This note is a part of my Zettelkasten. What is below might not be complete or accurate. It is also likely to change often.
15th August, 2020

How to take smart notes - Sonke Ahrens

A smart, fast paced book introducing the Zettelkasten and talking about note-taking and writing in general. I would give it º/¶.


Zettelkasten and underlying principles

Making notes for the zettelkasten

  • A zettelkasten is not a collection of notes. Its a network whose strength lies in its interconnectedness.
  • In the zettelkasten system, place notes based on the context you would like to find it again.
  • Too many notes will make it difficult to stumble upon the right ones and exploit relationships between notes.
  • Starting with bad notes is fine, deliberate practice is the only way to become better at something.
    • Whenever you explore a new topic, your notes will be more extensive and numerous. That is natural.
  • A learning system which enables feedback loops is important - Positive feedback loops create growth

Writing is important to understanding

By writing, you are forced to think through the idea. This helps you:

  • find gaps in your understanding
  • see flaws in arguments
  • create connections with previous knowledge
  • make something new

Studies indicate that writing by hand facilitates understanding.

Create liberally, Analyse acutely, Repeat

The key to creativity is to switch from a wide-open, playful mind to a focussed, narrow analytical frame. Dont try to do both at the same time. Putting down ideas and writing a first draft is critical (however bad the first draft is).

  • Stress inhibits learning
  • Exercise promotes long term memory and reduces stress

Unload ideas from memory to paper to make more space

Humans have a small cache of short term memory. Experts suggest that we can hold a maximum of 7 things in our head at the same time (+/- 2). So, write it down.

  • You will not lose your ideas if you write them
  • Avoid the Zeigarnik Effect - open tasks tend to occupy short-term memory. If you write down a task, the brain is convinced that it is handled and it doesnt need to remember anymore. A trusted system sets you free
  • Writing down an idea is essential testing whether you yourself understand it well enough to express it in your own context.
  • Any thought of complexity requires that you write it down. Once written down, the idea or argument can be analysed critically. If not written down, the idea itself occupies the mental resources needed to analyse it. Written notes dont make intellectual thought easier, they makes it possible. Writing down ideas is a Brainlet.

Reduce decision making

Willpower is a limited resource. This resources should be conserved and used only for decisions that are important and vital. Other decisions should be made upfront once for all. For example, the outline of what you're writing should be created and available for you to glance at. This is so that you know what you're writing at any section and what is not meant to be touched in that section.

Rituals and habits become important here. If you have a ritual for reading, writing and making notes, it becomes less of a chore and consumes less willpower.

Read with a research mindset

Reading should be done with the express purpose of extracting and connecting ideas from the source to your store of knowledge.

  • Make note of ideas when reading. Make sure that you're giving an accurate account of the source.
  • Focus on the idea and its relevance rather than whether it confirms your preexisting views.
    • Truth is an outcome of the scientific exchange and inter-connection of ideas. Its not absolute in many ways.
  • Express the idea in a simple way but not simplified way. Reframe the ideas, questions and arguments in your own words and to your own context.
  • Connect these ideas to those in the zettelkasten and add as permanent notes if relevant
  • Naturally, our brain seeks our evidence which supports our hypothesis - this is called Confirmation bias. To counter this, seek out contrary evidence to any hypothesis.
  • Manipulations such as variation, spacing, having contextual interference and using tests decreases the rate of learning initially but increases long term retention.

How to take smart notes

When you are in the process of creating a note, consider how this fits in in its context. Consider what arises from the note box by addition of this note; Whether there are new connections, relationships, confirmations, contradictions, arguments and questions that arise out of the new idea introduced by this new note. See what is missing on incomplete in the ideas. Try to fill those in.