How to Take Smart Notes


Sönke Ahrens

Read in
March, 2020
My rating:


This is the number one book I wished I had read ten years ago, ideally before I started university. Describes a system for the managing of ones own thoughts and ideas, and does it in plain English. Turned me onto the importance of understanding metalearning/metacognition.


'Every individual endeavour starts with a note.'
'Learned right, which means understanding, which means connecting in a meaningful way to previous knowledge, information almost cannot be forgotten anymore and will be reliably retrieved if triggered by the right cues. ... If you focus your time and energy on understanding, you cannot help but learn.'

The Method for Taking Smart Notes

  1. Take fleeting notes while you read, watch or listen
  2. Be selective with what you note down (especially quotes)
  3. Make your notes permanent - connect them, develop them, support them, argue for and against them
  4. Link and transfer and associate between the notes you create
  5. When you come to write, you can structure and build what you write around the notes you have already developed

Summary of Key Points

There Is No Such Thing as Starting From Scratch

We all come to the table with something, the question is whether or not we bring something reliable and valuable that can be accessed and processed with ease.

Creativity depends on the ability to switch between a wide-open playful mind and a narrow analytical frame. If we are inflexiblly one or the other, we will either never have exciting ideas or never actually produce anything of note.

'They [writers] struggle because they believe, as they are made to believe, that writing starts with a blank page'

Groundbreaking Creativity does not spring from nowhere, it emerges slowly over time, with incremental improvement, so long as it is ushered in the right direction, with the right impetus, and with the right structures to support it.

Allow Yourself to Get Really, Really Interested in Stuff - No Matter What It Is

You should focus relentlessly on what you find interesting, both widely and on a narrow basis. It leads to greater motivation, more fun, it's more enjoyable and gives more focus.

'The more you become interested in something, the more you will read and think about it, the more notes you will read and think about it, the more notes you will collect and the more likely it is that you will generate questions from it. It might be exactly what you were interested in from the beginning, but it is more likely that your interests will have changed - that is what insight does.'

We Encounter Ideas Constantly. Capture Them!

We bump into Ideas all the time, we must collect them to gain a critical mass and begin generating our own.

The Brain is unreliable. It's impossible to think systematically without writing anything down.

The best way to capture ideas is to take notes about them - whether they are found in books, in conversation, online, or appear in your head. Write them down somewhere you can find them again.

'We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains.'

It's often best to write them by hand, at first. Handwriting forces us to think and understand because it only gives us limited time to get across the gist of things.

The Dunning-Krueger Effect applies, where we lack insight into our own limitations. Before we are aware of the value and depth of taking good notes, we think we're fine.

When we do this, it is better that we develop our Ideas bottom up, not top down. The ideas we have and build upon have strong foundations.

Simple Structures Allow Complex Content

How we organise our Thoughts is incredibly important because it is the foundation on which all of our other work rests, whether we want to admit it or not.

It is through doing work in the right way that interesting questions emerge. Tools are only as good as our ability to work with them.

Good structures set us up to enable Flow - everything else fades away when we trust the structure, allowing us to concentrate on the important thing at hand.

Some people ship more than others. We can make all sorts of excuses for why they can and we can't, but really it comes down to the Systems that they employ that are better than ours.

Only when you trust your system is when your brain can let go.

'Only if we know that everything is taken care of, from the important to the trivial, can we let go and focus on what is right in front of us.'

Notes Should be Processed Quickly

Notes should always be fleeting and processed within a day so that they retain their value and they can be assigned on the basis of their context

Notes should be stored in the place you want to stumble upon them again, not where they were found. It's like going shopping and storing your new jeans and your fresh pasta in the same drawer, because you bought them together. Better to put the jeans in the closet and the pasta in the kitchen cupboard.

Better to err on the side of caution and write it down. But it must always be processed afterwards, otherwise it is essentially pointless and worthless.

The main work is not writing the notes, but rather to be thinking and Reading and coming up with new connections.

When Reading, We Must Be Able to Think Beyond the Text

Good readers are able to think beyond the frames of the text itself and consider what is not said or not argued. Concepts, ideas and arguments can be important by omission as much as inclusion.

Our ability to create anew is as much about our ability to break old Habits as it is to coming up with new ideas.

The Feature-Positive Effect is where we overstate the importance of information that is readily available to us, therefore tilting us towards the most recently-acquired facts, not the most relevant ones.

We remember best the things that we understand, because to understand them properly we must naturally connect and link them with other contextually useful information. For example, the differences between veins and arteries

People that believe they are Open Minded often aren't. This happens because they often stick with their first impression in the belief that they are not affected by Biases, therefore they have no need to counterbalance them.

Success does not come from having 'Willpower' or 'grit' - it comes from working in an environment with very little resistance, where you have learned how to deflect and remove it. A bit like Bruce Lee's 'be like water'.

You Should Probably Be Writing More

Writing is not the result of our work, research and learning - it is the medium through which it takes place. (So, we should be writing more.)

The key to successful writing lies in continuous, successful preparation that allows us to assemble our thoughts at a later date. (So, take notes - keep them somewhere, link them and develop them.)

Writing is not a linear process. It can go down many avenues and will produce unexpected results.

It is also actually an umbrella term for many different and distinct skills, such as reading, noting, summarising, drafting, proofreading and so on.

Don't get precious about it, though. You don't need a fancy notebook or the right kind of keyboard or to wait for inspiration to strike or for every piece to be perfect. It's work. So do it.

'We tend to call extremely slow writers, who always try to write as if for print, perfectionists. Even though it sounds like praise for extreme professionalism, it is not: a real professional would wait until it was time for proofreading, so he or she can focus on one thing at a time.'

Don't Be a Planner - Have a Structure and Be an Expert

'How do you plan for insight which, by definition, cannot be anticipated?'

An expert is not a planner. If a planner is struck by inspiration, their plans are thrown off and things are ruined. For the expert, this is the exciting part.

Having a structure is not 'having a plan' - plans do not account for Inspiration striking and associations happening. Nor is it a mess - there is direction, but flexibility.

'Having a clear structure to work in is completely different from making plans about something. If you make a plan, you impose a structure on yourself; it makes you inflexible. To keep going according to plan, you have to push yourself and employ willpower.'

Wisdom comes not from just knowing a thing, but from our ability to make sense of what we encounter through our own schemas of interpretation.

Our ability to be creative relies on the ability to make abstractions. That is, to liberate our thoughts and ideas from their original context and apply them elsewhere.

'Imagine if we went through life learning only what we planned to learn or being explicitly taught. I doubt we would have learned to speak. ... The best ideas are the ones we haven't anticipated anyway.'

Better to learn from the experience of others; learning from experience, then, is a terrible way to learn (there are many things that neither you nor I would want to learn from experience).

Gain Insight, Then Make It Public. Otherwise, What's the Point?

For all these notes that you're taking, if they just stay put - cloistered - what good are they? This is a brilliant conclusion to draw from what initially looks like quite a dry book.

In short - take what you're learning and share it with the world. 'It is not so important who you are, but what you do. Doing the work required and doing it in a smart way leads, somehow unsurprisingly, to success.'

'An idea kept private is as good as one you never had'.

Enter Into The Hermeneutic Circle

The Hermeneutic Circle describes the process of understanding a text hermeneutically.

It refers to the idea that one's understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one's understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole.

Neither the whole text nor any individual part can be understood without reference to one another, and hence, it is a circle.

However, this circular character of interpretation does not make it impossible to interpret a text; rather, it stresses that the meaning of a text must be found within its cultural, historical, and literary context.

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