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How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

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The key to good and efficient writing lies in the intelligent organisation of ideas and notes. This book helps students, academics and nonfiction writers to get more done, write intelligent texts and learn for the long run. It teaches you how to take smart notes and ensure they bring you and your projects forward. The Take Smart Notes principle is based on established psyc The key to good and efficient writing lies in the intelligent organisation of ideas and notes. This book helps students, academics and nonfiction writers to get more done, write intelligent texts and learn for the long run. It teaches you how to take smart notes and ensure they bring you and your projects forward. The Take Smart Notes principle is based on established psychological insight and draws from a tried and tested note-taking-technique. This is the first comprehensive guide and description of this system in English, and not only does it explain how it works, but also why. It suits students and academics in the social sciences and humanities, nonfiction writers and others who are in the business of reading, thinking and writing. Instead of wasting your time searching for notes, quotes or references, you can focus on what really counts: thinking, understanding and developing new ideas in writing. It does not matter if you prefer taking notes with pen and paper or on a computer, be it Windows, Mac or Linux. And you can start right away.


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The key to good and efficient writing lies in the intelligent organisation of ideas and notes. This book helps students, academics and nonfiction writers to get more done, write intelligent texts and learn for the long run. It teaches you how to take smart notes and ensure they bring you and your projects forward. The Take Smart Notes principle is based on established psyc The key to good and efficient writing lies in the intelligent organisation of ideas and notes. This book helps students, academics and nonfiction writers to get more done, write intelligent texts and learn for the long run. It teaches you how to take smart notes and ensure they bring you and your projects forward. The Take Smart Notes principle is based on established psychological insight and draws from a tried and tested note-taking-technique. This is the first comprehensive guide and description of this system in English, and not only does it explain how it works, but also why. It suits students and academics in the social sciences and humanities, nonfiction writers and others who are in the business of reading, thinking and writing. Instead of wasting your time searching for notes, quotes or references, you can focus on what really counts: thinking, understanding and developing new ideas in writing. It does not matter if you prefer taking notes with pen and paper or on a computer, be it Windows, Mac or Linux. And you can start right away.

30 review for How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

  1. 5 out of 5

    Simon Eskildsen

    Note-taking game-changer. Ahrens' is a professor in systematic education at Hamburg University—and he really knows his shit. This book tells the story of the remarkable Luhmann note-taking system. Luhmann was a revered sociology professor who collected over 90,000 index cards over the course of his life to support his 30-year-project: "A Theory of Society." The book goes over how Luhmann organized his note-taking in a scalable way that allowed him an unprecedented level of productivity with 30+ Note-taking game-changer. Ahrens' is a professor in systematic education at Hamburg University—and he really knows his shit. This book tells the story of the remarkable Luhmann note-taking system. Luhmann was a revered sociology professor who collected over 90,000 index cards over the course of his life to support his 30-year-project: "A Theory of Society." The book goes over how Luhmann organized his note-taking in a scalable way that allowed him an unprecedented level of productivity with 30+ published books and 400+ published articles. In particular, how the author has implemented a similar system (with technology, in lieu of paper flashcards). To best summarize the ethos of this fantastic book: > 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. I can't sum up the technique here in short (but luckily, the author did here), but needless to say, it thoroughly enriched my mental-model for note-taking and have caused me to implement dramatic changes to mine. I am stoked to see how it pans out in the long-term. If you're starting to feel weighed down by your note-taking, rather than pulled up—and if collecting 10,000s of ideas over your lifetime appeals to you, you absolutely need to read this. The book will earn its fifth star if I, a year or so from now, continue to use the system (which I have spent this weekend initiating the migration to).

  2. 5 out of 5

    ☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣

    Really love this. Instead of making us turn our willpowers into crutches for doing stuff we dislike, it instead takes a pleasant take on our experiences. Food for thought: - Slip-box method - Virtuitous circle workflow - Undivided attention to each task (as opposed to vaunted, flaunted, dreaded, attention-span destructive multitasking) - Ego depletion Q: Transferring these ideas into the network of our own thoughts, our latticework of theories, concepts and mental models in the slip-box brings our thi Really love this. Instead of making us turn our willpowers into crutches for doing stuff we dislike, it instead takes a pleasant take on our experiences. Food for thought: - Slip-box method - Virtuitous circle workflow - Undivided attention to each task (as opposed to vaunted, flaunted, dreaded, attention-span destructive multitasking) - Ego depletion Q: Transferring these ideas into the network of our own thoughts, our latticework of theories, concepts and mental models in the slip-box brings our thinking to the next level (c) Q: Unfortunately, even universities try to turn students into planners. Sure, planning will get you through your exams if you stick to them and push through. But it will not make you an expert in the art of learning/writing/note-taking ... Planners are also unlikely to continue with their studies after they finish their examinations. They are rather glad it is over. Experts, on the other hand, would not even consider voluntarily giving up what has already proved to be rewarding and fun: learning in a way that generates real insight, is accumulative and sparks new ideas. (c) Q: In Germany, a professor traditionally starts with a public lecture presenting his or her projects, and Luhmann, too, was asked what his main research project will be. His answer would become famous. He laconically stated: “My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Costs: zero” (Luhmann, 1997, 11). In sociology, a “theory of society” is the mother of all projects. (c) Q: While some career-oriented academics try to squeeze as many publications out of one idea as possible, Luhmann seemed to do the opposite. He constantly generated more ideas than he was able to write down. His texts read as if he is trying to squeeze as much insight and as many ideas as possible into one publication ... ... what is even more impressive than the sheer number of publications or the outstanding quality of his writing is the fact that he seemed to achieve all this with almost no real effort. 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, 154 f.) ... We are still so used to the idea that a great outcome requires great effort that we tend not to believe that a simple change in our work routines could not only make us more productive, but the work also more fun. But doesn’t it make much more sense that the impressive body of work was produced not in spite of the fact he never made himself do anything he didn’t feel like, but because of it? Even hard work can be fun as long as it is aligned with our intrinsic goals and we feel in control. The problems arise when we set up our work in such an inflexible way that we can’t adjust it when things change and become arrested in a process that seems to develop a life of its own. The best way to maintain the feeling of being in control is to stay in control. And to stay in control, it's better to keep your options open during the writing process rather than limit yourself to your first idea. It is in the nature of writing, especially insight-oriented writing, that questions change, the material we work with turns out to be very different from the one imagined or that new ideas emerge, which might change our whole perspective on what we do. Only if the work is set up in a way that is flexible enough to allow these small and constant adjustments can we keep our interest, motivation and work aligned – which is the precondition to effortless or almost effortless work.Luhmann was able to focus on the important things right in front of him, pick up quickly where he left off and stay in control of the process because the structure of his work allowed him to do this. If we work in an environment that is flexible enough to accommodate our work rhythm, we don’t need to struggle with resistance. Studies on highly successful people have proven again and again that success is not the result of strong willpower and the ability to overcome resistance, but rather the result of smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place... (c) Q: A good workflow can easily turn into a virtuous circle, where the positive experience motivates us to take on the next task with ease, which helps us to get better at what we are doing, which in return makes it more likely for us to enjoy the work, and so on. But if we feel constantly stuck in our work, we will become demotivated and much more likely to procrastinate, leaving us with fewer positive or even bad experiences like missed deadlines. We might end up in a vicious circle of failure... The extraordinary successful fitness motivation coach Michelle Segar uses this dynamic to turn even the most stubborn coach potatoes into exercise aficionados... She brings those who really don’t like exercise but know they have to do it into a sustainable workout routine by focusing on one thing: Creating satisfying, repeatable experiences with sports. It doesn’t matter what her clients are doing – running, walking, team sports, gym workouts or bicycling to work. The only thing that matters is that they discover something that gives them a good experience that they would like to have again. Once her clients find something, they are encouraged enough to try something else as well. They enter the virtuous circle where willpower isn’t needed anymore because they feel like doing it anyway. If they tried to trick themselves into exercise by rewarding themselves afterwards with a relaxed evening on the sofa watching TV, it wouldn’t have taken them long until they went straight for the sofa, skipping the workout altogether, because this is how we tick. (с) Q: Feedback loops are not only crucial for the dynamics of motivation, but also the key element to any learning process. Nothing motivates us more than the experience of becoming better at what we do. (c) Q: Psychologists who interviewed the multitaskers did test them instead of just asking. They gave them different tasks to accomplish and compared their results with another group that was instructed to do only one thing at a time. The outcome is unambiguous: While those who multitasked felt more productive, their productivity actually decreased – a lot (Wang and Tchernev 2012; Rosen 2008; Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009). Not only the quantity but also the quality of their accomplishments lagged significantly behind that of the control group. ... The fact that people nevertheless believe that they can get better at it and increase their productivity can easily be explained by two factors. The first is the lack of a control group or an objective external measurement that would provide us with the feedback we need to learn. The second is what psychologists call the mere-exposure effect: doing something many times makes us believe we have become good at it – completely independent of our actual performance (Bornstein 1989). We unfortunately tend to confuse familiarity with skill. (c) Q: Conversely, we can use the Zeigarnik effect to our advantage by deliberately keeping unanswered questions in our mind. We can ruminate about them, even when we do something that has nothing to do with work and ideally does not require our full attention. Letting thoughts linger without focusing on them gives our brains the opportunity to deal with problems in a different, often surprisingly productive way. While we have a walk or a shower or clean the house, the brain cannot help but play around with the last unsolved problem it came across. And that is why we so often find the answer to a question in rather casual situations. (с) Q: In the way we organise our research and writing, we too can significantly reduce the amount of decisions we have to make. While content-related decisions have to be made (on what is more and what is less important in an article, on the connections between notes, the structure of a text, etc.), most organisational decisions can be made up front, once and for all, by deciding on one system. By always using the same notebook for making quick notes, always extracting the main ideas from a text in the same way and always turning them into the same kind of permanent notes, which are always dealt with in the same manner, the number of decisions during a work session can be greatly reduced. That leaves us with much more mental energy that we can direct towards more useful tasks, like trying to solve the problems in question. Being able to finish a task in a timely manner and to pick up the work exactly where we left it has another enjoyable advantage that helps to restore our attention: We can have breaks without fear of losing the thread. Breaks are much more than just opportunities to recover. They are crucial for learning. They allow the brain to process information, move it into long-term memory and prepare it for new information... (c) Q: I recently read the book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” (2013) by Mullainathan and Shafir. They investigate how the experience of scarcity has cognitive effects and causes changes in decision-making processes. They help the reader understand why people with almost no time or money sometimes do things that don’t seem to make any sense to outside observers. People facing deadlines sometimes switch frantically between all kinds of tasks. People with little money sometimes spend it on seeming luxuries like take-away food. From the outside, it would make more sense to do one thing at a time, or buy food in bulk and cook for yourself. The book is interesting, because the authors don’t question this behavior rhetorically or even in a judgemental way, but investigate it as a universal human phenomenon (c)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jamie Coleiro

    This book is GOLD. 'How to Write Smart Notes' tragically undersells itself by implying it's wholly focused on note-taking. It's not. There's a bunch of relevant psychological concepts here too—including: - Mere-exposure Effect - Miller's Law - Survivorship Bias - Parkinson's Law - The Tunnel Effect - And more... As the title suggests, if you're into taking 'smarter' notes (and therefore getting more out of your creative endeavours), you'll love this. 😎 I vouch candidly that Sönke (and Luhmann—a top This book is GOLD. 'How to Write Smart Notes' tragically undersells itself by implying it's wholly focused on note-taking. It's not. There's a bunch of relevant psychological concepts here too—including: - Mere-exposure Effect - Miller's Law - Survivorship Bias - Parkinson's Law - The Tunnel Effect - And more... As the title suggests, if you're into taking 'smarter' notes (and therefore getting more out of your creative endeavours), you'll love this. 😎 I vouch candidly that Sönke (and Luhmann—a topic subject) have changed the way I approach knowledge storage. Forever. Thank you. 🙌🏼

  4. 4 out of 5

    Hamad

    February's Non-fiction book of the month! 🤓🤓🤓 February's Non-fiction book of the month! 🤓🤓🤓

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lord_Humungus

    This book should have been titled "My long and repetitive ramblings about learning theory, with some asides about how to create a Zettelkasten (slip-box of notes), without examples". Ahrens describes the Zettelkasten method: you take notes while you read; then make "literature notes", with your own words, attaching the bibliographic information to them; and then you reflect about them, and you make "permanent notes", with one idea per note; then you drop them into a network of linked notes, that This book should have been titled "My long and repetitive ramblings about learning theory, with some asides about how to create a Zettelkasten (slip-box of notes), without examples". Ahrens describes the Zettelkasten method: you take notes while you read; then make "literature notes", with your own words, attaching the bibliographic information to them; and then you reflect about them, and you make "permanent notes", with one idea per note; then you drop them into a network of linked notes, that you traverse regularly, in search of a place for each idea. He does not dwell much in exactly how to do it. He doesn't use examples. So in the end you have to look up in the Internet how the system really works. He then spends the remaining 95% of the book in a long rambling argument about WHY you should use the method, but the HOW in "How to Take Smart Notes" is not well described anywhere. So it doesn't really deliver on its promise, and I hate that in a book. The thing is: why should we do this? Does the Zettelkasten method work in practice? Apart from all the theory, the evidence he shows is this: -a famous sociologist called Niklas Luhmann (had you heard of him?) used this method and was very prolific and admired. One man. -"Many successful writers, artists and academics use some form of a slip-box." Yeah? How many? Because this is the first time I hear of the method. -"There are increasing numbers of academics and nonfiction writers taking notice" and here he adds a reference to a website, maintained by two german guys. I'm going to give it a try, nevertheless, because it's true that maintaining notes for a long document is a pain, and maybe it works! After a period of indecision, I'll go for TiddlyRoam as the software to implement it. [Update: I changed to Stroll]. But I'm skeptical that I will use it in the long run. A system of linked notes that grows organically can have a lot of advantages. But a tidy pre-planned system has them too, and only time will say which system will win in the end. For example, I am a medical doctor. One typical raw reference from my field would be like this: Orbital and central nervous system involvement are common findings. As in this patient, intraconal masses may develop secondary to histiocyte infiltration that result in exophthalmos. The intraconal lesions are hypointense on T1- and T2-weighted images and enhance after administration of a gadolinium chelate (7). The hypothalamic pituitary axis is the most common site affected within the central nervous system (8). Absence of the normal T1 hyperintense signal of the neurohypophysis occurs with enhancing nodular soft tissue of the pituitary stalk and posterior pituitary gland that results in central diabetes insipidus. Intra- and extra-axial cerebral and spinal lesions have been reported (7–11). Cardiovascular involvement typically manifests as circumferential infiltration of the thoracic and abdominal aorta that appears as enhancing soft-tissue attenuation at CT and as T2 hyperintense enhancing signal at MR imaging. As the disease burden progresses, infiltration can occur in the aortic branches and intracranial vasculature (7,8). The clinical implications of this inflammatory tissue are not typically apparent,other than for possible renovascular hypertension (12). In contrast, disease infiltration of the pericardium, right heart, and coronary arteries has resulted in cardiac tamponade, myocardial infarction, and valvular dysfunction (12–14). Cardiac involvement is characterized by T2 hyperintense signal that can enhance after delayed imaging. This is a random passage, about 5% of the paper. I mean, it's DENSE. There is an idea in every sentence. How should I proceed, exactly? Remember: that is only a tiny part of a paper about a single disease. I have to know about thousands of them. I could get lost in my Zettelkasten and never come out no matter how I begged for my life. It seems to me that everyone I see talking about "Zettelkasten for your whole academic life", Ahrens included, must read very "hypodense" books, almost devoid of real information, like "How to Take Smart Notes"

  6. 5 out of 5

    David Laing

    Parts of it read a bit like a dump of every pop-psych meme of the past ten years, but at its heart, it's a thorough and well-argued deep dive into a note-taking system from the future. I wouldn't be surprised if, twenty years from now, the slip-box method were taught to everyone in schools, especially at the university level. I would have liked to see a few more examples of the slip-box in action. I don't feel like I have a clear picture in my mind of what a literature note actually *is*: is it a Parts of it read a bit like a dump of every pop-psych meme of the past ten years, but at its heart, it's a thorough and well-argued deep dive into a note-taking system from the future. I wouldn't be surprised if, twenty years from now, the slip-box method were taught to everyone in schools, especially at the university level. I would have liked to see a few more examples of the slip-box in action. I don't feel like I have a clear picture in my mind of what a literature note actually *is*: is it a paraphrase? Or is it just a pointer to a set of material, loosely defined? Similarly, what is a permanent note: is it a paragraph? A set of bullet points? A single sentence? I know these things can vary, but I would have liked to at least browse a set of notes from the author's slip-box. Overall, though, the book totally convinced me to start reading with a "pencil" in hand, and to find and use note-taking software that can link notes together. (I will likely learn to use Roam.) Despite my minor criticisms, I would absolutely recommend the book to anyone who is serious about learning and/or writing.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Radiantflux

    6th book for 2020. Niklas Luhmann, the 20th Century sociologist, was productive by any standard; publishing more than seventy books and hundreds of articles in his lifetime. He accredited his success to an idiosyncratic note-taking technique he developed, which he called the Zettlekästen—literally "notes box"—in which he place A6-sized cards with short atomised ideas generated while reading, each note being linked to other related notes, essentially creating a hyperlinked database of ideas long b 6th book for 2020. Niklas Luhmann, the 20th Century sociologist, was productive by any standard; publishing more than seventy books and hundreds of articles in his lifetime. He accredited his success to an idiosyncratic note-taking technique he developed, which he called the Zettlekästen—literally "notes box"—in which he place A6-sized cards with short atomised ideas generated while reading, each note being linked to other related notes, essentially creating a hyperlinked database of ideas long before the idea of computerised wikis too hold. Unfortunately, until recently most of the literature regarding Luhmann's technique has been limited to German. Ahrens excellent book offers English readers a through summary of not only the technique, but a philosophy behind it. This book should appeal to anyone interested in taking more intelligent notes; especially those at the start on a longer writing project such a book or doctoral thesis. The biggest problem with technique is probably the lack of a good open-source cross-platform implementation of the technique. The software recommended in the book doesn't seem to have been worked on since 2016, which strongly limits my desire to trust it the long-term storage of my ideas, and I have no desire to lock my notes to the whims of venture capitalism (e.g., Roam), while the physical creation of 1000s of notes has obvious limitations. 3-stars.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Liu Jianqing

    Really eye-opening for me. I would recommend this book to anyone I know. It is obvious that I do have some of the conventional wisdom mentioned in the book, thinking writing is just a transfer of knowledge/ideas/insight from my head onto blank papers. Now I realize I should use writing to collect, to connect, and get all notes ready all along the way. But, it is just a little disappointing that the book has not shown us an example of how someone actually making those bibliography notes, and then Really eye-opening for me. I would recommend this book to anyone I know. It is obvious that I do have some of the conventional wisdom mentioned in the book, thinking writing is just a transfer of knowledge/ideas/insight from my head onto blank papers. Now I realize I should use writing to collect, to connect, and get all notes ready all along the way. But, it is just a little disappointing that the book has not shown us an example of how someone actually making those bibliography notes, and then permanent notes. If only there was a chapter to lead me through the whole process! So, I do know I need this, badly. But how to implement? The book did mention a little bit and suggested some open-source software. Yet it is just not enough for me. I hope for more details. Please make it more practical.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Andrei Stepanov

    I express a very big gratitude to the author. This book is a "must-read" manual for all researchers. This book is quite different from other "help-self" manuals. It was written by a scientist, and is based on a huge number other science books, and resources. Reference bibliography is amazing. Your productivity will gain tremendously in your daily-workflow. Highly recommend! I express a very big gratitude to the author. This book is a "must-read" manual for all researchers. This book is quite different from other "help-self" manuals. It was written by a scientist, and is based on a huge number other science books, and resources. Reference bibliography is amazing. Your productivity will gain tremendously in your daily-workflow. Highly recommend!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Scott Wozniak

    Title Is Inadequate This is a book about MUCH more than a way to take smart notes. Oh, sure, you’ll learn all about a super cool (and super simple) system for taking notes. But that is covered in the first 20% of the book. The rest of the book is about deep and critical topics related to smart note taking, like thinking well, reading well, the writing process and even how to set up habits of success. I almost didn’t read it because it looked too basic. I’m so glad I did.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Hady Osman

    I was looking me up a good fiction read to get into, when somehow, the algorithms of Amazon decided to put forward this book on Note taking right in front of me. The title immediately peeked my interest and then some more after I read the synopsis. I have been taking notes all my life using all sort of methods and tools. The fact that I keep switching every year to a different method and medium has me very conscious that I am still very hopeless at taking notes for myself. I must admit... the book I was looking me up a good fiction read to get into, when somehow, the algorithms of Amazon decided to put forward this book on Note taking right in front of me. The title immediately peeked my interest and then some more after I read the synopsis. I have been taking notes all my life using all sort of methods and tools. The fact that I keep switching every year to a different method and medium has me very conscious that I am still very hopeless at taking notes for myself. I must admit... the book blew me away with its simple and grounded principles based on the Luhmann method for taking notes. It all just made so much sense and I found myself nodding and busy highlighting large passage of texts. Coming from an engineering background and an avid Kindle user, I felt the examples in the book spoke to me directly. I highlight numerous passages in books that I read on the Kindle all the time. I write down fleeting comments or quotes that I encounter in day to day conversations down and I manually capture the context to remind myself why they spoke to me. But as I pointed out in the book, I like many struggle to leverage of my earned experiences because I cannot remember or discover them. What could be more wasteful then not learning from (mistakes) earned experiences! Luhmann's principle of doing the heavy lifting or "thinking" upon writing to make it much easier to read and discover is an obvious one. The concept of the slip-box is synonymous to source code repositories that I work with so often. They are both archives that are versioned, persisted, linked and easily discoverable. An absolute genius method that I wish I would have been exposed to during my university years or early career to accumulate my own trove of notes by now. But... it's never too late! In terms of the actual writing and readability of the book, I found it to be quite the drag in lots of passages. I felt that Sönke often over expanded on a lot of the points that he made upfront by backing himself with extensive research. In many cases, I did find the deep dive of research interesting (like the origin of shipping containers). But more often than not I also found it excessively repetitive and preaching to the converted. Lastly, even with the verbosity of the text, I still wasn't able to confidently visualise how the Luhmann method worked at every single step and I wished there was more practical examples of how to persist and retrieve a piece of information every step of the way. There was one great example showing a quote from a book and walking me as a reader on the thought process of determining how to tag it. I loved that and wished for more of this in other steps of the process. Last two points aside, I really enjoyed my time reading "How to Take Smare Notes". Despite the rating that I gave it (because of the two critical points mentioned above), I must say it had a profound impact on me. I understand very well now where the shortcomings of my current note taking habits are, and believe have some really solid advice on what to try going forward.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sandy Maguire

    I am giving this book 5 stars not because I liked it, but because it has significantly improved my scholarship --- at least, in the last few days since I started reading it. We'll see if it continues! The crux of the book is "write down insights you have, as you're having them, and then regularly reconcile these into a single place, and track insights you have while writing THOSE down. Rinse and repeat." It's been a very helpful framework for thinking about big thoughts; rather than trying to kee I am giving this book 5 stars not because I liked it, but because it has significantly improved my scholarship --- at least, in the last few days since I started reading it. We'll see if it continues! The crux of the book is "write down insights you have, as you're having them, and then regularly reconcile these into a single place, and track insights you have while writing THOSE down. Rinse and repeat." It's been a very helpful framework for thinking about big thoughts; rather than trying to keep it all jumbled up in your head, or rather than trying to serialize it into a coherent piece of prose, just write down the idea. You can shape it later. It's an excellent tool for decomposing hard problems that require lots of moving machinery to get your mind around. When you're actively searching for, and reveling in insights, learning becomes fun, and spending time doing scholarship becomes the norm. Life pro tip. The only other good thing I'll say about this book is that it's short. I got through it in two sittings. Really and truly, the only content here is that thing I said above. Have ideas and write them down. The rest of this book is a bunch of bad pop-sci that is sorta tangentially related. I get the impression that Ahrens was Taking Smart Notes on all of the bad pop-sci books he read, and couldn't help but write about them here as filler. The useful part of this book could be a blog post, but you can't sell a blog post! Unrelatedly, I feel like I've read all the same bad pop-sci books as Ahrens. I'm not sure if this a failure on his part, or on mine :( I'll begrudgingly recommend this as an excellent book I've read this year, if just for its information content, and not for the book itself. Feel free to skip any paragraph whose first sentence doesn't mention a slip-box; you won't miss much.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Randy

    When I was writing my thesis (approximately one million years ago), I accidentally built about 50% of the workflow described here. Had I known how to use the slip-box part, I think the whole thing would have been a lot better. Maybe I had an incredible memory back then - probably not, but it's not better now. I've now implemented the free tool chain of Zettelkasten: Zkn3 and the reference tool Zotero (I know there are lots of reference tools around but I like this one and its Chrome plug-in). So When I was writing my thesis (approximately one million years ago), I accidentally built about 50% of the workflow described here. Had I known how to use the slip-box part, I think the whole thing would have been a lot better. Maybe I had an incredible memory back then - probably not, but it's not better now. I've now implemented the free tool chain of Zettelkasten: Zkn3 and the reference tool Zotero (I know there are lots of reference tools around but I like this one and its Chrome plug-in). So far I already feel like I have a GTD-like (David Allen) "Inbox" for scientific material and various other related business/market information that I come across everyday. After reading the book, I am all about taking small notes on the flurry of links, papers, and sundry material that I see every day. I would also recommend taking a look at this presentation to see the difference between various organization methods and Luhmann's specific approach. I think these differences are why the other tools never really caught on for me.

  14. 4 out of 5

    León XIV

    A useless book This book does not explain how to use Luhmann’s method precisely. It is just a compilation of over-explained ideas (nothing new under the sun, by the way) that are not even useful for applying that method. There are other resources in the web, so please, avoid buying this book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Boykie

    Wow, wow, wow ... ... and a double wow, wow. This is definitely my greatest read for 2019 so far and I can't see anything surpassing it. It has had the same impact as David Allen's "Getting Things Done" and Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits Of Highly Successful People" before then in that it has already caused a fundamental change in the way I see, understand and take action on things. Wyatt Woodsmall hammers in the point that learning IS behaviour change. I can honestly say I have learnt from Sonke Ahr Wow, wow, wow ... ... and a double wow, wow. This is definitely my greatest read for 2019 so far and I can't see anything surpassing it. It has had the same impact as David Allen's "Getting Things Done" and Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits Of Highly Successful People" before then in that it has already caused a fundamental change in the way I see, understand and take action on things. Wyatt Woodsmall hammers in the point that learning IS behaviour change. I can honestly say I have learnt from Sonke Ahrens. The title of the book is rather deceptive as it implies it's all about taking notes, but the book is a whole lot more. It's about how to think better and the methodology presented has a kind of 'lollapozza' effect in that the more you use it the faster and better your thinking improves. The only reason I have not rated it 5 stars (other than being really stingy) is I would like to see if I can stick with the methodology for a year - if I can internalise it and make it my own. If a year from now I'm still using the system and have made it a part of me then I will release my grasp and hand over that fifth star. An amazing book that has been very well written using the very methodology it explains. Just the bibliography itself will be another in depth education on it's own. If you want to upgrade your thinking and be more effective in your everyday life life, I'd urge you to get this book now. If you wait to long it will be as Ahrens suggests ... ... 'like starting to save for retirement AFTER you've retired'. Start saving for your retirement now. You can thank me later ;-). UPDATE: I had promised myself to return to this review after a year and bump the rating up to 5 stars if I stuck with the system. Well, I have. I've just written a new zettel before popping over here. It's based on a quote by Alfred a. Montapert - "Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress". Soon after hand writing the zettel, I logged into my email and there was an email from my Evernote to remind me that a year ago I had promised to return to this review. Funny how life works isn't it? Anyway, in the year that I've used the system I've found it to be really powerful. I have a tingling that I've overcomplicated it as I still use something akin to the numbering system Luhman used. Guys like Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday went with categories/themes instead and I'm beginning to feel perhaps that would have been easier. I shall persevere though as I believe that after a lifetime, the numbering system will far surpass themes or categories. I feel that the use of themes and/or categories will force us to think only in terms of the themes or categories listed while the numbering system leaves us free to explore our notes as they come. Another observation while I'm at it, although there is some level of review everytime I have to figure out were a card/zettel fits, I need to put in a regular practice for this. All in all, I can now conclude that this was certainly my best book of 2019!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Amirography

    Not a bad book for someone not familiar with personal knowledge management. But it was really scattered, not structured in a good way.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Suhrob

    A surprising little gem. The book describes Luhmann's note taking system. The interesting thing is that this paper-only system was translated into software - but it still deeply *under*leverages what could be done with a digital system. But by being under-leveraged it highlights the actually important *manual* steps of the method. The book is very worth the reading. There is an excellent passage which clearly demonstrates the connections springing from the application of the method - highly unlikely A surprising little gem. The book describes Luhmann's note taking system. The interesting thing is that this paper-only system was translated into software - but it still deeply *under*leverages what could be done with a digital system. But by being under-leveraged it highlights the actually important *manual* steps of the method. The book is very worth the reading. There is an excellent passage which clearly demonstrates the connections springing from the application of the method - highly unlikely without it. As such there are many excellent treasures concerning note taking, learning and writing. Unfortunately, we are still left with a slightly suboptimal tools (even in year 2018!).

  18. 4 out of 5

    Brent

    A bit repetitive but still an enlightening introduction to the philosophy and practice of Zettleksten, a German technique for greatly improved learning and productivity through careful note-taking. There were not an many real world examples as I would have liked but a quick Google search helped with that.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sreejith Puthanpurayil

    This was a habit-changing book for me. It was about much more than note taking. It was about a set of processes that allowed me to question and be more a more active participant when absorbing information. As the book says, writing is thinking. More precisely, writing is distilled thinking. The process of penning information down in your own words improves understanding and forces you to address your blind spots. The book suggests taking temporary notes when consuming information such as books, vi This was a habit-changing book for me. It was about much more than note taking. It was about a set of processes that allowed me to question and be more a more active participant when absorbing information. As the book says, writing is thinking. More precisely, writing is distilled thinking. The process of penning information down in your own words improves understanding and forces you to address your blind spots. The book suggests taking temporary notes when consuming information such as books, videos, podcasts etc. In my experience, just the act of holding a pen when consuming information changes my relationship to these mediums. I scribble down questions I have, explain complex topics in my own way, and note down possible links to other ideas. Later, those temporary notes are to be converted to permanent notes. The objective of permanent notes is to write about topics using the temporary notes and link related ideas together. It’s important that the topics be self contained and linked to other topics. This allows one to navigate by topic and see all ideas that are linked to it. I found that as this knowledge base built up, I was able to form connections between very different topics. Furthermore, I noticed connections between ideas I was currently reading and previous ideas. This highlights one aspect of this process. As I started using it more often, I found that I improved in all the different aspects of the process such as questioning, linking ideas, combining notes, and finding relationships between ideas. Finally, this process makes writing articles much easier. Picking and pulling a strand from a graph of interlinked ideas explained in your own words is much less imposing than staring at a blank page. You can focus on what you find most exciting, pull in needed content from the graph, and remove that which is not needed. The title doesn’t do the book justice. Definitely a 5 star book for me. PS:I've been publishing my notes at notes.ppsreejith.net for the last few months.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Samuel

    I definitely enjoyed it, but if you are looking for something that offers you concrete examples about how to implement the Zettelkasten method of note-taking, also known as the slip-box method, then keep looking because this is not the book for you. The author assumes you are using a specific online application and does little to explain how you could apply the system in different contexts if this is not the case for you. Even the analog method is given sparse coverage and little to no examples I definitely enjoyed it, but if you are looking for something that offers you concrete examples about how to implement the Zettelkasten method of note-taking, also known as the slip-box method, then keep looking because this is not the book for you. The author assumes you are using a specific online application and does little to explain how you could apply the system in different contexts if this is not the case for you. Even the analog method is given sparse coverage and little to no examples are provided, very academically written, which leads me to believe that the assumption the reader is already familiar with this system on some level also exists. If you are looking for a solid theoretical argument as to the benefits of the Zettelkasten method, by all means, this is the book for you! It's well written despite being sparse on offering many if any concrete examples as to how to implement the system in your own context, though perhaps that's in the hopes that readers will make use of the offer for individual coaching the author provides at the very end of the book. I feel like I have just as many questions as to the implementation of this method as I had going into reading this, if not more.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Eren Buğlalılar

    If you already read books like Make it Stick, Peak, Thinking Fast and Slow and Habit, there is nothing much to learn from Ahrens' book. Except the new note taking system he describes. At its heart, the book promotes a note taking system first developed by Luhmann, a German scholar. The system is mainly about (a) taking a lot of concise, well-written notes and (b) linking them with each other so as to create a physical network of information produced and distilled by your brain. This would work li If you already read books like Make it Stick, Peak, Thinking Fast and Slow and Habit, there is nothing much to learn from Ahrens' book. Except the new note taking system he describes. At its heart, the book promotes a note taking system first developed by Luhmann, a German scholar. The system is mainly about (a) taking a lot of concise, well-written notes and (b) linking them with each other so as to create a physical network of information produced and distilled by your brain. This would work like a tangible copy of your passive knowledge and set free your brain for active thinking, analysis, reasoning and creativity. But recognising that the explanations about that system alone would not give him enough pages to publish a book, the author apparently decided to pad the rest of the book with some "popular science of learning" chapters. Also, I propose somebody should take it serious and develop a "Warren Buffett Index (WBI)" as a tool to evaluate the quality of the self-help books. It is the number of Warren Buffett references divided by the number of pages in a book. The readability of the text diminishes as the WBI approximates to 1. WBI of this book was 0.016 which may look small but still far from my ideal WBI, which is ZERO.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    One of those books I wished I have read 10 years ago. I will highly recommend this book to learner who are avid reader, who want to use note-taking as a tool for thinking critically and learn better. Although book is written with publish-or-perish academics as main audience, but it really applies to learner in all walk of life. The book debunks the following myths for me: - Writing starts with staring at a blank page - Highlighting, underlining passage, copying quote is effective learning - Sortin One of those books I wished I have read 10 years ago. I will highly recommend this book to learner who are avid reader, who want to use note-taking as a tool for thinking critically and learn better. Although book is written with publish-or-perish academics as main audience, but it really applies to learner in all walk of life. The book debunks the following myths for me: - Writing starts with staring at a blank page - Highlighting, underlining passage, copying quote is effective learning - Sorting knowledge into modules and topics is the best way to teach - One should take note relentlessly, and never throw them away - One should file notes by topics - Brainstorming works - Top-down approach to writing a research paper does not have biases - Writing paper has to suck And in return, the author provides you a simple antidote to the above, the Zettlekasten, what he calls "the shipping container of the academic world". It was invented by Niklas Luhmann, an extremely prolific German scholar, who started an academic career as a mere reader of literature that he was interested in. He ended up publishing 58 books and hundreds of articles in his life, including the revolutionary "The Society of Society". According to Luhmann, with his Zettlekasten, he never feel that pouring out high quality research output is hard: 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. If you read, and took a lot of notes, but feel that your existing process has friction, or your notes never seem to pay dividend after the ink is dried, read this book now.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Helene Uppin

    I was looking for a system for the literature notes. To be honest, I feel liberated now :D the things I was intuitively drawn to proved to be right and I will definitely employ a system of permanent note-taking (probably on paper though). I feel as if I should have read it years ago but then again - I probably wouldnt have appreciated the system and the tips as much as I do now after some experience with writing academic articles. P.S. The book contains a lot about learning and thinking in genera I was looking for a system for the literature notes. To be honest, I feel liberated now :D the things I was intuitively drawn to proved to be right and I will definitely employ a system of permanent note-taking (probably on paper though). I feel as if I should have read it years ago but then again - I probably wouldnt have appreciated the system and the tips as much as I do now after some experience with writing academic articles. P.S. The book contains a lot about learning and thinking in general, it is written in clear style and is probably enjoyable to those who are not planning to collect notes to enhance their writing but whonare interested in human behaviour in general. Strongly recomend to all academics, especially phd students.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alexy

    At points during the book I definitely felt Called Out about my own approach to learning and reading. The argument in favour for the slip box method is certainly quite convincing. I am definitely guilty of highlighting and writing in margins of books, and then completely forgetting about the notes I wrote. The philosophy behind the slip box system of note taking certainly does feel simple and obvious, like something I feel like I knew already but never thought about enough. I'm excited to try to At points during the book I definitely felt Called Out about my own approach to learning and reading. The argument in favour for the slip box method is certainly quite convincing. I am definitely guilty of highlighting and writing in margins of books, and then completely forgetting about the notes I wrote. The philosophy behind the slip box system of note taking certainly does feel simple and obvious, like something I feel like I knew already but never thought about enough. I'm excited to try to implement my own slip box system. One flaw of the book is there is not enough examples provided on how to actually implement it. The majority of the book is spent on arguing Why the system works, which after a certain point, felt repetitive. I was already convinced, I wanted to know How to actually do it. I would still recommend the book, as it's a good jumping off point.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Bryan

    If you're debating, you should read this book. Here's some longer thinking I did about it while reading it: https://clerestory.netlify.com/zk/ If you're debating, you should read this book. Here's some longer thinking I did about it while reading it: https://clerestory.netlify.com/zk/

  26. 4 out of 5

    Massimo Curatella

    I'll need to annotate this book into my Zettelkasten. Update in June 2020, after a second reading I've decided that this is the book I will start with to begin my slip-box. I'll need to annotate this book into my Zettelkasten. Update in June 2020, after a second reading I've decided that this is the book I will start with to begin my slip-box.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ethan

    Could have been significantly shortened. Very much felt like a book that was artificially extended for a publisher's benefit. Could have been significantly shortened. Very much felt like a book that was artificially extended for a publisher's benefit.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Marek Kalnik

    I have followed Andy Matuschak notes and stumbled upon this book. It is a really inspiring read, I feel that can become life changing. I'm an avid reader, manager, coder and Lean practitioner. I have always had an impression that I'm learning a lot, but the knowledge would rarely stick. A lot of moment when I was like: "Um, I should have already known this" or "Too bad I didn't act on this earlier". This book opens a new perspective for me, on how to structure the knowledge, both in what I am le I have followed Andy Matuschak notes and stumbled upon this book. It is a really inspiring read, I feel that can become life changing. I'm an avid reader, manager, coder and Lean practitioner. I have always had an impression that I'm learning a lot, but the knowledge would rarely stick. A lot of moment when I was like: "Um, I should have already known this" or "Too bad I didn't act on this earlier". This book opens a new perspective for me, on how to structure the knowledge, both in what I am learning and how I'm working. The only drawback comes from it being to academy-oriented. I have a strong feeling that the Zettelkasten system and it's learnings are applicable to other areas and it is already helping me become a better manager. The book being focused on research, I requires a lot of mental effort to apply the concept elsewhere. But isn't it what the system is all about?

  29. 4 out of 5

    Megan Makela

    As the title of the book promises, as a student/academic who often finds myself staring at the blinking cursor on a blank document, I found this full of valuable information and interesting tidbits. (I used my own 'smart notes' in obsidian to write this!) In all, a brief read I would certainly recommend to thesis-writing graduate students (or undergraduates, if you're that kind of super nerd) and journal-publishing researchers. Otherwise, it really can't hurt, but I'd only pick it up if you were As the title of the book promises, as a student/academic who often finds myself staring at the blinking cursor on a blank document, I found this full of valuable information and interesting tidbits. (I used my own 'smart notes' in obsidian to write this!) In all, a brief read I would certainly recommend to thesis-writing graduate students (or undergraduates, if you're that kind of super nerd) and journal-publishing researchers. Otherwise, it really can't hurt, but I'd only pick it up if you were really into topics like deep work, memory/spaced repetition, deliberate practice/habits, etc. Ahrens presents the concept of Zettelkasten ('slip-box' in German), a method of knowledge management and note-taking that utilizes an unordered or non-linear collection of notecards to organize ideas and concepts, emphasizing connections and the evolving interplay between topics rather than a hierarchical organization or sorting. This system was used extensively by the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who credits the concept for the extraordinary amount of writing he published throughout his career. (If you're interested, and you understand German, many of his notecards have been digitized.) For a way more thorough explanation of this notecard approach than I'm willing to give, read this LessWrong post. The digital age offers a number of tools to implement this method without having to maintain drawers full of index cards and Ahrens suggests four types in particular: something to take notes with (pen/paper, phone, tablet, drink napkin), something to organize references (Zotero, EndNote, Mendely, a spreadsheet), the "box" (Evernote, Bear, Notion, TiddlyWiki), and wherever you're writing (Microsoft Word, Google Pages, OpenOffice, Sublime). In addition to an overview on how to use these tools to create some kind of general workflow (the book rather lacks in concrete examples), attention is also given to related topics in learning/working. Personal favorites include the idea of 'flow' (one of my all-time top picks: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) and Parkinson's Law, but also touches on things like Richard Fenyman's famed learning methods, imposter syndrome, Miller's Law, and the idea of attention and willpower as a finite resource. Probably more interesting than the idea of Zettelkasten itself is the number and variety of unique connections to it (slightly ironic, given the principle under consideration). As with other productivity and knowledge management tools (i.e. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, PARA), there's a bit of a cult (*ahem* #RoamCult) built up surrounding the idea and the community dedicated to discussing knowledge work and personal knowledge management (PKM) is both vast and passionate. Dominated by 'bloggers', terms like "personal wiki", "second brain", "digital garden", "evergreen notes" have been tossed around with Zettelkasten to describe the same fundamental concept of collecting and curating knowledge as a product of active reading and writing, with the goal of developing deeper ideas and networked thought. Though I will likely never be brave nor interesting enough to publish my own working notes and PKM system for all to see, there are a number of people who do exactly that: Andy Matuschak's notes, Tom Critchlow's wikifolders, Anne-Laure Le Cunff's Mental Nodes, Gwern Branwen's site, SuperMemo Guru wiki, Buster Benson's Piles and Codex, and so on.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lars-Christian Elvenes

    This is a solid book. Zettelkasten, or the slip-box, as it is also called in the book, was a new concept to me. This is about having an effective system for taking and using notes. It is not about layouts (divide the page in such and such a way, etc). It certainly makes suggestions on what to add, but it is the idea of the system, the Zettelkasten, that is the main point. Zettelkasten is based on how the German academic, Niklas Luhmann, took notes. He would make short notes and store them in his This is a solid book. Zettelkasten, or the slip-box, as it is also called in the book, was a new concept to me. This is about having an effective system for taking and using notes. It is not about layouts (divide the page in such and such a way, etc). It certainly makes suggestions on what to add, but it is the idea of the system, the Zettelkasten, that is the main point. Zettelkasten is based on how the German academic, Niklas Luhmann, took notes. He would make short notes and store them in his slip-box/zettelkasten, and created a system for linking his notes as he made them. Over time, this allowed him to build a generic network of notes from the bottom-up. Rather than relying on categories of topics, he would create keywords (with no particular limits for how many, as long as they made sense for that particular note). Picking up one note, he would then have links to several others, not necessarily because they fit the same topic, but because of a link Luhmann had found relevant. Using his slip-box, he was never out of ideas when it was time to write, and he was a prolific academic writer and credited his slip-box system for much of his success. I've landed on 4/5 stars, simply because I found the book quite wordy at times (even if it is under 200 pages). I should also mention that a reason for this was most likely because I was familiar with most of the examples and ideas he used (beyond the slip-box/zettelkasten, of course). I would also have liked to have had a good set of "for dummies" examples of notes, and how we would go about writing them, in order to better show the readers how you make the type of notes Luhmann made. On the other hand, he also encourages you to "just start", and I do agree with that approach. Don't worry about perfect. Start accumulating notes. Luhmann used pen and paper, and while Ahrens also encourages the reader to have pen and paper handy for notes while reading/listening/watching something valuable, the natural step is to go digital. There are programs made specifically for this purpose. Some you will find on the author's website, www.howtotakesmarternotes.com, and you should also check out www.zettelkasten.de (german site, but in English) for a wealth of knowledge (thanks, Ketil Moland, for this tip)on using zettelkasten. My personal system as of this writing is Evernote, as that is both synced in the cloud, cross-platform and easy to access on all devices (PC, Mac, Android, even Linux when online - all of which I use at the moment). I'm also testing the zettelkasten program on Ahrens's site, though I miss syncing capabilities. That will most likely be a deal-breaker for me. In Evernote I've simply created a new Notebook called Zettelkasten where I store all the notes in the "zettelkasten fashion". I add the natural keywords/tags without thinking too much about limiting myself here. Evernote's search capability is quite good, so I'm not worried about creating too many. I start each note with the next number in line and a headline and make notes internally in Evernote between the notes, as it makes sense. Example: 3 - Note headline 2 - Note headline 1 - Note headline Depending on time, I make a quick note (in a notebook if I'm not on a computer) with a couple of lines of text and maybe a few bullets. When time permits, I'll write out a permanent note (as it is called in this system), where I write it out as if I was writing it for someone else to read and understand. This is important, as one of the ideas of zettelkasten is to not have to remember everything. That way, when you come across the note again, you're ensured that it will make sense to you and that you will understand why you made the note. How to take smarter notes is a short book, and I would recommend that you pick it up. If you do any form of writing, or read a lot, and would like to have a system to make useful connections for yourself, as well as learning more of what you read, this is a good system to go for. It takes time to get into (and I'm not there yet, but getting there), but I believe it will be worthwhile.

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