Highlights from "How to Take Smart Notes"

By Sönke Ahrens

Cover of the book How to Take Smart Notes

Every task that is interesting, meaningful and well-defined will be done,

There is no point in having great tools if they don’t fit together.

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

Always have something at hand to write with to capture every idea that pops into your mind.

Put them into one place, which you define as your inbox, and process them later.

Make literature notes. Whenever you read something, make notes about the content.

Make permanent notes. Now turn to your slip-box. Go through the notes you made in step one or two (ideally once a day and before you forget what you meant) and think about how they relate to what is relevant for your own research, thinking or interests.

Write exactly one note for each idea and write as if you were writing for someone else: Use full sentences, disclose your sources, make references and try to be as precise, clear and brief as possible. Throw away the fleeting notes from step one and put the literature notes from step two into your reference system. You can forget about them now. All that matters is going into the slip-box.

The slip-box follows the Russian model: Focus on the essentials, don’t complicate things unnecessarily.

According to this story, the Russians faced the same problem. So they used pencils

reduce distractions from the main work, which here is thinking.

Tools are only as good as your ability to work with them.

In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again?

The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering.

mass. The collection of good ideas is diluted to insignificance by all the other notes, which are only relevant for a specific project or actually not that good on second sight.

Even small amounts of unclear and unrelated notes lingering around your desk will soon induce the wish of starting from scratch.

benefit of note-taking decreases with the number of notes you keep.

Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes you can use later.

To be able to decide on a topic, one must already have read quite a bit and certainly not just about one topic.

If we look into our slip-box to see where clusters have built up, we not only see possible topics, but topics we have already worked on

Nothing motivates us more than the experience of becoming better at what we do.

fear of failure has the ugliest name of all phobias: Kakorrhaphiophobia.

We tend to think we understand what we read – until we try to rewrite it in our own words.

Psychologists used to think of the brain as a limited storage space that slowly fills up and makes it more difficult to learn late in life.

When it comes to focused attention, we focus on one thing only, something we can sustain for only a few seconds.

obvious how different the tasks are that are usually summarised under “writing” and how different the kinds of attention are that they require.

different state of mind than the attempt to find the right words.

it is not a relentless focus, but flexible focus that distinguishes them.

The key to creativity is being able to switch between a wide-open, playful mind and a narrow analytical frame.”

The moment we stop making plans is the moment we start to learn.

But they are keeping you from learning the very thing academia and writing is all about: gaining insight and making it public.

We can hold a maximum of seven things in our head at the same time, plus/minus two

Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations.

Zeigarnik effect: Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory – until they are done.

The brain doesn't distinguish between an actual finished task and one that is postponed by taking a note.

walk or a shower or clean the house, the brain cannot help but play around with the last unsolved problem it came across. And that is why we so often find the answer to a question in rather casual situations.

willpower is compared to muscles: a limited resource that depletes quickly and needs time to recover.

which is why people like Barack Obama or Bill Gates only wear two suit colours: dark blue or dark grey. This means they have one less decision to make in the morning, leaving more resources for the decisions that really matter.

If we don’t give ourselves a break in between work sessions, be it out of eagerness or fear of forgetting what we were doing, it can have a detrimental effect on our efforts.

idea is not to copy, but to have a meaningful dialogue with the texts we read.

copying of quotes almost always changes their meaning by stripping them out of context, even though the words aren’t changed.

Sometimes the only thing that is done is underlining sentences and making some comments in the margins of a book, which is almost like taking no notes at all.

Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight.

But with the learned ability of spotting patterns, we can enter the circle of virtuosity: Reading becomes easier, we grasp the gist quicker, can read more in less time, and can more easily spot patterns and improve our understanding of them.

Probably the best method is to take notes – not excerpts, but condensed reformulated accounts of a text.

Rewriting what was already written almost automatically trains one to shift the attention towards frames, patterns and categories in the observations, or the conditions/assumptions, which enable certain, but not other descriptions.

The ability to spot patterns, to question the frames used and detect the distinctions made by others, is the precondition to thinking critically and looking behind the assertions of a text or a talk.

If we don’t try to verify our understanding during our studies, we will happily enjoy the feeling of getting smarter and more knowledgeable while in reality staying as dumb as we were.

while writing down an idea feels like a detour, extra time spent, not writing it down is the real waste of time, as it renders most of what we read as ineffectual.

usually read a text with questions in mind and try to relate it to other possible approaches, while inexperienced readers tend to adopt the question of a text and the frames of the argument and take it as a given.

Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes.

Taking permanent notes of our own thoughts is a form of self-testing as well: do they still make sense in writing?

Only in the written form can an argument be looked at with a certain distance – literally. We need this distance to think about an argument – otherwise the argument itself would occupy the very mental resources we need for scrutinizing it.

The brain, as Kahneman writes, is “a machine for jumping to conclusions”

“They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.”

By explicitly writing down how something connects or leads to something else, we force ourselves to clarify and distinguish ideas from each other.

Transferring ideas into the external memory also allows us to forget them. And even though it sounds paradoxical, forgetting actually facilitates long-term learning.

obvious that for academic thinking and writing, the gift of being able to remember everything is a serious liability.

elaborating on the differences and similarities of notes instead of sorting them by topic not only facilitates learning, but facilitates the ability to categorise and create sensible classifications!

These highlights are sourced from my Kindle using Readwise. Readwise automatically syncs all your highlights from various sources. It's cool. Referral link if you'd like to try.

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