This review relates to the book ‘How to Take Smart Notes’ by Sonke Ahrens. It is available on Amazon here and you can also download the first chapter, free, here and learn more about the book.
‘Imagine if we went through life learning only what we planned to learn or being explicitly taught. I doubt we would have even learned to speak. Each added a bit of information, filtered only by our interest, is a contribution to our future understanding, thinking and writing. And best ideas are usually the ones we haven’t anticipated anyway.Ahrens
I can’t remember how I first fell across this book. No, actually I do. I was recommended Roam Research (I’ll come back to that in another post) on Twitter when I was asking for advice about note taking apps and then through trying to learn about Roam and how to best use it, I came across discussion of the Zettlekasten technique of note-taking. This book is an explanation of the Zettlekasten technique. That’s the name of the ‘one simple technique’ which is referred to on the front cover, that will ‘boost writing, learning and thinking – for students, academics and non-fiction writers’. And being of a curious mind, I bought the book.
‘Studying does not prepare students for independent research, it is independent research’
‘Zettlekasten‘ is a note-taking technique devised by Niklaus Luhmann, a well -known sociologist in Germany who wrote vast numbers of papers. He used this method of note taking and storing and it has been debated ever since. This book explains the system that Luhmann used and refines some of the discussion around in as times have changed and notes are more likely to be digitised now.
The book doesn’t just describe a system though, it seeks to provide an understanding of what note taking is used for and how and particularly to challenge those who might (and I include myself here), underline vaguely interesting paragraphs while I was reading something and rarely return to it.
The idea of the Zettlekasten is that notes would all be linked to each other by topic so you create notes from everything you read/watch/discuss/learn around topics and draw links together in themes which you might not have seen, if you create ‘book’ or ‘lecture’ notes in a traditional way.
By not restricting notes to the book or the paper you are making notes about and linking by ideas, you might fall across links that the authors haven’t and find your own topics or see things you didn’t know you didn’t know, that you want to follow up.
The initial premise of the book is interesting to start with. It is that the skill of good note-taking has been left out of many study skills books. When we might have books about how to write essays or dissertations and how to think critically, there is little literature available and far less teaching, about how to take good notes. While, considering this, it is important to understand that writing and taking notes isn’t the ‘end-game’ for a writer (and we are all writers). But taking and storing notes well, means you don’t need to rely on memory, or scraps of post-its or chronological notes that don’t make sense in context so you can’t remember what it is you were trying to remember anyway.
In order to think, the premise goes, you need to write. That writing usually starts with notes. There are some simple guides the author ‘teaches’, which is about always having a pen or something to write with (it might be a smartphone app or a notebook) especially when you are reading.
You make three types of notes with this ‘system’. There are the fleeting notes, which are these notes you might make as you write. These are notes about initial thoughts and feelings and responses. You ‘decant’ these notes to your ‘literature notes’ which are the notes which are about particular texts or pieces that you might watch or listen to. The literature notes shouldn’t be verbatim, nor should they contain any quotations. They are about your recollection of the text and how you interpret it through writing about it.
Then from the literature notes, you develop permanent notes. This is where the ‘Zettlekasten’ sits, the repository of themes and ideas that have developed from the literature you read. You link these together as you understand them and it helps you to build connections or locate gaps more easily. Permanent notes should be notes you return to. They are the ‘memory’ you don’t need to retain, because, the idea is, you will come back to the permanent notes and have those connections and references all in place which will make writing about them, more useful.
Ahrens is very much focussed on moving away from too much planning when you are approaching texts and research and to find where you are going, by doing. Perhaps I’m not explaining it as clearly as he does but when I read it, it made a lot of sense.
“A truly wise person is not someone who knows everything but someone who is able to make sense of things by drawing from an extended resource of interpretation schemes’Ahrens p119
There were parts of this book that made a lot of sense to me, and made me cheer as if a curtain was being removed in my mind. Yes, I thought, why DIDN’T I think about being more flexible about note-taking, about adding my thoughts and commentary alongside the key ideas. Do I write too many notes that I will never return to? And particularly, summarising books or articles as I read them, in my own words so I will be able to come back to them. I also enjoy making links between articles and I use Roam to do that.
I am not sure I’m a purist though. My ‘permanent notes’ are as refined as I think they are ‘supposed’ to be, but the book has given me ways to think about note taking and using notes that I think will be useful. I see it as giving me tools and ideas, some of which I will use and some I will not.
Use in Practice
This book has changed some of my practices regarding making and considering notes as I have mentioned above. I’ve created ways of storing and taking notes which have adjusted on the basis of the writings even if there are parts I have discharged. I love making links between what I am reading and thinking though.
For example, this is my note about the book on Roam – you can see the blue links which take me to other pages – each hashtag is also a link and this is how my ideas are pulled together.
And some of the links I have made between these ideas look like this
In a work context, I have started using OneNote through Microsoft 365 for which I have a work account, to make ongoing daily notes as things happen and then link them to other things which are going on at work but also ideas I have as they pop up.
I have been really inspired by this book and even though I’m not following the Zettlekasten method religiously, it has helped me to understand how to gain a different perspective on studying and note-taking. Studying isn’t a means to an end, but can be an end in itself. The good thing about this book is that while it will ‘click’ with some people and won’t with others, the first chapter is available free (see link at the top of the page) and that will be more than enough to make a decision as to whether it’s a book you want to buy or not.