§Note-writing systems

How to Take Smart Notes - Ahrens

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

A core book on §Note-writing systems practice. Sönke focuses largely on the benefits of a Zettelkasten for the academic writing process. One of the core ideas here is that creative writing can become relatively closed-form and actionable; it can be made executable, GTD-style, through a series of steps drawing on a densely-connected note system.


Advice on associations

Keywords should be sparse and tightly curated. They’re meant mostly as a “jumping-off” point: the connections between notes will be the primary navigational device. Indexed references vs. tags Tags are an ineffective association structure
- c) Making sure you will be able to find this note later by either linking to it from your index or by making a link to it on a note that you use as an entry point to a discussion or topic and is itself linked to the index.
- In the Zettelkasten, keywords can easily be added to a note like tags and will then show up in the index. They should be chosen carefully and sparsely. Luhmann would add the number of one or two (rarely more) notes next to a keyword in the index (Schmidt 2013, 171).
- Because it should not be used as an archive, where we just take out what we put in, but as a system to think with, the references between the notes are much more important than the references from the index to a single note.
- The way people choose their keywords shows clearly if they think like an archivist or a writer. Do they wonder where to store a note or how to retrieve it? The archivist asks: Which keyword is the most fitting? A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference.

We should beware automatic linkages. Prefer explicit associations to inferred associations
- Even though the Zettelkasten makes suggestions here, too, for example based on joint literature references, making good cross-references is a matter of serious thinking and a crucial part of the development of thoughts.

Advice on structuring the note archive

In the future, you’re likely to be thinking about “the impact of X on Y,” not a specific book which had a point about that topic. By using Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented, you can build an organizational structure which reflects the future contexts in which you’d likely want to see the ideas you’ve distilled.
- Many students and academic writers think like the early ship owners when it comes to note-taking. They handle their ideas and findings in the way it makes immediate sense: If they read an interesting sentence, they underline it. If they have a comment to make, they write it into the margins. If they have an idea, they write it into their notebook, and if an article seems important enough, they make the effort and write an excerpt. Working like this will leave you with a lot of different notes in many different places. Writing, then, means to rely heavily on your brain to remember where and when these notes were written down. A text must then be conceptualised independently from these notes, which explains why so many resort to brainstorming to arrange the resources afterwards according to this preconceived idea.
- 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?
- Fleeting literature notes can make sense if you need an extra step to understand or grasp an idea, but they will not help you in the later stages of the writing process, as no underlined sentence will ever present itself when you need it in the development of an argument.

The important thing about project notes seems to be that they be separated from the durable notes.
- 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.

No need to treat every subject exhaustively: just write down what seems likely to help you think about the topics you’re pondering.
- Because the slip-box is not intended to be an encyclopaedia, but a tool to think with, we don’t need to worry about completeness. We don’t need to write anything down just to bridge a gap in a note sequence. We only write if it helps us with our own thinking.

Relative to memory systems

Flashcards need to be elaborated and embedded in a context.
- The information on flashcards is neither elaborated on nor embedded in some form of context. Each flashcard stays isolated instead of being connected with the network of theoretical frames, our experiences or our latticework of mental models.

Evergreen note maintenance approximates spaced repetition, but in a more natural context.
- We learn something not only when we connect it to prior knowledge and try to understand its broader implications (elaboration), but also when we try to retrieve it at different times (spacing) in different contexts (variation), ideally with the help of chance (contextual interference) and with a deliberate effort (retrieval). The slip-box not only provides us with the opportunity to learn in this proven way, it forces us to do exactly what is recommended just by using it.

Limitations of memory
- “Selection is the very keel on which our mental ship is built. And in this case of memory its utility is obvious. If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing. It would take as long for us to recall a space of time as it took the original time to elapse, and we should never get ahead with our thinking.” (William James 1890, 680).

Notes help you think accurately

Writing while we read is a great way to monitor understanding: it’s hard to summarize something you don’t understand. The additional step of making associations and integrating that writing with prior notes makes this effect even more powerful. Writing forces sharper understanding
- If we try to fool ourselves here and write down incomprehensible words, we will detect it in the next step when we try to turn our literature notes into permanent notes and try to connect them with others.
- Writing notes and sorting them into the slip-box is nothing other than an attempt to understand the wider meaning of something. The slip-box forces us to ask numerous elaborating questions: What does it mean? How does it connect to … ? What is the difference between … ? What is it similar to?

Do your own thinking
- described in his famous text about the Enlightenment: “Nonage immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.” (Kant 1784)
- But the first question I asked myself when it came to writing the first permanent note for the slip-box was: What does this all mean for my own research and the questions I think about in my slip-box? This is just another way of asking: Why did the aspects I wrote down catch my interest?

Zettelkasten is more epistemologically honest, likely to find contrarian truths Evergreen notes are a safe place to develop wild ideas Writing forces sharper understanding
- Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight.

It’s hard to see what’s not said in a text. By integrating our reading observations with prior notes, we’re naturally confronted with rocks the author may have left unturned. Writing forces sharper understanding
- Experienced academic readers 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. What good readers can do is spot the limitations of a particular approach and see what is not mentioned in the text.

People inappropriately ignore note-taking

Most people are bad at writing notes, and they don’t know it, because the feedback is indirect and delayed. Note-writing practices are generally ineffective
- There is another reason that note-taking flies mostly under the radar: We don’t experience any immediate negative feedback if we do it badly.

Writing notes feels like a huge time imposition, but that’s in comparison to an imaginary baseline: reading without writing notes is often all lost time. Evergreen note-writing helps reading efforts accumulate
- And 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.

Notes help make creative insights happen

People fixate on writing books and papers, but those things don’t emerge fully formed: they’re the synthesis of lots of detailed thinking on those topics.
- focus lies almost always on the few exceptional moments where we write a lengthy piece, a book, an article or, as students, the essays and theses we have to hand in.
- Every intellectual endeavour starts from an already existing preconception, which then can be transformed during further inquires and can serve as a starting point for following endeavours. Basically, that is what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the hermeneutic circle (Gadamer 2004).

Brainstorming is a crutch…
- As proper note-taking is rarely taught or discussed, it is no wonder that almost every guide on writing recommends to start with brainstorming. If you haven’t written along the way, the brain is indeed the only place to turn to. On its own, it is not such a great choice: it is neither objective nor reliable – two quite important aspects in academic or nonfiction writing. The promotion of brainstorming as a starting point is all the more surprising as it is not the origin of most ideas: The things you are supposed to find in your head by brainstorming usually don’t have their origins in there. Rather, they come from the outside: through
- Many students and academic writers think like the early ship owners when it comes to note-taking. They handle their ideas and findings in the way it makes immediate sense: If they read an interesting sentence, they underline it. If they have a comment to make, they write it into the margins. If they have an idea, they write it into their notebook, and if an article seems important enough, they make the effort and write an excerpt. Working like this will leave you with a lot of different notes in many different places. Writing, then, means to rely heavily on your brain to remember where and when these notes were written down. A text must then be conceptualised independently from these notes, which explains why so many resort to brainstorming to arrange the resources afterwards according to this preconceived idea.

The note archive is a safe place for unjustified inklings to grow.
- Steven Johnson, who wrote an insightful book about how people in science and in general come up with genuine new ideas, calls it the “slow hunch.” As a precondition to make use of this intuition, he emphasises the importance of experimental spaces where ideas can freely mingle (Johnson 2011). A laboratory with open-minded colleagues can be such a space, much as intellectuals and artists freely discussed ideas in the cafés of old Paris. I would add the slip-box as such a space in which ideas can mingle freely, so they can give birth to new ones.

Morale while writing

Note-taking practices can turn writing into a predictable, actionable process (“start from abundance”). Executable strategy for writing
- 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.

Close open loops
- Only if nothing else is lingering in our working memory and taking up valuable mental resources can we experience what Allen calls a “mind like water” - the state where we can focus on the work right in front of us without getting distracted by competing thoughts.

Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”)
- As the outcome of each task is written down and possible connections become visible, it is easy to pick up the work any time where we left it without having to keep it in mind all the time.
- All this enables us to later pick up a task exactly where we stopped without the need to “keep in mind” that there still was something to do. That is one of the main advantages of thinking in writing – everything is externalised anyway.

Zettelkasten is a great release valve for editing. Material which isn’t essential for a particular piece can become a durable note, providing value later. Or, flipping this around, if the writing began with the note archive, then there’s no harm in deleting manuscript material, since it lives on elsewhere. Evergreen notes lower the emotional stakes in editing manuscripts
- One of the most difficult tasks is to rigorously delete what has no function within an argument – “kill your darlings.”42 This becomes much easier when you move the questionable passages into another document and tell yourself you might use them later.

Notes are a way to focus on “inputs, not outputs” that isn’t just about time. Executable strategy for writing Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work

sense of ease
- He not only stressed that he never forced himself to do something he didn’t feel like, he even said: “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 et al., 1987, 154f.)4
- “When I am stuck for one moment, I leave it and do something else.” When he was asked what else he did when he was stuck, his answer was: “Well, writing other books. I always work on different manuscripts at the same time. With this method, to work on different things simultaneously, I never encounter any mental blockages.”
- This is partly due to the aforementioned Zeigarnik effect (Zeigarnik 1927), in which our brains tend to stay occupied with a task until it is accomplished (or written down). If we have the finish line in sight, we tend to speed up, as everyone knows who has ever run a marathon.

Litmus test: all that matters is writing. All activities should lead to writing
- Focusing on writing as if nothing else counts does not necessarily mean you should do everything else less well, but it certainly makes you do everything else differently. Having a clear, tangible purpose when you attend a lecture, discussion or seminar will make you more engaged and sharpen your focus.


Unsorted

  • Abstraction is also the key to analyse and compare concepts, to make analogies and to combine ideas; this is especially true when it comes to interdisciplinary work (Goldstone and Wilensky 2008). Being able to abstract and re-specify ideas is, again, only one side of the equation. It is not good for anything if we don’t have a system in place that allows us to put this into practice. Here, it is the concrete standardization of notes in just one format that enables us to literally shuffle them around, to add one idea to multiple contexts and to compare and combine them in a creative way without losing sight of what they truly contain.

  • We don’t need to worry about the question of what to write about because we have answered the question already – many times on a daily basis. Every time we read something, we make a decision on what is worth writing down and what is not.

  • It is the one decision in the beginning, to make writing the mean and the end of the whole intellectual endeavour, that changed the role of topic-finding completely. It is now less about finding a topic to write about and more about working on the questions we generated by writing.

  • That is why we need to elaborate on it. But elaboration is nothing more than connecting information to other information in a meaningful way. The first step of elaboration is to think enough about a piece of information so we are able to write about it. The second step is to think about what it means for other contexts as well.