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How to Take Smart Notes Summary – Love Your Work, Episode 249

February 18 2021 – 07:30am

How to take Smart NotesIf you’re a fan of using Getting Things Done to stay on top of all the, well, things you need to get done – you’ll love How to Take Smart Notes for staying on top of all the things you want to learn. I’ll give you an introduction – in my own words – in this How to Take Smart Notes summary.

The note-taking system introduced in Sönke Ahrens’s How to Take Smart Notes is a bit like Getting Things Done for learning. GTD is great for things that have a clear objective. But creative insights can’t be planned, by definition. That’s the point of an insight, it comes out of nowhere.

Listen to this How to Take Smart Notes summary

One of my favorite quotes from the book:

It is a huge misunderstanding that the only alternative to planning is aimless messing around. The challenge is to structure one’s workflow in a way that insight and new ideas can become the driving forces that push us forward. —Sönke Ahrens

In other words, you can’t plan an insight, but you can structure the way you read and learn in a way that not only improves your retention, but that also leads you to new insights.

What is a Zettelkasten?

The system introduced in How to Take Smart Notes is called a Zettelkasten, which is German for “slip box.” A slip box was originally a box full of slips of paper, each slip with a little note on it. The slips were arranged and annotated in a certain way to facilitate thinking and to link ideas.

The most famous user of the Zettelkasten was a German sociologist named Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann credited his slip box for his prolific career, in which he published 58 books and hundreds of articles. His actual Zettelkasten is being studied in a long-term project at the University of Bielefeld, in Germany.

The linking, keyword, and organization characteristics of a slip box were a precursor to our modern-day internet. But now that we’re no longer limited to slips of paper, writers and researchers are adapting the Zettelkasten technique to digital tools.

How do you take smart notes?

There are four basic steps to follow to make smart notes for your own Zettelkasten – or “slip box”, if you prefer:

  1. Make fleeting notes: Always have a way to capture ideas that pop into your mind, or – if reading – read actively, highlighting and taking notes. I personally carry around a tiny notebook, and use the Drafts app on iOS to capture quick thoughts. I don’t take notes while I read, but I do highlight on my Kindle.
  2. Make literature notes: Rewrite the important parts of what you’ve read. But, do it in your own words. It sounds pointless, but it’s surprisingly fun, and later on we’ll get to how it helps you learn better.
  3. Make permanent notes: Break any literature notes or fleeting notes down to individual notes. Do this only for the most important ideas – the ones that are relevant to your interests and your ongoing projects. Do this a little bit each day, so you don’t get a huge backlog.
  4. Add permanent notes to the slip box: Luhmann used a special branched numbering system to organize his notes. I prefer plain-English note titles. You also want to add relevant tags to each note, and link your note to related notes.

How to use your smart notes for learning and writing

The main reason to have a system like this is to direct your curiosity in a productive way, and turn your learning into writing. There are three things you’ll do with your slip box:

  1. Develop topics: As you make new notes, themes will start to develop around your areas of interest. You can interact with your notes to follow the links, and you’ll see holes in your knowledge to guide your learning.
  2. Getting research/writing ideas: You’ll never have to wonder again what you’d like to read about or write about. It will be clear from where there are lots of notes clustered around a topic in your slip box. For example, you may have many notes with a certain tag, or if you use a piece of software such as Obsidian you can visualize which notes link to one another to see patterns in your thinking.
  3. Turn your notes into writing: You can collect your notes together, and quickly form rough drafts for articles or books. Don’t simply copy your notes, though. Rewrite them, stitching them together along the way to create a completed piece.

How to Write Smart Notes is primarily directed at academic writers, and, as Ahrens points out, most books on academic writing see writing papers as a linear task, with a beginning and an end. I talk about the Four Stages of Creativity in my book, Mind Management, Not Time Management. Taking smart notes allows you to do “Preparation” on creative problems through small habits. By the time you write your first draft – after “Incubation” – “Illumination” is easy. Most of the work is already done.

Dos and don’ts

Sounds exciting, right? But when you try to create your own slip box, the possibilities can be overwhelming. Here are some dos and don’ts that can help guide your thinking.

Do choose keywords sparingly

When choosing keywords for your notes, your first instinct might be to make sure you tag your note with every relevant keyword you can think of. But if you use too many keywords, it becomes hard to manage your slip box.

Ahrens warns not to choose the keyword that is the most appropriate to the content. Instead, think about in what context you might want to retrieve that note, and choose your keywords in a way that would help you find that note.

I’ll give you an example in the next, related, tip.

Don’t use generic keywords

Another instinct you might have is to choose generic keywords. Like if the note is related to Psychology, you might think you should tag it with “Psychology.”

But remember that the purpose of the slip box is to facilitate insights. A tag such as “Psychology” is too broad.

Choose your keywords sparingly – as I said in the previous tip – but also choose your keywords according to your specific areas of interest or lines of thought.

Imagine you’re really interested in studying storytelling. You have a note about Eve eating an apple in the Garden of Eden. Your instincts might tell you to tag the note with “apple,” or “fruits.” Instead, you might have a tag called “symbols of discord,” or even “apples of discord.” You can create a whole collection of notes showing apples as symbols of discord in stories, such as in the Judgement of Paris or Snow White.

Do link every note to other notes

Each time you create a new “permanent note” that goes into the slip box, you should link it to at least one other note. Each note should serve as a starting point to follow a line of thought, and links help you navigate through your notes to see what ideas spring up.

Links may point directly to another note. That note might be on a different topic. For instance, your note about Snow White’s stepmother feeding her a poisoned apple, tagged with “symbols of discord,” might link to another note about Snow White’s stepmother looking in her mirror on a daily basis – and that note might be tagged “vanity,” a topic under which you have other stories with vanity as a theme.

Besides linking to other notes, notes can also be linked to a topic overview. This could present a summary of your notes on a topic – in other words, one of your keywords or tags. The summary could link to other notes on that topic, with a short description of what you’ll find in each one. For example, your “vanity” overview note might link not only to the story of Snow White’s stepmother looking in her mirror on a daily basis – it might also link to the story of Narcissus being captivated by his own reflection in the river. These summaries are great starting points for developing into finished articles.

Don’t copy/paste

When you’re creating a slip box with digital tools, another instinct you’ll have is to copy and paste notes directly from your source material. The thinking is its the most “efficient” way.

The purpose of your slip box is not to be the most “efficient” directory of information. Just as important as providing a reference to things you learned in the past is the actual learning of those things. You learn better when you translate what you’ve read into your own words.

Resist the temptation to copy and paste directly from your source. I personally may copy and paste to keep a direct quote from source material, but I will always supplement with an “in my own words” explanation of what’s being said.

Why it works?

This brings us to the science behind why the slip box is effective for learning. Ahrens explains that studies show success doesn’t come from willpower. Instead, it comes from creating a working environment that makes willpower unnecessary.

There are five ways working with a slip box shapes your habits so you learn better:

  1. Elaboration: This is why it’s important not to copy/paste, but to write things in your own words. When you write something in your own words, you have to connect the new knowledge to your existing knowledge. You have to think about its broader implications. Ahrens says elaboration is the most effective technique for learning.
  2. Spacing: In managing a slip box, you retrieve information repeatedly, after time away from it. This happens when you review your highlights and fleeting notes to elaborate on them and turn them into permanent notes. This also happens when you retrieve old notes to connect them to new notes. Your memory of information fades away over time, but when you’re repeatedly exposed to information – a phenomenon called “spaced repetition” – you retain it better.
  3. Variation: Using a slip box, you review information in a variety of contexts: You read it, you take fleeting notes, you translate those into permanent notes, then you review the information further when retrieving it and linking it to other notes. This variety helps you more robustly link new knowledge to existing knowledge.
  4. Contextual Interference: Contextual interference is a randomization of contexts, and it has been shown to improve learning. For example, instead of practicing throwing all day, you might randomly alternate amongst throwing, catching, and running. The very nature of managing a slip box randomizes the contexts in which you interact with information.
  5. Deliberate effort: Deliberate practice – where you’re deliberately practicing individual skills, with rapid feedback – is more effective than simply doing whatever you feel like. Managing a slip box is structured and deliberate practice.

There’s your How to Take Smart Notes summary

I hope you found this summary helpful. As an author, I was excited to first learn of the Zettelkasten or slip box technique, but I wound up spending many hours watching confusing explanations of it on YouTube, or reading equally confusing articles.

How to Take Smart Notes was the only resource that gave me a good first-principles overview of how a slip box works. From that, I’ve been able to adapt the technique to my own workflow as a blogger, podcaster, and author. This is why I’ve listed it both on my best creativity books and best productivity books pages. Check out the article on my Zettelkasten to see how I’ve adapted How to Take Smart Notes to my own workflow.

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