This is a detailed book summary of How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens (Amazon).
🔒 Premium member companion post: How to Make a Second Memory with “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens (+ Infographics)
If you’re specifically looking for details on Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten method, check out this post as well: Zettelkasten 101: An Intro to the Smart Note-Taking System of Niklas Luhmann
“An idea kept private is as good as one you never had.” — Sönke Ahrens
If you’re looking for a visual intro to Sönke Ahrens and How to Take Smart Notes, I enjoyed this one:
- All quotes (in quotation marks) are from the author unless otherwise stated.
- Anything not in quotes is paraphrased from the author (as close to the original text as possible).
- I’ve added emphasis in bold throughout for readability/skimmability.
Book Summary Contents: Click a link here to jump to a section below
- About the Book
- Learning about Learning
- The Slip-Box System (Strategically)
- The Slip-Box System (Tactically)
- Internal Brain and External Brain
- Nurturing a Virtuous Circle Workflow
Next-Level Note-Taking: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens (Book Summary)
About How to Take Smart Notes
“The particular technique presented in this book (Zettelkasten—German for “slip-box”) enabled Niklas Luhmann to become one of the most productive and innovative social theorists of the last century. There are increasing numbers of academics and nonfiction writers taking notice.”
- “First of all, the long-term, cross-topic organization of notes, which is guided only by one’s own understanding and interest, is very much at odds with the modular, compartmentalised and top-down approach in which the curricula of universities and colleges are organised. Teaching is still set up for review, and students are not really encouraged to independently build a network of connections between heterogeneous information – despite the radical change in our understanding on how our memory and learning works.”
- “This book aims to fill this gap by showing you how to efficiently turn your thoughts and discoveries into convincing written pieces and build up a treasure of smart and interconnected notes along the way. You can use this pool of notes not only to make writing easier and more fun for yourself, but also to learn for the long run and generate new ideas.”
Learning about Learning
“We learn something not only when we connect it to prior knowledge and try to understand its broader implications (elaboration), but also when we try to retrieve it at different times (spacing) in different contexts (variation), ideally with the help of chance (contextual interference) and with a deliberate effort (retrieval) … Manipulations such as variation, spacing, introducing contextual interference, and using tests, rather than presentations, as learning events, all share the property that they appear during the learning process to impede learning, but they then often enhance learning as measured by post-training tests of retention and transfer.”
- “The best-researched and most successful learning method is elaboration. It is very similar to what we do when we take smart notes and combine them with others, which is the opposite of mere re-viewing. Elaboration means nothing other than really thinking about the meaning of what we read, how it could inform different questions and topics and how it could be combined with other knowledge. In fact, ‘Writing for Learning’ is the name of an ‘elaboration method’.”
- “Elaboration is nothing more than connecting information to other information in a meaningful way. The first step of elaboration is to think enough about a piece of information so we are able to write about it. The second step is to think about what it means for other contexts as well.”
- “Elaboration through taking smart literature notes increases the likelihood that we will remember what we read in the long term. But this was only the first step. Transferring these ideas into the network of our own thoughts, our latticework of theories, concepts and mental models in the slip-box brings our thinking to the next level. Now we elaborate these ideas within different contexts and connect them with other ideas in a durable fashion.”
- “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. Making these connections deliberately means building up a self-supporting network of interconnected ideas and facts that work reciprocally as cues for each other.”
- “Learned right, which means understanding, which means connecting in a meaningful way to previous knowledge, information almost cannot be forgotten anymore and will be reliably retrieved if triggered by the right cues. Moreover, this new learned knowledge can provide more possible connections for new information. If you focus your time and energy on understanding, you cannot help but learn.”
Storage Strength & Retrieval Strength:
- “Robert and Elizabeth Ligon Bjork from the University of California suggest distinguishing between two different measurements when it comes to memory: storage strength and retrieval strength. They speculate that storage strength, the ability to store memories, only becomes greater over one’s lifetime. We add more and more information to our long-term memory.”
- “It does make sense to shift the attention from storage strength to retrieval strength. Learning would be not so much about saving information, like on a hard disk, but about building connections and bridges between pieces of information to circumvent the inhibition mechanism in the right moment. It is about making sure that the right ‘cues’ trigger the right memory, about how we can think strategically to remember the most useful information when we need it.”
- “If we look at the current state of education, especially the learning strategies most students employ, we see that the vast majority of all learning still aims to improve ‘storage strength,’ even though it cannot be improved. It is still mostly about remembering isolated facts and not so much about building connections.”
- “If we instead focus on ‘retrieval strength,’ we instantly start to think strategically about what kind of cues should trigger the retrieval of a memory. There are no natural cues: Every piece of information can become the trigger for another piece of information.”
Writing as Thinking:
- Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have.
- Notes build up while you think, read, understand and generate ideas, because you have to have a pen in your hand if you want to think, read, understand and generate ideas properly anyway.
- Thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas is the main work of everyone who studies, does research or writes. If you write to improve all of these activities, you have a strong tailwind going for you. If you take your notes in a smart way, it will propel you forward.
- Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.
- Writing is not only for proclaiming opinions, but the main tool to achieve insight worth sharing.
- Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is. And this is how it is supposed to be. The notes are just the tangible outcome of it.
- To sum it up: The quality of a paper and the ease with which it is written depends more than anything on what you have done in writing before you even made a decision on the topic.
The Smart Notes Slip-Box System (Strategically)
“A system is needed to keep track of the ever-increasing pool of information, which allows one to combine different ideas in an intelligent way with the aim of generating new ideas.”
- “The slip-box is as simple as it gets. Read with a pen in your hand, take smart notes and make connections between them. Ideas will come by themselves and your writing will develop from there. There is no need to start from scratch. Keep doing what you would do anyway: Read, think, write. Just take smart notes along the way.”
- “The slip-box does not put the learner in the centre. Quite the contrary: It allows the learner to let his or her own thinking become decentralised within a network of other ideas. Learning, thinking and writing should not be about accumulating knowledge, but about becoming a different person with a different way of thinking.”
- “The slip-box is not a collection of notes. Working with it is less about retrieving specific notes and more about being pointed to relevant facts and generating insight by letting ideas mingle. Its usability grows with its size, not just linearly but exponentially. When we turn to the slip-box, its inner connectedness will not just provide us with isolated facts, but with lines of developed thoughts. Moreover, because of its inner complexity, a search throughout the slip-box will confront us with related notes we did not look for. This is a very significant difference that becomes more and more relevant over time. The more content it contains, the more connections it can provide, and the easier it becomes to add new entries in a smart way and receive useful suggestions.”
- “Working with the slip-box means playing with ideas and looking out for interesting connections and comparisons. It means building clusters, combining them with other clusters and preparing the order of notes for a project.”
- “Putting notes into the slip-box is like investing and reaping the rewards of compounded interest.”
- “The sum of the slip-box content is worth much more than the sum of the notes. More notes mean more possible connections, more ideas, more synergy between different projects and therefore a much higher degree of productivity.”
The Smart Notes Slip-Box System (Tactically)
“This is not just about having the right mindset, it is also about having the right workflow.”
1. Your Inbox: capture fleeting notes in your head
- Your inbox: Whatever you use for your inbox, it should not require any thoughts, attention or multiple steps (make sure everything ends up in one place where you can process it ideally within a day).
- Fleeting notes: Meant to capture ideas quickly while you are busy doing something else (reminders of a thought).
If your thoughts are already sorted and you have the time, you can skip this step and write your idea directly down as a permanent note for your slip-box (see below).
2. Reference Slip-Box: for bibliographical references & literature notes
- Literature notes (on index cards): Bibliographic details on one side; brief literature notes about the content on the other side. Notes should be very short, extremely selective, and use your own words. Literature is condensed on a note saying, “On page x, it says y.”
3. Main Slip-Box: collect & generate ideas with permanent notes
- Now turn to your main slip-box: Go through the fleeting notes and literature notes you made in step one or two (ideally once a day and before you forget what you meant) and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking, or interests.
- Permanent notes (on index cards): On a new note, write your ideas/comments/thoughts (one side of one index card for each idea—the restriction to one idea per note is the precondition to recombine them freely later). Write your notes with great care like you’re writing for someone else—use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references and try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible.
- Reference existing notes: Check your slip-box for other relevant notes and add references/links (to all relevant notes) to make connections between them.
- File the new note: Add the note behind the existing relevant note(s).
- Add the new note to the index: Make sure you will be able to find this note later by either linking to it from your index or by making a link to it on a note that you use as an entry point to a discussion or topic and is itself linked to the index.
4. Project-Specific Folder: temporary for each project
- Project notes: Only relevant to one particular project and can be written in any format. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished. Examples of project-specific notes are: comments in the manuscript, collections of project-related literature, outlines, snippets of drafts, reminders, to-do lists, and of course the draft itself.
“While the slip-box is already helpful to get one project done, its real strength comes into play when we start working on multiple projects at the same time. The slip-box is in some way what the chemical industry calls ‘verbund.’ This is a setup in which the inevitable by-product of one production line becomes the resource for another, which again produces by-products that can be used in other processes and so on, until a network of production lines becomes so efficiently intertwined that there is no chance of an isolated factory competing with it anymore.”
Internal Brain and External Brain
“There is a clear division of labour between the brain and the slip-box: The slip-box takes care of details and references and is a long-term memory resource that keeps information objectively unaltered. That allows the brain to focus on the gist, the deeper understanding and the bigger picture, and frees it up to be creative. Both the brain and the slip-box can focus on what they are best at.”
Your Internal Brain:
- “Our brains work not that differently in terms of interconnectedness. Psychologists used to think of the brain as a limited storage space that slowly fills up and makes it more difficult to learn late in life. But we know today that the more connected information we already have, the easier it is to learn, because new information can dock to that information. Yes, our ability to learn isolated facts is indeed limited and probably decreases with age. But if facts are not kept isolated nor learned in an isolated fashion, but hang together in a network of ideas, or ‘latticework of mental models’, it becomes easier to make sense of new information. That makes it easier not only to learn and remember, but also to retrieve the information later in the moment and context it is needed.”
- “Attention is not our only limited resource. Our short-term memory is also limited. We need strategies not to waste its capacity with thoughts we can better delegate to an external system. While the estimations of our long-term memory capacity are wildly diverse and rather speculative, psychologists used to tend to agree on a very specific number when it came to short-term memory: We can hold a maximum of seven things in our head at the same time, plus/minus two.”
The Zeigarnik Effect: “Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory – until they are done. That is why we get so easily distracted by thoughts of unfinished tasks, regardless of their importance. But thanks to Zeigarnik’s follow-up research, we also know that we don’t actually have to finish tasks to convince our brains to stop thinking about them. All we have to do is to write them down in a way that convinces us that it will be taken care of. That’s right: The brain doesn’t distinguish between an actual finished task and one that is postponed by taking a note. By writing something down, we literally get it out of our heads. This is why David Allen’s ‘Getting things done’ system works: The secret to have a ‘mind like water’ is to get all the little stuff out of our short-term memory. And as we can’t take care of everything once and for all right now, the only way to do that is to have a reliable external system in place where we can keep all our nagging thoughts about the many things that need to be done and trust that they will not be lost.”
Your External Brain:
“If I were forced to boil it down to a single bullet point, it would be this: We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains.”
- “Philosophers, neuroscientists, educators and psychologists like to disagree in many different aspects on how the brain works. But they no longer disagree when it comes to the need for external scaffolding. Almost all agree nowadays that real thinking requires some kind of externalization, especially in the form of writing.”
- “No matter how internal processes are implemented … (you) need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.” (Levy 2011)
- “If you don’t have an external system to think in and organise your thoughts, ideas and collected facts, or have no idea how to embed it in your overarching daily routines, the disadvantage is so enormous that it just can’t be compensated by a high IQ.”
- “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. The slip-box provides an external scaffold to think in and helps with those tasks our brains are not very good at, most of all objective storage of information.”
Internal Brain + External Brain = Latticework of Mental Models:
“It is not the slip-box or our brains alone, but the dynamic between them that makes working with it so productive.”
- “(Charlie Munger) advocates looking out for the most powerful concepts in every discipline and to try to understand them so thoroughly that they become part of our thinking. The moment one starts to combine these mental models and attach one’s experiences to them, one cannot help but gain what he calls ‘worldly wisdom.’ The importance is to have not just a few, but a broad range of mental models in your head. Otherwise, you risk becoming too attached to one or two and see only what fits them.”
- “If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience, both vicarious and direct, on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.” — Charlie Munger
- “When we delegate the storage of knowledge to the slip-box and at the same time focus on the principles behind an idea while we write, add and connect notes, when we look for patterns and think beyond the most obvious interpretation of a note, when we try to make sense of something, combine different ideas and develop lines of thought, we do exactly that: we build up a ‘latticework of mental models.’“
- “The beauty of this approach is that we co-evolve with our slip-boxes: we build the same connections in our heads while we deliberately develop them in our slip-box – and make it easier to remember the facts as they now have a latticework we can attach them to. If we practice learning not as a pure accumulation of knowledge, but as an attempt to build up a latticework of theories and mental models to which information can stick, we enter a virtuous circle where learning facilitates learning.”
- “The slip-box takes care of storing facts and information. Thinking and understanding is what it can’t take off your shoulders, which is why it makes sense to focus on this part of the work.”
- “If you understand what you read and translate it into the different context of your own thinking, materialised in the slip-box, you cannot help but transform the findings and thoughts of others into something that is new and your own. It works both ways: The series of notes in the slip-box develops into arguments, which are shaped by the theories, ideas and mental models you have in your head. And the theories, ideas and mental models in your head are also shaped by the things you read. They are constantly changing and challenged by the surprising connections with which the slip-box confronts you. The richer the slip-box becomes, the richer your own thinking becomes. The slip-box is an idea generator that develops in lockstep with your own intellectual development. Together, you can turn previously separated or even isolated facts into a critical mass of interconnected ideas.”
“By learning, retaining, and building on the retained basics, we are creating a rich web of associated information. The more we know, the more information (hooks) we have to connect new information to, the easier we can form long-term memories. … Learning becomes fun. We have entered a virtuous circle of learning, and it seems as if our long-term memory capacity and speed are actually growing.” — Helmut D. Sachs
Nurturing a Virtuous Circle Workflow with Smart Notes
“A good workflow can easily turn into a virtuous circle, where the positive experience motivates us to take on the next task with ease, which helps us to get better at what we are doing, which in return makes it more likely for us to enjoy the work, and so on … Only if the work itself becomes rewarding can the dynamic of motivation and reward become self-sustainable and propel the whole process forward.”
- The aim: “Everything is streamlined towards one thing only: insight that can be published.”
- Follow your curiosity, intuitions, & interests: “Just follow your interest and always take the path that promises the most insight … The more you become interested in something, the more you will read and think about it, the more notes you will collect and the more likely it is that you will generate questions from it. It might be exactly what you were interested in from the beginning, but it is more likely that your interests will have changed – that is what insight does.”
- Read more: “Read more to challenge and strengthen your arguments and change and develop your arguments according to the new information you are learning about … (develop) the crucial ability to distinguish the important bits of a text from the less important ones: the better we become at it, the more effective our reading will become, the more we can read, the more we will learn. We will enter a beautiful, virtuous circle of competency.”
“The ability to distinguish relevant from less relevant information is another skill that can only be learned by doing. It is the practice of looking for the gist and distinguishing it from mere supporting details. As we are forced to make this distinction when we read with a pen in our hand and write permanent note after permanent note, it is more than mere practice: it is deliberate practice repeated multiple times a day.”
- Take more notes: “Take more notes, develop ideas further and see where things will take you … The more you learn and collect, the more beneficial your notes should become, the more ideas can mingle and give birth to new ones – and the easier it should be to write an intelligent text with less effort.”
- Use your slip-box: “Look into the slip-box to see where chains of notes have developed and ideas have been built up to clusters. Don’t cling to an idea if another, more promising one gains momentum … Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the system. See what is there, what is missing and what questions arise.”
“Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight.”
- Develop ideas: “After a while, you will have developed ideas far enough to decide on a topic to write about. Your topic is now based on what you have, not based on an unfounded idea about what the literature you are about to read might provide. Look through the connections and collect all the relevant notes on this topic (most of the relevant notes will already be in partial order), copy them onto your ‘desktop’ and bring them in order. Look for what is missing and what is redundant. Don’t wait until you have everything together. Rather, try ideas out and give yourself enough time to go back to reading and note-taking to improve your ideas, arguments and their structure.”
“In reality, you never work on just one idea, but many ideas in different stages at the same time. And that is where the system plays out its real strengths … Every idea adds to what can become a critical mass that turns a mere collection of ideas into an idea-generator.”
- Rough draft: “Turn your notes into a rough draft. Don’t simply copy your notes into a manuscript. Translate them into something coherent and embed them into the context of your argument while you build your argument out of the notes at the same time. Detect holes in your argument, fill them or change your argument.”
- Edit & Proof: “Edit and proofread your manuscript. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder and turn to the next manuscript.”
“To get a good paper written, you only have to rewrite a good draft; to get a good draft written, you only have to turn a series of notes into a continuous text. And as a series of notes is just the rearrangement of notes you already have in your slip-box, all you really have to do is have a pen in your hand when you read.”
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