How to Take Smart Notes
How to Take Smart Notes summary

How to Take Smart Notes

Rating: 9/10

Author:Sonke Ahrens Read More on Amazon

High-Level Thoughts

A great introduction into how the "Zettelkasten" method works and how you can apply it to become a prolific writer and deep thinker. More than just taking notes Ahrens gives you the framework to take your learning and understanding of any subject to the next level and the science and research to back it up. I highly recommend this book to everybody and anybody because no matter who you are, you should constantly be writing your thoughts and notes down, whether you publish it or not is up to you.

How to Take Smart Notes Summary

  • Misconception: writing is hard and starts with a blank page.
  • Good, productive writing is based on good note-taking.
  • Dunning-Kruger effect -> Poor performing students lack insight into their own limitations. That means those who are not very good at something tend to be overly confident.
  • Writing is not a linear process.

The Slip-box

  • Niklas Luhmann created a a system where he wrote his notes on small pieces of paper, and put a number in the corner and collected them in the slip-box.
  • In 30 years Luhmann published 58 books and 100s of articles. A feat that many researchers could only dream of achieving.
  • He constantly generated more ideas than he could possibly write down.
  • "I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else." - Niklas Luhmann
  • Luhmann had two slip-boxes: a bibliographical one, which contained the references and brief notes on the content of the literature, and the main one in which he collected and generated his ideas, mainly in response to what he read.
  • You have to externalize your ideas, you have to write. Ex: Richard Feynman stresses it as much as Benjamin Franklin. If we write it, it is more likely that we understand what we read.

Writing a Paper Step by Step

  • 1. Make fleeting notes. -> These are short little reminders and don't have to make much sense.
  • 2. Make literature notes -> make notes about the content you read, written in your own words.
  • 3. Make permanent notes -> Now turn to your slip-box. Go through all your notes and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking or interests. The key is to develop new arguments, discussion and ideas.
  • Write exactly one note for each idea and write as if you were writing for someone else. Throw away your fleeting notes after.
  • 4. Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box by:
  • Filing each one behind related notes.
  • Adding links to related notes.
  • 5. Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the system.
  • 6. After a while, you will have developed ideas far enough to decide on a topic to write about.
  • 7. Turn your notes into a rough draft. Don't simply copy and paste but translate your notes into a manuscript.
  • 8. Edit and proof read your manuscript.
  • pg 28 Russian vs US dont overcomplicate things
  • pg 32 -> nobody would try to play the flute once and then judge the instrument on what they hear.
  • And by doing everything with the clear purpose of writing about it, you be using deliberate practice
  • Old way: under which topic will I store this note?
  • New way: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again?
  • Permanent notes, are written in a way that can still be understood even when you have forgotten the context they are taken from.
  • "Nothing motivates us more than the experience of becoming better at what we do"
  • The ability to express understanding in one's own words is a fundamental competency for everyone who writes. -> the better we become the easier and quicker we make these notes.
  • To master the art of writing we need to be able to apply whatever kind of attention and focus is needed. -> flexible focus focused attention (science)vs floating attention (art) pg 63
  • Become an expert instead of a planner, teachers tend to mistake the ability to follow rules with the ability to make the right choices in real situations.
  • Things we understand are connected
  • Always read with an eye towards possible connections in the slip-box
  • Students who take notes by hand -> understand content much better.
  • Writing in your own words is like teaching somebody, which is crucial for understand material you process.
  • mere-exposure effect -> the moment we become familiar with something, we start believing we also understand it.
  • Forgetting facilities long-term learning.

Think Outside the Brain

  • "There is a clear division of labor 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 info objectively unaltered. That allows the brain to focus on the gist, the big picture and frees it up to be creative and make connections."
  • "What good readers can do is spot the the limitations of a particular approach and see what is not mentioned in the text."
  • pg 93 Trollope wrote a little bit every morning -> linear graph, Luhmann with his slip box -> exponential graph.
  • Almost all scientists agree nowadays that real thinking requires some kind of externalization, especially in the form of writing.

Develop Ideas

  • Notes are only as valuable as the note and reference networks they are embedded in.
  • The slip-box is the medium we think in, not something we think about.
  • Archivist thinks how to store a note but a writer thinks about how to retrieve it.
  • In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it is a crucial question.

Use the Slip-Box as a Creativity Machine

  • "Creativity is just connecting things. When. you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something." - Steve Jobs
  • innovation is not the result of a sudden moveemnt of realization, but incremental steps toward improvement.
  • pg 118 Charlie Munger advocating for a wide range of mental models in a range of various fields.
  • "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."
  • "The brain is more likely to notice details when it scans than when it focuses." - Zull James - The Art of Changing the Brain (2002)
  • "Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections and seeing things in an original way--seeing things that others cannot see" Andreasen Nancy - Secrets of the Creative Brain (2014)

Think Inside the Box

  • To really understand a text is therefore a constant revision of our first interpretation.
  • A distinguishing feature of extraordinary thinkers: Taking simple ideas seriously.
  • For example: buying stocks low and selling them high. I am sure everyone can grasp the idea, but grasping an idea is not the same as understanding it.
  • 2008 Financial Crisis - Economists developed hugely complicated products, but did not take into account the simple fact that price and value are not necessarily the same.
  • Simple ides can be tied together into consistent theories and build up enormous complexity.
  • Recommends treating a digital note as if the space were limited.
  • Less choice increases our productivity, and also our freedom and make it easier to be in the moment and enjoy it.
  • Think of poetry: It improves restrictions in term of rhymes (Example Haikus)
  • Another example of constraints but extraordinary results is binary (1s and 0s) and the alphabet.
  • The biggest threat to creativity and scientific progress therefore is the lack of structure and restrictions. We should liberate ourselves from any restriction and "open ourselves up" to be more creative is very misleading indeed. #Creativity

From Brainstorming to Slip-box-Storming

  • The brain prioritizes ideas that are easily available in the moment.
  • Studies show more people in a brainstorming group usually come up with less good ideas and restrict themselves to a narrow range of topics.
  • The process of taking smart notes is self-compounding and self-reinforcing.

Getting Things Done by Following Your Interests

  • "Nothing motivates us more than seeing a project we can identify with moving forward, and nothing is more demotivating than being stuck with a project that doesn't seem to be worth doing.
  • Key point: Try writing different manuscripts at the same time.

Becoming an Expert by Giving Up Planning

  • We are horrible at giving realistic timelines for our goals.
  • People who study the overconfidence bias admit that they fall for it too - Daniel Kahneman
  • "We know from sports that it doesn't help when athletes imagine themselves as winners of a race, but it makes a big difference if they imagine all the training that is necessary to be able to win."
  • We only learn from our experiences if feedback follows shortly afterwards
  • Parkinsons law -> universal law for longer time frames, the opposite is true for tasks that can be completed in one go.
  • Zeigarnik effect -> brains tend to stay occupied with a task until it is accomplished (or written down).
  • Taking Smart Notes is very similar to the compound effect

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