writing our thoughts also forces us to think about how to get our meaning across. Remember, what an author means is not important; only the words on the paper actually matter.

Cramming – the act of reading and re-reading and underlining concepts and writing in the margins of books – won’t help you learn. It might help you briefly store definitions, names, and dates in your short-term memory, but it won’t help you understand material or connect it to the bigger picture. Only by translating your notes into your own words will you truly start to internalize material and understand it.

The best way to learn is through active recall. In fact, the process of trying to remember something, even if we can’t come to the result on our own and eventually have to look it up, still results in deeper learning than simply looking up the answer without trying to recall it first.

Evidence suggests that writing notes by hand improves understanding of the material. This is different than being able to recall arbitrary facts and dates, which cramming and re-reading material can actually help with. Deep understanding of material and the ability to make connections between key points, however, is much more apparent among students who write their notes by hand as opposed to typing them verbatim from a lecture.

The Importance of Making Connections

Connecting your notes to one another is a crucial part of deepening your understanding. Look for where ideas overlap, conflict, bolster, or simply relate to other notes in your system. Treat your permanent notes like an external brain — except you can visualize what’s stored in it and choose the neural pathways you want to create or strengthen.

An “external brain” forces us to confront weaknesses in our arguments and our understanding. By visually inspecting our map of knowledge we can see the gaps. Seek out the knowledge that would fill in those gaps — that’s often where insights and understanding can be found. If you find a bias of yours, confront it by looking for counter-arguments and keeping an open mind.

Learning is not just an accumulation of facts. Understanding comes from being able to make connections and see how ideas are applicable in everyday life. Knowing the importance of, the repercussions of, and the long-term effects of bits of information is far more powerful than simply remembering a fact without understanding how it fits into any context.

Abstract Away and Then Rebuild

Abstraction is a crucial part of understanding. Take ideas, pull them out of their context, and apply them to new situations. This is a key to being a creative thinker and always leads to deeper understanding — regardless of whether the application of the idea worked in the new context.

Create keywords for your notes, but always within the context of discovery and not remembrance. Think, “Under what circumstances would I like to stumble across this again, even if I’ve forgotten all about it?” Think about connections between this note and others — what words or phrases can connect them to each other?

When trying to find out things that work, start by looking for things that didn’t work. Learning from other people’s failures is a shortcut that most people don’t take. Most people look at what others are doing that did work and trying to copy it. This strategy can be valuable but also leads to selection bias — they might be succeeding despite their technique and not because of it.

What to Write About

Your note system should be a reflection of you. Over time, if you follow your interests and write about everything, your notes will grow into a compendium of ideas, and these ideas will cluster around topics that interest you. So when you sit down to write, you will never have to struggle with the “blank page” ever again.

When seeking out material and taking notes, write down everything — regardless of whether or not it supports your beliefs or theses. The ability to indiscriminately collect notes is one of the keys to making unbiased, scientific discoveries, rather than choosing an endpoint and looking for (and finding) only evidence that suggests that preconceived conclusion.

Insights gathered from new material — whether academic journals or books or any other source — should never be a threat to your academic or writing progress. Insights are always good, as they provide deeper meaning and connection to the truth.

Trust Yourself

Kakorrhaphiophobia – the fear of failure – is what prevents many people from trying new things. Overcome this fear with the growth mindset and an understanding that in order to learn, you must be open to failing.

When you spend a lot of time collecting notes from different sources, it can be difficult to trust whether or not your opinions and writings have merit. As Kant says, “Have the courage to trust your own understanding.” By putting things into your own words, you’re deepening your understanding of them and also making connections to the rest of your mental models — connections that might not have ever been made before.

Stay Interested to Stay Focused

Willpower is an expendable resource that depletes quickly. Having a system that takes the thinking and decision making out of what to do saves you willpower and helps you stay focused on each particular task for longer.

Choices that have no meaning can be de-energizing, but choices that have personal meaning are energizing and help you live a longer, healthier life. Getting caught in a cycle of dead-end decisions is dangerous, so it’s important to care about what you’re working on. That’s why you should follow your interests.