How to Take Smart Notes (PDF)

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In Germany during the 60s, the son of a brewer became one of the most prolific social scientists in history. 

Niklas Luhmann had a critical insight: he realized that each idea is valuable in relation to the context where it’s embedded, not necessarily the original context.

From there, he devised a system that would help him accomplish the unthinkable for a kid with humble beginnings; he would write more than 70 books and 400 scholarly articles during his lifetime.

How to Take Smart Notes (PDF) by Sönke Ahrens showed the Zettelkasten system to the English-speaking world. Before the book, Niklas Luhmann’s method was only known in obscure circles of the German academy. 

The Zettelkasten system is revolutionary because it creates a workflow that considers all the limitations of the human mind and leverages the weaknesses to produce output. 

The Zettelkasten system inspired a new generation of software apps for networked thought like Roam Research and Obsidian.

The Three Type of Notes in the Zettelkasten System

This note-taking system is based on three types of notes:

Fleeting Notes

These are notes you take with insights and observations you make while reading a book, listening to a podcast, or just during the day. 

The main goal of this type of note is to capture that fleeting idea that you had for a moment and not let it go to waste. 

Literature Notes

These are the notes you take while reading something, but instead of your original ideas, you try to express what the author is trying to say in your own words. 

The goal of this type of note is to break the illusion of understanding. Writing what the author is saying in your own words forces you to be aware of the holes in your understanding. 

In Luhmann times, you would create a short note on a small paper as a reference. Today you can use Roam or Obsidian to capture your thoughts. 

Permanent Notes

These are the most valuable types of notes that Luhmann would create. These are individual notes that contain original insights that you came up with after dwelling on a new piece of information.

These notes are based on the insights you wrote on the fleeting notes, or they could be new ideas that you came up with after writing literature notes. 

The key here is to write one idea per piece of paper or page if you use a note-taking app. 

The idea has to be written like it is something ready to publish. You have to explain your idea to make it understandable for someone who doesn’t have the context of the whole lecture. 

It’s like the Feynman technique where you have to explain an idea to a five years old. You have to know the concepts so well that you can present them to someone that doesn’t know anything about them. 

Same here, explain the idea so you will understand what you meant in the future and so anyone can understand it. 

The Value of an Idea in the Network

In the Zettelkasten system, the value of an idea is not given by the concept in itself but also by the relationship in your network of ideas. 

After you wrote your permanent note, the next step in the system is finding relationships between that new idea and other ideas you have in your network. 

  1. Is this new idea confirming on your anterior thoughts?
  2. Is this new idea contradicting some other note that you have in your network?
  3. Is this new idea expanding on some topic that you have already worked with?

The value of the whole system lies in connecting ideas. This way, you accomplish two things:

  • You will remember more because you connect new knowledge with other information you already had in your wetware. 
  • You will generate more insight since you will start realizing how to apply new ideas in different fields and how new insights can further connect in unrelated areas.

Exploring the Limitations of Will Power 

Nobody needs will power to do something that they already felt like doing. 

Will power is a scarce resource that depletes, and it depends more on our context than on what we would like to have internally. 

The Zettelkasten system provides the structure for having a correct use of willpower. 

With this system, you let your work carry you forward. Luhmann only wrote when it was easy for him to do it. If something was being difficult, he changed to do something else. 

The trick is to follow our interests and not have a structure because we don’t know where our gut will lead us. 

Several studies have shown that successful individuals result not from strong willpower but the consequence of having smart work environments where there is no friction or resistance. (cf. Neal et al. 2012; Painter et al. 2002; Hearn et al. 1998).

Achieving Flow

If you want to achieve a constant flow state, you have to have a flexible system to cope with the limitations of the conscious mind, such as willpower. 

When we free our minds from the burden of deciding what to do next, and we start trusting the system, a flow state will come easily. 

We are freeing short-term memory because we are not thinking about all the other things we have to accomplish during the day. 

The Slip Box

Luhmann used to work with an actual slip box. 

A physical box where he put all the notes in little pieces of paper. Of course, you can do that if you want, but today you have note-taking apps that are much more practical than the actual box. 

The box starts becoming alive when you find ideas for new insights and a dialogue companion. 

While working with the slip box of permanent notes, the most important thing is to find relations between the new notes and the old ones. 

The main goal of the slip box is not to collect notes but to develop our thought processes. How do the new notes that I’m adding contribute, confirm or deny what is already written in the slip box. Are there further questions that arise from what is written?

We have to think about which is the most relevant note in the box for every new permanent note and make a relationship with that one. 

Index Notes

The last element of the Zettelkasten system is the index notes, where we group 2,3,4 notes from different topics into a common thread. 

This way, we can start articulating arguments using insights that we had working on different topics. 

A System Focused on Output

When the time to write something comes, and if you used the system consistently, then the only step to finish a piece of writing is to gather and articulate the notes that you already have. 

You will transform the ideas you previously developed into something coherent that conveys and support your argument. 

Your total work will involve rewriting those notes in a coherent stream of ideas telling a story, or exploring a problem.

Most of the work will be already done. 

Don’t Let the Tool Take Over

If you are going to use software for note-taking such as Roam or Obsidian, sometimes what happens is that you start taking notes just for the fun of it, just because the tool is designed to make it easy for taking notes. 

You have to resist this temptation; you have to think about the relationships between the notes. You have to dwell on what you are writing. Don’t fall into the trap of just using a software app for its own sake.

Seek Simplicity

Always create one note per idea. You have to think of every permanent note as an insight that you are later going to publish. 

Save notes according to the relationship that they have with each other. It doesn’t make any sense to save the notes according to date or time. 

Always Read With a Pen in Hand

You have to develop your thoughts on paper; that is why it is essential to write new notes with the ideas that pop into your mind as you read.

You will start following your intellectual curiosity, and your work will carry you forward. 

Let The Work Carry You Forward

This is perhaps one of the most underappreciated aspects of the whole system, a part of the system so fundamental that the entire structure wouldn’t work without it. 

Having this in mind helps you have the energy necessary to work on it. You generate mental energy working this way. 

Ahrens compares this way of working with an endergonic chemical reaction where you obtain more energy after the reaction took place.

If you achieve flow working this way, you will create a virtuous cycle. 

Michelle Segar (Segar, 2015) uses the creation of satisfactory experiences to work with her students in creating fitness routines they can enjoy. Once they find that little piece of exercise they enjoy, then they keep growing from there. 

Writing literature notes translating with our own words what the author is trying to say helps us break the illusion of understanding. 

The Four Different Mindsets Required to Write

First of all, it is necessary to separate the process of writing and editing. First, you write, then you edit. This way, you can polish your thoughts on the page. 

You will never perfectly write anything from the beginning. 

Now the four skills that are required to write correctly:

  1. Explorer: as we read new information, use our own words to translate the concepts and write them in the literature notes. 
  2. Author: the skill to revise the permanent notes that we already have in the slip box and connect them with new ideas, the skill of writing and combining these new ideas. 
  3. Outliner: the skill of managing and ordering the ideas to support arguments correctly. 
  4. Proofreader: once we finish the article and it is ready to publish, we have to invoke the critic, the editor, to proofread the composition and polish it before publication. 

The Zeigarnik effect

Bluma Zeigarnik was a soviet psychologist that was surprised to find out that the waiters in the restaurant could remember to perfection, which was the order of everyone at the table but as soon as they would leave the restaurant, they would forget everything about it. 

This phenomenon would be called the Zeigarnik effect. Open tasks occupy a place in our working memory until they are finished. 

To free up space in our working memories, we have to write all the pending tasks on a to-do list.

If we can convince ourselves that these tasks will be taken care of, then we will free up that space in our working memories and will have more processing power for the task at hand. 

The Zettelkaten does this because it makes sure that we can keep working on some book later on, just where we left it. 

On a related note, If we are always thinking about the following message on Whatsapp and social media, then that is taking up space in our working memories, so it has to be affecting our processing power. 

Necessary Conditions for Learning to Take Place

According to Ahrens, the necessary conditions that must take place for learning to occur are:

  1. Connect the information with knowledge that we already have in our brains. 
  2. Try to understand the broader implications of this new information we are trying to learn. 
  3. Practice retrieving this information at different times. 
  4. Apply the new information in other contexts. 
  5. Add random interferences to the use of information. 
  6. Make a deliberate effort to learn. 

The 10 Zettelkasten Principles 

From this David Clear’s article, these are the main principles of the Zettelkasten system:

  1. Atomicity: each note should contain only one idea. 
  2. Autonomy: each note should be comprehensible on its own. 
  3. Linking: each note derives its quality from the network of links in the system. Link every note. 
  4. Explanatory linking: explain why you relate one note to each other; otherwise, you will forget over the years. 
  5. Use your own words: do not copy and paste. 
  6. Keep references: know where you got the idea from to come back to the source later and avoid plagiarism. 
  7. Don’t worry about structure: don’t worry about using folders; the structure will emerge from your notes. 
  8. Connecting notes: as soon as you see that random notes start to relate to each other, create notes explaining the relationship between these notes. 
  9. Outline or index notes: you will start having lists of ideas that coalesce into themes. You can create index notes with links to all these notes in a particular order to create a story or to support your argument. 
  10. Never delete old notes; just connect them to new notes explaining what’s wrong with the old ones.