📖How to Take Smart Notes

Ahrens, Sönke
  • Writing doesn’t have to start with a blank page.

  • p.5

    Every task that is interesting, meaningful and well-defined will be done, because there is no conflict between long- and short-term interests. Having a meaningful and well-defined task beats willpower every time. Not having willpower, but not having to use willpower indicates that you set yourself up for success.

  • Enforcing a plan requires willpower. Plans are also not compatible with research. Instead of making plans, it’s good to have a structure that helps to make progress.

  • p.15

    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. —Niklas Luhmann

  • Writing is something that accompanies reading, thinking, and studying. I makes result tangible and long-lasting (durable).

  • p.23

    Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kind of intellectual endeavor easier, they make it possible. —Neil Levy

  • Putting things in writing makes sure we understand what we are reading. Writing (externalizing knowledge) is essential for learning and building understanding. → Externalize knowledge to learn

  • Process

    1. Make fleeting notes (write random ideas that come into your head)

    2. Make literature notes

      • store those in bibliography

      • be selective (esp. with quotes). don’t skip thinking about what your read

    3. Make permanent notes

    4. Link it to other notes, add it to index cards

    5. Trust the process.

      • don’t cling to topics

      • the slip box will naturally accumulate what interests you

      • build topics bottom-up

    6. Take all the relevant notes on the topic together. Look for what’s missing or redundant

      • Don’t wait for a finished topic—give yourself time to do more reading and note-taking.

    7. Translate your notes into argument (don’t copy)

    8. Edit and proofread

  • Be flexible, follow your interest, switch topics as you like.

  • Simplify workflow. We learn different techniques that promise to make some aspect easier. But combined, they have the opposite effect and make the whole system more complex.

  • Good tools do not add features to what we already have, but remove distraction from the main work

    • think of how GTD makes your mind clearer because you don’t have to remember about all the tasks.

  • Do not turn slip-box into archive of notes, or worse—a graveyard of thought. → Zettelkasten is about developing ideas, not collecting them

  • Studying done properly is research. For it is about searching insight.

  • Separate fleeting notes, permanent notes, and project notes. Confusing them together creates mess. → Separate permanent notes and project notes

  • Handle random notes (weight log, etc.) as project notes. Keep them separate from the main slip box. Split ce4/fscc into separate project notes. → Treat random notes as a separate “project”

  • Connected ideas are easier to remember → Zettelkasten makes things easier to remember by connecting ideas

  • People who multitask think they are good at it. But they do not compare their results.

  • Mere-exposure effect: we believe that we become good at something just because we’ve done it many times. That might be not true. (p.59)

  • These tasks require different kinds of attention:

    • writing / choosing words

    • proofreading

    • outlining / changing outline

    • developing thought

    • reading

  • Dreyfus model: while experts come up with their own rules, they start judging others base on how others follow the rules they learned. They can confuse another expert with a beginner solely on the basis of not following their arbitrary rules. (p.66) → Experts judge others by their own rules

  • Mental models: memorization techniques just bundle multiple things together (so you have to memorize less things). (p.68) → Memorization techniques bundle things together to make them easier to remember

  • Zeigarnik effect: task occupies place in memory until it is done. Or until we write it down in a way that we think it will be dealt with. (p.70) → Zeigarnik effect

    • This explains GTD effect.

  • ego depletion: when we have made many choices, we are less willing to do more choices. (p.72)

  • Writing notes by hand facilitates understanding. Because writing by hand is slower, we are forced to take shorter notes. But to take shorter notes, we should be able to extract the gist of what we’re learning. (At least, this happens in lecture settings.) (p.78)

  • Collect both confirming and contradicting facts and ideas. (p.81)

  • Many of our tiny everyday choices are unconscious.

  • Pre-packaged courses hinder understanding. It removes thinking/exploring process from students. → Pre-packaged courses hinder understanding

  • Luhman had 90,000 notes (or 6 notes per day). (p.93) (tie with slight edge)

  • Too much order can impede learning (Carey 2014) (p.106) → Too much order can impede learning

  • Slip-box does not have to be complete. Do not add notes for “completeness,” only when they help develop an argument. (p.108)

  • Tags (§12.1, 108–111) → Use tags sparingly in Zettelkasten

    • Assign tags sparingly.

    • Do not think as an archivist. General tags as category, method, etc. are too broad to be useful.

    • Think “in what context I want to stumble on this note again?”

    • Always think in terms of your current project.

  • Link types (p.113):

    • index card/overview of the topic

    • overview local cluster of notes

    • links to prev/next notes in an argument

    • normal links

  • Standardization and restrictions enhance creativity (p.131)

  • We cling to ideas less the more familiar we are. That makes sense because we start to see limitations. (p.136)

  • Open-mindedness is not enough for ground-breaking discoveries. Skill is also required (even for art).

    • related to mastery in dreyfus model (?)

  • Autonomous choice enhances motivation/energy. (p.138) → Autonomous choice enhances motivation/energy

    • Let people choice their tasks (management).

    • Offering a choice among options that have no personal value, are trivial or irrelevant, might be depleting. (p.138)

  • Work on multiple manuscripts in parallel. (p.140) → Have multiple projects to work on


  • Birnbaum 2013 “Why interleaving enhances inductive learning”

  • Carter 2014 “Publication bias and limited strength model of self-control: has the evidence for ego depletion been overestimated?”

  • Doyle 2013 “The new science of learning”

  • Dunlosky 2013 “Improving students learning with effective learning techniques…”

  • Gigerenzer 2008 “Gut Felings: The intelligence of the unconscious”

  • Job 2010 “Ego depletion — is it all in your head?”

  • Mueller 2014 “The pen is mightier than the keyboard” Mueller & Oppenheimer2014

  • Muraven 1998 “self-control as a limited resource”

  • Reeve 2009 “why teachers adopt a controlling motivation style toward students”

  • Rickheit 1999 “Mental models: some answers, some questions, …”