How to take smart notes

My last post was some general advice on staying on top of things. This post is complementing the previous one. It is about how to retain things one is reading, for creating a literature survey for writing a paper or just generally learning. This post is a summary of the excellent book How to Take Smart Notes.

As students, academics or writers, we spend an enormous amount of time into reading. Sadly, we fail to incorporate what we read in our writings, building new material and gaining deep insights. In this work, Ahrens presents a simple scheme for smart note-taking, based on the Zettelkasten method of the prolific German sociologist Luhmann.

The smart note taking principle involves writing the main idea of what one read in a simple note on a piece of (virtual) paper. One then stores these notes in the 'slip-box', where they are subsequently processed. These notes are then routinely processed in one's system, where related ideas are linked together, both somewhat hierarchically and unstructured. A note can only be as valuable as its context. The main point is not to define topics in advance but letting the topics emergence organically in a bottom-up fashion.

Academics or non-fiction writers continuously have to generate new works. Hence, it is vital that making such smart notes and maintaining one's knowledge base becomes a habit. When sufficient mass is in one's knowledge system, writing a manuscript becomes only a matter of organizing existing ideas and polishing them into a publishable text. By following the smart note-taking principle, one circumvents the dreaded 'white page' one has to fill. Writing can be fun and easy! An essential idea in this book is that writing is a thinking method and not merely the end result. It is only by writing notes in which one can clearly present an idea in one's own wording that one can demonstrably assimilate new knowledge. The slip-box naturally complement to ones one brain: the latter is useful to organize thoughts while the former is ideally suited for storing them. A good slip-box makes brainstorming unnecessary. Instead of trying to connect some ideas on a blank sheet of paper in ten minutes, one can draw from the links in ones knowledge system gathered over months. One should always read for understanding and with the eye of how these ideas can fit in existing projects. When linking or tagging notes, one should carefully think how one can stumble upon this note when writing on a particular topic. Ahrens also recommends working on several manuscripts at the same time, to facilitate unexpected links between ideas and because it is easy to switch to a different topic when one feels like it. There should be no fear of being overwhelmed. If one can trust one's knowledge system, one can freely switch without cognitive overload.

Ahrens' book was concise, useful and stimulating. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to get the most from their reading.

One can make a slip-box using software tools such as: