Sönke Ahrens’ “How to Take Smart Notes” is a must-read for students, academics, and nonfiction writers. This book is not just about taking notes; it’s about enhancing your writing, learning, and thinking processes.
The book is divided into several sections, each focusing on a different aspect of note-taking. The first four chapters provide everything you need to know, do, and have, along with a few things to keep in mind. The next four chapters delve into the four underlying principles of smart note-taking. The final six chapters outline the steps to successful writing.
The Importance of Writing
Ahrens emphasizes the importance of writing in all intellectual endeavors. Writing is not just for producing papers, articles, or books. It’s a tool for organizing thoughts, exchanging ideas, and remembering important information. Ahrens argues that every intellectual endeavor starts with a note.
The Problem with Traditional Note-Taking
Ahrens criticizes traditional note-taking methods is that it often focuses on formal requirements such as style, structure, or correct quoting, or on psychological aspects like avoiding mental breakdowns and meeting deadlines. These methods neglect the everyday note-taking that forms the bulk of our writing.
Moreover, most self-help books for academics or study guides start with a blank screen or sheet of paper, ignoring the main part, namely note-taking. They fail to understand that improving the organization of all writing makes a difference. They seem to forget that the process of writing starts much earlier than that blank screen and that the actual writing down of the argument is the smallest part of its development.
Another issue is that we don't experience any immediate negative feedback if we take notes badly. Without an immediate experience of failure, there is also not much demand for help. Consequently, there is not much help in supply for this lack of demand either.
If we take notes unsystematically, inefficiently, or simply wrong, we might not even realize it until we are in the midst of a deadline panic and wonder why there always seem to be a few who get a lot of good writing done and still have time.
The Solution: Smart Notes
Ahrens proposes a simple solution: taking smart notes. He provides a step-by-step guide on how to read for understanding, take smart notes, develop ideas, share your insights, and make it a habit.
Smart notes, as described in Sönke Ahrens' book "How to Take Smart Notes", is a technique that aims to boost writing, learning, and thinking for students, academics, and nonfiction book writers. The technique involves reading with a pen in hand, keeping an open mind, focusing on understanding the gist of the text, and taking notes that are permanent and can be added to a "slip-box". This slip-box is a collection of notes that can be easily accessed and connected.
The smart notes technique encourages thinking outside the brain, which involves using notes as an external scaffold for your thoughts.
This method allows you to learn without trying too hard. It also involves developing ideas, making smart connections, and using the slip-box as a creativity machine.
Smart connections are a crucial part of the thinking process towards the finished manuscript. They involve going through the file-box (or slip-box) and looking for connections between notes. This process is dealt with in a very concrete way, as opposed to figuratively searching our internal memory.
As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”
By dealing with actual notes, we are less prone to imagine connections where there aren’t any, as we can see in black and white if something makes sense or not. As we make these connections, we build up an internal structure of the slip-box, which is shaped by our thinking. This structure builds up externally and independently of our limited memory, and in return, it shapes our thinking as well and helps us to think in a more structured way.
Assigning keywords is also a crucial part of the thinking process, which often leads to a deeper elaboration of the note itself and the connection to other notes. In the digital version of the Zettelkasten, all we need to do is to click on “Links” and add the number of the note we want to refer to. It then automatically adds a backlink to the note we refer from.
Making good cross-references is a matter of serious thinking and a crucial part of the thinking process. Just by writing down these questions and making possible connections explicit in writing are the concepts and theories being investigated. Their limitations become as visible as their particular angle on a problem. By explicitly writing down how something connects or leads to something else, we force ourselves to clarify and distinguish ideas from each other.
The technique also emphasizes the importance of making smart note-taking a habit and regular practice is key to mastering this technique and reaping its benefits.
Reading with a Pen in Hand
Ahrens suggests reading with a pen in hand, keeping an open mind, and focusing on understanding the gist of the text. He encourages readers to learn by reading and to make a career one note at a time.
It's perfectly fine to avoid using a pen if you're using a computer or e-devices. The key point in the smart notes system is to capture ideas whenever and wherever they pop into your head. This can be done using any tool that is convenient for you.
If you're comfortable with digital tools, you can use note-taking apps or software on your devices. The important thing is that it should not require any extra thought, attention, or multiple steps to write it down. These notes are not meant to be stored permanently but function as a reminder of a thought. They will be deleted or moved to a more permanent location soon anyway. So, whether you use a notebook, a napkin, an app on your phone or iPad, the goal is to capture the idea quickly and efficiently.
Thinking Outside the Brain
Ahrens introduces the concept of “thinking outside the brain,” which involves using notes as an external scaffold for your thoughts. This method allows you to learn without trying too hard and to add permanent notes to your “slip-box,” a collection of notes that can be easily accessed and connected.
The idea is to break the power of thinking routines and confront ourselves with our errors, mistakes, and misunderstandings. This is achieved by writing notes with an eye towards existing notes, taking more into account than the information that is already available in our internal memory.
The brain tends to make us feel good by politely ignoring inconsistencies in our thinking. Only in the written form can an argument be looked at with a certain distance, literally. This distance is needed to think about an argument, otherwise, the argument itself would occupy the very mental resources we need for scrutinizing it.
The slip-box takes care of details and references and is a long-term memory resource that keeps information objectively unaltered. This allows the brain to focus on the gist, the deeper understanding, and the bigger picture, and frees it up to be creative. Both the brain and the slip-box can focus on what they are best at.
Developing Ideas and Sharing Insights
Ahrens provides strategies for developing topics, making smart connections, and using the slip-box as a creativity machine. He also offers advice on sharing your insights, from brainstorming to finishing and reviewing your work.
Making It a Habit
Finally, Ahrens emphasizes the importance of making smart note-taking a habit. He argues that regular practice is key to mastering this technique and reaping its benefits.
“How to Take Smart Notes” is a game-changer for anyone involved in intellectual work. It offers a fresh perspective on note-taking and provides practical strategies for improving your writing, learning, and thinking skills. Whether you’re a student, an academic, or a nonfiction writer, this book is a valuable resource that can transform your work and boost your productivity.