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How to Take Smart Notes by Sonkë Ahrens

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10,000 Foot Overview

This book is for the curious writers who understand that insight and writing don't come easy. By explaining a system to take and store notes based on context can we start to truly learn and achieve prolific insights with writing in a frictionless way.


Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work. (Location 134)

To sum it up: The quality of a paper and the ease with which it is written depends more than anything on what you have done in writing before you even made a decision on the topic. (Location 158)

Willpower is, as far as we know today,[2] a limited resource that depletes quickly and is also not that much up for improvement over the long term (Location 172)

Nobody needs willpower not to eat a chocolate bar when there isn’t one around. And nobody needs willpower to do something they wanted to do anyway. (Location 178)

Having a meaningful and well-defined task beats willpower every time. (Location 179)

A good structure enables flow, the state in which you get so completely immersed in your work that you lose track of time and can just keep on going as the work becomes effortless (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Something like that does not happen by chance. (Location 195)

This book is for you, the good students, ambitious academics and curious nonfiction writers who understand that insight doesn’t come easy and that writing is not only for proclaiming opinions, but the main tool to achieve insight worth sharing. (Location 238)

What we can take from Allen as an important insight is that the secret to a successful organization lies in the holistic perspective. Everything needs to be taken care of, otherwise the neglected bits will nag us until the unimportant tasks become urgent. (Location 295)

Only if you can trust your system, only if you really know that everything will be taken care of, will your brain let go and let you focus on the task at hand. (Location 302)

Only if you have a system that is frictionless, will your mind be able to focus on the present. Constantly switching systems means you're constantly learning new ways to hold ideas. That will result in lost ideas because you're never comfortable.

The notes you take are only as valuable as the context in which they can be discovered. #quote Most people take notes in the category they're found and wonder why they never stumble upon them again.

If we work in an environment that is flexible enough to accommodate our work rhythm, we don’t need to struggle with resistance. (Location 380)

Success is not the result of strong willpower. Rather, it's the result of a strong working environment. You should know exactly where you're going to put your notes, reminders, and tasks that come up throughout the day.

Sure, you need to be smart to be successful in academia and writing, but if you don’t have an external system to think in and organise your thoughts, ideas and collected facts, or have no idea how to embed it in your overarching daily routines, the disadvantage is so enormous that it just can’t be compensated by a high IQ. (Location 389)

The Slip-Box

Whenever he read something, he would write the bibliographic information on one side of a card and make brief notes about the content on the other side (Schmidt 2013, 170). These notes would end up in the bibliographic slip-box. In (Location 419) He did not just copy ideas or quotes from the texts he read, but made a transition from one context to another. (Location 431)

The trick is that he did not organise his notes by topic, but in the rather abstract way of giving them fixed numbers. (Location 435)

Equally manageable is the task of bringing already existing notes into order, especially if half of them already are in order. (Location 478)

Assemble notes and bring them into order, turn these notes into a draft, review it and you are done. (Location 485)

The slip-box is designed to present you with ideas you have already forgotten, allowing your brain to focus on thinking instead of remembering. (Location 797)
This is what Roam does exceptionally well

Things we understand are connected, either through rules, theories, narratives, pure logic, mental models or explanations. And deliberately building these kinds of meaningful connections is what the slip-box is all about. (Location 1282)

To get a good paper written, you only have to rewrite a good draft; to get a good draft written, you only have to turn a series of notes into a continuous text. And as a series of notes is just the rearrangement of notes you already have in your slip-box, all you really have to do is have a pen in your hand when you read. (Location 1379)

Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have. (Location 494)

The System - How it Works

Tools are only as good as your ability to work with them. (Location 665)

In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again? (Location 787)

What all these category-confusing approaches have in common is that the benefit of note-taking decreases with the number of notes you keep. (Location 833)

Fleeting notes are there for capturing ideas quickly while you are busy doing something else. (Location 838)

Fleeting notes are only useful if you review them within a day or so and turn them into proper notes you can use later. (Location 844)

predictor for long-term success is having a “growth mindset.” To actively seek and welcome feedback, be it positive or negative, is one of the most important factors for success (and happiness) in the long run. (Location 1010)

Ironically, it is therefore often the highly gifted and talented students, who receive a lot of praise, who are more in danger of developing a fixed mindset and getting stuck. Having been praised for what they are (talented and gifted) rather than for what they do, they tend to focus on keeping this impression intact, rather than exposing themselves to new challenges and the possibility of learning from failure. (Location 1014)

To seek as many opportunities to learn as possible is the most reliable long-term growth strategy. (Location 1019)

Having a growth mindset is crucial, but only one side of the equation. Having a learning system in place that enables feedback loops in a practical way is equally important. (Location 1021)

The good news is that we can train ourselves to stay focused on one thing for longer if we avoid multitasking, remove possible distractions and separate different kinds of tasks as much as possible so they will not interfere with each other. (Location 1128)

To master the art of writing, we need to be able to apply whatever kind of attention and focus is needed. (Location 1175)

But like in professional chess, the intuition of professional academic and nonfiction writing can also only be gained by systematic exposure to feedback loops and experience, which means that success in academic writing depends to a great degree on the organization of its practical side. (Location 1249)

Every step is accompanied by questions like: How does this fact fit into my idea of …? How can this phenomenon be explained by that theory? Are these two ideas contradictory or do they complement each other? Isn’t this argument similar to that one? Haven’t I heard this before? And above all: What does x mean for y? These questions not only increase our understanding, but facilitate learning as well. (Location 1284)

Zeigarnik effect: Open tasks tend to occupy our short-term memory – until they are done. That is why we get so easily distracted by thoughts of unfinished tasks, regardless of their importance. (Location 1297)

By taking into account these little insights into how our brains work, we can make sure that we will not get distracted by thoughts of what we need from the supermarket when we sit at the desk. Rather, we may solve a crucial problem while we run errands. (Location 1323)

For the longest time, willpower was seen more as a character trait than a resource. This has changed. Today, willpower is compared to muscles: a limited resource that depletes quickly and needs time to recover. Improvement through training is possible to a certain degree, but takes time and effort. The phenomenon is usually discussed under the term “ego depletion”: “We use the term ego depletion to refer to a temporary reduction in the self’s capacity or willingness to engage in volitional action (including controlling the environment, controlling the self, making choices, and initiating action) caused by prior exercise of volition.” (Baumeister et al., 1998, 1253) One (Location 1332)

Whenever we explore a new, unfamiliar subject, our notes will tend to be more extensive, but we shouldn’t get nervous about it, as this is the [[deliberate practice]] of understanding we cannot skip. (Location 1414)

Taking notes is better than re-reading because of the mere-exposure effect. The more times we're exposed to a topic, we think we actually learned it.

We can only improve our learning if we test ourselves on our progress. (Location 1595)

The ability to think beyond the given frames of the context shows your level of knowledge. Do this by writing brief accounts of the text, not just copying quotes. Think hard about how they connect.

What does help for true, useful learning is to connect a piece of information to as many meaningful contexts as possible, which is what we do when we connect our notes in the slip-box with other notes. Making (Location 1887)

The challenge of writing as well as learning is therefore not so much to learn, but to understand, as we will already have learned what we understand. (Location 1911) #quote

information. If you focus your time and energy on understanding, you cannot help but learn. But if you focus your time and energy on learning without trying to understand, you will not only not understand, but also probably not learn. And the effects are cumulative. (Location 1930)

This shows that elaborating on the differences and similarities of notes instead of sorting them by topic not only facilitates learning, but facilitates the ability to categorise and create sensible classifications! (Location 1950)

Keywords should always be assigned with an eye towards the topics you are working on or interested in, never by looking at the note in isolation. (Location 2046)

“Writing itself makes you realise where there are holes in things. I’m never sure what I think until I see what I write. And so I believe that, even though you’re an optimist, the analysis part of you kicks in when you sit down to construct a story or a paragraph or a sentence. You think, ‘Oh, that can’t be right.’ And you have to go back, and you have to rethink it all.” (Carol Loomis)[37] (Location 2412)

If you encounter resistance or an opposing force, you should not push against it, but redirect it towards another productive goal. (Location 2573)