Book Notes: Sönke Ahrens — How to Take Smart Notes

Take your notes to the next level

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking — for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace LLC.

The book describes a personal knowledge management system based on the workflow of the prolific German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, called the Zettelkasten or slip-box. The systems consists of summary notes that are linked to each other. The book introduces this systems and elaborates how this system is not only a way to organise notes but also a tool to develop thoughts. I found this approach interesting and refreshingly different compared to many other approaches to academic productivity. However, I also found the way in which it is presented in this book quite annoying. It is like reading a 300-page infomercial. The same arguments are repeated again and again and the description of the method is embedded in meandering prose. I think this would have been a much more valuable resource if it had been condensed to about 10 pages. The focus also seems to be quite narrowly applied to disciplines that work with literature. I was missing more information about how the Zettelkasten system could expanded to contain notes on experiments or observational data.

The main idea is the implementation of a slip-box to capture notes. To implement the system follow these steps:

  1. Take notes during reading to capture your thoughts. What does the author try to say? How does that resonate with what I already know? How is it different to what other authors are saying? etc.
  2. Transfer the initial notes to permanent notes. A permanent not should only contain one key idea.
  3. Link the permanent notes to other permanent notes in the collection. Which other notes relate to the same argument? or contradict this note?

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

The archivist asks: Which keyword is the most fitting? A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference.

There is a clear division of labour between the brain and the slip-box: The slip-box takes care of details and references and is a long-term memory resource that keeps information objectively unaltered. That allows the brain to focus on the gist, the deeper understanding and the bigger picture, and frees it up to be creative.

  • people who are interested in improving the personal knowledge management
  • students or academics who work with a lot of literature

I’m a lecturer in psychology specialised in cognitive neuroscience. My research investigated brain development in young people who struggle in school.

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