Notes on

How to Take Smart Notes

by Sönke Ahrens

Summary of Key Points

  • Writing is thinking
  • Good writing is based on good note taking
  • A certain IQ helps you get into academia. But what makes you successful is how much self-discipline you use to approach the tasks at hand
  • Reducing the willpower you need to complete your tasks, funnily enough, lowers the required willpower. So you should have meaningful and well-defined tasks
  • Niklas Luhmann published 58 books and hundreds of articles in 30 years. - But he never forced himself to do something he didn't feel like doing.
  • Write notes. Write them in your own words. Use the "Writing a paper step by step" guide below. - Your notes should become more valuable over time; compound interest of notes. This is done by using a slip-box. - You want to form connections between your notes. Relate topics and concepts. - If you can't write, in your own words, a concise summary of the ideas you are presented with, you do not understand them. - Writing is thinking. You have to continuously fact check yourself and ensure that you are building a logically sound and comprehensive argument.

These are just some of the lessons. Read the highlights & notes section below for more.

Writing a paper step by step

  1. Make fleeting notes. Write down every idea. Put these in your inbox.

  2. Make literature notes when you read something. Write down what is useful. Be concise, extremely selective, and use your own words. Keep these in your reference system.

  3. Make permanent notes. Develop your notes from step 1 and 2. Make them permanent. How do they relate to your own research? Can they be combined with other ideas?

    1. Write as if you were writing for someone else. "Write full sentences, disclose your sources, make references, and try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible"
    2. Throw away the fleeting notes.
  4. Add the permanent note to your slip-box.

    1. Put them behind one or more related notes (can be done with note-taking tools like Obsidian or Roam). Add links to related notes.
  5. Use the slip box to follow interesting chains. Follow your interests and explore ideas.

  6. After doing this for some time, you'll have developed ideas enough to write about a topic. Now you can write based on what you have - not some idea about the literature you just read/are about to read. So collect relevant notes and try to find holes.

  7. Turn your notes into a rough draft by translating them into something coherent

  8. Edit and proofread.

Highlights & Notes

“One cannot think without writing.” (Luhmann 1992, 53)

Writing is thinking

1 Everything You Need to Know

In 30 years, he published 58 books and hundreds of articles, translations not included

Niklas Luhmann did

He not only stressed that he never forced himself to do something he didn’t feel like, he even said: “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.” (Luhmann et al., 1987, 154f.)[4]

Endless exploration.

Even hard work can be fun as long as it is aligned with our intrinsic goals and we feel in control. The problems arise when we set up our work in such an inflexible way that we can’t adjust it when things change and become arrested in a process that seems to develop a life of its own.

Practice flexibility

Studies on highly successful people have proven again and again that success is not the result of strong willpower and the ability to overcome resistance, but rather the result of smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place (cf. Neal et al. 2012; Painter et al. 2002; Hearn et al. 1998).

Similar to a point made earlier

2 Everything You Need to Do

To learn, you must write. To understand, you must write in your own words.

The best ideas are usually those we didn't anticipate.

Your slip-box builds like compound interest. It's value grows exponentially over time, as you add ideas to it. It's not a linear curve based on your inputs only - the connections are what's really important.

3 Everything You Need to Have

Tools should never make the work more complex

You need a central inbox for your thoughts - some place to record them. They don't need to be there permanently - just long enough to be processed.

For references, use Zotero.

Programs for the slip-box. Or use pen and paper. I use Obsidian.

6 Simplicity Is Paramount

There are three types of notes.

  1. Fleeting notes, which are soon thrown out.
  2. Permanent notes.
  3. Project notes, which are relevant to one project only.

If you only take notes on one project at a time - and archive it when you're done - your notes can't gain over time; no compound interest

If everything is fleeting, your notes are a mess.

Your notes should become more valuable over time; compound interest of notes.

Niklas Luhmann didn't underline when reading, he wrote the ideas down.

8 Let the Work Carry You Forward

Have a growth mindset and seek fast feedback loops

If you can't write, in your own words, a concise summary of the ideas you are presented with, you do not understand them. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

Writing is thinking - which is another feedback loop. Are your thoughts as well thought-out as you think?

Your knowledge should never be independent leaves - it should be a tree/network that is interconnected - a latticework of Mental Models

9.2 Multitasking is not a good idea

You can't be taught expertise, it is earned/learned

Multitasking is slowing you down Multitasking does not work, don't do it. Give each task your undivided attention.

The tasks we associate with writing (writing, proofreading, outlining... etc) are each individual tasks and should be done separately- and therefore given undivided attention. The different types of tasks requires different types of attention.

You have to learn to make decisions on what to explore and write about yourself. Following plans only make you better at following plans. Allowing yourself time to explore, you can gain quite a lot - even unexpectedly.

Reminds me of an Amos Tversky #quote... "The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours"

To be able to become an expert, we need the freedom to make our own decisions and all the necessary mistakes that help us learn. Like bicycling, it can only be learned by doing it

Seek to understand; to build your latticework of Mental Models and ideas.

Always try to connect ideas to improve your understanding and better remember them

Why you should get your tasks/thoughts written down asap: you have to get closure, or you'll keep thinking about it, disturbing your current task.

Since willpower is a limited resource - like a muscle, you cannot keep straining it, but it will eventually recover - we have to figure out how to do our work without spending excessive amounts

Having systems for procedures reduce necessary willpower, therefore leaving you with more mental energy which can be used on more useful tasks

Breaks are crucial. Take breaks between work sessions - they allow your brain to process information.

10.1 Read With a Pen in Hand

Acquire Mental Models and become excellent at using them. Three are many benefits to this: faster and easier reading, getting the gist quicker, it becomes easier to spot patterns, and we understand the patterns better. Having a lot of tools for thinking help us with thinking and understanding better. That also make it easier to acquire more tools for thinking. But you can't start this process if you don't read; if you aren't selective in what you read, and if you can't judge what is important or not. You have to do this yourself, others cannot do it for you.

The more you do this, the better you get at it - and the easier it becomes.

Growing a network is easier the more nodes you have - there's more to latch on to. The further the roots of a tree grow / the more area they cover, the better chances the tree has of growing.

Be able to understand things / think on your own. Don't rely on textbooks to tell you what's important. You can't go your entire life having everyone else think for you.

Condense what you read into your own words. Separate signal from noise.

When you're always writing, it makes the task of writing a paper much easier - then you just have to collect your notes and proofread

Write in your own words.

Keep an open mind - be careful of Confirmation Bias.

Getting good at separating the signal from noise is a virtue.

Writing is deliberate practice of critical thinking and knowledge work.

Writing is thinking. You have to continuously fact check yourself and ensure that you are building a logically sound and comprehensive argument.

Seek understanding, not merely to recognize.

Rereading is not learning

Exercise makes learning easier

The objection that it takes too much time to take notes and sort them into the slip-box is therefore short-sighted. Writing, taking notes and thinking about how ideas connect is exactly the kind of elaboration that is needed to learn. Not learning from what we read because we don’t take the time to elaborate on it is the real waste of time.

11 Take Smart Notes

Read with purpose. Read with questions in mind. Relate what you read to other concepts. Read to connect.

Summarize content in your own words. Relate to what you know (knowledge is like a tree...). If possible, put what you learn to action. Do something with it.

Seek to learn by understanding. Seek to understand by connecting. Knowledge is like a tree.

12 Develop Ideas

Assign keywords that lets you find notes in a useful context

Flash cards are effective but still just isolated facts. You want connections.

We are more creative under restrictions

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