• Lars Christensen

How to take smart notes by Sönke Ahrens


I finished this book in October 2022. I recommend this book 7/10.

This is not a book on how you take better notes when sitting around the conference table. It is a book about using notes for deep thinking or academic research. The system is close to the one used by one of my favorite authors, Ryan Holiday. With that said, I'm experimenting with this book's technique with my book note selections.

Get your copy here.

My thoughts and notes:

  • P41. To achieve a critical mass, it is crucial to distinguish clearly between three types of notes:

  • Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.

  • Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

  • Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific-folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished.

  • P44. Luhmann never underlined sentences in the text he read or wrote comments in the margins. All he did was take brief notes about the ideas that caught his attention in the text on a separate piece of paper: "I make a note with the bibliographic details. On the backside, I would write 'on page x is this, on page y is that.' and then it goes into the bibliographic slip-box where I collect everything I read." But before he stored them away, he would read what he noted down during the day, think about its relevance for his own lines of thought, and write about it, filling his main slip-box with permanent notes. Nothing in this box would ever get thrown away. Some notes might disappear into the background and never catch his attention again, while others might become connection points to various lines of reasoning and reappear on a regular basis in various contexts.

  • P45. The last type of note, the ones that are related to only one specific project, are kept together with other project-related notes in a project-specific folder. It doesn't matter in which format these notes are, as they are going to end up in the bin after the project is finished anyway (or archive-the bin for the indecisive). Project related notes can be:

  • Comments in the manuscript.

  • Collections of project-related literature.

  • Outlines.

  • Snippets of drafts.

  • Reminders.

  • To-do lists.

  • And, of course, the draft itself.

  • P46. Here, you can only structure your thoughts and conceptualize the chapters of your draft but also collect and sort the notes for this specific project without fear that they will water down and interfere with the slip-box itself. You can even change the notes according to your projects without affecting the notes in the slip-box.

  • P48. And even though the hermeneutic circle is regularly taught in university, writing at the same time continues to be taught as if we could start from scratch and move forward in a straight line—as if it were possible to pull good questions out of thin air and wait with the reading until the literature research are done. The seemingly pragmatic and down-to-earth-sounding advice—to decide what to write about before you start writing—is, therefore, either misleading or banal. It is banal if it means only that you should think before you put words on paper. It is misleading if it means that you could make a sound plan on what to write before you have immersed yourself in the topics at hand, which involves writing. It accompanies everything: We have to read with pen in hand, develop ideas on paper and build up an ever-growing pool of externalized thoughts. We will not be guided by a blindly made-up plan picked from our unreliable brains, but by our interest, curiosity, and intuition, which is formed and informed by the actual work of reading, thinking, discussing, writing, and developing ideas—and is something that continuously grows and reflects our knowledge and understand externally.

  • P53. Having a growth mindset is crucial, but only one side of the equation. Having a learning system in place that enables feedback loops in a practical way is equally important. Being open for feedback doesn't help very much if the only feedback you can get comes once every few months for work you have already finished.

  • P55. The slip-box is not a collection of notes. Working with it is less about retrieving specific notes and more about being pointed to relevant facts and generating insights by letting ideas mingle. Its usability grows with its size, not just linearly but exponentially. When we turn to the slip-box, its inner connectedness will not just provide us with isolated facts but with lines of developed thoughts. Moreover, because of its inner complexity, a search through the slip-box will confront us with related notes we did not look for. This is a very significant difference that becomes more and more relevant over time. The more content it contains, the more connections it can provide, and the easier it becomes to add new entries in a smart way and receive useful suggestions.

  • P74. To get a good paper written, you only have to rewrite a good draft; to get a good draft written, you only have to turn a series of notes into a continuous text. And as a series of notes is just the rearrangement of notes you already have in your slip-box, all you really have to do is have a pen in your hand when you read.

  • P106. The next step after writing the permeant notes is to add them to the slip-box.

  • Add a note to the slip-box either behind the note you directly refer to or, if you do not follow up on a specific note, just behind the last note in the slip-box. Number it consecutively.

  • Add links to other notes or links on other notes to your new note.

  • Make sure it can be found from the index; add an entry in the index if necessary or refer to it from a note that is connected to the index; add an entry in the index if necessary or refer to it from a note that is connected to the index.

  • Build a Latticework of Mental Models.

  • P108. As the slip-box is not a book with just one topic, we don't need to have an overview of it. On the contrary, we are much better off accepting as early as possible that an overview of the slip-box is as impossible as having an overview of our own thinking while we are thinking. As an extension of our own memory, the slip-box is the medium we thin in, not something we think about. The note sequence is the cluster where order emerges from complexity. We extract information from different linear sources and mix it all up and shake it until new patterns emerge. Then, we form these patterns into new linear texts.

  • P112. Assigning keywords is much more than just a bureaucratic act. It is a crucial part of the thinking process, which often leads to a deeper elaboration of the note itself and the connection to other notes.

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