The book “How to take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens, is a guide to developing better note-taking skills. It is accessible and practical while also thought provoking and inspiring. In this article, I review and summarise the most important insights from Sönke Ahrens' book, “How to Take Smart Notes” and show the 'how to' steps in action in Scrintal's visual note taking app.
Smart Notes refer to a note taking system that includes simple notes with one main idea. These notes, as explained in the book: “should not only make it easy to find notes quickly but they should also point out relevant notes when you need them - even if you did not search for them”.
The idea of Smart Notes is rooted in the Zettelkasten Method, created by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998). The Zettelkasten Method is a personal strategic process for thinking and writing. It is one of the most practical knowledge management methods. Zettel means Cards in German and Zettelkasten means Box of cards. Zettelkasten Method is a system for organising note cards in such a way that each idea is small enough to fit on an 4*6 index card. The cards have to be useful in isolation and linked to other cards in the system.
There are three main types of smart notes, including:
Here are 5 easy steps showing how you can easily start taking smart notes.
Fleeting notes are quick notes to capture what comes to your mind. They are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in trash in a day or two.
The aim is to capture any idea that pops into mind.
Characteristics of fleeting notes are that:
If your thoughts are already sorted out and you have time, you can skip this process and write your notes directly to literature notes.
Let’s say that questions or ideas come to your mind, such as “Can there be a correlation between Gini coefficient and violence?” or “Can I organise my interview notes around product benefits rather than customer problems”. The idea here is to capture anything that comes to your mind and get back to them in 1-2 days to develop them.
You can send your ideas to Scrintal using Scrintal shortcut or on mobile when you are on the go.
Literature notes are notes that we take whenever we read something and make notes about the content. The important part is to write down what you don’t want to forget or think you might use in your thinking or writing.
The important part is to keep these notes together with bibliographical details in one place.
Permanent notes are the final step in Zettelkasten. They are written in an understandable way. They will never be thrown away and they contain the necessary information in themselves.
To create permanent notes, we go through the steps we took in 1 and 2 and think about how they relate to your own research.
⌛ We check ideally once a day or before we forget what we meant.
Things to consider:
You shouldn’t focus on collecting material here, but focus on developing arguments and ideas.We should ask: does the new information contradict, correct, support or add to what you already have?
Now add your permanent notes by;
Once we start keeping permanent notes, we kickstart the first stages of a personal knowledge base.
Selecting keywords should not be about where to store information but about how to retrieve it.
Do not think about “Which keyword is fitting?” or “What category does it fall into?” Rather we should ask ourselves “In which contexts would I come across this note?” When and how will I use this idea?
Assign Keywords for the idea you’re working on, never for the note in isolation.
The more connected information means the more cues we can use to trigger our memory.
Ask the following questions to create connections in your notes.
This is a habit and it will require time to get used to it. What follows smart notes is the writing process which will be so much easier as you’ll have your smart notes as your draft.
After a while, you’ll develop ideas far enough to decide on a topic to write about.
Here you can look through the connections and collect all the relevant notes on this topic (most of the relevant notes will already be in partial order). You can then translate the cards into a rough draft. In the meanwhile if you’d like to try Scrintal and also give us feedback and be a part of our small community, get in touch!