Notes on "How to take Smart Notes" by Sönke Ahrens

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How to Take Smart Notes became the de-facto source of truth to understand and practice Luhmann method of note-taking. The book focuses on the academic writing done by students, not by professionals. The main difference is that students have shorter-term goals, such as writing a paper by the end of the semester. This focus explains why the book diverges and discusses studying techniques or brainstorming sessions.

Overall, I think the book is a good starting point for anyone interested in learning a specific way of storing knowledge. It essentially builds on the model of taking brief notes and building relationships between them. In the past, notes were archived in physical proximity to one another. With digital means, the process is much more flexible, and it requires linking content together.

Before entering into the details, I think it is worth mentioning that the book lacks any form of acknowledgment of the survivorship bias to which it is subject. It cites only one example (Luhmann himself) and gives no real insight into the process. The examples of other thinkers like Feynman or Darwin are just superficial since how they used notes is not described at all.

The book is short, making it easy to digest, but some points are somewhat unclear and not well covered. The method for writing notes is well laid out. Still, the process of combining notes into a longer text is relatively superficial. It is not a problem of this book exclusively. Many people focus on how to take notes but not on how to think. In this regard, the book provides no insight into building novel knowledge and not pure synthetic thinking. At no point in the book, it is suggested that students should look out the window and see the world by themselves.

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 the 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. We must decide whether they deserve to be transformed into a permanent note or 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. Ideally, They should link to other permanent notes or literature notes 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 concept. Therefore, when we refer to one of them, we refer to a concrete concept and not to a sub-set within a longer note. Andy Matuschack puts it as "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 chronological order, Ahrens proposes to keep notes based on the links to each other. With paper notes, every time we store a note, we must decide where to put it. Ideally, we will place it right behind the note to which it relates the most.

If we add an intelligent numbering system, we can start referring to each note from other notes. Here is where the method's critical aspect lies: building links between notes every time we store a new one is what creates value and unique insight. For digital note-taking, a link is what it sounds like. For paper-based ones, links are references, such as see note 365ab1 . Notes can also be collections, meaning notes that link to other notes. Note that there's no need to introduce categories into the system, which would force notes to be siloed away from each other.

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 practices, 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 want to write in blue instead of black), we should be able to do it.

In this direction, Ahrens proposes that writing down is a means to understanding what we read. On the one hand, changing contexts from the book to our mind to writing down is an excellent flow to build knowledge. To achieve it, we must transform what we read given what we already know, and this is a compounding effect. Writing down makes it possible to free short-term memory and lower our stress over the possibility of losing fleeing thoughts. This is completely aligned with the ideas behind get things done and bullet journaling.

How to learn and write better

The rest of the book focuses on learning and writing techniques. It starts by discussing that cramming is not understanding. Students tend to rush the intake of knowledge right before a test, but this information is quickly lost afterward. Ahrens argues that the roles of tests and their capacity to assess knowledge must be reviewed.

It briefly covers what the retrieval and storage strengths in relation to knowledge are. Ahrens proposes that if we focus more on retrieval, we could unlock creativity. It means we'll find links between pieces of knowledge more easily than remembering the stored information itself. The reflection is in line with supporting the idea of why the Zettelkasten method is a natural way of taking notes because it reflects our natural way of thinking.

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), and we can't make a top-down plan. Ahrens mainly argues that the education system has an outdated approach to how it teaches planning of essay writing.

The core message for someone who wants to write a book is to have a fluid workflow. An outline helps support the book's structure, but we must 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. The approach builds on the idea that we can play with the notes and their connections.

What I Missed

The most crucial argument on which I disagree entirely with Ahrens is that we can build knowledge without ever looking at reality . The book argues that we can read other 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 essential, while I think it is precisely the opposite. Without someone understanding how the world looks like, there is no way of progressing in science (in any science). And this is a message that Ahrens 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's own 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 that Darwin challenged his thoughts, the notes described in the book are prone to a myriad of biases. There is not a single insight on how to fight them nor how to raise awareness. Perhaps it is due to being 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. I can't stop thinking about whether 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 built on the ideas laid out in the book. Today this is referred to as a digital garden that I decided to make public. I have modeled my way of working in many of the ideas of the Luhmann method.

The knowledge-building space is gaining some momentum. Some interesting tools are popping up, such as RoamResearch. Still, in many aspects, I think people are falling in love with the technology and not with the method. External tools can only go this far. Better thinking must be grown in each one of us. The fact that education is anachronistic may be the biggest problem in the long run.

I would love to see how proficient writers take notes. Does Harari use the Luhmann method? What about Niel deGrasse Tyson? Until I don't see successful applications of a specific note-taking method, I would be wary of subscribing blindly to its claims of superiority.


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Aquiles Carattino
Aquiles Carattino
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