How To Take Smart Notes - Book-Notes-Cover-Image

How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

This book completely changed the way I look at reading books and taking notes based on what I watch, read, and listen to. This is a must-read for anyone that really enjoys reading but wants to get even more value and insight from the books they read.

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Who Should Read This Book?

I would recommend this book to anyone that really enjoys reading but wants to get even more value and insight from the books they read.

I’m unsure how this book would apply to just fiction readers but certainly, for people that enjoy non-fiction books, I would recommend this.

Even if you’re not a passionate reader but want to become a better learner this book will give you the motivation to want to read and consume interesting information.


How The Book Changed Me

  • I am now super motivated to want to read books and to learn more. I certainly hope this motivation lasts!!
  • As I come across topics that I know little about or that seem interesting to me, I am highlighting them as potential learning topics and I look forward to researching and learning more about them.
  • I am hoping that over time if I continue reading that I will get faster but also become better able to understand the key points and messages of books or articles.
  • I am also fascinated by the idea of a knowledge management system that holds insightful thoughts and ideas that can be drawn upon to create articles or videos. I am actively building this system in Notion.

My Top 3 Quotes That Resonated With Me

“Having a meaningful and well-defined task beats willpower every time. Not having willpower, but not having to use willpower indicates that you set yourself up for success.”

How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens – Page 10

“Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding, and generating ideas we have.”

How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens – Page 30

“Because it should not be used as an archive, where we just take out what we put in, but as a system to think with, the references between the notes are much more important than the references from the index to a single note. Focusing exclusively on the index would basically mean that we always know upfront what we are looking for – we would have to have a fully developed plan in our heads. But liberating our brains from the task of organizing the notes is the main reason we use the slip-box in the first place.”

How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens – Page 122

Book Notes

Introduction

“Those who take smart notes will never have the problem of a blank screen again.”

This seems like a really interesting proposition as a lot of the time the most resistance relies on simply getting started.

Writing things down is much easier than storing and retrieving everything from your head.

“Not having willpower, but not having to use willpower indicates that you set yourself up for success.”

1 Everything You Need To Know

Having a trusted system means you can remove that stress from your head and focus on thinking about things instead of focusing on remembering things.

Breaking down tasks into the next actionable step gives a clear focus. The concept is also referenced in the book Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Just because you’ve read a lot doesn’t make you smart. It’s about what you learn from books and how you apply them in your own life.

We need a system that holds information and allows us to combine it all in new and interesting ways to generate new ideas.

2 Everything You Need To Do

2.0 Introduction

“Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding, and generating ideas we have.”

To really be able to understand something you need to be able to put it in your own words.

2.1 Writing A Paper Step By Step

  1. Make fleeting notes – rough ideas captured on a piece of paper or in an ideas file.
  2. Make literature notes – from anything you read, watch, or listen to. Make notes of thoughts or ideas that resonate with you or sound interesting. Keep it concise and use your own words.
  3. Make permanent or “evergreen notes” – these go into the “slip-box”
    • go through the notes from step one and two
    • think about how they relate to what is relevant to your own thoughts or ideas
    • write one note for each idea – like an atomic note
    • write as if you were writing for someone else.
    • use full sentences.
  4. Organize
    • throw away fleeting notes and add literature notes to your reference system.
    • make links to related permanent notes in your slip box

“Each added bit of information, filtered only by our interest, is a contribution to our future understanding, thinking, and writing.”

3 The Tool Box

A trusted idea capture system is needed. It shouldn’t require any thought to use to provide little resistance.

If we trust that the system works we can remove that thought from our head and focus on other things.

6 Simplicity Is Paramount

When thinking about tagging or labeling content ask yourself: “In which context will I want to stumble upon it again?”.

“Can’t find your trousers? Maybe they are with the bleach you bought the same day at your department store.”

This quote really emphasized the point that we need to think critically about how to link things for later retrieval. Imagine how you would want to come across this piece of information and label it accordingly.

Permanent notes should be written such that you can understand them even if you’ve forgotten the context they came from. This allows you to read and understand these notes well into the future.

7 Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch

“By doing the work, you can trust that interesting questions will emerge.”

8 Let The Work Carry You Forward

Exergonic reaction – constant energy is needed to keep moving.

Endergonic reaction – the reaction continues by itself and releases energy.

“Once we get into the workflow, it is as if the work itself gains momentum, pulling us along and sometimes even energizing us.”

This encapsulates the state of “Flow” the book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – this book has been on my to-read list for quite a while now so I hope I get around to reading it soon!!

Trying to trick your brain to do work using external rewards is only a short-term solution.

A great source of motivation is the experience of becoming better at what we do.

It’s important to have a learning system that allows for frequent feedback loops.

The better we become at learning and processing information, the easier it will be to take notes.

9 Separate And Interlocking Tasks

9.2 Multitasking Is Not A Good Idea

Multitasking is essentially a lie. All we are doing is rapidly shifting our attention from one thing to another. This causes fatigue and negatively affects our focus.

“Flow:… the state in which being highly focused becomes effortless.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

9.5 Get Closure

Understanding things is the key to being able to remember them.

Once we can make connections between ideas we are better able to understand and remember them.

The Zeigarnik Effect: Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory – until they are done.

This is why it’s easy to get distracted when we have unfinished tasks on our mind.

All we have to do to overcome this is to write things down in a trusted system that we know has captured those things – this is the cornerstone of the Getting Things Done methodology.

This effect can also be used to our advantage though. If we keep thoughts in our head without focusing on them (like when going for a walk) we can give our brains a chance to process them which could lead to surprising new connections or ideas.

9.6 Reduce The Number Of Decisions

To get tasks done, the key is to find a motivation behind why we’re doing the task so that it doesn’t require willpower.

A simple and reliable work environment is good for our motivation and willpower.

Decision making is a process that requires willpower. Too much decision making throughout the day on menial things like what to wear can destroy our willpower.

It’s important to take breaks from work to give your brain time to process.

10 Read For Understanding

10.1 Read With A Pen In Hand

After finishing a book, go through your notes and highlights and think about how these notes might be relevant to the existing notes in your slip box.

“Always read with an eye towards possible connections in the slip-box.”

“Without a clear purpose for the notes, taking them will feel more like a chore than an important step within a bigger project.”

Understand the purpose behind the notes that you take e.g. to learn more effectively, to learn about a new topic, to be able to create great content. This will make it feel more important to your self-development and will become motivating.

There is a huge benefit to handwriting your notes as it forces your brain to slow down and process what you’re writing.

Similarly, because it’s a slow process, you’re brain will be forced to write the gist in your own words. This all cements your understanding of a topic.

10.5 Learn By Reading

“Learning requires effort because we have to think to understand and we need to actively retrieve old knowledge to convince our brains to connect it with new ideas as cues.”

Exercise is a great way to transfer information into long-term memory.

It also reduces stress. When we’re stressed the brain is flooded with hormones that suppress the learning process.

11 Take Smart Notes

11.0 Introduction

Experienced readers have a question in mind when reading.

Inexperienced readers tend to accept the question in a book without questioning it.

Good readers can see beyond the book’s question and see what is not mentioned in the text.

11.2 Think Outside The Brain

“Why did the aspects I wrote down catch my interest?”

When thinking about something and making connections, Scan slip box content for existing relevant info and see what connections can be made.

You might find your brain makes new connections that you hadn’t even thought about initially.

11.3 Learn By Not Trying

Robert and Elizabeth Ligon Bjork from the University of California suggest there are two different measurements when it comes to memory:

  1. storage strength – the ability to store memories – becomes greater over your lifetime
  2. retrieval strength – how fast we can find memories

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

11.4 Adding Permanent Notes To The Slip Box

Add links to other notes on your new note. Make sure it can be found from an index.

12 Develop Ideas

12.0 Introduction

The goal is to develop an abstract order of notes that would allow ideas to be built from the bottom up instead of a top-down hierarchy (like we would traditionally do).

12.1 Develop Topics

Add keywords to notes carefully:

“Because it should not be used as an archive, where we just take out what we put in, but as a system to think with, the references between the notes are much more important than the references from the index to a single note. Focusing exclusively on the index would basically mean that we always know upfront what we are looking for – we would have to have a fully developed plan in our heads. But liberating our brains from the task of organizing the notes is the main reason we use the slip-box in the first place.”

All that is needed are a few entry points that can be found in the index.

The goal is never to get an overview of the whole slip box but to develop access to specific topics.

“A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it?”

“Good keywords are usually not already mentioned as words in the note.”

12.2 Make Smart Connections

Luhmann used four basic types of cross-references in his file-box (Schmidt 2013, 173f; Schmidt 2015, 165f). Only the first and last are relevant for the digital Zettelkasten.

  1. Links that give you an overview of a topic. these are notes directly referred to from the index and usually used as an entry point into a topic.
    • On a note like this, you can collect links to other relevant notes to this topic or question, preferably with a short indication of what to find on these notes (one or two words or a short sentence is sufficient).
  2. Note to note links – the most common. They have no function other than indicating a relevant connection between two individual notes.
    • These links can help us to find surprising connections and similarities between seemingly unrelated topics.

12.3 Compare, Correct, And Differentiate

As we are building up connections we build up the structure of the slip-box. This process is shaped by our thinking. While it is external to our brains it will shape how we think and help us to think in a more structured way.

Comparing notes also helps to detect contradictions or opposing ideas – this is important for gaining insight.

Albert Rothenberg suggests that the construction of oppositions is the most reliable way of generating new ideas (Rothenberg 1971; 1996; 2015).

12.4 Assemble A Toolbox For Thinking

“A truly wise person is not someone who knows everything, but someone who is able to make sense of things by drawing from an extended resource of interpretation schemes.”

12.5 Use The Slip Box As A Creativity Machine

Learning is made up of multiple steps:

  • Connecting it to prior knowledge and form it in our own words (elaboration)
  • Trying to retrieve it at different times (spacing)
  • In different contexts (variation)
  • (ideally) With the help of change (contextual interference)
  • With a deliberate effort (retrieval)

Intimate knowledge of a topic can lead to new insights.

12.6 Think Inside The Box

To be able to play with ideas, we first have to liberate them from their original context by means of abstraction and re-specification. We did this when we took literature notes and translated them into the different contexts within the slip-box.

Studies on creativity with engineers show that the ability to find not only creative but functional and working solutions for technical problems is equal to the ability to make abstractions. The better an engineer is at abstracting from a specific problem, the better and more pragmatic his solutions will be – even for the very problem he abstracted from (Gassmann and Zeschky, 2008, 103).

13 Share Insight

13.1 From Brainstorming To Slip Box Storming

“We don’t need to worry about the question of what to write about because we have answered the question already – many times on a daily basis. Every time we read something, we make a decision on what is worth writing down and what is not. Every time we make a permanent note, we also made a decision about the aspects of a text we regarded as relevant for our longer-term thinking and relevant for the development of our ideas. We constantly make explicit how ideas and information connect with each other and turn them into literal connections between our notes. By doing this, we develop visible clusters of ideas that are now ready to be turned into manuscripts.”

13.3 Getting Things Done By Following Your Interests

Academic freedom is the ultimate goal. Working on something that you find interesting is more motivating than being stuck doing work on something you’ve no interest in.

“If we accompany every step of our work with the question, “What is interesting about this?” and everything we read with the question, “What is so relevant about this that it is worth noting down?” we do not just choose information according to our interest.”

Only then can work itself become the source of motivation, which is crucial to make it sustainable.

13.5 Becoming An Expert By Giving Up Planning

Be generally skeptical about planning, especially if it’s only focused on the outcome and note the actual work involved.

Break down larger projects into smaller manageable tasks.

“Every kind of work tends to fill the time we set aside for it like air fills every corner of a room.”

Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson 1957

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