How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking - for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers
By Sönke Ahrens
Createspace, 2017

Many people mistakenly believe that the writing process begins when we sit down in front of a blank word processor. For non-fiction and academic writing, the work begins much earlier: by researching and connecting ideas from disparate sources. Many people track what they’ve read in their minds. This isn’t very effective, since our memory and attention spans are limited. The learning and writing processes work better if we externalize our thinking.

This is why we take notes. But some note-taking systems are better than others. How to Take Smart Notes recommends Niklas Luhmann’s zettelkasten (German for “slip box”) approach. Luhmann was a German sociologist who entered academia from an unlikely background. He had an unusually productive career, which is attributed in great part to his process.

The process consists of taking notes systematically to surface relationships between them. To achieve this, notes must be granular and linked. Luhmann did the bulk of his work before personal computers, so he used index cards and large wooden filing cabinets. (“Slip boxes.”)

He kept two such boxes: a bibliography, where he made short notes on the content of books and articles, and the main box, where he kept most of the notes of ideas sparked by that literature and other sources. An elaborate labeling system allowed him to link notes to each other. (A similar approach can be more easily implemented with computers; I’m using Obsidian and DEVONthink.)

The slip box note-taking/keeping system enabled Luhmann’s productivity. But Ahrens emphasizes that taking notes isn’t the work. Instead, the work is reading, thinking, and understanding. Notes and the slip box are the medium in which thinking happens. Also, notes are seeds from which longer texts grow. A scholar with a slip box need never face the dreaded empty word processor.

This system frees up our cognitive resources by relieving our minds of the chore of keeping track of connections between ideas. In this, it’s similar to David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, which Ahrens cites. (The purpose of Allen’s system is to achieve “mind like water” — i.e., a still mind, one that isn’t constantly reminding us of things we need to do.) As Ahrens puts it,

A good structure is something you can trust. It relieves you from the burden of remembering and keeping track of everything.

A good system is simple. And it’s not just about tools, but also principles, practices, and habits. These include, among others, taking granular notes (i.e, one idea = one note,) linking notes in particular ways, considering ideas as catalysts for further ideas, building an ideation flywheel (this isn’t Ahrens’s language — I’m reading into it,) and tagging individual notes.

Good tags are especially important since we don’t know what context a note might surface in later. Luhmann captured ideas on a wide range of subjects, and he produced manuscripts by stringing together various ideas in novel ways. As a result, the system is biased towards bottom-up (rather than top-down) structures. We should tag notes based on contexts we expect them to be relevant to later, rather than what we think they are about. Ahrens writes,

In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again?

This is how I parse it: I’m currently writing two workshops. When preparing for these workshops, I note ideas that might be relevant to either. I tag each idea with a label that represents each workshop. Later, these notes might appear in other contexts, but for now, I’m reading with those particular contexts in mind. After several days, I’ll have a pile of notes. The tags will let me cull the most relevant to each workshop. The process might also suggest other tags, leading to an emergent (bottom-up) structure that will prove useful beyond these particular workshops.

The purpose of systems (“toolboxes for thinking”) like the slip box and Allen’s GTD is to externalize our thinking so our minds are freed to spark connections and insights. The externalizing process could be as simple as reading with a notebook and pen. But such fleeting notes aren’t likely to be useful unless they’re integrated into a structured knowledge management system. How to Take Smart Notes explains one such system — one with a good track record — and the principles that make it work.

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