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How to Take Smart Notes

Last updated Oct 9, 2023

How to take smart notes

# Chapter 1: Introduction

Good workflow design

A good workflow design should:

Role of willpower in doing work

Planning imposes a rigid and inflexible structure that cannot adapt as we learn new insights while working. To stick to the “plan”, we need to have the willpower to overcome the resistance to follow the inflexible plan. Willpower is a quickly depleted resource, and it is best not to have to use it at all. By adopting zettelkasten, you can stay flexible, turn your attention to new insights and keep your interest, motivation and work aligned. This makes work effortless.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

# Definition

People with the least amount of knowledge tend to overestimate their competence level, and vice versa. They are faced with a dual burden: ignorance, and ignorance of their ignorance.

# How does this affect us?

# How can we avoid this?

Value of an idea depends on its context

# Chapter 2: Everything you need to do

The importance of writing for learning, understanding, thinking and retention Using the zettelkasten method to produce written work

# Chapter 3: Everything you need to have

The only thing necessary is to have an undistracted brain to think with, and a collection of notes which is the external scaffold for information storage

Only four tools are necessary:

# Chapter 4: Few things to keep in mind

A tool is only as good as your ability to work with them. - Sonke Ahrens

It is important to understand what the slip-box system is, and how to use it, but also you should know why it works, so that you can tweak the tool to your needs.

# Four underlying principles

# Chapter 5: Writing is the only thing that matters

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

Writing is the only thing that counts in learning, research or studying. It is learning, research or study. Often in schools, writing is described as a separate activity done at the end of the research program. The typical sequence of learning/research is: “Brainstorm” a research idea, read papers about it, do the necessary research, come to conclusions, and write a paper. But this is not true; writing helps during every stage of the research evolution.

# What are the advantages of writing while learning?

# Chapter 6: Simplicity is paramount

The old way of note taking is really what I been doing all my life- underline something in a book, write something in a margin, or write my thoughts on a sheet of paper to file away by topic. But this has never really worked. I forget where I put the note, how to get it back, and sometimes that I even wrote the note. There is no use in taking such notes in the first place.

Take proper notes instead. So what is needed from this new system?

A low threshold for taking notes, a process of elaborating your own thoughts on them in a day or two, and a way of storing such thoughts and interlinking them.

Old system asks- Where do I store this note? New system asks- In what context will I stumble on it again?

Old system is a top down approach where you have to know where this “belongs” even before you developed insight. As your notes grow, it gets messier. New system is a bottom up approach where your insights develop as the notes increases. It gets more orderly rather than messy.

But the slip box system can get messy too, if you add notes indiscriminately, without paying attention to their quality and the connections they make with your other notes. This is something to pay attention to.

When it comes to taking notes, you must clearly distinguish between 3 kinds:

  1. Fleeting- only to capture your notes, to be thrown away later.
  2. Permanent- well written notes in your own words that are never thrown away, but you will make connections to other such notes, and will eventually lead to insight. It has to be elabored on so that it will make sense on its own, without the context it was taken from.
  3. project- only needed when working on a project. Can be thrown away later. Examples of such notes are outlines, writing snippets, reminders, to-do lists, draft papers, etc.

Common pitfalls in note taking methods:

  1. You treat every thought as though it were a permanent note. This dilutes the quality of actual good notes, and creates a mess.
  2. You take project specific notes. You decide what you want to write about, then work on collecting all the relevant info, and create notes for the project. This means that you have to start the process over for every project. Any other idea that is not relevant to the project will end up being discarded. This is a great loss to development of insight because at that moment you will not know what is important and what is not, and therefore discard valuable ideas.
  3. You treat every note as a fleeting note. You write ideas down on a scratch paper, and these pile up when you dont process them in any way, and soon you will forget their context and significance.

# Chapter 7: Nobody Ever Starts from Scratch

Every academic writing book tells you that you should first decide what the topic you are going to work on is going to be, then collect and read all the relevant material, make notes (usually ends up as highlights and in the margins), and then write a report.

There are several downsides to this approach:

  1. You have picked the topic without knowing much about it at all
    1. No insight has been developed yet
    2. You might realize that this topic does not interest you. This results in being demotivated to work
  2. You face a blank screen or a blank paper when you are about to write
  3. You resort to brainstorming which is a very unreliable way to retrieve information from our brains that usually cannot store detailed information for very long

The main point here is that your writing starts long before you actually need to produce a report. You learn by writing, while you read a particular topic. You are always driven and motivated because you are following your interests and insight to see where it takes you, instead of working towards an ill-informed topic right from the start. When it is time to produce written material, it is simply a matter of arranging already written notes and filling in the gaps.

# Chapter 8: Let the work carry you forward

Having ways of consistently and frequently receiving feedback on your work will provide a positive experience that will enable you to quickly get better at what you are learning. This quickly creates a positive spiral where we start to enjoy the work we do, work more and then get even better at the subject, and further enjoy our work! This way, the work carries you forward. This is no involvement of willpower or planning here. This related to Role of willpower in doing work. This concept should somehow apply to Music and instrument playing too. The better you get, the better you sound, and therefore more likely to play longer, ensuring a positive spiral.

The slip-box note taking system gives you the constant feedback you need to stay motivated by providing us with contradictions, connections and inconsistencies in relation to other notes in the slip box. This enables us to pursue further lines of thought to resolve these differences we see in the slip box. In addition, expressing writing in your own words really gives you feedback on whether you have fully understood the concept you are addressing. This will cement your learning much more reliably and enable you to get better even quicker.

# Six Steps to successful writing

# Chapter 9: Separate and Interlocking tasks

  1. Each task should get undivided attention. No multitasking.
  2. Each writing task needs a different kind of attention (proof, critic, author, outlining). Everything requires a different perspective to get the job done.
  3. During reading, every kind of text needs a different kind of attention too.
  4. Do not follow prescribed or planning methods and strategies from other people to create your work; become an expert by spending time on it, making mistakes and developing experience that allows you to go by intuition.
  5. Break up the process of creation in smaller and more specific tasks and work on them to completion. Write down thoughts that arise along the way, and process them later. Our short term memory is limited.
  6. Have a Good workflow design that enables you to focus only on the creating aspect, and not on the workflow itself. You will be able to minimize Role of willpower in doing work, and switch tasks easily without losing thoughts.

It is interesting that a lot of these steps are what is described in A-Turning music into a chore is how I became a musician

Ahrens goes into a quick tangent about creativity that is interesting. It has been found that the most creative minds in science or art have both kinds of attention: wide-open and playful, and narrow analytical frame. This flexibility is essential to creativity. I was just thinking how various kinds are attention are needed to compose a piece of music: think of the song structure is different from composing a solo.

# Chapter 10: Read for Understanding

Always read with a pen in hand so that you can write down in your own words the meaning of the text you are reading. How detailed the literature notes are depends on the nature of the text and how detailed it is. Sometimes you will need to write a lot of notes for a book, and sometimes you can simply write down a few sentences to summarize a book. The important thing is to write down permanent notes while finding ways in which the ideas from the book fit in your slipbox. You have to reflect on the book about what it tries to convey, what practices were used, what assumptions were made, etc. It is as much as what is not written that what is written. The read end-goal is to create permanent notes. Dont make taking literature notes a project in iteself.

Confirmation bias is one of the biggest dangers in research where we seek out only what we agree with. Read with an open mind, and collect ideas indiscriminately in your slipbox whether you agree with them or not. You only purpose is to make connections to other permanent notes. This will help create new insight and avenues for thought, and will result in much better work that addresses pros and cons.

Practice extracting the gist of the idea when you are reading. Express it in a concise and clear way, and be very selective. Thinking beyond the text and applying it in a different context is vital to clear understanding.

The process of creating notes tests your understanding of the text by explaining it to your future self. Re-reading a text only gives an illusion of understanding because of confirmation bias. Writing it down trying to teach your future self is the only way to understanding and learning. Test yourself.

The most successful method of learning is elaboration, which involves thinking, writing and connecting to other pieces of already known information. It may take time to do so, but without it reading a book is a waste of time because there is no learning for the long term.

# Chapter 11: Take Smart Notes

A reasonable measure of productivity in a day is the number of notes added to the slip box.

In 11.2, Ahrens gives an example of how he read a book, and then developed personal notes out of it. It is good for the reader to have a clear example of how this slip box system works. In my opinion, this should have been presented much earlier in the book instead of waiting for Chapter 11!

There are two steps to elaboration:

  1. Think deeply enough about what you are reading
  2. Think about the meaning in other contexts than the text

Make sure your note can be found later, by including them in an index or making sure it can connect form an index. Build a “Latticework of Mental Models”

# Chapter 12: Develop Ideas

Dont worry about gaps in the notes as it relates to concepts. If it helps you think better, write down the gaps in the thought process as a note as well. Most gaps in the argument will only become clear when you take out notes from the slip box to create a draft

Dont link too many notes from an index, just one or two. The interlinks between notes are much more important because being surprised by connections between notes is important later on.

If you want to write an article from a bunch of notes, create a new note with links to them. This can be temporary and subject to change as the topic develops. If the topic deviates significantly from your initial conception of the article, you can even create another note different from the first one.

When creating notes, think of what keywords you might assign to it. Just one or two that puts it in a context different from where you got the note from. This is not the same as creating tags (that is more for note sorting in Obsidian). Look for unlinked mentions in Obsidian for possible suggestions to where you can link to other contexts.

If a topic has accumulated a significant number of notes on a topic, you might need a note that forms an index with links to about 25 notes with short descriptions of each. You will know when you need such a note. This note can then be linked to from the main index.

Adding ideas to slip box leads to refinements, contradictions and corrections to old ideas, and overcomes the feature-positive effect, where we give more importance to more recent information even if its not the most relevant. Slip box enables us to access long forgotten ideas.

You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head -Charlie Munger

A slip box is a space where ideas can mingle freely so that you can come up with new ones.

The key to creative problem solving is the abstraction of ideas into more general context. This is something that a Good workflow design should support.

Our brain is wired to jump to conclusions on what we are reading. Only upon revisiting, rethinking and revising our notes on the text can we truly understand or interpret in a different way. This is being “open-minded” with ourselves, knowing that our own interpretation can change.

Creativity can have its roots from simple ideas pieced together to form something complex. This reminds me of a multilevel perceptron in machine learning.

Restriction and structure are an essential crucible in which creativity is forged.

# Chapter 13: Share your insight

Writing with a zettelkasten system is simple:

  1. Look at your notes and see where the keywords cluster. That determines your topic.
  2. Gather all relevent notes and piece together an outline
  3. Identify missing arguments and work on filling them
  4. Forget about the slip box and narrow focus on getting the writing done
  5. Work on mutiple writing projects concurrantly, switching between them as often as you like
  6. Never fear to cut text from your drafts, and re-write as many times as needed.

Being intimately famiiliar with the slip box system enables you to internalize the ideas in it through elaboration. Your mind becomes more open and receptive to new lines of thought, fostering creative work.

# Chapter 14: Make it a habit

Make it a habit to read with a pen and paper in hand.

# References

  1. Sonke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers, 2017, Chapter 1.
  2. How to take smart notes

# Fun Stories

Richard Feynman and writing

Survivorship bias in airplane bullet holes

Hemingway and rewriting drafts