We all write in some fashion at some point. Maybe it’s to clients in a project management system as you recommend the proper solution to their problems. Maybe it’s on a blog as you review gear and books. Maybe you even write books or research papers. There is lots of advice out there to help you with this writing, but according to Sönke Ahrens in How to Take Smart Notes we have little help in how to write the research notes that must come before we write for the consumption of others.
This note taking step is where Ahrens book is here to help us. He wants us to not be faced with a blank page and no direction, but to have a catalogue of ideas that we can work off of when it comes to writing time. Ahrens uses the book to teach us the Zettelkasten system, which was used most famously by Niklas Luhmann though the basic system predates him.
Just like James Clear in Atomic Habits, Ahrens believes that we fall to the level of our systems instead of rising to the level of our habits. The Zettelkasten system is supposed to help us do something differently in the months, weeks, or years before we come to writing so that we can face our projects easily1.
How to Take Smart Notes is broken up into three sections. First Ahrens tells us everything we need to know, do and have to run an effective system. Second, he gives us four underlying principles to make the system work well. The final section is his six steps to successful writing.
Just because you read lots doesn’t mean you gain any more insight. Without a system to track those ideas, and the ideas that spawn in your head, you are merely collecting things instead of connecting them. The Zettelkasten system is all about connecting ideas and starts with the sources you put in it.
Zettelkasten has three types of notes.
1. Fleeting Notes
These notes are about the ideas that come to you as you’re going through your day. If you want to keep these notes you need to have a system to capture them wherever you are. If you’re going with the original system, then 3X5 notecards may be all you need. If you’re going digital, than any text application you can use is where these notes go.
2. Literature Notes
These notes are taken when you’re reading something. Depending on the difficulty of the material they may be long or short. The point of them is to wrestle the text into understanding so that you can extract any good ideas from it2.
3. Permanent Notes
These are the only notes that go in your slipbox. You work through your inbox of fleeting notes and literature notes and move over any ideas that are important to your slipbox. As you do this you ask yourself how the notes fit into the context of what you’ve already written down3. Ideally every new note will have some connections to other notes because you’re progressing ideas4. Ahrens says that automatic linking systems (like you find in DEVONthink) are only ever going to find the most obvious links for you because they’re merely doing some heuristic word searching5. Your Zettelkasten is supposed to move past that to match ideas that may not be obviously linked on the surface.
The one other type of note that Ahrens mentions is the topic note6. These aren’t for a single idea, they’re places that collect various ideas, like an index. I have one going on how to keep and connect ideas that link to my notes on Zettelkasten, The Shoebox Method, IMF, Common Place Books, The Notecard System, and a few other research systems I’ve come across. Eventually I’ll work through all these other systems and write about them, then likely write something that looks at all of them in context to tell you which one I like most.
For the actual notes that you take in your system, it’s important to remember that your fleeting and literature notes are not intended to fill your slipbox. They’re simply initial thoughts on something that may be important. I always like to remember the phrase, lots of sources with a strong filter.
It’s also important to keep your notes small. I showed this when I did my video on Using Obsidian to Take Book Notes. Here I have one main topic note on a book, and then I divided all the main ideas and lines of inquiry I want to chase down into their own notes. Ahrens says that the 3x5 card is a great limiting factor because if it won’t fit on a card then it needs to be split into two ideas. Clearly we don’t have that limitation with digital systems, but the idea still stands, keep your notes small.
When it comes to choosing a system to use to keep your notes remember that a system shouldn’t add complexity. It should let you get to the task at hand faster, with better organization. If you spend more time managing your system then getting the work done, it’s a bad system.
Ahrens recommends three types of applications for your system. First, the inbox for all your fleeting and literature notes. Second, something to manage bibliographic information like Zotero. Third, the main slipbox system.
I combine the bibliographic system and note system into Obsidian by adding bibliographic metadata to a note, but you can keep that in a different application if you want. My main inbox is DEVONthink. All research papers, blog articles, and other notes I think may be important head to DEVONthink and then I sort through them once a week to see what moves into Obsidian.
One of the final points that Ahrens comes back to a number of times is that the purpose of your whole system is to produce content7. He mostly talks about writing, but it could be videos, talks, or any other way to take the ideas you’ve connected and create something out of them.
I find that many people who talk about research systems are mostly looking to collect notes, and produce very little with them. If as many people wrote as watched my content on building a ystem, we’d have way more Youtubers and bloggers than we do.
Be a connector and publisher not merely a collector.
There is only one other book that I’d recommend as much as I’d recommend this book. How I take my notes has changed in such a profound way that I feel like my old methods don’t even count. I’m in the process of moving over hundreds of notes on books into this system. I’m lucky that I have notebooks full of literature notes on these books so it’s a fairly simple process, but still it’s going to take time.
Yes you should read this book. If you’ve got teenagers or college aged people around, get them to read the book so that they can have a strong system to help them take amazing notes for their future selves.
Oh, that other book is How to Read a Book (Independent Bookstore | Amazon). Once I read that I felt like all reading before didn’t count. I’m happy I read it in my early 30’s because I have so much reading ahead.