How to Take Smart Notes

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens

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Fantastic book on both capturing the information you consume and using it for creative output.

A way to create a graph of your knowledge in a way that works both online and off.


Follow your interest and attention.

Additions should be related to SOMETHING in your slip box already.

Writing is where the thinking occurs.

Good writing starts with good note taking.


Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 2, loc. 108.

good, productive writing is based on good note-taking.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 3, loc. 129.

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.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 3, loc. 131.

What does make a significant difference along the whole intelligence spectrum is something else: how much self-discipline or self-control one uses to approach the tasks at hand

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 4, loc. 139.

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.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 6, loc. 179.

The best way to deal with complexity is to keep things as simple as possible and to follow a few basic principles.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 9, loc. 221.

Whenever he encountered something remarkable or had a thought about what he read, he made a note.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 12, loc. 279.

The last element in his file system was an index, from which he would refer to one or two notes that would serve as a kind of entry point into a line of thought or topic.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 20, loc. 409.

If you do look for specific notes, you have an index to turn to.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 22, loc. 440.

Assemble notes and bring them into order, turn these notes into a draft, review it and you are done.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 22, loc. 443.

Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 22, loc. 449.

Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 22, loc. 452.

If there is one thing the experts agree on, then it is this: You have to externalise your ideas, you have to write. Richard Feynman stresses it as much as Benjamin Franklin. If we write, it is more likely that we understand what we read, remember what we learn and that our thoughts make sense.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 23, loc. 459.

1. Make fleeting notes. Always have something at hand to write with to capture every idea that pops into your mind. Don’t worry too much about how you write it down or what you write it on. These are fleeting notes, mere reminders of what is in your head.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 23, loc. 467.

Write down what you don’t want to forget or think you might use in your own thinking or writing.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 24, loc. 473.

Go through the notes you made in step one or two (ideally once a day and before you forget what you meant) and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking or interests. This can soon be done by looking into the slip-box

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 24, loc. 477.

Write exactly one note for each idea and write as if you were writing for someone else: Use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references and try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 24, loc. 481.

Now add your new permanent notes to the slip-box by: a)    Filing each one behind one or more related notes (with a program, you can put one note “behind” multiple notes; if you use pen and paper like Luhmann, you have to decide where it fits best and add manual links to the other notes).

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 24, loc. 485.

Making sure you will be able to find this note later by either linking to it from your index or by making a link to it on a note that you use as an entry point to a discussion or topic and is itself linked to the index.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 25, loc. 492.

Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the system.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 25, loc. 495.

Just follow your interest and always take the path that promises the most insight.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 25, loc. 497.

Do not brainstorm for a topic. Look into the slip-box instead to see where chains of notes have developed and ideas have been built up to clusters.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 25, loc. 499.

The more you become interested in something, the more you will read and think about it, the more notes you will collect and the more likely it is that you will generate questions from it.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 25, loc. 501.

6. After a while, you will have developed ideas far enough to decide on a topic to write about. Your topic is now based on what you have, not based on an unfounded idea about what the literature you are about to read might provide.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 25, loc. 504.

7. Turn your notes into a rough draft.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 26, loc. 510.

8. Edit and proofread your manuscript. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder and turn to the next manuscript.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 26, loc. 513.

Good tools do not add features and more options to what we already have, but help to reduce distractions from the main work, which here is thinking.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 29, loc. 564.

You can add notes to each entry – but it would also be fine to write your notes by hand and link them to the reference if you prefer to write by hand at this stage. In that case, just give the notes a standardised title like “AuthorYear” and keep them in alphabetical order in one place.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 30, loc. 593.

Making something public always means to write it down so it can be read.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 36, loc. 656.

The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 41, loc. 745.

The notes are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 45, loc. 811.

Seeking feedback, not avoiding it, is the first virtue of anyone who wants to learn, or in the more general terms of psychologist Carol Dweck, to grow.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 53, loc. 947.

Dweck shows convincingly that the most reliable predictor for long-term success is having a “growth mindset.” To actively seek and welcome feedback, be it positive or negative, is one of the most important factors for success (and happiness) in the long run.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 53, loc. 948.

The second step is to make sure we always write down the outcome of our thinking, including possible connections to further inquiries.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 70, loc. 1232.

Instead of forcing ourselves to do something we don’t feel like doing, we need to find a way to make us feel like doing what moves our project further along.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 72, loc. 1268.

Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 81, loc. 1405.

The only thing that matters is that it connects or is open to connections.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 81, loc. 1419.

Probably the best method is to take notes – not excerpts, but condensed reformulated accounts of a text.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 84, loc. 1462.

When we try to answer a question before we know how to, we will later remember the answer better, even if our attempt failed (Arnold and McDermott 2013).

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 88, loc. 1543.

Experienced academic readers usually read a text with questions in mind and try to relate it to other possible approaches, while inexperienced readers tend to adopt the question of a text and the frames of the argument and take it as a given.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 91, loc. 1580.

Lonka recommends what Luhmann recommends: Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 91, loc. 1590.

Any thought of a certain complexity requires writing.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 94, loc. 1643.

Ideally, new notes are written with explicit reference to already existing notes.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 107, loc. 1867.

Keywords should always be assigned with an eye towards the topics you are working on or interested in, never by looking at the note in isolation.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 111, loc. 1937.

1.    The first type of links are those on notes that are giving you the overview of a topic.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 112, loc. 1954.

A similar though less crucial kind of link collection is on those notes that give an overview of a local, physical cluster of the slip-box.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 113, loc. 1967.

The most common form of reference is plain note-to-note links.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 114, loc. 1978.

If you use the slip-box for a while, you will inevitably make a sobering discovery: The great new idea you are about to add to the slip-box turns out to be already in there.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 115, loc. 2001.

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, stresses the importance of having a broad theoretical toolbox – not to be a good academic, but to have a good, pragmatic grip on reality.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 118, loc. 2050.

1.    Pay attention to what you want to remember. 

2.    Properly encode the information you want to keep. (This includes thinking about suitable cues.) 

3.    Practice recall. (Ibid., 31)

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 120, loc. 2083.

Another piece of advice is not a feature of the slip-box and might sound banal, but it is crucial: Make sure that you really see what you think you see and describe it as plainly and factually as possible.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 125, loc. 2175.

Just look into your slip-box and see where clusters have been built up. These clusters are what caught your interest again and again, so you already know that you have found material to work with.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 132, loc. 2295.

and everything we read with the question, “What is so relevant about this that it is worth noting down?”

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 137, loc. 2385.

According to the famous law of Parkinson, every kind of work tends to fill the time we set aside for it, like air fills every corner of a room (Parkinson 1957).

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 143, loc. 2491.

It is really easy to predict the behaviour of people in the long run. In all likelihood, we will do in a month, a year or two years from now exactly what we have done before: eat as many chocolates as before, go to the gym as often as before, and get ourselves into the same kinds of arguments with our partners as before.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 146, loc. 2529.

The slip-box is as simple as it gets. Read with a pen in your hand, take smart notes and make connections between them. Ideas will come by themselves and your writing will develop from there. There is no need to start from scratch. Keep doing what you would do anyway: Read, think, write. Just take smart notes along the way.

[Kindle Edition]. pg. 152, loc. 2582.

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