Notes on How to Take Smart Notes

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How to Take Smart Notes became the de-facto source of truth to understand and practice the Luhmann method of note taking. The book focuses on academic writing, mostly on students, not professionals, who have short goals such as writing a paper by the end of the semester. That explains why the book diverges and discusses topics such as studying techniques, brainstorms, etc.

Overall, I think the book is a good starting point for anyone interested in learning a specific way of storing knowledge. What the book completely lacks is acknowledging the big survivorship bias to which it is exposed. It cites only one example (Luhmann himself) and gives no real insight into the process. It is, at some point, hard to know if the method described is actually practiced by the author or not.

The book is short, which makes it easy to digest, but at some points it is unclear what points it wants to make. Doesn't go into the method of note-taking, nor how to use it productively. At least not in any form of depth more than the romanticized version anyone can image.

In this summary, I try to make an abstract of the content of the book. It is not comprehensive, but it condenses the parts more related to me and my job.

The note-taking method

The method proposed in the book follows to the letter The Luhmann method , also knows as Zettelkasten method . The note taking process is structured in a consecutive process that eventually becomes iterative.

First, we must identify different categories of notes:

  • Transient Notes are the initial point. They are short and hold any ideas we have. Transient notes are meant to be reviewed quickly and we must decide whether they deserve to be transformed into a permanent note o discarded.
  • Literature Notes are based on what we read. They are an abstraction of the knowledge we can extract from a book or a paper. They are meant to hold information based on a single source, and they should be written with our own words, not a plain copy/pasting
  • Permanent Notes hold our ideas, they are the evolution of the transient notes and ideally should link to other permanent notes or literature notes in order to build a web of knowledge.

There is also a lot of thought put into defining how each note should look like. The core idea is that each note should express a single idea. Therefore, when we refer to one of them, we are referring to a concrete concept and not to a a sub-set within a longer note. Paraphrasing Andy Matuschack, "notes should be single units of knowledge".

The second step of the note-taking process relates to the archiving . The Luhmann method is efficient as long as the archival and retrieval process is efficient. Therefore, instead of keeping notes in a chronological order, Ahrens proposes to keep notes based on their links to each other. With paper notes, this means that every time we are going to store a note we must decide where to put it. Ideally we will place it right behind the note it relates to.

If we add a smart numbering to the notes we can start referring to them from other notes. And here is where the key aspect of the method lies: building links between notes every time we store a new one is what creates value and new insight. For digital note taking, a link is what it sounds. For paper-based ones, links are references, such as see note 365ab1 . Notes can also be collections, meaning notes that simply link to other notes. In digital terms, this is not different from the role of a tag .

The book also has a collection of references to justify why this method works so well . One of the things I found more interesting is the idea of low friction working . We should not fight our methods, but we should tune our way of working to serve our purposes. If we don't like an aspect of what we do (for instance, we like writing in blue instead of black), we should be able to just do it.

In this direction, Ahrens proposes writing down as a mean to understanding what we read . On the one hand, changing contexts from the book, to our mind, to writing down is a good flow to build knowledge. To achieve it, we must transform what we read in view of what we already know, and this is a compounding effect (see: hermeneutic circle ). By writing down, it is also possible freeing short term memory , and lower our stress over the possibility of losing fleeing thoughts. This is very similar to why bullet journaling is effective at improving productivity, and is repeated across many productivity discourses.

How to learn and write better

The rest of the book is more focused on learning and writing techniques. Even though it skips the topic of spaced repetition , it discusses that cramming is not understanding and therefore the roles of tests and their objective in assessing knowledge must be reviewed. It briefly covers what are the retrieval and storage strength in relation to knowledge, and they support the idea of why the Zettelkasten is a natural way of taking notes.

When the book covers the writing process, one of the most interesting points is that we can't consider it a linear process. Ideas are naturally networked in our brains (and in the notes) (see: 202010160912 ), and we can't make a top-down plan. What Ahrens mostly argues is that the education system has an outdated approach to teaching planning. Especially planning for written content.

The core message for someone who wants to write a book is to have a fluid workflow (see: 202010161703 ). An outline is useful at supporting the structure of the book, but we must be able to change it as we progress. We must split writing from editing since they engage with different parts of our brain. In the editing we will identify missing links in our thoughts, spelling mistakes, etc. Of course, all the approach is traversed by playing with the notes and their links.

What I Missed

The most important argument on which I completely disagree with Ahrens, is that knowledge can be built without ever looking at reality . The book argues that we can read books and produce more books. However, there is never a mention of the role that observation has. Someone must perform experiments, must collect data, has to go out there and see how society behaves.

For anyone working in a lab this book will make you believe that your job is not important, while I believe it is exactly the opposite. Without someone looking at how the world looks like, there is no way of progressing in science (in any science). And this is a message that Ahrens simply does not get right. The book itself is a collection of references to experimental work (of various qualities) to justify its claims.

The book may be a seminal work in the expanding field of knowledge management . However, less than half the book is about taking notes, the rest is focused on suggestions for students and people who want to write. It does not give any actionable advice, not even from Ahrens own personal experience. Having a meta-chapter discussing how he wrote a previous chapter would have killed it.

Finally, another important topic that is barely covered is the limitation that the Zettelkasten has. Even though Ahrens mentions the example of Darwin to challenge our own thoughts, the notes themselves are prone to a myriad of biases, and the book does not provide a single insight on how to fight them. This is mostly due to the fact that the entirety of How to Take Smart Notes - Sönke Ahrens is based on a single example (Luhmann himself). Even though the book goes to great extents to find research to back its claims, the most crucial aspects are single-sourced. This may be just an extreme case of survivorship bias .

What to Look Forward To

Digital note-taking has opened the door to many interesting new approaches. For example, this website is not a blog but what some people call a digital garden . I have modeled my way of working in many of the ideas of The Luhmann method , but adding the extra possibility of having longer, multi-topic notes, which are closer to a blog article than to a single unit of knowledge.

The note taking space, looked at it as a discussion on how to build knowledge, is due some progress. Mostly, I believe, it's because we didn't discuss it enough. Some interesting tools are popping up, such as RoamResearch, but in many aspects I think people is falling in love with the technology and not with the method.

I have seen the discussions of note-taking in the context of content creation . While this is valid (and very visible), very little insight is given to note-taking for knowledge creation . Note-taking can be valuable even for people not aiming to write a book or a blog post. I think there is still a lot of room in this aspect, not only to develop tools, but to expand our approach.

Backlinks are just the tip of the iceberg regarding what the digital medium can offer. I am really eager to see what can happen when long-time learners (as opposed to young dudes from silicon valley) become willing to share their insight openly and discuss their approach.

I would love to see how writers take notes. Does Harari use the Luhmann method? What about Niel deGrasse Tyson?


These are the other notes that link to this one.

Aquiles Carattino
Aquiles Carattino
This note you are reading is part of my digital garden. Follow the links to learn more, and remember that these notes evolve over time. After all, this website is not a blog.
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