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The Power of Systematic Notes: A Book Review of How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

The first step in nearly “every intellectual endeavour” is to take a note. Writing notes is critical for how we learn, develop ideas and ultimately, create, and if you want to become a better writer or creative of any type, you need a better system and process for your notes.

Those ideas (take smart notes and build a connected, personal system of smart notes) are the central arguments of “How To Take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahren, a book I recently read and have become somewhat obsessing over. Inspired by Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), a well-known German social scientist and his method for managing his research and writing, Ahren explores how to be more productive, creative and organized using a system of deliberate note taking.

With over half of doctoral dissertations going unfinished (Lonka, 2003), Ahren’s main focus is on the organizational and creative problems of academic and nonfiction writers, and while the target audience is thesis writers, the lessons go well-beyond academia. I’d even argue that this provides one of the missing pieces to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” method of productivity (Allen, 2001).

Throughout the text, Ahren argues for the importance of developing a special habit of note-taking and creating “smart notes.” Smart notes are a form of “learning through elaboration”, meaning we learn by putting complex ideas in our own words and by connecting them to other ideas. Smart notes are not just another way to collect stuff; their aim and goal is to foster and support creative and innovative output.

Based on these permanent, insight notes, we assemble a “knowledge management system” (my term) that he calls in German the Zettlekarten or in English the slip-box. It could also simply be called an archive. Ahren goes on to provide a tactical guide for developing and leveraging this interconnected knowledge system of smart notes throughout any creative project and ideally throughout life in general. Since smart notes form the nexus for what interests us, our organized thinking and on-going discussion questions, it’s both fodder for thought and where our writing should beginning.

Though technical and very specific at times, the book was a highly enjoyable read as Ahren journeys through processes underlying human learning, thinking, productivity and creativity. I highly recommend it for anyone interested who regularly writes (whether fiction or non-fiction) and for anyone who strives to better organize their knowledge and pursue innovation and creativity in any project.

Here are a few of the book’s key points that struck me in my reading and that I’m hoping to bring into my own learning and creative processes.

Actionable Lessons on Learning and Creativity from “How To Take Smart Notes”

1: Read with a Pen

If asked, could you describe the key lessons and central arguments you got out of your favorite books? If you are anything like me, then you may only have a vague notion or feeling about a lot of your favorite books.

Obviously there are exceptions, like reading for entertainment, but the hard truth is simply reading a book of nonfiction and never doing anything with it is largely a waste of time and energy. Books, articles, and podcasts should help us learn and think. This is especially true in the complex world we live in. If you don’t do anything with a book, you probably won’t learn anything. We should strive to transform reading material into knowledge and insights.

The call to action is to “read with a pen” and take up the habit of taking notes. The main motivation behind reading with a pen is to capture what interests you, provide a useful memory, and have a starting point for later, more permanent insight notes (and eventually whatever you write or create).

Reading with a pen externalizes a memory and enables learning. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “I would advise you to read with a pen in your hand and enter in a little book short hints of what you feel that is common or that may be useful; for this will be the best method of imprinting such portcullis in your memory.” These reading and idea notes, which Ahren calls “fleeting notes,” should be thought of as ephemeral and serve in the most important step: creating permanent notes.

2: Don’t Just Collect, Elaborate YOUR Notes

I like collecting stuff, including personal data, articles, books and more. I have spent a crazy amount of effort figuring out tools and processes to collect data from the songs and podcasts I listen to and money I spend to the places I visit and how far I run. One of my current obsessions is with collecting quotes from books via my kindle or from books using Instapaper. Unfortunately these are all examples of the collector’s fallacy.

The collector’s fallacy is the belief that having the book or article is the same as having the knowledge that is in that book. We think that since we have the book or saved an article that we actual “know” something. Unfortunately, like other ineffective learning techniques like re-reading and highlighting, this is an example of the illusion of competence. Having a book is not the same as having learned something from it.

I’ll admit that I fall victim to this idea of thinking that just because I have a certain book, article, or podcast, that I have the knowledge of what’s in it. It’s a pleasant fantasy since having quotes, logging that you read something or seeing the book on your shelf gives you the feeling of accomplishment. These are all is critical mistakes in the actual effort needed for learning and creating.

Learning takes effort. In order to learn something, master certain material and cultivate a complex network of interconnected ideas, we need to elaborate on what we read. One of the most well-established and best ways to learn is elaboration. We put something we learned in our own words and connect it to other ideas of our own. The physicist Richard Feymann was famous for his own learning method of elaboration. He believed that if you couldn’t deliver a lecture on a topic, then you hadn’t learned it. Whether or not you actually do present it, the Feynman Technique takes you through a series of study steps until you remove gaps in your understanding and explanation and are able to confidently teach a concept. If you can’t teach it, you haven’t learned.

Expanding on this idea of elaboration, thinking also doesn’t happen in our heads; it happens in writing and creating. As thinkers like Feymann and many others are known for saying, our thinking is THE “external scaffolding” of teaching and writing. So, in order to think we need to write and create.

Thinking through writing and learning through elaboration are two core assets of why we should take notes rather than just collect quotes.

3: Take Smart Notes

So, what is a smart notes? A smart note is a distilled, atomic idea in writing.

If reading with a pen and taking notes are key habits to cultivate, what kind of notes should we be creating? Interestingly, Ahren, inheriting from Luhmann, is challenging us is to undertake a different kind of note taking we calls permanent or smart notes.

These kinds of notes are not a restatement in shorter form of what we read or have learned. They are about connecting with on-going ideas and notes you have. These smart notes should push you some, so you are sure you enage with something and so you are put that idea in the context of your other ideas.

As Sönke Ahren puts it, “The idea is not to collect, but to develop ideas, arguments and discussions.” (pg 28). Permanent notes strive to be the stepping stone between our fleeting notes from what we read and our eventual creative production.

Ask yourself:

“Does the new information contradict, correct, support or add to what you already have (in the slip-box or on your mind)? Can you combine ideas to generate something new? What questions are triggered by them?”

Once you’ve thought about it some (remember the goal is to spur divergent thinking, not more passive collecting), create your note.

Aim to make your smart notes should “atomic” or limited to a core insight. To quote again:

“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.”

A “smart note” or as I like to call it, an “Insight Note,” is a hard effort to take information and translate it into a precise and meaningful expression. It is a form of learning. They externalize a memory into an elaboration, provide a way to write out our thinking, and act like a first draft in our eventual creation. Smart notes are learning, thinking, and creating rolled into one.

4: The Slip-box: Assemble Your Own Network of Smart, Interconnected Notes

If the aim is to create permanent, smart notes, then much of its value, according to Ahren, comes from the assembled system of notes. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Because these are not your typical class notes or collected quotes, but rather processed, argued out, clear expressions of thought, smart notes have a dynamic quality.

The slip-box is essentially a targeted system of information or knowledge management. It’s focused on being a network of connected ideas and on-going discussions around the ideas therein. It’s not just another collection point. It provides an externalization for your memory and, an active expression of your actual thinking.

You might think about the slip-box as the missing piece from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” productivity methodology (Allen, 2001). Also known as GTD, this approach focuses on ensuring tasks and information have a place in an external system, rather than in our mind’s limited capacity. GTD’s main tools are a calendar for events, a planner or todo-list for task management, and a file cabinet for storing important reference information for later. I’ve largely used Evernote as my digital, GTD file cabinet, but never been quite satisfied with how I organize and manage information and ideas. This is where a the slip-box can help.

The slip-box provides an inspiring way to be more more systematic in how we take and manage our notes. We strive to create smarts notes and assemble the notes into a network of connected ideas. Like GTD, the book is rather agnostic on the specific tools, but the author does recommend a framework of three tools:

  1. a notebook for capturing fleeting notes
  2. software for your permanent notes and for building your archive or slip box, and
  3. a reference management system for citations to articles, books and other things “out in the world”

The end goal is to create something. These are the support tools for your organized creativity.

5: A Bottoms-Up Creative Process from Notes to Creation:

While not specifically a book on what is creativity, Ahren’s book is an attempt to help Ph D students and academics when creating publishable manuscripts. Creativity is hard. Adding to the trouble is that some of our traditional notions and approaches on how writing works, like working from anoutline, don’t work either.

When I was in university, I was taught to love and use outlines. Outlines are a favorite of writing teachers too, since they appear to offer a reliable format to follow when writing a short essay or a full book. The formula goes like this: figure out what your main thesis is, create an outline for the central arguments to support that thesis, do research that supports the thesis and arguments, and then write the manuscript. This formula seems like a reliable game plan. So, what’s wrong with it and why doesn’t it?

This outline-to-creation approach might be called a top-down approach to creativity. It believes that all we need to do is take an abstract idea and translate it step by step into a final product. The reality is that, as books like “Creativity, Inc” (Catmull, 2014) show, creativity in the arts, business and technology rarely works that way. It isn’t top-down. It’s a lot messier and it is better described as a bottoms-up, interactive process.

Ahren argues that we should forget about outlines when we engage in complex, creative projects and instead focus on a bottoms-up process of notes. While the end goal is a publishable manuscript, we should first undertake a process of research and creating a pool of smart notes. Our main to-do should be take smart notes. We should follow our interests and our own questions throughout, and, as our pool of notes grows, clusters will emerge. We will know what themes and questions pull at us. We will have some great starting points and developing ideas too. At that point, we can assemble various related notes, put them in some kind of order, and create a draft. The final manuscript is a product of these notes and drafts.

For Ahren, this is a much healthier and effective way to write. He put it concisely:

Assemble notes and bring them into order, turn these notes into a draft, review it and you are done.

As I continue to write and to create stuff (mostly through data and software), I’ve come to see my process and the creative process in general as most effective when we follow our interests and keep taking notes. Eventually from this habit of notes and engaging questions, something creative and magical tends to emerge. Once it does, latch on and write/build/create.

To quote:

“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.” (p. 75)

Conclusion: To be creative, follow your interests, take notes, and trust in a process

Anyone who creates regularly realizes that creativity is a strange bedfellow. Rarely do outlines and high-level conceptualizations translate into the actual completed work. The ideas that capture us are just as likely to come from a mix of dream and in-between moments as they are from focused efforts. The creation itself might take years to turn a seedling of an idea into what it eventually becomes. Whether in writing, a podcast, code, speeches, business, video or whatever, the act of creative creation is a process. The mustard seed is not always indicative of the tree it one day becomes.

In “How To Take Smart Notes”, Sönke Ahren argues that if we improve our note-taking and our pool of notes, we can become better writers and creators. The book attempts to lay out a technical guide tfor better note-taking he calls “smart notes” and for for a system of connected notes he calls the “slip-box.””

The main inspiration for the book and the system therein is Niklas Luhmann, a German social scientist. In his life, Luhmann published “70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles.” His central quest was a theory of society, yet his thinking and writing spanned topics like law, economics, politics, art and even love. According to Luhmann, much of his productivity and creative thinking depending on an external system of notes that he wrote and organized by hand. At the time of his death, there were approximately 90,000 notes in Luhmann’s slip-box, and while that might sound like a lot, it meant that he wrote about about six notes a day from when we started to work until his death. For Ahren, Luhmann’s incredible publication output depending on the creative power of systematic notes.

Ahren argues that we’ve been teaching the writing process (and creativity, for that matter) wrong. It shouldn’t and doesn’t really start with an outline or thesis we then research to prove. Instead, innovation and creativity starts with our interests and a series questions we strive to figure out. As we figure out these questions and ideas through what we read, experiment on and conceptualize, we should, as Ahren repeats, take notes. Smart notes are not your typical notes. They take effort and thought. Smart notes synthesize information we get from what we read and learn and distill it into a clear written expression. It’s not a closed solution since each not connects with others and opens up additional questions to consider too.

His solution to the failure of most writing is two-fold: take smart notes and develop an interconnected, organized system of your smart notes and ideas. The supporting staff of this endeavor is the habit of reading with a pen and the hard, persistent effort of learning by translating information into elaborated written expressions. From these foundation, Ahren believes creativity and creative output will come.

At the start of any creative endeavor is a note, often scribbled down while on a walk, reading something else or just waiting for a bus or plane. While we still don’t quite know what creativity is and how best to pursue it, the reality is that throughout any creative process are a series of notes. If Luhmann and Ahren are right, then systematic smart notes might be a powerful tool for unlocking your own organized creative mind.



References:

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

Allen, D. (2001). Getting Things Done. Penguin.

Catmull, E., & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, Inc. Random House.

Lonka, K. (2003). Helping doctoral students to finish their theses. In Teaching academic writing in European higher education (pp. 113-131). Springer.

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