How to Take Smart Notes – Book Notes and Summary

How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens

One-sentence summary: In How to Take Smart Notes, Sonke Ahrens lays out a system for remembering more of what you read – and turn that reading into quality writing.

Rating: 8/10

Author: Sonke Ahrens

Date Completed: December 8th, 2020

Tags: Mental Models, Note-Taking, Journaling, Commonplace Books, Writing, Reading, Learning, Knowledge Capital

Hot take: Anything I read before using How to Take Smart Notes’ Zettelkasten system went in one ear and out the other, with only a few tidbits retained. I now remember (and can use!) an absurd amount of what I read. Reading this book will make every subsequent book you read much more valuable.

Big Ideas

Writing doesn’t have to be a struggle.

  • Most of us believe that writing is complicated and difficult – staring at the blank page and coming up with daring missives to fill it. 
  • Others, however, never start from an empty page. They believe that good writing is based on good note-taking. “Getting something that is already written into another written piece is incomparably easier than assembling everything in your mind and then trying to retrieve it from there.”
  • “The quality of a paper and the ease with which it is written depends more than anything on what you have done in writing before you even made a decision on the topic.

The slip-box (Zettelkasten) method is key to effortless writing.

  • Niklas Luhmann, a prodigiously productive writer and academic, perfected the slip-box method. After a few years as an administrator, he decided to enter academia – and wrote his doctoral thesis and a follow-up thesis in less than a year.
  • He credited his note-taking system – in which every insight he read would be placed on a slip of paper and categorized with other things it related to – for his success and output.
  • In the 30 years that followed, he “published 58 books and hundreds of articles, translations not included…Even after his death, about half a dozen more books…were published in his name – based on almost finished manuscripts lying around in his office. There are more than a few colleagues I know who would give a lot to be as productive in their whole lifetime as Luhmann was after his death.”
  • Luhmann said of writing, “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.”

How to start a Zettelkasten

  • A Zettelkasten or commonplace book is a catch-all for interesting insights. It’s a repository of thoughts to later combine into writing – or revisit as a resource. 
  • The commonplace book has been a staple of many famous people throughout history – Leonardo Da Vinci, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Jefferson, etc. have all kept one. 
  • To begin building your own (and to get a taste of Luhmann’s sweet, sweet productivity), you’ll need a few things:  
    • Something to write with and write on – I use a pen to underline and make notes in the books I read
    • Slip-box (digital or physical) – Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene famously use boxes of notecards. I use Roam Research to store my notes
    • A way to connect insights – if you use Roam, this is taken care of automatically
    • An editor – Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.
  • Once you’ve assembled your materials, there are only seven steps to building your commonplace book
    • Step 1: Read with note-taking tools nearby. Luhmann always read with a pen and a pile of scrap paper next to him.
    • Step 2: Finish a book or find an interesting insight.
    • Step 3: Take a slip of paper and write down the reference material and a few short notes about it. Luhmann always wrote the insights in his own words, meaning he wasn’t just copying – he was translating.
    • Step 4: Think about the insights contained therein and their relevance for your thinking – whether for existing work or how they connect to insights you’ve found elsewhere.
    • Step 5: Write one note on a new slip of paper. Use only one side of the page. Luhmann wrote these in complete sentences, but that kind of seems silly to me.
    • Step 6: Connect this note with other notes that are already in the slip-box – you can add it to another chain of existing notes or make references to it elsewhere in the slip-box. Each note was numbered – and Luhmann had a whole system for the creation of those numbers – but the numbers themselves were meaningless outside of their use to identify each note.
    • Step 7: Repeat ad infinitum. It’s as the slip-box grows that things get spicy, and you start making all kinds of incredible connections.

How to write a paper using a Zettelkasten

  • Step 1: Write quick notes. This could be on paper, in a notes app on your phone, a knowledge-capture platform like Roam Research, etc. These are primarily supposed to be about whatever’s going on in your head, not perfect pearls of wisdom that will someday make it onto the page exactly as you first wrote them down.
  • Step 2: Make literature notes. Whenever you read something, write notes about the content therein. Write down what you want to remember or what you think might be helpful to know later. Make sure they’re brief and to the point. Don’t use quotes as a crutch – try to understand and translate into your own words what the author meant.
  • Step 3: Make permanent notes. Using your Zettelkasten, go through the notes you took in steps 1 & 2. Think about how those notes relate to what you’re working on, researching, or interested in learning more about. At this stage, you’re developing ideas rather than collecting things.

    Does what you’re reading support or contradict something else you saw in another resource? Can you combine two concepts to create something new? Write out one note for each idea as if you were trying to explain it to someone else.

    Disclose your references and try to say what you mean rather than settling for a quick approximation.
  • Step 4: File your permanent notes in the slip-box. There are a few ways to do this:
    • 1) File each new note behind another related note. If you’re writing this on paper, you need to file it this way physically. In a program like Roam, you can do this digitally.
    • 2) Add links to related notes (again, a digital approach makes this way easier)
    • 3) Link the note to an index or a gateway note to a discussion on the subject
  • Step 5: Develop topics, ideas, and questions bottom-up using the notes in the Zettelkasten. See what’s there, what’s missing, and what questions you have as you review your notes. Read more to develop what’s there. This should be according to your interests and always head in the direction of the most interesting possible outcomes.

Instead of brainstorming a topic, flip through the slip-box to see where chains of notes have developed. If you’re trying to write about one thing, but another more interesting idea comes up, ditch the first one.

  • Step 6: Select a topic based on what you have, not on an idea of what you might have. Bring your notes together in front of you and take a look through what you have. See what you’re missing and what’s duplicative, trying out ideas.
  • Step 7: Turn your notes into a rough draft. This is equal parts creativity and assembly – you should rewrite your notes, so they flow together well, but you shouldn’t be shy about pulling directly from them and from the sources you’re working from.
  • Step 8: Edit and proofread. Then you’re done!

    If you’re like me, you’re deeply, deeply skeptical of this idea. It sounds nice, but it also sounds like it was written in a goddamn fairyland where nothing is challenging, and ideas grow on idea trees. I’m still in the process of building my commonplace book in Roam (via reading, note-taking, and writing every day), but I can attest that this shit works.

    Some of my best writing has come from my commonplace book. Every time I try to start by choosing a topic, I struggle. When I start with what I have, I do a lot better work, and things get done much faster.

Bits and Pieces

  • The brain requires context and repetition to retain information. The Zettelkasten method offers both. Psychologists used to think of the brain as a hard drive that can get cluttered with information, making it more difficult to learn later in life. We don’t hit this limit if we can integrate new knowledge into what we already know, creating what Charlie Munger calls a “latticework of models.” 
  • Four underlying principles of the Zettelkasten system
    • Writing is the only thing that matters. There is no history of unwritten ideas. This doesn’t mean you should spend all your time writing at the expense of other important things like reading and note-taking. Instead, you’ll do all the same things – read, write notes, share your ideas – but you’ll do them with an eye to what you’ll later write.
    • Simplicity is paramount. Getting a simple system you’ll stick with is better than having the perfect categorization methodology or some elaborate system of highlighters, underlining, etc.
    • Never start from a blank page. The standard advice is to choose a topic before you begin writing. The slip-box system makes this advice obsolete. Someone who starts from a blank page must either come up with something completely new (risky) or retrace their old ideas (boring). 
    • Let the work carry you forward. Instead of draining you, working from a commonplace book generates compound interest on your ideas.
  • Other authors who use the Zettelkasten method: 
  • Don’t multitask. Multitasking is not a good idea when attempting to read, take notes, or write. We think we’re better at multitasking than we are because we’ve done it a lot, but research shows our feeling of multitasking competence is 1) misguided and 2) due to the number of times we’ve done it, not performance.
  • Our brains can only hold so much information at a time. To get “closure” on thoughts and remove them from our heads, we can create a note, allowing us to drop them from our active memory.
  • Read for understanding rather than speed. To see if you’ve understood what you just read, try to restate it in your own words for someone who doesn’t know anything about the subject. It’s harder than you’d think.
  • Cramming is a counterproductive act if you hope to learn for the long term. Instead, take your time, spacing out your repetitions with the text, read other things, and test your learning. If you do, your knowledge will be more durable.
  • A wise person isn’t someone who knows everything. Instead, wise people connect the dots well to translate what they know to a new domain. 
  • Improving your habits isn’t about editing old ones or even stopping them. It’s about crowding out old patterns with newer, better ones. Once the good habits take over, there’s no room for the older, shittier ones.

Related reading:
Optionality: How to Survive and Thrive in a Volatile World – Richard Meadows
Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions – Gerd Gigerenzer

You can borrow How to Take Smart Notes from the library for free. If you’d like to buy it (and support the site), you can do so here.