How to Take Smart Notes By Sönke Ahrens

Updated: November 1, 2022 Reading Time: 5 minutes rating: 8


Ever since I read about Ryan Holiday’s notecard system I have been experimenting with different ways of remembering what I read and keeping notes about my bibliography. I’ve been through multiple iterations, most of them digital, and none of them hace satisfied me. I have always felt that my notes were not actionable enough.

Doing some research online, I discovered the concept of a Zettelkasten, literally slip box. A system used by Luhman a German sociologist that attributes to this system the ability to publish 70+ books during his life. Intrigued, I did some more research and found this book, How to Take Smart Notes.

The book describes in a very actionable way how to use a Zettelkasten for academic research and nonfiction writing. I found it very insightful. I’ve since adapted some of it suggestions to my own notecards system with some success. I find it that I can now think better about what I read and link topics in a much better yet flexible manner.

As always, below are the passages that I found important.

Notes and Highlights

Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.

It is not important who you are but what you do.

If you can trust the system, you can let go of the attempt to hold everything together in your head and you can start focusing on what is important: The content, the argument, and the ideas.

Having a clear structure to work in is completely different from making plans about something. If you make a plan, you impose a structure on yourself; it makes you inflexible. To keep going according to plan, you have to push yourself and employ willpower. This is not only demotivating, but also unsuitable for an open-ended process like research, thinking or studying in general, where we have to adjust our next steps with every new insight, understanding or achievement - which we ideally have on a regular basis and not just as an exception.

The best way to deal with complexity is to keep things as simple as possible and to follow a few basic principles. The simplicity of the structure allows complexity to build up where we want int: on the content level.

Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is.

Good tools do not add features and more options to what we already have, but help to reduce distractions from the main work, which here is thinking.

There is no such thing as private knowledge in academia. An idea kept private is as good as one you never had.

We tend to think that big transformations have to start with an equally big idea. But more often than not, it is the simplicity of an idea that makes it so powerful (and often overlooked in the beginning). Boxes, for example are simple.

The slip-box is the shipping container of the academic world. Instead of having different storage for different ideas, everything goes into the same slip-box and is standardized into the same format. Instead of focusing on the in-between steps and trying to make a science out of the underlining systems, reading techniques or excerpt writing, everything is streamlined towards one thing only: insight that can be published.

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

To have a walk or even a nap supports learning and thinking.

While we should seek out dis-confirming arguments and facts that challenge our way of thinking, we are naturally drawn to everything that makes us feel good, which is everything that confirms what we already believe we know.

The one who does the work does the learning.

Experienced academic readers usually read a text with questions in mind and try to relate it to other possible approaches, while inexperienced readers tend to adopt the question of a text and the frames of the argument and take it as a given.

Taking literature notes is a form of deliberate practice as it gives us feedback on our understanding or lack of it, while the effort to put into our own words the gist of something is at the same time the best approach to understanding what we read.

Transferring idea into the external memory also allows us to forget them. And even though it sounds paradoxical, forgetting actually facilitates long-term learning.

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.

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 the specific problem, the better and more pragmatic his solutions will be - even for the very problem he abstracted from.

Our brains just love routines. Before new information prompts our brains to think differently about something, they make the new information fit into the known or let it disappear completely from our perception