How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking - for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers
by Sönke Ahrens
I have spoken a lot about Sönke Ahrens's How to Take Smart Notes. It is a rare book that have changed the way I read and think.
Its title may sound mundane but mundane it is not.
Ahrens wrote the book when he found it "too painful to watch others taking notes in the same unproductive ways" he used to take notes himself.
For me, it all started when I was required to sign up for an international HR conference with so many number of sessions that I kinda freaked out.
But I suddenly started thinking - could I listen to these talks and still get the most of out of it? How then can I take better notes? And make the notes work for me?
It was then that I came across Ahrens's book. And again I must say, it has changed a lot of how I now read and think.
How do you take notes?
For me, when I read books, I highlight them in my Kindle and add notes when I have questions and thoughts about it. However, I almost never get back to the highlights or the notes.
I once remembered one particular item that I needed to refer to. But I couldn't find it. Kindle do not collate all the notes into one place to enable search. I need to know which book first, which I don't. I never found it.
And when I take notes during live talks and especially during sermons preached in church, I would take down notes usually word for word, in phrases. But again, I don't use the notes or refer to them at all.
So why do I take notes to begin with?
It is suppose to help me pay better attention and remember what I read or listen to. But in the end, I don't remember much.
This is where Niklas Luhmann's Zettelkasten comes into play.
Zettelkasten is a German word that means slip-box or card index. Ahrens calls is the "gold standard " in taking notes and keeping them organised in an output-orientated way.
What is most important in this note taking method is that you elaborate what you read or listened in your own words by writing in the cards.
One idea one card.
Elaborating is important. You do not copy and paste. Elaborating it in your own words will show you whether you understand what you have read or listened to.
You can either use physical A6 sized cards, the Zettelkasten PC software, or like me, the Trello app.
Written notes are placed into two boxes:
1. Fleeting Notes - ideas that you thought of yourself
2. Literature Notes - your elaboration, references included.
After a day a two, you are to look into these two boxes and convert, link, combine, or rewrite them to be placed in the Permanent Notes box.
Notes are numbered and indexed.
This is done to help you build a latticework of thinking and ideas of your brain.
Our mental latticework is the breadth and depth of all our elaborated thinking. It helps us link our past knowledge with new learning. With it, we will continually learn as we space the retrieval of our ideas at different times. We will vary our ideas as we look at it in different contexts. And we will benefit from it as we remember necessary things by chance.
All because we have done more elaborated thinking than before.
And as Luhmann has said, "One cannot think without writing."
I used to say that my phone is my extended brain. Now I say that both my phone and my Slip Box are my extended brains. The phone as the processor and the Slip Box holds my thoughts.
It is as simple as that. It boils down to whether you would put effort into making it work for you.