How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens: Summary & Notes

In short

How to Take Smart Notes is by far the best thing I’ve ever read on note-taking, and using what you read and study. The system that is described in the book is based on the “Zettelkasten” method that makes it easy and intuitive to take notes and to actually use them.

This system was invented Niklas Luhmann, an academic who produced a prodigious amount of work over his career, in a wide range of subjects. He attributed this to the note taking system. Overall this book is highly recommended not just if you’re a student that needs to write a thesis, but for everyone that reads and wants to remember and use that information.

If you’re interested in note-taking and Zettelkasten also check out my post on creating a digital commonplace book.

Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.


“Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work. And maybe that is the reason why we rarely think about this writing, the everyday writing, the note-taking and draft-making.”

Another reason why people don’t look into note-taking more often is that there is no immediate negative feedback if we do it wrongly. Only the terror of the blank screen, when we start to write, is a trigger to investigate how to actually write.

People struggle exactly because they believe that writing starts with an empty page. But that is false: writing starts with good note-taking. Combining and incorporating pieces of written of information into a whole is easier – you never have to start with a blank page.

If you have a system that works properly, you don’t need to hold all information in your own head. You can focus on the ideas, the content, and the argumentation.

The origin of the slip-box / Zettelkasten method starts with Niklas Luhmann. He was originally not an academic, but he started writing down notes and thoughts and linking them together. The sum of those notes was much more than the parts itself. It also allowed him to enter academia – he wrote a doctoral thesis and habilitation thesis in one year (while taking classes).

If you want to stay in control it’s better to keep your options open. With writing this means that the topic and questions can change and we need to stay flexible. This allows us to keep our interest and motivation aligned and do “almost effortless” work.

Luhmann’s slip-box system technically consisted of two parts. One which contained notes + biographical info on what he read, and another which contained his “responses” or ideas about what he read. He wrote the notes based on what was already in the slip-box, since ideas should not stay in isolation. He also did not copy text or ideas; it was more like a translation of the original text.

Note writing accompanies the main work, which is the reading, thinking, and understanding, and coming up with ideas. It’s the tangible outcome of study. “Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator fro thinking, reading, understanding and generating ideas we have.”

The steps of note-taking:

  • 1) Make fleeting notes. These are reminders and you should just write down whatever enters your head.
  • 2) Make literature notes. These are notes about the content. Keep it short, use your own language. The goal is that this is a reference system.
  • 3) Make permanent notes. If you go through the new literature notes and what’s already in your slip-box, you need to think about how it can be combined. How does this new info add to what you already have? Permanent notes are for ideas, thoughts, and you can think about contradictions or support to what you already have. Make the notes and then “forget” about them.
  • 4) Add notes to slip-box and try to file them next to related notes. Add links or references to related notes. Think about how you will find these notes later on – develop entry points.
  • 5) Develop topics, questions, or projects from what arises from the slip-box system. Use what you have and build on that.
  • 6) After a while you will have developed ideas or topics good enough to write about. These are not unfounded ideas – you already have done the research.
  • 7) Turn the notes into drafts. Translate them and embed them into a coherent whole.

The above process is not exclusive: likely several ideas or topics will be developed at the same time, and will progress at different rates.

“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 on it again?”

The slip-box system becomes more valuable the bigger it grows. Hierarchical note taking system allows you to find things if you search for them, but the slip-box system presents you with ideas and notes that you probably don’t remember anymore. That way you can focus on thinking rather than remembering.

Not all ideas and notes will be valuable over time, but some will become very valuable. This means the threshold of taking a note should be very low.

Luhmann never underlined text and/or wrote in the margins. He took notes on a separate piece of paper and then (if valuable) moved it to his slip-box.

If we keep track of our interests and intellectual development (by using this system), topics and questions will form naturally. We only have to look at where clusters are formed within the slip-box. So we don’t have to worry about finding topics, we can let our reading, thinking and writing guide us there.

“Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations. And deliberately building these kinds of meaningful connections is what the slip-box is all about.”

Zeigarnik effect: “Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory – until they are done.” However, tasks do not need to be finished, we just have to make sure it’s written down so we are convinced that it will be taken care off later. This is why Getting Things Done & slip-box system are so powerful, it reduced mental clutter and frees up mental resources.

Luhmann apparently never read a text twice and he was seen as an impressive conversationalist who had a lot of information at hand.

It is a bad idea to just copy quotes from text into notes, to really understand something we need to put it in our own words, reframe it, and see how it links to other notes and questions. Instead we should note down brief accounts of the text.

Thinking is not just an internal process, and writing things down is not meant to transfer finished thoughts onto paper. As Luhmann said: you cannot think systematically without writing.

“The way people choose their keywords shows clearly if they think like an archivist or a writer. Do they wonder where to store a note or how to retrieve it? The archivist asks: Which keyword is the most fitting? A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference.”

Being wise does not equal knowing all the facts, but rather having extensive “interpretation schemes.” If we think about the principles behind the facts, or when we build/use mental models, or when we combine lines of thoughts, we create these interpretation schemes.

Structure and restrictions are not limiting creativity or scientific progress. In fact it’s the exact opposite. By having structure we can compare and experiment with ideas and thoughts. If we don’t have a structure to work in we would never know what is worth pursuing. So having a clear structure and restrictions actually helps our creativity. “Indifference is the worst environment for insight.”

We should try work on multiple things at the same time. Comparison of the slip-box and “verbund: a setup in which the inevitable by-product of one production line becomes the resource for another” (from chemical industry). Reading and writing notes creates a lot of by-products that we can use for future projects. The best thing? We are already making good progress on projects that we don’t know that we’ve even started.

“Remember: Luhmann’s answer to the question of how one person could be so productive was that he never forced himself to do anything and only did what came easily to him. “When I am stuck for one moment, I leave it and do something else.” When he was asked what else he did when he was stuck, his answer was: “Well, writing other books. I always work on different manuscripts at the same time. With this method, to work on different things simultaneously, I never encounter any mental blockages.”

Having a linear, big goal (e.g. write a thesis) is intimidating. Having smaller goals (write 3 notes today, read chapter of this book), means we gradually make progress. Constantly completing these small goals we set for ourselves allows us to make enormous progress and at the same time remain realistic about our productivity.


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