How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens


Ahrens is gung-ho about the advantages of using a zettelkasten (German for a slip box – a card catalogue basically) as a means to create a manual or digital memory machine to help you generate ideas and insIghts in an external brain scaffold. No, really. If I’ve made that sound a bit over the top, let me explain how you’d do just that in five “simple” steps, as I understand them, from Ahrens.

  1. Scribble a fleeting note whenever you are struck by inspiration in the shower or on the bus etc.
  2. Write a slightly more thorough “literature note” (with page references and quotes and synopses) whenever you read something interesting.
  3. Translate these notes into “permanent notes” that contain one idea at a time. Think deeply about what that idea is and write it in your own words so that it can be understood by anyone in the future when the context of where you got the idea is forgotten or irrelevant. Link it (or if manually writing it on an index card, number it) and stick it behind the existing permanent note that it relates to. Add references to this new note on existing permanent notes, and link it to other permanent notes if there are connections. If it is a wholly unrelated idea to anything else you have in your slip box, give it a fresh number.
  4. Discard your fleeting note and put your literature note in a separate box to not clutter the permanent note collection.
  5. Repeat.

And that is pretty much it. The rest of the book explains why this apparently simple (if laborious) method of taking notes promises to turn you into an expert capable of churning out high quality theses, non-fiction books and become and all-round self-evolving brain box. The reason, as far as I understand it, is because your slip box will inevitably fill up wth ideas that interest you and because you have put them in your own words and thought deeply about how they relate or contradict the existing ideas in the slip box, you have done the hard work of creating coherent arguments about interesting stuff (to you) that your slip box of ideas will over time present you with growing numbers of unexpected connections and free your brain of having to remember every key idea because you have stored them in your zettelkasten. Vam Bam und danken Sie, meine Damen.

It does sound like a lot of hard work – you are basically struggling through arguments for nonexistent future projects – but, here’s the thing. I’m kind of sold on it. Instead of the traditional student approach of coming up with a question before you’ve done any research, instead of reading books and underlining quotes and writing stuff in the margins that will never make sense or be remembered by you or anyone else, this promises to steamroll over the whole tired approach to education as a series of fact-memorization exercises to write silly papers and pass silly tests. Why not work on your ability to grab hold of ideas that interest you and make connections and then write them up into papers and books when you’ve thought them through? Makes sense to me. There are a heap of ideas I don’t get about art that maybe the zettelkasten can, ahem, zettle for me. I’ll try it out and report back.

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No. 6 of 100 books I intend to read and review in 2021.

Patrick Sherriff is an Englishman who survived 13 years working for newspapers in the US, UK and Japan. Between teaching English lessons at his conversation school in Abiko, Japan, with his wife, he writes and illustrates textbooks for non-native speakers of English, releases Hana Walker mystery novels, short stories, essays and a monthly newsletter  highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. Saku’s Random Book Club is his latest project to spend more time with books.

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