How to take smart notes

While there are hundreds of thousands of books on the generic topic of writing, very few concerns themselves with note-taking—perhaps because it’s not considered an intellectually challenging task by many, or perhaps because many people don’t realise how bad they are at taking notes.

Looking at a blank page and struggling to find inspiration? Experts will tell you to brainstorm or do some more research. But what if you don’t know where to start?

This is a problem you can ensure you will never face again if you learn how to take smart notes. In his eponym book, Dr. Sönke Ahrens shares the simple method used by German sociologist Dr Niklas Luhmann to publish more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles in his lifetime. Talk about being prolific!

The method is called the Zettelkasten, and despite its scary name—which means “slip box” or “card index” in German—it’s an incredibly simple and powerful way to take notes so you become more productive and more creative.

Dr Luhmann had two boxes with index cards: the first one where he put literature notes (when reading research papers), and the second one where he put his own thoughts and ideas. Each card has an identifier which allowed Luhmann to interlink the cards together, and there is an index of all topics covered in the slip box with the corresponding cards’ identifiers. The index was an entry point to explore a particular theme.

Here is the exact process he used to write his research papers.

  1. Fleeting notes. These are all the ideas that pop into your mind. Always have a notebook or a note taking app with you to capture these. They can be very short—just one word for instance. The goal is just to remember them for a very short amount of time, until you can sit down and write a proper note.
  2. Literature notes. Whenever you read something interesting, take notes of the main points. Always write these main points in your own words: don’t copy and paste and be very selective with quotes, which can sometimes hide our lack of understanding of a text.
  3. Permanent notes. Once a day (ideally), go through the notes you created in the first two steps, and turn them into permanent notes. These are more detailed, and carefully written to capture your exact thought or idea. It’s an atomic process: one index card should correspond to one idea and one idea only.

You can discard the fleeting notes once they have been turned into permanent notes. Then, go to your slip box and look at previous permanent notes. Interlink your new permanent notes with the existing ones. Luhman used a simple indexing system where each card was numbered in a way that allowed him to follow the “idea trail”—today we have digital tools allowing us to interlink our notes in a much easier way. Roam is great for such a use case.

Make sure to write your notes in a way your future self will understand. If you go back to old notes and don’t understand what exactly you were thinking—the exact thought process and context—when you wrote it down, this note-taking system won’t work as intended.

After a while, you will start seeing patterns emerging in your notes. These patterns—and not the raw, fleeting notes you took in the beginning of the process—will form the basis of your original work.

You only need a few things in your toolbox to make use of this system:

  • Something to write with (pen and paper work, but you can also use a note-taking app)
  • A reference management system (Zotero for instance, which is free)
  • Your slip-box (there are some digital tools designed specifically for the Zettelkasten method, but you could use any note-taking app—TiddlyWiki works great with Zettelkasten—or even a physical box with actual index cards)
  • An editor, which is a more comfortable place to write longer content (you could use Google Docs, OpenOffice, Microsoft Word, it doesn’t really matter)

Getting these tools ready shouldn’t take more than ten minutes. Remember that the tools are just that—tools. What really matters here is the process of constantly feeding your slip box with ideas written in your own words, and interlinking these ideas so you can see patterns emerge and generate ideas of your own.

“Imagine if we went through life learning only what we planned to learn or being explicitly taught,” writes Dr. Sönke Ahrens in his book. The Zettelkasten allows you to form new ideas without already knowing exactly what it is you are looking for. It’s a wonderful way to explore your curiosity and increase your creativity.

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