April 28

How to Take Smart Notes: A Conversation with Sonkhe Ahrens

Learning how to take smart notes transforms how you read and write. It helps you remember what you read, take action on your ideas, and generate new ones.

Taking smart notes is not a productivity hack that makes writing easier. It requires deep work and effort.

Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is. And this is how it is supposed to be. – Sonkhe Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes

Mistaking information for knowledge prevents critical thinking, which is crucial for learning how to take smart notes.

Listen to the Full Interview

In this exclusive interview, you'll learn

  • How Sonkhe Ahrens Discovered the Zettelkasten
  • The Limitations of Planning and Execution
  • Why you need to Accumulate a critical mass of knowledge
  • Why Storing Information Doesn't Require Cognitive Effort

How Sonkhe Ahrens Learned to Take Smart Notes

take smart notes
Photographer: Maksym Kaharlytskyi | Source: Unsplash

Sonkhe Ahrens needed a better system. His interest in Nicholas Luhmann's theory of social systems led to his discovery of the Zettalkasten method and writing his book, How to Take Smart Notes.

At this point, anyone familiar with the Zettelkasten method knows that Nicholas Luhmann used it to write 50 books and 500 papers and complete a Ph.D. in a year. So how in the world did Sonkhe Ahrens discover a system that was over 60 years old?

I always felt the need for a better system. And I always blamed myself for not being rigorous enough to go through the books and the highlights I made, And I spent a lot of time searching for quotes. And so I gathered a lot of information from different places. So it was a setup that made the need for a better system obvious. – Sonkhe Ahrens

The smart notes system is potent. But the counterintuitive nature of networked thinking makes it challenging to implement because we've spent most of our lives using linear organizational systems for non-Linear processes (i.e., folders, subfolders, and files).

The irony is that most of the systems we've designed don't work the way our brains do

  • Your brain is a network, not a hierarchy.
  • None of our thoughts or ideas exist in isolation.

Taking smart notes creates a knowledge generation cycle that allows you to organize information the way you think.

  • Instead of a knowledge management system, you build a Personal network of knowledge.
  • You can capture, connect, create and turn what you read into something new.

After taking smart notes for a while, you start to see the disadvantage of using folders for personal knowledge management.

The Limitations of Planning and Execution

Photographer: Sven Mieke | Source: Unsplash

If you've ever written an outline for a paper, blog post, or book, you've experienced the limitations of planning and execution.

Writer's block is a symptom of using linear organizational systems for non-Linear processes. But as my friend Jennifer Louden once said about writing books, "Your structure has to be linear, your process doesn't.

Whether writing an article or taking book notes, you often have insights or spontaneous ideas that you can't plan for or predict. For example, you might have an idea about one topic while writing articles for another one.

With the Zettelkasten method and note-taking apps like Mem, bidirectional links allow for Spontaneous Insight without immediate action. You can capture an idea without disrupting your workflow and revisit it when you're ready to act on it.

Storing Information Doesn't Require Cognitive Effort

Photographer: Aaron Burden | Source: Unsplash

When you copy and paste quotes, you're not creating knowledge. You're just storing information. Information becomes knowledge when you do something with what you've learned. It might involve writing about what you read.

There is an abundance of tools that help you with storing information. The offline readers, Instapaper pocket, read wise, et cetera. They all help you get information into your system, and you can add tags to make it somehow easier to find them again. That doesn't require cognitive effort. The moment you have to connect it with existing knowledge or put it in the place you think you will need it, you suddenly feel that need to put effort into it. Effort is a good indicator if you're doing it right or wrong.

It's easy to confuse consumption for knowledge creation. Information comes from external sources like books, podcasts, courses, coaches, and the community. But, consumption alone doesn't equate to knowledge or learning, and Mistaking information for knowledge prevents critical thinking.

Learning only happens when you

Wisdom is what you gain from applying knowledge. Information is static. But understanding and wisdom are dynamic. Both continually evolve, change, and eventually become obsolete.

"If you spend a lot of time collecting articles from the internet, tagging them. And none of that brings you closer to a finished manuscript or insight or whatever your goal is; it's not more efficient. It's less efficient," says Sonkhe Ahrens.

The difference between taking smart notes and regular note-taking can be summed up in one quote from Sonkhe Ahren's book. Think Like A Writer, Not an Archivist.

Accumulate a critical mass of knowledge

Photographer: Alina Grubnyak | Source: Unsplash

Even though your brain is a network, not a hierarchy, people struggle with networked thought because we've been conditioned to think linearly in every area of our lives.

  • School is a perfect example. The path from kindergarten to high school graduation is linear. And for many people, so is the path from high school to college. But, out in the real world, you realize that life isn't linear. It rarely goes according to plan.
  • The linear structure of other note-taking tools makes them think, "how do I organize information inside this thing?"You don't need to organize Information because Mem does that for you and gives you the freedom to take notes, capture ideas, and Organize IInformationthe way you think.

In Steve Jobs's famous Stanford commencement speech, he said, "you can only connect the dots looking backward." He left out that you have to collect dots before connecting them. You won't have enough dots to connect until you accumulate a critical mass of knowledge.

You'll know you've accumulated a critical mass of knowledge when

  • It feels effortless to turn what you read into something new
  • You frequently make connections between your ideas and generate new ones.
  • The note-taking app you use evolves into a Personal network of knowledge.

In a personal network of knowledge, your notes are nodes in a network, not notes in a database. Instead of building a second brain, you're creating an extension of the first one.

The Utility Paradox

With many apps and tools, it's hard to understand what makes them so useful until you've used them, which is known as the utility paradox.

  • When I first discovered Twitter, I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world because it's not intuitive at first glance. But met my most influential mentor because of Twitter and have discovered hundreds of podcast guests because of it.
  • With apps like Mem that help you take smart notes, it's hard to see what makes them useful until you've used them enough.

But when you overcome the utility paradox, the value of something that once seemed useless increases exponentially.

The Biggest Benefit of Learning How to Take Smart Notes

Learning to take smart notes helps you convert information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. Because you try to reconstruct what you learn from memory, it increases the odds that you can remember what you read and apply it to your life.

Want to learn how to Take Smart Notes?

Most people take completely useless notes. They highlight books, copy quotes, and never use them. In this free course, you'll learn how to take smart notes that help you remember what you read, turn what you read into something new, and build a body of work. Click here to sign up.


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