How to Take Smart Notes

Reviewed by Susan G. Abbott, ARC Strategy Ltd, Toronto, Canada, susan@abbottresearch.com

Reviewed by Susan G. Abbott, ARC Strategy Ltd, Toronto, Canada, susan@abbottresearch.com

With all of the software and digital storage at our disposal, one would think that finding an insight or inspiration generated by a past conference, webinar, or article would be a simple matter. If it is for you, you can stop reading now.

In a recent quest to find a better way, I learned about the highly productive academic Niklas Luhmann and subsequently found Sönke Ahrens’ book, How to Take Smart Notes, which expands on Luhmann’s work. Ahrens is an education/social science professor, currently based in Germany.

Although Carl Linnaeus invented the index card, Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), a German sociologist, leveraged Linnaeus’ humble tool into exceptional productivity. Luhmann authored some seventy books and 400 scholarly articles. Luhmann claimed his work was effortless: “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.”

Luhmann developed a system of taking short notes on the ideas sparked from his reading, calling his storage system a Zettelkasten (“slip box”). By the end of his life, Luhmann had tens of thousands of notes, connected by his unique method of cross-referencing (think hyperlink).

Ahrens’ purpose in writing How to Take Smart Notes is to make Luhmann’s system accessible to students, academics, and others who need to write a lot or want a lifelong system for learning. He rejects the notion that Luhmann and other exceptionally productive people are simply geniuses, and instead proposes that they had superior methods of working. Ahrens cites modern neuroscience to support the importance of writing to thinking. The writing becomes the “external scaffolding needed by the brain to generate and manipulate complex ideas.” Ahrens places note-taking within the context of a total workflow, guided by four principles:

  1. Writing is the only thing that matters. Writing is the way we process what we read and learn. When we process our captured-in-the-moment notes into permanent notes, we should write in our own words.“The notes are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form. This is a crucial difference.”
  2. Simplicity is paramount. Simplicity is the principle that should govern the way we organize our notes. The Zettelkasten, built with digital tools, is the method for managing notes. Organized properly, an extensive personal note system is an aid to productivity, not a barrier.
  3. Nobody ever starts from scratch. No one truly starts from a blank page; we always build up work from bits of ideas into more coherent concepts, and ultimately manuscripts. By acknowledging the non-linear nature of the insights process, we can build more effective workflows.
  4. Let the work carry you forward.
    Ahrens asserts that achievement of small, well-defined tasks more easily flows into the creation of larger manuscripts, with built-in motivation from positive feedback.

Ahrens’ book is short, with the key ideas summarized early. He brings together research and anecdotes from sources as diverse as a Charlie Munger speech, Richard Feynman’s biography, the history of container shipping, and behavioral and neuroscience research.

The book provides instructions on rethinking your note-taking strategies and suggests digital tools to aid the process. Ahrens’ system is more complex than summarized here, because it covers the entire workflow of reading/learning, note-taking, and writing, with the note-taking system at the centre.

Although geared for the needs of academics and non-fiction writers, I believe this system of working has much to offer the qualitative researcher.

My own Zettelkasten is still a work in progress, but I do wish I had read this book as an undergraduate, and I highly recommend it for anyone pursuing a path of lifelong learning.

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