Book: “How to Take Smart Notes,” by Sönke Ahrens

Markdown will save us! Index cards will save us! Bullet journals / GTD will save us! Org-mode will save us! Nothing has saved us…

This book tries to save us again, from disorder and re-reading. Somewhere beneath the murk of its self-exemplification of the flaws in its technique, it partially succeeds.

It’s a journey book which locates the Zettelkasten within a modern productivity mythology. The ornate examples and analogies within serve to cross-link it to that framework which renders it persuasive and memorable, regardless that they are typically shaky work applied slightly off center to the nail they’re supposed to be hammering.

If you’ve read every managerial Must Read list of the last 20 years, and know the canonical examples like the Fisher space pens and Apple CEO’s sweater by heart, this book will slot right in. Solid cross-linkage to related work outside the mythology is unfortunately lacking; rather, when works or methodologies that don’t fit are mentioned, it’s usually as dismissive caricatures.

I come at this from my own perspective of course—different people will find different things engaging, or enraging. There’s plenty of supporting material in the book to provide mental hooks that ought to allow almost anyone to enter the book’s context, which I appreciate, even if I find a large number of them off-putting.

So while everything written here was brought to mind by, or refers to, specific content in “How to take Smart Notes,” and is organized by what I thought of the presentation of related material in that book, a lot of it is my own meandering from there.

New Information or Perspectives (to me)

I may be a curmudgeonly reader, but a few things in this book stood out as worth changing my actions and mental models based on.

Your mental realm is a workshop

We often overlook that, in terms of mental perception, we are in a place when we work; a place comprised of the information availability laid out before us. Or at least I’ve tended to overlook this, and I’m probably not alone. In terms of working from pre-prepared partial works, this is a huge area for potential improvement—and a bit of magic behind the productivity of the experienced.

As an undergrad I thought people wrote the lectures they gave from scratch the same way I wrote surprise 10-page papers. How much more I would have been ready to do if I’d known that figures and argument layouts and even entire sections are often written up just in case, or for some other project, even years in advance. Or that often similar presentations are given more than once.

I read a book on shoe-making a long time ago, that described how to set up a cobbler’s workshop. Where the pieces go, how you make your workspace showcase what you do while still being practical, what work can be done ahead of a customer order and just filed away ready. Why did I not think to apply this to writing before? I don’t know, but the reminder was meaningful.

But to me this workshop is my entire workspace - digital and physical. The app you’re looking for is your computer; or possibly your entire desk.

The directing force for retained material is to write

Specifically the production of publishable output. I agree with this up to caveat: Not everything worth doing is intended to become public.

This ties in brilliantly with Umberto Eco’s suggestions on pulling out small pieces from works as you go so you don’t have to re-read them in order to create the final publications based on them. Treating his descriptions of which scholarly writing types can be produced on what information as research stages produces an unstoppable series of intermediary publishable material. Not citing Eco anywhere in the book was an unfortunate choice, in my opinion.

It is also reminiscent of Weinberg’s “Fieldstone Method,” which similarly focused on extraction though with a very different organizing principle. But the closest parallel I see, is actually Dr. Pacheco-Vega’s memorandum technique: In it, every produced sub-product of the process is itself a publishable piece in the context.

For me this aim along with the workshop concept create an environment of preparatory work, in which tedium like diagrams and LaTeX entry are saved for later rather than made for the current project only. That helps a lot. I can throw prose together with barely an outline but there isn’t much I can do for the hours involving in fighting with tikz other than frontload it onto less pressured moments.

However, it also means casting aside or reworking into other parts of the space all the clutter I normally obtain while note taking for other purposes than to write, such as logs of events. These are important, but they are distinct. Which caused it to finally occur to me that I was cutting the space the wrong direction when taking them—all of what passed in one day rather than across all days one event type. Necessary in intake; undesirable in analysis. That analysis itself then produces writing-oriented conclusions and material.

Drop the first layer of perceptrons on the floor

The hardest thing for me in this entire book, but which I ended up agreeing with in the end, was this concept. I don’t think I would have taken it seriously without Dr. Pacheco-Vega having mentioned on his twitter that the ephemeral notes are not what he puts in his Everything Book. Until he said that, I’d mistaken what he did for what I did: Writing everything down once and knowing where you put it. Ie. near-total capture, without willful lossiness. I read fast; it seemed acceptable, but it wasn’t working.

Ephemeral notes. This was something I’d considered very slightly during my Masters thesis, as I ended up trying to write re-condensed versions of my proofs without their typos and detours; those are easier to reference and build on than the original exploration, so why keep the original? Similarly, though I didn’t see the similarity at the time, I make actionable summaries of meetings and then file my original meeting notes to work off the summary. But expanding that approach to reading notes or lecture notes seemed a stretch.

Except, this struck at the scenario which led me to read this book in the first place: The lectures when I was in bad enough pain that I could only take 1 or 2 pages of notes instead of 6-10, my notes were more useful to me later than the longer notes I normally took. Why?

I see that now as a combination of a few factors: Focus, selectivity, and revision. I’m more focused on a lecture where I know I don’t have near-total capture both because I’m nervous to miss something and because I’m not blocking out thought in order to try to write faster out of desperation to have something to scramble through later.

Selectivity for future need rather than just recording everything is a brilliant filter that I hadn’t been using at other times, and is becoming a core thing for me going forward. Will I use this? Is it something new that I will not obtain automatically from other sources along the way? If not, lose it. But revision, pushes this to the next level. In what form will I best need the information? Not the one in which it was initially recorded.

It’s scary. It’s terrifying, actually. How can you throw out notes? How can you drop information on the floor? But it’s necessary. Anything less is not a workshop, but a hoarder’s hall.

For the use of the future self

Everything is oriented toward being raw material, for the use of my future self. It does not record what is known neutrally, it does not represent the list of what needs doing neutrally. It exists to create a future moment in time, an environment in which all the tools I need will be at hand. This is new; I’m used to constructing external representations.

There is a strong difference between problem representation and workspace creation. One of these supports future action - that is the necessary guideline. Future empowerment is the best self-care. Naturally logs and journals have a value; but it’s a different one.

I used to play casual games, and one of my favorite kinds was where you go through time repeatedly, cooperating with yourself by leaving things where you will need them. How much that is reflected in what we can do to help ourselves when passing once through time, I had somehow overlooked. I’ve been closing in on that realization, but its mention in this book helped tip it over into conscious grasp.

Literature notes are not what you think

Reading with a pencil won’t help you any if you don’t know what to do with it, and unfortunately many of the good ideas are the wrong good idea for the circumstance. Usually when I take notes while reading, they’re there for a few purposes. They keep me from flinging the book across the room in disgust, which helps a lot. They allow me to articulate patterns in the writing that I do or do not agree with. They let me mark what page stuff was on that I need to wave in front of someone later.

But when all those purposes are mixed together, the notes can frankly well serve none of them. Literature notes, as opposed to other notes taken while reading, are specifically the parts that allow you to not have to read it twice. Extracted summaries, rewording of what the author argued (not what you thought of it), page numbers and direct quotes if you intend to use it directly. Intended use is core. Again, this goes back to Umberto Eco, as his explanation of thesis writing focused on an era when you did not have an entire ebook library at hand at all times.

Sometimes the idea that I won’t have to read it twice if I do it right is the only thing that keeps me reading something once. Unluckily, the middle parts of this book fell into that category. But knowing what the author is actually arguing rather than jumping to conclusions about it is an essential skill, and I think the emphasis placed on it is exactly correct. Uncomfortable, but necessary.

Reading twice isn’t an evil though; what you need later may not be what you knew now you would need. But there’s no sense in stubbornly making the time management problem worse than it needs to be.

Caveats and counter-indications

Not everything in this book sat well with me. I disagreed, sometimes strongly, with examples and supporting information. I nearly stopped reading in Chapter 10—there didn’t seem to be any meat, and the potatoes were looking rather green.

Pen and paper is not the only means of thought

When I opened this book, I would have strongly agreed with it on this. I would have eagerly said that pen and paper, writing, is the first cyborg technology without which modern society would be impossible and that launched us beyond our human limitations into exponential achievement. But it sat ill with me here, and the more I think on it, the more disturbed I am.

How western, how colonialist, how historicist and unhistorical, to assert by implication that societies which do not write are not fully human. Or that people who do not write, do not think. No! Oral tradition can be incredibly rich, and the illiterate blazingly intelligent. Pen and paper are typically a power multiplier for those who pick them up, yes, although to extremely varying degrees.

But lived experience outside a book is no small matter; nor can everyone freely apply their pens to page painlessly for hours on end. How much do you think Stephen Hawking wrote, in an average day? Not reams of notebooks, for sure. And yet. What he knew, was certainly extensive. It is the orderly mind, that makes the difference.

Private knowledge is not a sin

Not everything is published, not everything is seen by anyone but its author. Not every result or inference experienced by the whole of humanity. Not everyone sees every flower that grows, but are they worthless? Surely, even if our goal is to produce public writing, the private note still has value.

I would have thought this too obvious to even say, but a considerable amount of Chapter 5 is devoted to an incompatible concept that all scholarship is public. The private experience, is the majority of our lives, and determines all we then choose to do. Those actions matter, even when they are not in the form of written words, or are utterly forgotten by history.

Writing is never fully independent of its author

The above is inter-twined with the idea that writing should be comprehensible without the author present to interpret, which I find valuable.

But this concept of independence of author also falls rapidly back on a meritocratic fallacy, as what it takes for an argument to be persuasive is not independent of author identity.

The old methods are not all wrong, or different

Students are encouraged to think, to pre-write, etc. They’re just overwhelming trying to keep up appearances as well. Old note-taking methods are not all inherently flawed, there is no great gap to be filled, people were not unable to organize their thoughts until Luhmann magically appeared on the scene. There are small crucial keys to be added to the edifice of knowledge, expanding its power.

It’s a lazy trope in tutoring, to deflect a student’s self-deprecation by trying to turn it into anger against the teachers or systems which failed to prepare them. This works in the short term, but it’s not a good basis for long term change, since it inherently casts aside most of the extant literature. Self-help books use this very often, and this one is no exception.

While harmless in small doses, in larger settings this ends with an ignorance of the literature. In the context of extracting value from writing, ignoring what is written seems a capital error. For instance, when spotting patterns in written material came up, this book merely notes that they are important—without mentioning that this is called “textual analysis” and there are entire fields of study regarding how to do it.

Your bias tics and pain points are not your interests

Letting notes build up across projects is beneficial, and certainly project directions change over time, but allowing the note buildup to become the guiding directional force allows whatever irritates you most often or happens to be on the front page of reddit to dominate the thought space.

Coral and clams are both filter feeders, but while one chaffs up pearls out of its irritants, the other accretes the edifice of entire ecosystems. I want fewer pearls of wisdom and more reefs. It already feels like a battle to maintain focal integrity when surrounded by attention grabbing social media and news inputs. I want the systems I use to encourage me in that effort, not encourage me to give up.

This is a classical “so open minded, your brain falls out” scenario.

Having the same name is not being the same thing

I alluded at the beginning of this to an inaccuracy of aim among examples. That is the sort of claim I should probably back up with some, well, examples. If you’re sufficiently familiar with the two I mentioned in the intro, you’ll know they aren’t what they’re used for, but they are used here in their typical apocryphal way; nothing unusual about that.

The unusual cases of dissonance arise as artifacts, of the way the book was assembled. As such they are one of the few places Zettelkasten principles as used by the author are put to the test. Certainly their method has produced an extremely orderly book. Points hang together, the structure at every meta-layer is clear if slightly repetitive, and every single concept is driven home with exemplifying material. As an edifice of how to merge disparate details into a cohesive whole, it stands well.

However, within the details… Chapter 8, we see ‘feedback’ used to describe both personal received replies and control system feedback loops, with attendant remonstrations about how to receive criticism, not distinguishing that these are two different things.

In Chapter 9, a lot of attention is given to the idea of ‘attention,’ but soundbite length crudely conflated with attention span, and the old idea of training attention repeated without support. Focus, is conflated between the act of focusing and the focus that is the context loaded into memory, without clarifying how those are related or why.

Chapter 10 gives us examples from the past - Lichtenberg, Ben Franklin, even Newton - then immediately decries them by insisting the method is novel in the modern era. Even, immediately after noting what Newton wrote down, stating the difference is that now we write things down. Something is missing here—continuity of thought, between inserted examples and surrounding text.

Similarly, structure is either an essential bound within which to work, or an inhibiting force against all learning, depending on which paragraph you’re in. It’s not a major problem, but it could have used another editorial pass. To me it stands as a warning, that when using Zettelkasten it’s all too easy to have ideas become ‘connected’ that are not in all their extant senses truly related.

Overall impression

Well, I don’t regret reading it. I might regret putting quite so much time into processing it quite so thoroughly. Most aspects of what I learned about its writing style are not going to serve me in the future. But the few new pieces in there were worth the frustration to me of slogging through it, and will change how I work. However, at such a low density of actual meat, yes it could have been a blog post. And it had very little to do with Zettelkasten. Chapter 12 is the real meat; so you can probably skip to that.

This book will be shelved along with its ilk—the Must Reads of yesteryear, decades on only visible for how their buzzwords have seeped through the culture, their occasional real insights nearly completely unrelated to the buzzwords that drove their popularity. Probably between Big Brother and Bellwether. Definitely not beside Eco’s work; scholarly material has its own shelf.